The Fictional Influence of Darwin on Nietzsche
One would reasonably expect that anyone familiar with Darwin’s scientific findings and Nietzsche’s philosophical writings would have considerable difficulty amalgamating them into a logical, structured ideological whole possessed of any semblance of internal validity. Nonetheless, it is commonly asserted, especially within fundamentalist Christian circles, that Nietzsche was an ardent admirer of and strongly influenced by Darwin. Examination of primary source and other contemporaneous documentation, however, demonstrates that claims of a Darwin-Nietzsche ideological link are heavily dependent on misrepresenting Darwin’s scientific findings, his related thoughts, and Nietzsche’s profound misunderstandings of both.
An example progression of such ideas, encompassing nearly a century, from diverse sources, should suffice to give a flavour of the claims made. First, we have the British author Benjamin Kidd, a leading, though far from mainstream, figure in the British arm of the socialist-inspired Christian ‘Social Gospel’ movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From a political point of view, Kidd was always disdainful of Nietzsche, viewing his philosophical outlook as supportive of the ruling classes and inherently anti-proletarian. In contrast, Kidd was initially receptive to some aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially his musings on the inevitability of the evolution of sympathy and altruism within the primate species. He turned strongly against Darwin in later life, however. In his posthumously published book ‘The Science of Power’ (1918) he argued that German militancy (which he simplistically considered to be the sole cause of the First World War), was a direct result of Darwin’s influence on Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s influence on Kaiser Wilhelm II:
“Nietzsche gave Germany the doctrine of Darwin's efficient animal in the voice of his superman………….inherent in the Darwinian conception of progress, [is] that the main business of the efficient State is to wage war. They took the Darwinian standard of efficiency as it prevailed in the childhood of the world, and boldly applied it to politics and war.”
The claim that Nietzsche influenced the Kaiser does hold some truth; in 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm personally commissioned 250,000 abridged copies of Nietzsche’s philosophical poetic parody-novel ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ (1891) which he donated to the German Army to boost morale. And, certainly, the notion that a Nietzschean influence was at least partly responsible for German militarism was not unfamiliar outside of Germany. For example, the first complete English translation of Nietzsche’s work was marketed in London with the slogan ‘The Euro-Nietzschean War. Read the Devil in Order to Fight Him Better’ and British government pamphlets with titles such as ‘Germany’s War Inspirers: Nietzsche and Treitschke’ (referring to the German nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke) were widely circulated during the First World War (Brinton, 1941).
What separated Kidd’s work from acceptable political polemic was that he was effectively arguing for the existence of an intellectual amalgamation between two of the greatest minds recently produced by Britain and Germany which had, in Kidd’s view, led to Germany claiming to be the superior nation both culturally and spiritually. This did not go down well with British academia, which criticised Kidd on both scientific and philosophical nuance, nor with the general public, who criticised on more mundane patriotic grounds.
William Jennings Bryan, the prosecuting lawyer in the famous 1925 Louisiana 'Scopes' trial, was an admirer of Kidd’s writings. The ‘Scopes’ trial was an attempt to uphold the legality of the Butler Act of the same year which prohibited the teaching in Louisiana state schools of:
"...............any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of Man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal."
Obviously, the wording in the legislation was aimed specifically at Darwin’s theory. On Day 5, about midway through the trial (see University of Minnesota, Clarence Darrow Collection), Bryan referenced Kidd directly and stated:
“I want to show that Nietzsche did praise Darwin. He put him as one of the three great men of his century. And he put Darwin among the three great men, his supermen were merely the logical outgrowth of the survival of the fittest with will and power, the only natural, logical outcome of evolution. And Nietzsche, himself, became an atheist following that doctrine, and became insane, and his father and mother and uncle were among the people he tried to kill.”
As befits the majority of those who make this kind of argument, Bryan does not appear to have researched Nietzsche particularly well, and certainly not from primary historical sources. As will be discussed in some detail below, there is no record whatsoever of Nietzsche praising Darwin. Also, his shift toward atheism had nothing to do with Darwin. At 17-years of age Nietzsche had already authored an essay ‘Fatum und Geschichte’ (‘Fate and History’; 1862) casting serious doubt on the historical validity of Christianity:
“……..the totality of Christianity is grounded in presuppositions; the existence of God, immortality, Biblical authority, inspiration, and other doctrines will always remain problems.”
Three years later, in June 1865, he wrote to his sister Elisabeth, a devout Christian, that he no longer had any religious belief (Neitzsche, 1921):
"Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire."
No mention had yet been made of Darwin in any of his writings. In fact the only person he did credit with influencing his atheism was the influential and controversial German theologian David Strauss, whose 1835 book ‘Das Leben Jesu, Kritisch Bearbeitet ‘(The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) systematically refuted the supernatural aspects of Christianity and the claimed divinity of Jesus. Bryan was also badly misinformed about Nietzsche trying to kill his father. He had died in 1849 when Nietzsche was five years old. In his autobiographical essay ‘My Life’ (Nietzsche, 1863) he reports the event as his first memory (though surprisingly, gets his own age wrong):
“The earliest event which happened to me as I awakened to consciousness was the illness of my father. It was a softening of the brain. His increasing suffering, his growing blindness, his wasted figure, my mother’s tears, the physician’s anxious demeanour…………My father died. I was not yet four years old.”
Next up we have the Reverend William Bell Riley, founder of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, the Northwestern Bible School (which at the time of his death in 1947 was the second largest Bible College in the world) and the Anti-Evolution League of America, the latter organisation founded specifically to support the Louisiana Butler Act. Riley was an unabashed white supremacist who persistently argued (see Riley, 1942) that should Darwinian evolutionary theory gain a foothold in American culture it would undermine the scriptural and moral basis for the anti-miscegenation laws that made interracial marriage illegal (and present in well over half of US states at the time). The Anti-Evolution League were so overtly racist that they even forbade membership to anti-evolution minded African-Americans (ironically, by referring to “anyone with African ancestry”) because they were considered “degenerates”. Riley not only loathed Darwin but Nietzsche also and often parroted Bryan’s imaginary link to Darwin and Nietzsche, describing the philosopher in a 1938 anti-evolution pamphlet (Riley, 1942), for example, as:
“.........the greatest exponent of evolution known to the age.”
Darwin was not, of course, the originator of the concept of biological evolution, though he was the first to systematically collect data and present a scientific model of evolution. But it is perfectly clear from Riley’s (and most creationist) propaganda then and now that he considered Darwin and evolution as synonymous and so Nietzsche is being described here as the greatest advocate of Darwin. This, of course, is really no criticism at all; it could easily be an accolade given by scientists to a colleague. Riley, however, was notably uninterested in science. He had a one-dimensional view that anyone supporting evolutionary theory was taking an inherently immoral and unbiblical stance. Therefore, anyone calling into question evolutionary theory (for whatever reason) was taking a biblically moral stance. Several decades later, the ‘father of creation science’ Henry Morris writing in his article ‘Evolution and Modern Racism' (1973) joined the links to manufacture a Darwin-Nietzsche-Hitler ideological chain, writing:
“The seeds of evolutionary racism came to fullest fruition in the form of National Socialism in Germany. The philosopher Friedrich Nietsche........ an ardent evolutionist, popularized in Germany his concept of the superman, and then the master race. The ultimate outcome was Hitler, who elevated this philosophy to the status of a national policy.”
Again, Morris is clearly unacquainted with the primary source material (he couldn’t even spell Nietzsche’s name correctly). As we shall see, Nietzsche dismissed Darwin’s ideas on biological evolution outright, and never wrote anything about a master race. He did discuss the possibility of spiritually superior individuals, but never with regard to race. One is also left to marvel at the sheer audacity displayed by Morris. Like Riley, Morris was an unrepentant white supremacist who wrote that non-Caucasians were ultimately placed by God on Earth to serve those of European stock. According to Morris’ (1991) reading of scripture:
"The descendants of Ham [i.e., non-Caucasians] were marked especially for secular service to mankind. Indeed they were to be 'servants of servants,' that is 'servants extraordinary!' '............. all of the earth's 'colored' races, - yellow, red, brown, and black - essentially the Afro-Asian group of peoples, including the American Indians--are possibly Hamitic in origin.”
The same author, in an earlier book 'Men of Science, Men of God' (1982) lauded the nineteenth-century palaeontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz as one of the most esteemed founders of creation science. Agassiz was, naturally, fervently anti-Darwinian. But he was also convinced (e.g., Agassiz, 1850) as both “a scriptural and a scientific fact”, that the white race was a superior sub-species of human, all other races being, in comparison, merely:
"beasts…………a degraded and degenerate race…………….To suppose that all men originated from Adam and Eve is to assume that the order of creation has been changed in the course of historical times, and to give to the Mosaic record a meaning that it was never intended to have. On that ground we would particularly insist upon the propriety of considering Genesis as chiefly relating to the history of the white race, with special reference to the history of the Jews."
Agassiz published three overtly ‘scientific’ racist articles during his career, only one of which, the considerably shortest of the trio, was accepted by a science journal; the longer two being accepted by Christian periodicals. Yet Morris had the gall to complain about "evolutionary racism"!
The Catholic ethicist and proponent of intelligent design Benjamin Wiker (2008), who has forged a career misrepresenting Darwin’s writings, does attempt to portray a more balanced analysis, nonetheless he still plays follow the leader with Morris’s ideological chain:
“Darwinism is responsible for a lot more destruction than the eugenic fantasies of the Third Reich. He can also claim substantial patrimony for the rantings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that likewise inspired the intellectuals that surrounded and supported Hitler’s scheme……………While Nietzsche may not have approved of the particularities of how Hitler answered the call, he rightly receives the blame for having issued the call that Hitler, in his own way, answered. Ditto for Darwin. While Nietzsche put a new spin on Darwin, Darwin must answer for making such a spin so easy and inviting.”
