Three Causes in One: Biological Explanation in Aristotle

  • Lucas John Mix


Aristotle shifted the discussion from biological motivators to biological activities. His four causes formed a foundation for all explanations. “Material causes” speak to composition; “formal causes” speak to shape, but also interactions with the surrounding world; “efficient causes” speak to external and accidental influences; and “final causes” speak to “that for the sake of which” a thing occurs. When the last three coincide, they can be called a soul. Aristotle used souls to explain the biological activities: nutrition, reproduction, sensation, locomotion, and reason. Although causes, souls, and activities were reimagined in the Middle Ages, they are, in their original forms, surprisingly compatible with scientific accounts.


  1. Aristotle. On the Soul, Parva Naturalia, On Breath. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936. Google Scholar
  2. Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Google Scholar
  3. Cohen, S. Marc. “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2014 ed. Stanford University, 1997–.
  4. Johnson, Monte Ransome. Aristotle on Teleology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
  5. Lewis, Clive Staples. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964.Google Scholar
  6. Martin, Raymond, and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.Google Scholar
  7. Mayr, Ernst. “Cause and Effect in Biology: Kinds of Causes, Predictability, and Teleology Are Viewed by a Practicing Biologist.” Science 134 (1961): 1501–1506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Mix, Lucas J. “Proper Activity, Preference, and the Meaning of Life.” Philosophy and Theory in Biology 6 (2014).
  9. Mix, Lucas J. “Defending Definitions of Life.” Astrobiology 15, no. 1 (2015): 15–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Schaffer, Jonathan. “The Metaphysics of Causation.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2016 ed. Stanford University, 1997–.
  11. Shields, Christopher. Aristotle. New York: Routledge, 2007.Google Scholar
  12. Sober, Elliott. Philosophy of Biology. Dimensions of Philosophy Series. Boulder: Westview, 1993.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lucas John Mix
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Organismic and Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations