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Although Plato c. From a historical perspective, his most important contributions were his observations that biological organisms can be arranged in a hierarchy based on their structural complexity—an idea that later became the basis of the Great Chain of Being —and that organisms of different species nevertheless display certain systematic similarities, now understood to be indicative of a common evolutionary ancestry see homology. Although it is not clear whether Aristotle thought of final causality as pertaining only to the domain of the living, it is certainly true that he considered it essential for understanding or explaining the nature of biological organisms.

One cannot fully understand why the human eye or heart has the structure it does without taking into account the function the organ performs. The notion of final causality was taken for granted by most philosophers from the Hellenistic age through the end of the Middle Ages.

Indeed, philosophers and theologians in the medieval and early modern periods adopted it as the basis of an argument for the existence of God—the teleological argument , also known as the argument from design , which was developed in sophisticated ways in the 19th and 20th centuries see intelligent design. During the scientific revolution of the 17th century, however, final causes came to be regarded as unnecessary and useless in scientific explanation; the new mechanistic philosophy had no need for them.

The English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon — likened them to the Vestal Virgins —decorative but sterile. Despite these criticisms, the notion of final causality persisted in biology, leading many philosophers to think that, in this respect at least, the biological sciences would never be the same as the physical sciences. Others, like the British historian and philosopher of science William Whewell — , took it as demonstrating simply that different sciences are different and thus that a form of explanation that is appropriate in one field might not be appropriate in another.

In the late 19th century, the question of the supposed inherent differences between the biological and the physical sciences took on new importance.

Biology, philosophy of | castpadisptivers.tk

Ultimately, however, it fell out of favour, because it proved to have little direct scientific application. The difficulty was not that life force was not observable in the world at least indirectly but that it did not lead to new predictions or facilitate unified explanations of phenomena formerly thought to be unrelated, as all truly important scientific concepts do. The decline of vitalism , as the resort to such forces came to be known, had two important results.

Some philosophers tried to find a way of preserving the autonomy of the biological sciences without resort to special forces or entities.

Aristotle and Universal Darwinism

Others turned to early 20th-century advances in logic and mathematics in an attempt to transform biology into something parallel to, if not actually a part of, the physical sciences. The most enthusiastic proponent of this approach, the British biologist and logician Joseph Woodger — , attempted to formalize the principles of biology—to derive them by deduction from a limited number of basic axioms and primitive terms—using the logical apparatus of the Principia Mathematica —13 by Whitehead and Bertrand Russell — In the first half of the 20th century Anglo-American philosophy analytic philosophy was dominated by a school of scientific empiricism known as logical positivism.

Aristotle and Early Classification

Braithwaite —90 , and Karl Popper —94 —argued that genuine scientific theories, such as Newtonian astronomy, are hypothetico-deductive , with theoretical entities occupying the initial hypotheses and natural laws the ultimate deductions or theorems. The history of phylogenetic iconography is apparently a topic of considerable interest. Many papers discussing the history have appeared over the past 30 years, including those of Brace , Stevens , O'Hara , Clark , Kull , Ragan , Rieppel , Gontier , and Tassy ; and the tradition actually extends back at least a century.

What is worse, if we are prepared to look beyond biology then we will find an even bigger literature—see, for example, Howe and Windram for stemmatology, and Geisler and List for historical linguistics. One wonders, therefore, what else there is to say on the subject, and why we would need yet another book in order to say it. Perhaps the point is that two of the previous books have not appeared in English Barsanti ; Minaka and Sugiyama , another of them focuses on plants Stevens , and the remaining one focuses on the images themselves rather than providing much theoretical analysis Pietsch That leaves room for an extended English-language analysis covering all of biology.

Archibald is a paleontologist who has worked principally on the extinction of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals, but he has also published two previous forays into the intellectual history of phylogenetic trees Archibald , This book is thus the product of a long-standing interest in the subject. This is a well-written and thoughtful introduction to the topic of some of the visual metaphors in biology.