Wiker’s argument is no more than an attempt at guilt by association and an argumentum ad consequentiam. It is simply a diversion, hiding his real intention of attempting to discredit any scientific endeavour that might lead to doubts as to whether a deity exists. But this effort is both disingenuous and futile; even if Darwin had written explicitly of his hope that a future fascist dictator would be able to use his scientific discoveries to the detriment of humankind, it would in no way invalidate the science. And who would even consider it reasonable for a scientist to be deemed responsible when, after their death, another individual, whether philosopher or politician, uses their research findings and exploits them to serve their own political agenda?
More recently, fundamentalist Christian philosopher Max Andrews authored a blog post entitled ‘Charles Darwin, Meet Friedrich Nietzsche' (June 16th, 2012; update: this blogpost appears to have been removed but remains here as representative of the views being critiqued in this essay). Andrews starts off correctly enough, noting:
“It would be an appropriate evaluation of Nietzsche to state that his mere calling for the übermensch is a teleological claim.”
The übermensch tends to dominate most of the discussion of Nietzschean philosophy, at least in non-academic circles. It is fair to say, however, that the importance of the übermensch to Nietzsche has been greatly exaggerated (Leiter, 2002). The concept was introduced (though the word not coined) in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ (1891) and, of the works actually published by Nietzsche during his lifetime (as opposed to those concocted posthumously from his notebooks, which were far more voluminous than the work he had published himself) the übermensch is mentioned in only that work. Furthermore, he never clearly defines the concept but only intimated it poetically.
Considerable difficulties exist with translating and interpreting the word as it is used by Nietzsche. The prefix über denotes both something above and something beyond and so has been variously translated in the philosophical sense as something physically or intellectually superior or something that transcends; thus, commonly, ‘superman’, ‘overman’ or ‘higher being’. To complicate matters, Nietzsche had a predilection for employing the prefix readily in non-philosophical terms such as Überreichtum (very wealthy), Überfluß (abundance, affluence, glut), Überfülle (overabundance), Überschuß (excess, surplus), and übervoll (overfull, crammed). Philosophers, psychologists and Nietszchean scholars have interpreted the concept widely and notably vaguely as, for example, the deification of an ordinary person (e.g., Jung, 1934-39), a man able to create his own values (e.g., Kaufmann, 1950), a man grounding his being in self-creation (e.g., Heidegger, 1954) or as someone who has organised his inner chaos (e.g., Hollingdale, 1999).
Nevertheless, there seems to be some minimal consensus that the notion of übermensch is akin to a personal, spiritual goal. This is wholly dependent on an individual’s will (and therefore teleological); a potential future state of being for human beings able to rise above supernaturally oriented religious (and, for Nietzsche, especially Christian) morality and dogma, but also Nihilism (which he saw not as a dead-end, but as a transitional stage) to create a novel set of personal values:
“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?..............What is the ape to men? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And just so shall man be to the Overman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment.”
In his autobiography, ‘Ecce Homme’ (written 1888; though first published posthumously in 1908), Nietzsche signals that the übermensch is not a political concept but describes:
“The word “Superman” as the designation for a type of the highest successfulness as opposed to “modern” men, to “good” men, to Christians and other nihilists…….”
And most pertinently, psychiatrist and Nietzsche scholar Eva Cybulska (2012) reminds us:
“It’s important to stress that there has never yet been an Übermensch; it remains an ideal.”
It seems incomprehensible, therefore, to the present author at least, that anyone could read Zarathustra’s poetic discourse or any accepted interpretations and conclude that Nietzsche’s übermensch was intended to be understood as a biological, rather than mythical, spiritual or psychological concept. This view is confirmed in ‘Ecce Homme’ (1888) where Nietzsche is adamant that the concept of the übermensch is non-biological. To drive home this point he labels as “dolts” those who claimed that the concept of the übermensch was derived from Darwinian evolutionary theory:
“Other learned dolts have suspected me of Darwinism on that account; even the “hero-worship” of that great unwilling and unknowing swindler Carlyle, which I maliciously dismissed, was recognized in it.”
So, in addition to his denial that Darwin inspired the übermensch (which is the only mention of Darwin in the autobiography) Nietzsche also denies that he incorporated the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s concept of ‘hero worship’ into the übermensch. Indeed, in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1886) Nietzsche is particularly scathing about Carlyle (even referring to him as English on several occasions!):
“……………that rhetorician and quasi-actor, that tasteless, addlepated Carlyle.”
