I just realized that Darwin's theory of evolution is very much historicist, and resembles Hegel's notion of an arc of history: evolution is progressive and moves with purpose in an almost dialectical fashion (e.g. several individuals compete until an new species emerges from the old).

Is this a coincidence? Or does Darwin indeed owe a debt to Hegel? And what does it say about the theory of evolution: Is it really just another product of the overall trends of 19th century thought, as opposed to being a truly revolutionary and paradigm shifting idea?

  • 7
    I'm not sure that "purpose" is a word I would associate with Darwin's view. Evolution as progressive is found in the evolutionary views of the Presocratics - e.g., Anaximander.
    – NWR
    Oct 8 '19 at 19:43
  • Not really. It is not a coincidence, but it is not a case of influence either, more like two derivatives of a common cause. Darwin have not read Hegel. Although Hegel made the historicist ideas fashionable by introducing evolving metaphysics, Lamarck's evolution theory (which Darwin did know) predates him, he himself rejected it ("man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is"), and his idea of "science" was the opposite of the meticulous data aggregation and argumentation that Darwin undertook to convince others.
    – Conifold
    Oct 8 '19 at 23:16
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    I think you have misinterpreted Darwin. Evolution is not necessarily progressive nor is it purposeful. Oct 9 '19 at 5:20
  • 2
    Actually the majority of Darwinists actively argue against people that suggest Darwin implied in his theory for a purpose in evolution. Oct 9 '19 at 9:56
  • Please elucidate (expound upon) how Darwin's theory of natural selection is "very much historicist," and discuss the similarities between Hegelian and Darwinian "teleology", distinguishing it from Aristotelian essentialism. – gonzo 1 hour ag
    – gonzo
    Apr 9 '20 at 2:27

The notion of evolution in the sense of different species descending from a common ancestor predates Hegel, Darwin's contribution was the theory of natural selection to explain how the process happens, along with lots of empirical evidence for common descent and local adaptive processes such as Darwin's finches. Darwin's own grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731 - 1802) was a proponent of evolution in the sense of common descent, the wikipedia article mentions that Charles Darwin read and commented on Erasmus' book Zoonomia (from 1794, before any of Hegel's published writings or lectures on original philosophical thoughts, and incidentally also prior to Lamarck's 1809 book presenting a type of evolutionary theory), and the article also quotes a relevant passage:

Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

More on the influence of Erasmus Darwin on Charles Darwin's thought here (you can sign up for a free jstor account to read the full paper).

According to this quora answer Charles Darwin also made careful lists of all the books he read and there is no mention of Hegel. It would be interesting to know if he read books by any philosophers, and which ones he might have mentioned in passing in any of his letters or notebooks. The one I'm familiar with is a reference to Locke in one notebook which I saw referenced in some book or article, I tracked down the actual comment on darwin-online.org, it's under 84e here:

Origin of man now proved.— Metaphysic must flourish.— He who understands baboon will would do more towards metaphysics than Locke

  • Thanks. This begs the opposite question then: Was Hegel influenced by the various theories of evolution that predated him (E. Darwin, Lamarck, etc...) ? Oct 9 '19 at 4:50
  • I think the notion of historical "progress" predates Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck (not sure if there were any significant advocates of biological evolution before them), that's the whole notion of whig history which dates back to at least the mid 18th century (see the section on David Hume and his debates with various whig historians), also see the section in SEP's progress article on ideas about historical progress in the Enlightenment era.
    – Hypnosifl
    Oct 9 '19 at 21:53
  • & in Germany specifically, Kant and Herder both advocated progress in history, see the article here (from a book that can be downloaded from libgen.is for more, p. 315 says "The main point on which Kant and Herder agree, I will argue, is that it is rational to look at human history as exhibiting a kind of natural purposiveness, like that found in organisms rather than that found in intentional human actions."
    – Hypnosifl
    Oct 9 '19 at 21:55


I should have thought that Darwin's theory of evolution does not recognise anything like an 'arc of history'; that evolution is not progressive, and that it moves with no purpose (cf. R.Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker). Darwinian evolution, working causally through random variation and natural selection, is naturalistic, non-directional and non-progressive: Bernard Lightman, 'Darwin and the Popularization of Evolution', Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 64, No. 1 (20 March 2010), pp. 5-24: 5.)

We can project evaluative attitudes on to Darwinian evolution but that is our work, not Darwin's view.


In contrast to Darwin:

For Hegel, history is the unilinear way of progress, which is determined by the struggle of ideas. Each historical stage is a way forward in the path of progress. Hegel also presumes that the process of development will reach at the consummating point where the struggle of ideas will cease to exist. Hence, it is a perfect stage of development without inner contradictions and for Hegel that stage is the end of history, the end point of progress. (K.P. Mishra, 'Fukuyama's End of History: Triumph of the Liberal State', The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 68, No. 3 (JULY - SEPT., 2007), pp. 465-474: 465.)

These are compressed statements of the relevant views of Darwin and Hegel but they state accurately enough the relevant contrast between Darwin and Hegel. What can, however, be readily granted is that Darwin uses notions and language that are analogous to those of Hegelian teleology - of striving, purposiveness and goal-directed behaviour. 'Natural selection', for instance, does not operate teleologically with an end in view but it is analogous to the teleological activity of selecting.


The evolutionary biologist (and student of the history of science), Stephen Jay Gould writes in his book Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, chapter entitled Darwin and Paley Meet the Invisible Hand:

Where did Darwin get such a radical version of evolution? Surely not from the birds and bees, the twigs and trees. Nature helped, but intellectual revolutions must have ideological bases. Scholars have debated this question for more than a century, and our current "Darwin industry" of historians has moved this old discussion towards a resolution. The sources may be many, various, and exceedingly complex. No two experts would present the same list with the same rankings. But all would agree that two Scottish economists of the generation just before Darwin played a dominant role: Thomas Malthus and the great Adam Smith himself. From Malthus, Darwin received the key insight that growth in population, if unchecked, will outrun any increase in food supply. A struggle for existence must therefore arise, leading by natural selection to survival of the fittest (to cite all three conventional Darwinian aphorisms in a single sentence). Darwin states that that this insight from Malthus supplied the last piece that enabled him to complete the theory of natural selection in 1838 (though he did not publish his views for twenty-one years).

Adam Smith's influence was more indirect, but also more pervasive. We know that the Scottish economists interested Darwin greatly and that, during the crucial months of 1838, while he assembled the pieces soon to be capped by his Malthusian insight, he was studying the thought of Adam Smith. The theory of natural selection is uncannily similar to the chief doctrine of laissez-faire economics. (In our academic jargon, we would say that the two theories are "isomorphic"--that is, structurally similar point for point, even though the subject matter differs). To achieve the goal of a maximally ordered economy in the laissez-faire system, you do not regulate from above by passing explicit laws for order. You do something that, at first glance, seems utterly opposed to the goal: You simply allow individuals to struggle in an unfettered way for personal profit. In this struggle, the inefficient are weeded out and the best balance each other to form an equilibrium to everyone's benefit.

Darwin's system works in exactly the same manner, only more relentlessly....

Darwin was influenced by economists, not by philosophers.

  • Minor nitpick: Smith held himself to write a moral theory. Stating that he is an economist and not a philosopher is a bit like stating Aristotle is a physicist or physician and not a philosopher, it is a bit anachronistic.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 9 '19 at 10:27
  • Thanks - this is very insightful. Oct 9 '19 at 23:23
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    Modern capitalism, especially deregularized neoliberalism essentially runs on social Darwinism under its hood. Oct 26 '19 at 17:08

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