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What Archibald does is trace the intellectual history in detail , with illustrations. This is a scholarly work, carefully planned and closely reasoned. The history of metaphors as images is a long and tortuous one, rather like a vine with tendrils clinging to various supports as it grows; and Archibald looks at each tendril and considers its role in the overall structure of the vine. The subtitle of the book is misleading, however.

This book is not about the broad topic of Visual Metaphors , but is instead almost strictly about the tree metaphor.

Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution

After that, Archibald's book traces the history of the tree metaphor, for almost all of the remaining pages. He starts with the Romans and their familial stemmata—garlands connecting portraits of ancestors, to be displayed in their homes.

From there he proceeds to religious imagery, particularly the Tree of Jesse. These are pedigrees of individual people i. Unfortunately, the book quickly abandons pedigrees, and thus misses some later connections with phylogenetics, such as the radial design of a pedigree in Estabrook and Davenport The book covers the concept of phylogenetic trees rather than the history, although the discussion is in roughly chronological order.

So, particularly influential people are discussed in detail, whereas others are virtually ignored. The discussions in the book can thus rarely be faulted, but the book sometimes does not go far enough in the topics chosen for discussion—I like what is there but I sometimes miss what is not there.

For example, there are exemplary discussions of the influence of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel in adapting the tree metaphor to reflect evolutionary history Darwin is covered particularly well. Darwin was well aware of his two immediate predecessors Naudin ; Wallace , but in his book he does not explicitly credit them with independently introducing the tree metaphor in an evolutionary context, and neither does Archibald.

Naudin, in particular, deserves much more credit than he has ever been given—in choosing the tree metaphor he explicitly rejects both the chain and the network as alternatives. There are interesting sidelights in the book, such as the discussion of Anna Maria Redfield p. In spite of the impressive scholarship that is evident in Archibald's book, there are a few issues that I think are in error.

For example, the interpretation of Isidore of Seville's kinship stemma p. Also, Archibald refers p. That the greatest natural historian of the 19th century had such an interest throughout his life is much more fascinating than if it was merely an interest of his old age. Incidentally, Archibald also credits his own Figure 7. To me, the biggest weakness in the book is the limited range of iconography covered.

From Aristotle to Linnaeus

Almost all previous commentators have noted that biology has had three basic metaphors of increasing complexity: simple chains, branching trees interlinked chains , and reticulating networks interlinked trees. Archibald, on the other hand, almost completely ignores the third one. Indeed, he actually rejects networks, by explicitly agreeing with Darwin that a tree is the best simile p.


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  • Moreover, sometimes our common experience positively misleads us about essences. A man who regularly sees caterpillars and regularly sees butterflies but never witnesses the process of metamorphosis would think that these were animals of two different species, not one. Again, our concepts do not match up with the essences of things. Nor does this divergence between our concepts and essences depend on modern scientific examples. On the contrary, it was well-understood in the Aristotelian tradition. Thus, Thomas Aquinas, as a good Aristotelian, often said that we do not generally know the essences of things, once remarking that a philosopher could spend a lifetime studying a fly and not achieve a full knowledge of its nature.

    But, if our common experience does not disclose to us the essences of things, how do we successfully interact with the world and communicate with each other? The answer is that there is a crucial difference between knowing the meaning of the word elephant and knowing the essence of the things that are elephants.

    Hence, scholastic philosophy distinguished between nominal definitions , which tell us the meanings of words, and real definitions , which tell us the essences of things.

    Aristotle Versus the Aristotelians

    Competent speakers of the language know the meaning of the word, and this is what is required to recognize elephants when we see them and to talk about them intelligently. The second, our knowledge of the essences of elephants, remains very much a work in progress—a work carried out primarily by biologists and other scientists.

    Rather, our concepts evolve as our knowledge improves. In the seventeenth century, we had a concept of phlogiston, but we now know there never was any such thing. Understanding lightning, which man had experienced since his first days on earth, required the invention in the eighteenth century of new concepts—especially those of positive and negative charge—that we owe to Franklin.