How then, one might ask, is it commonplace to encounter such notions that Nietzsche respected and utilised both Darwin and Carlyle’s work, claims that run so obviously counter to what Nietzsche is actually telling us? Nevertheless, either deliberately ignoring or being ignorant of Nietzsche’s unambiguous statement to the contrary, Andrews proceeds to speak on behalf of Nietzsche:
“Charles Darwin heavily influenced Nietzsche’s biological basis for truth. There is a stark similarity between Darwin’s natural selection and Nietzsche’s übermensch. Darwin attempts to account for the advancement of species (or mankind) by the upward struggle for something greater on a scientific and biological basis. In comparison, the übermensch is what enabled a higher man to advance. Nietzsche is philosophy’s Darwin.”
There is so much wrong with this paragraph it is difficult to decide where to start. Aside from the egregious claim that Darwin “heavily influenced” Nietzsche, Nietzsche never wrote of a biological basis for truth. We are also witness to two gross misunderstandings of evolution theory. Andrews has illegitimately bolted teleology onto Darwinian evolution. Yet one of the defining characteristics of Darwin’s theory is its utterly naturalistic stance; it neither recognises nor appeals to the necessity of concepts such as deities, final causes, nature spirits, souls, wills, intellects, Platonic entities or anything else even vaguely like these. Darwin (1838) had little respect for such metaphysical speculation from an early stage in his career as a scientist:
“To study Metaphysic, as they have always been studied appears to me to be like puzzling at Astronomy without Mechanics………….we must bring some stable foundation to argue from.”
Indeed, the very issue that so many humble nineteenth-century parochial churchmen and learned academic theologians had with Darwin (some still have today) is his having introduced to the public mind the notion that hitherto perceived supernatural design in nature is explained by purely naturalistic, non-teleological mechanisms. One of Darwin’s most important legacies is that a purposeful deity had, almost overnight, become a sufficient, but by no means a necessary condition to explain the diversity of life we observe on Earth today. This has not stopped some authors attempting to argue that Darwin’s theory was, in itself, more theological than scientific and then attempt to imbue Darwin’s scientific findings with theistic and metaphysical speculation; a profound misrepresentation supportable only by intellectual chicanery. For example, historian Neal Gillespie, from his book ‘Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation’ (1979):
“I would suggest that not only was Darwin’s materialism compatible in his mind with theism, but that it represented no interest in a thoroughgoing atheistic philosophical or metaphysical materialism.”
Gillespie’s claim certainly seems at odds with Darwin’s personal writings as well as the reminiscences of those who knew him. For example, the playwright and trained biologist Edward Aveling, and Ludwig Büchner, the influential co-author of ‘Force and Matter’ (1864; the book which popularised the notion of scientific materialism in Germany) and founder of the ‘Deutscher Friedenker-Verbund’ or ‘German Freethinkers League’, had lunch with Darwin and then spent the afternoon in discussion in September 1882. Aveling (1882) reports:
“When once we were within the walls of his study, and he was sitting in most unconventional fashion in the large, well-worn easy chair, almost the first thing he said was, "Why do you call yourselves Atheists?"……………….Very respectfully the explanation was given, that we were Atheists because there was no evidence of deity, because the invention of a name was not an explanation of phænomena, because the whole of man's knowledge was of a natural order, and only when ignorance closed in his onward path was the supernatural invoked…………….whilst we did not commit the folly of god-denial, we avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion: that as god was not proven, we were without god………………. with point after point of our argument he agreed; statement on statement that was made he endorsed, saying finally: "I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist."
Obviously, Gillespie (1979) cannot support his contrary view with first-hand evidence of this calibre. Instead, he is forced to deliberately misquote Darwin on this matter:
"I am quite conscious," he wrote to Asa Gray on the eve of the publication of the Origin, "that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."
Darwin’s words are from his letter to the American palaeontologist Asa Gray dated June 18th 1857. Gillespie’s version is wholly misleading. First, Darwin was writing, not on the “eve of the publication” of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) but about two and a half years before its publication. Second, it is obvious from his ongoing correspondence with Asa Gray that Darwin did not discuss his theory of evolution with him until after the 1859 publication. In the exchange that Gillespie misquotes from, the two men were not discussing evolution at all but speculating that extinction episodes as a possible cause of the limited geographical range of some species.
There are also profound problems for Andrews’ claim “there is a stark similarity between Darwin’s natural selection and Nietzsche’s übermensch”. For this to be accepted as true requires that any traits that can be used to identify an übermensch must be heritable, and that they must be naturally selected for (or more accurately, selected against). An alternative view, arguably more likely in Nietzsche’s scenario, is the Lamarckian one in which any traits acquired during the lifespan of an individual are passed on to the next generation. Whether Nietzsche may (or may not) have alluded to, a Darwinian or a Lamarckian synopsis is irrelevant to this point. Either way, to link Darwin (or even biology in general) with the übermensch requires that the übermensch be a heritable phenomenon. Yet nowhere in Nietzsche’s discussion of the übermensch does he discuss heritability. In any case, Darwin would have considered such a claim to heritability of spiritual attributes to be unscientific nonsense. Nietzsche never made claims of heritability. The übermensch had nothing to do with Darwin.
