When fellow biologists read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in the 19th century, some outspokenly questioned why they didn’t think of it themselves. The evidence was all around them, especially in human guided breeding of animals such as pigeons and dogs. So why was something so obvious not discovered and well defined centuries if not millenniums sooner? Some blame Plato’s essentialism, the idea that every species has its’ perfect static essence that will only allow a certain amount of deviation. But didn’t Plato also teach that no man or god was exempt from challenge or criticism through the words of his famous mentor?
Essentialism makes sense as an innate belief. A child will statically define a rabbit with certain attributes such as long ears and a fluffy tail. The child will not perceive the rabbit as a transitional form which it and we all are. From a survival perspective this makes sense. When encountering an animal that could harm you, it doesn’t matter what its transitional branch was millions of years ago, what matters is what it is now and what danger it currently represents. Today our minds are able to transcend the horizon of the present into the past more than ever before. Has not that ability allowed us to see beyond Plato’s cave? Was not Plato himself trapped into observing only flickers and shadows of what was actually real?
Our innate essentialist way of thinking combined with Biblical Genesis is far more responsible for delays in science. We innately follow traditions and repeat what we are told as children. For thousands of years the ancient Egyptians removed the brains of pharaohs before mummification. They believed that thinking came from the heart, not the brain. Over all this time how often was this notion challenged as opposed to blindly following tradition? Is Plato to blame? How long did mankind believe that the universe revolved around the earth? How many people challenged that notion as opposed to painting by numbers? Is Plato to blame for that as well?
Every advancement in science has required the challenging of authority, and who challenged authority more than Socrates? And what would we know of Socrates without Plato? And wasn’t Plato’s most famous student Aristotle considered the first biologist? When combining the common shortsightedness of humans with a popular belief that an all-powerful indisputable god made the animals all at once; is it any wonder why evolution took so long to catch on? Obviously evolution is in direct contradiction to essentialism, but it’s also a direct contradiction to Genesis. And which one of these was more influential in human culture for the past 2,000 years? How many understood Plato’s essentialism compared to the “god did it” fairy tale that is easily understood by young children? And which notion claimed divine authority?
Are we to credit past scientist and philosophers for pioneering new fields of study, or are we to blame them for not getting it right the first time? Evolution applies to science just as it applies to everything. A crystalized mind from tradition and compliance will never evolve. And what stymies free thought more than an ideology that certain words came directly from god and are therefore unquestionable? The Socratic “I know that I know nothing” philosophy removes any finish line to the obtainment of additional knowledge. It removes any inkling of an ultimate authority. Like all things, common sense must be applied. The implication certainly isn’t in regards to spending a great deal of time determining that the sun is hot or anything else that is directly observed and explained through simple reasoning. To blame Plato for essentialism while not crediting him for championing the very philosophical foundation of modern science would be living in a cave indeed.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. – Plato
-James Kirk Wall
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