Returning to Andrews, who continues to demonstrate his lack of knowledge of either Darwin’s writings or modern evolutionary theory:
“Darwin attempted to account for teleology by natural means.”
You cannot account for something that you are claiming doesn’t exist. Christian fundamentalists like Andrews cannot have it both ways. You can’t realistically argue on the one hand that ‘Darwinism’ is an inherently evil and immoral ‘philosophy’ (e.g., Riley, 1942; Wiker, 2008) primarily because it rests on a blind mechanical process, having no inherent teleological design, purpose, intent or destiny (i.e., recognises no input from any God) and then, in the next breath claim, whenever it suits your argument, that Darwin was, in fact, simply reassigning purpose and teleology from supernatural to natural means. Yet Andrews continues to restate the same misconception:
“In his writings, Nietzsche affirms Darwin’s scientific account for the biological advancement of man.”
This is an emulation of the ‘opinion piece characterised by a lack of direct quotes from primary sources’ style of argument commonly encountered in the writings of fundamentalist Christian authors such as Richard Weikart (e.g., 2004; 2013) and Jerry Bergman (e.g., 1999; 2001). Their modus operandi when claiming influence on some person by someone else who has preceded them, is to bypass any first-person quote explicitly stating that the source of that influence (because it doesn’t exist), offering instead an opinion from a third party writing even further in the future. We are not talking ancient history here. We have an almost complete written and most often original record from both Darwin and Nietzsche. We should therefore expect claims such as Andrews’ to be backed up by at least one example passage from somewhere in Nietzsche’s canon stating that he appreciated, fully accepted and/or was consciously influenced by Darwin’s scientific account of evolutionary biology. However, nowhere do we find this in his essay because nowhere does Nietzsche say this.
When it comes to Nietzsche’s views on Darwin the far more honest enterprise is to let the man speak for himself. First though, a few caveats need to be put in place. It is highly unlikely that Nietzsche actually read any of Darwin’s work. We know that Nietzsche showed little interest in the natural sciences until relatively late in his life when his eyesight was failing and his ability to read attenuated. We also know that he was unable to read fluently any language other than German (Leiter, 2002). This is an important point because, even if Nietzsche did read Darwin’s work, there were significant scientific differences between Darwin’s original ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and the most popular German translation.
Darwin’s seminal book was translated into German within six months of its November publication in Britain by the German palaeontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn. Bronn was a strange choice as translator because he was known to be highly sceptical of the very notion of speciation. Hence, it was not as faithful a translation as it could have been, with numerous added footnotes and an added (highly critical) final chapter authored by Bronn. The German evolutionary biologist Axel Meyer (2009) summarises why he did this:
“Bronn's liberal translation of Darwin altered the precise meanings of Victorian English words to fit a contemporaneous German sensibility.”
That German sensibility, Bronn felt, was not ready for the scientific materialism he thought Darwin was espousing. Darwin was especially unhappy with Bronn’s translation of the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ as ‘Kampf ums Dasein’. This German phrase has an ambiguous meaning and often employed when discussing the overtly philosophical notion of ‘struggle for being’. This was undoubtedly intentional on Bronn’s part as he attempted to steer the first German edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’ in the direction of his own view of a teleological interpretation of biology. Bronn’s intention is even evident in the title of the first German edition. The complete English title is: ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’. Bronn’s German version was ‘Über die Entstehung der Arten im Thier-und Pflanzen-Reich durch natürliche Züchtung, oder Erhaltung der vervollkommnen Rassen im Kampfe ums Dasein’, which translates as ‘On the Origin of Species in the Animal and Plant Kingdom by Natural Breeding, or Preservation of the Perfect Races in the Struggle for Being’. Thus, Bronn had not only substituted the biological word ‘life’ for the philosophical term ‘being’ he had also substituted the original word ‘favoured’ with ‘vervollkommnen’ which translates as ‘perfect’. Bronn’s own additional final chapter was therefore an argument for evolution’s progressive development toward this ‘perfection’.
Darwin encountered a similar, deliberate, problem in the first French edition of the book, translated and edited by Clémence Royer. In this case, she had, unbeknown to Darwin, written her own preface in which she had suggested the benefits of applying the mechanisms of natural selection to human beings. As natural selection is non-teleological, what she meant, of course, was the application of artificial selection (and specifically, in her case, negative eugenics). We know from his personal correspondence that Darwin was both perplexed and livid.
In the fifth (of the six) English editions of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (published in 1869) the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ was changed to ‘survival of the fittest’ and it is this now infamous phrase that comes to the mind of most people with a cursory knowledge of modern evolutionary theory. It is widely (though erroneously) believed that the concept and term originated with Darwin. It is sometimes claimed that it was championed by Nietzsche, and expropriated by Hitler via Darwin and Nietzsche. However, it is neither a Darwinian nor a Nietzchean term, having been coined by the British polymath Herbert Spencer in his book ‘Principles of Biology’ (1863). Spencer certainly appears to have intended the term to be synonymous with his own (albeit idiosyncratic) view of Darwinian natural selection, writing:
"This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection.’”
It probably would not have mattered to Nietzsche which one of these Englishmen had invented the phrase because he considered both Darwin and Spencer to be second-rate intellectuals, with “doltish mechanistic English ideas about the world” as he explains in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1886):
“There are truths best perceived by mediocre minds, because they are most suited to them; there are truths that have charms and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits: we are being forced just now to embrace this perhaps unpleasant tenet, ever since the spirit of respectable, but mediocre Englishmen (I am thinking of Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer) has begun to gain the upper hand in the middle region of European taste.”
Nietzsche is not simply targeting specific Englishmen here. Rather, he had a disdain for British philosophers and natural-law theorists in general because of their growing reliance on empiricism and methodological naturalism and their related lack of interest in metaphysics (Johnson, 2010). Nevertheless, despite sharing “mechanistic English ideas” Darwin and Spencer were definitely not the intellectual stablemates Nietzsche seems to think they were.
Darwin’s attitude to Spencer’s phrase is far less accommodating than is commonly believed. Darwin never viewed either his own ‘struggle for existence’ nor Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ in anything like the adversarial or combative sense that Spencer intended or that many fundamentalist Christian authors like to claim (e.g., “involving the triumph of the strong and the subjugation of the weak”, as defined by Bergman, 2001). From the original edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859):
“I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphoric sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in time of death, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get the food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture.”
The key to Darwin’s thinking, of course, lies in his final sentence. Spencer was certainly no Darwinian and he famously disagreed with the metaphorical and diluted manner in which Darwin had used his phrase. Indeed, Spencer was one of Britain's then-leading exponents of Lamarckianism and, more in common with Nietzsche, emphasised the possibility of a species’ self-improvement from conscious, planned actions rather than non-teleological variations in heritability that acted on entire populations. Spencer's support for Lamarck's ideas proved so strong that even after August Weismann's watershed experiments on mice which had demonstrated that acquired characteristics were not inherited (1889; thereby boosting Darwin's ideas on heredity at the expense of Lamarck's reputation), Spencer resolutely refused to accept the findings. He later wrote an extended two-part paper attempting to refute Darwin entitled 'The Inadequacy of Natural Selection' (1893). It is surely more accurate, therefore, to refer to the ‘Spencerian’, rather than the Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’.
Although it appeared in a text on biology, Spencer originally employed his phrase in a distinctly non-biological context, arguing in support of the laissez-faire economic system, ironically, the very economic system beloved by the majority of today’s American fundamentalist Christians. Political historian David Crook (2007) has described Spencer as the "uncaring apostle of cut-throat capitalism" and this is not simply the case of a ‘liberal’ academic’s ‘left-wing bias’. The then richest American and devout Christian John D. Rockefeller fully concurred with Spencer’s original meaning (cited in Hofstadter, 1944):
"The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest..........This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God."
Rockefeller’s comment, referencing “a law of nature and a law of God” is certainly not a sentiment that would have emanated from Darwin. Nor Nietzsche, as the latter makes plain (1882):
“Take, for example, that pedantic Englishman, Herbert Spencer…………..a human race that adopted such Spencerian perspectives as its ultimate perspectives would seem to us worthy of contempt, of annihilation! But the mere fact that he had to experience as his highest hope something that to others appears and may appear only as a disgusting possibility poses a question mark that Spencer would have been incapable of foreseeing………….Do we really want to permit existence to be degraded for us like this – reduced to a mere exercise for a calculator and an indoor diversion for mathematicians?”
Nietzsche never seemed to appreciate what Darwin’s metaphorical meaning of ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ meant, or to have even been aware of Spencer’s disagreement with Darwin. On the contrary, he views Spencer as being a representative of Darwin’s theory. In ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ (1887), for example, he erroneously credits Spencer with Darwin’s hypothesis of a population’s adaptation to external circumstances, apparently unaware that Spencer was a Lamarckian who considered adaptation to occur at the level of the individual organism, not at the level of populations.
On Bronn’s death in 1862, the German publisher agreed with Darwin to re-translate ‘On the Origin of Species’ and Bronn’s translation was superseded by a more faithful version from Julius Carus. But the damage was done. Bronn’s translation had become the standard work, read by all leading German biologists and this first edition remained the most cited version in the German language until the twentieth century (Meyer, 2009). Although Nietzsche never mentions reading ‘On the Origin of Species’ he reports lengthy discussions with a number of anti-Darwinian academics including the zoologist Ludwig Rutimeyer and anatomist Wilhelm His at the University of Basel, then a hotbed of anti-Darwinian ideology (Johnson, 2001). Thus, as philosopher Charles Pence (2011) points out:
“………we can say with some confidence that Nietzsche was exposed to Darwin via what was roughly the mainstream tradition of Darwinian critique and commentary in Germany in the 1870s and 1880s.”
Nietzsche also discusses the strong influence of a now obscure book ‘Biologische Probleme’ (‘Biological Problems’; Rolph, 1882). Here, the fervently anti-Darwinian biologist William Rolph denies the existence of any biological drive for self-preservation whatsoever, and proceeds to mischaracterise another of Darwin’s phrases, ‘will to preservation’, in terms of a teleological notion of a ‘will to increase’ (in terms of function and faculty). This ‘will to increase’ looks suspiciously like a precursor to Nietzsche’s notion of a ‘will to power’, which he considered responsible for all change, at least in the biological domain. Indeed, in ‘The Gay Science’ (1882) Nietzsche appears to directly mirror Rolph’s thoughts:
“The wish to preserve oneself is the symptom of a condition of distress, of a limitation of the really fundamental instinct of life which aims at the expansion of power and, wishing for that, frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation.”
As with the übermensch, it is not surprising that Nietzsche would reject Darwinian ideas when conceptualising his ‘will to power’. Nietzsche’s will to power manifests in two distinct ways. There is a ‘more sophisticated’ internal drive toward personal autonomy. This internal drive cannot be Darwinian as it would not be subject to any selection effects. But Nietzsche also envisions a less sophisticated drive aimed externally, in order to impose this will on others and society and thus maximise an individual’s personal influence and power. Obviously, the behaviours manifested by an externally-directed ‘will to power’ could be subject to cultural selection effects and so play some part in the institution and maintenance of social contracts. Examples abound in the non-human animal kingdom such as the hierarchical nature inherent in primate groupings. However, this process is more accurately described as epi-Darwinian because the unit of selection is behaviour and although the physiological basis for behaviours is biologically heritable, they are fragile precisely because they exist only so long as the social contracts that enable and tolerate them.
Although Nietzsche readily acknowledges that Darwin was responsible for the dominant naturalistic paradigm in the biological sciences, his own writings on Darwin are relatively sparse. Of what does exist, there are several threads and they are, without exception, critical. There is an initial strong denunciation of Darwin’s reliance on the work of Thomas Malthus, in particular his famous mathematical law regarding population growth (echoing Marx and Engels’ considerable disapproval). Briefly, Malthus stated that while populations tend to grow at an exponential rate, food supply usually grows at a linear rate, therefore predicting inevitable shortages of food (Malthus, 1798). Darwin theorised that such a state of affairs was ubiquitous in the natural world and, if such a distressed population of organisms was not driven to extinction, it would have been because of the effects of natural selection favouring (not perfecting) those individual organisms which e.g., either required less food physiologically or were better at procuring food. Nietzsche was not convinced of this at all.
The critique via Malthus is a trivial matter, however, compared to Nietzsche’s other views on Darwin. He commented negatively on a number of claims that were pivotal to Darwin’s theory. The earliest mention is from ‘Human, All Too Human’ (1878) where he merely displays doubt about Darwin’s theory:
“……..the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race.”
By ‘The Gay Science’ (1882) not only had his doubts about Darwin grown, he was beginning to substitute metaphysical for biological concepts:
“………..in nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering - even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for survival is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life.”
“…………one mistakes the essence of life, its will to power; in so doing one overlooks the essential pre-eminence of the spontaneous, attacking, infringing, reinterpreting, reordering, and formative forces, upon whose effect the “adaptation” first follows; in so doing one denies the lordly role of the highest functionaries in the organism itself, in which the will of life appears active and form-giving.”
By ‘Götzen-Dämmerung’ (‘Twilight of the Gods’; 1888) Nietzsche’s refutation of Darwinian evolution is more robust:
As for the famous “struggle for existence,” so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering — and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature. Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence — and, indeed, it occurs — its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them — namely, in favour of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions.
The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority — and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (“Let it go!” they think in Germany today; “the Reich must still remain to us”). It will be noted that by “spirit” I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).
In the same book, Nietzsche also explicitly refutes Darwin’s (1871) theory of sexual selection as the sister driving force to natural selection:
“We almost always see males and females take advantage of any chance encounter, exhibiting no selectivity whatsoever.”
Evolutionary theory is also mentioned in the book compiled posthumously from Nietzsche’s notebooks, 'Der Wille zur Macht' (English: ‘Will to Power’; 1906). It is pertinent to mention here that a number of leading Nietzsche scholars, including Mazzino Montinari and Brian Leiter, are convinced that this book is a forgery. They consider it a contrivance of Nietzsche’s sister (then named Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche), assembled by stitching disparate sentences together from Nietzsche’s notebooks and adding her own negative views of the Nietzsche family (Montinari & d’lorio, 1996; see also Diethe, 2003 and Leiter, 2002). That said, we do find numerous straightforward denials of biological evolution and even speciation. For example:
“There are no transitional forms. Every type has its limits; beyond these there is no evolution. Up to this point, absolute regularity………… Primitive creatures are said to be the ancestors of those now existing. But a look at the fauna and flora of the Tertiary merely permits us to think of an as yet unexplored country that harbors types that do not exist elsewhere, while those existing elsewhere are missing.”
“The utility of an organ does not explain its origin; on the contrary! For most of the time during which a property is forming it does not preserve the individual and is of no use to him, least of all in the struggle with external circumstances and enemies.”
Finally, there is an anti-Darwinian paragraph in Nietzsche’s posthumous ‘Writings from the Late Notebooks’ (2003):
“What surprises me most when surveying the great destinies of man is always seeing before me the opposite of what Darwin and his school see or want to see today: selection in favor of the stronger, in favor of those who have come off better, the progress of the species. The very opposite is quite palpably the case: the elimination of the strokes of luck, the uselessness of the better-constituted types, the inevitable domination achieved by the average, even below-average types“
Whether or not Montinari and Leiter are correct, it appears that Förster-Nietzsche must have been happy with continuing her brother’s progressive anti-Darwinian stance. All of the above quotes, from across the last 20 years of Nietzsche’s life, directly contradict what the likes of William Jennings Bryan, William Bell Riley, Henry Morris, Benjamin Wiker or Max Andrews are telling us. Indeed, rather than Darwin having “heavily influenced Nietzsche’s biological basis for truth and Nietzsche being “the greatest exponent of evolution known to the age” and “an ardent evolutionist”, much of Nietzsche’s writing on Darwin and evolution reads like the kind of assertions found in any young earth creationist article or website. Scientifically, then, Nietzsche was profoundly off-target.
Ironically, he does accidentally agree with Darwin on one point, though he appears not to appreciate it. This is his view of the “the inevitable domination achieved by the average, even below-average types”. If he is referring to the enormity of the abundance of viruses, bacteria and insects relative to other kinds of organisms then he is completely misunderstanding what a Darwinian might label as “average”. If he is referring to ‘average’ individuals within a population or species then, yes, they certainly do succeed, but this is because evolutionary change is observed not in individuals but across populations over time. It is much less the case that the ‘struggle for existence’ involves a 'survival of the fittest' (as per the popularly known phrase) than the more accurate Darwinian notion of 'survival of the just good enough to survive under the circumstances they find themselves in'. Returning to ‘Will to Power’ (1906):
“I see all philosophers and the whole of science on their knees before a reality which is the reverse of the struggle for life as Darwin and his school understood it - that is to say, wherever I look, I see those prevailing and surviving, who throw doubt and suspicion upon life and the value of life. The error of the Darwinian school became a problem to me: how can one be so blind as to make this mistake?..........the school of Darwin has everywhere deceived itself ”
Nietzsche was obviously expecting that Darwin’s synopsis be other than what it actually is. Once again, his notion of the evolving übermensch is not a biological, environmentally-mediated, Darwinian-style process acting on a population of organisms. It is akin to an individual’s spiritual transformation. It is an inherently teleological notion with a (claimed) direction of travel, characteristics both alien to natural selection and to biology in general. It is Nietzsche who had “deceived itself”; by thinking that Darwin’s evolution by natural selection (and sexual selection) demands a fixed direction in which to travel.
Because Darwin’s theory is scientific only, Nietzsche views Darwin as having explained only part of the picture. In Nietzsche’s metaphysical view, even if natural selection were able to account for the quantity and diversity of species, it could not explain the ‘fact’ that some species appear to have ‘progressed spiritually’ while others have not. Thus, according to Nietzsche, Darwinism is guilty of failing to recognise the more important role of the ‘will of life’, the ‘élan vital’ (as the French philosopher Henri Bergson later coined it) that ‘drives’ this ‘progression’, to a higher spiritual form culminating in the übermensch of the human being.
But maybe we should remember that Nietzsche was a philosopher and not a scientist. He may not have had a good grasp of the science but was nevertheless able to appreciate the philosophical and moral import of Darwin’s scientific findings. Darwin’s writing was permeated with the idea that science would lead to an increase in knowledge generally, but especially to a reduction in our reliance on superstition and myth to explain the natural world. Nietzsche certainly appears to acknowledge this, but therein lays another profound difference in attitude between the two men. When it came to the social and moral consequences of scientific discoveries, and their inevitable impact on the lessening of mankind’s perception of a “kinship with God”, as Nietzsche put it, Darwin was ever the optimist while Nietzsche was undoubtedly the pessimist. This is Darwin, writing in ‘Descent of Man’ (1871):
“Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming fixed perhaps by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”
However, Nietzsche (1881) clearly thought that the birth of evolutionary theory had portended otherwise:
“Formerly, one sought the feeling of grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts………….. man has emerged from the ape and will return to the ape.”
Once again, Nietzsche sounds like a modern anti-Darwinian fundamentalist Christian who does not understand evolutionary theory but thinks he does. Is there really much difference to what he is saying in that last paragraph to the inane, but oft-heard claim that “if you teach children that they evolved from monkeys, then they will act like monkeys”, emanating from the more puerile of creationist preachers?
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