Friday, 1 June 2018

Nietzsche and the use and abuse of Darwin for life

It is possible to interpret Nietzsche as a naturalist. ‘Returning man to Nature’ forms an important aspect of his ideas. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to place Nietzsche in the same category as Darwin, and much of his criticism against Darwin may in fact resonate with Christians, to such an extent that, of carefully considered, Nietzsche’s ideas may even be considered as a source for apologetics. An essay by Louise Mabille.

As much as Nietzsche drew upon Darwin, the natural historian was for him not much more than a footnote to Hegel. He is the biological symptom of an age sick with its own history. Indeed, he goes as far as to say that ‘without Hegel, there would have been no Darwin’ (Gay Science 357). Both Hegel and Darwin are ‘deifiers of success’ who see human history in terms of a single narrative, driven by a single mechanism, lending a stifling inevitability to
it. Before anything else, Darwin added to the contemporary problem of seeing history as a process. One of the most dangerous responses to nihilism – which without a doubt exacerbated it – is the insistence upon rational explanations that master the vagaries of human existence in its totality. Science appears to offer a respite from the shakiness of worldly existence by including all events and actions under abstract laws of development. In this way a false sense of optimism is created: transitory existence is redeemed by participating in the progressive unfolding of higher aims of history. But why stop at the human species? This narrative could include the totality of biological life!
Besides Darwin’s failure to deliver on creative potential, Nietzsche found it very disappointing that the eschatology implied by his discoveries did not materialize. It was not the fact that Darwin killed God that raised the Nietzschean ire, but the fact that God was still very much alive after the reception of The Origin of the Species. All that Darwin in truth provided was a succinct history of the species. And Nietzsche makes clear in the second Untimely Meditation that the deification of history, particularly in the form of a Hegelian-styled Reason that pervades history and suggests that there is a progressive, rational movement immanent to history is especially problematic. This historical ‘illness’ leads to debilitation, whether in the form of idealism, or more commonly the case in England, materialism.
Nietzsche is often grouped together with a number of ‘hermeneuticians of suspicion’, thinkers who undermined the easy and certain subjectivity that flowed from Descartes. This conception of subjectivity, which as we have seen in our Locke chapter, takes an established subject sub specie aeternitates for granted. That is to say, philosophy departs from an immutable subject beyond time that serves as the foundation for the entire philosophical edifice that developed during the Enlightenment. The hermeneuticians of suspicion in question usually refer to Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, but Darwin is often included, too. Nietzsche, being Nietzsche, takes suspicion one step further, and subjected Darwin (or Darwinism, to be precise) to a perspectivist critique. One can be suspicious even of the hermeneutician of suspicion that failed to take his own prejudices into account. Nietzsche returned Darwin to the nineteenth century, in other words, he examined the prejudices upon which his assumptions rested, such as the ability of the rational mind to render the world fully transparent.
Many of Nietzsche’s insights can be traced to scientific materialist origins and much of his vocabulary is derived from biological origins. This does not mean, however, that they can after all be fit into the uncomfortable metanarratives of biological perfection. It would be more correct to say that scientific materialism served as a fount of inspiration, much as he drew upon literary muses like Goethe and Shakespeare; he did not simply follow in the wake of science’s success. His true critique concerns the residues of theologically derived moralism still present in natural science, not the ‘petty details’. As we have seen in our Bacon chapter, Nietzsche did not automatically regard the triumph of a scientific theory to be valuable in itself. ‘Correctness’ is not a criterion for strength. As a matter of fact, the success of natural science far too easily makes it a seat of power that lays down rigid new rules that breed a new kind of conformity. Because its ‘truths’ are easily ‘proven’, they are less easily challenged. To challenge arbitrary power is hard enough, but to go against the obviously ‘legitimate’ power of the scientist is simply beyond the energy of most people. Biological ‘truth’ gives slaves a reason to conform. And they hardly need any encouragement. Consider Nietzsche’s words from Schopenhauer As Educator:

A traveller who had seen many countries, peoples and several of the earth's continents was asked what attribute he had found in men everywhere. He said: ‘They have a propensity for laziness.’ To others, it seems that he should have said: ‘They are all fearful. They hide themselves behind customs and opinions.’ In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that there will be no second chance for his oneness to coalesce from the strangely variegated assortment that he is: he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience—why? SE, opening lines).
The mere fact that a debate over the alleged ‘independence’ of the theory of evolution continues to crop up in Darwinist circles proves the need for a Nietzschean reminder of the importance of non-biological criteria for strength. In ‘Independence, history and natural selection’ Gregory Radick reminds his readers that ‘Darwin’s theory of natural selection was no gift of sheer, solitary genius, but in several key aspects a product of Victorian culture’.[1] This can be seen as an example of the inseparability thesis. This conclusion may be obvious to readers used to the death of the author, but even today Darwin is seen as a kind of deus ex machine (sic) that spontaneously brought enlightenment upon those still captured in the dark ages of religious belief. This is known as the independence thesis. According to this thesis, particular Victorian elements aided Darwin to identify a timeless truth about Nature. The identification of this thesis, however, was inevitable, if Darwin did not do so, someone else would have come along.
Thinkers like these fail to understand what the term inevitable really means in the context of human life: no discovery of anything in the world of contingency is ever inevitable. It is just as easy to conceive of a world where the theory of natural selection – despite its correctness or use value – were simply never discovered. There are thousands of paths that history could have taken. Furthermore, there are thousands of scientific facts that will simply never be discovered, and more still whose true significance and value will never be appreciated. Yet the human race will continue as it always has: with the ability to create either a rich, strong life, or a poor, mediocre one, out of the material available to it at a particular point in time. As can be seen in the work of John Stuart Mill, Victorian England, with its Empire to run, strongly emphasized use. It was a world with a strong contempt for the ‘superfluous’ (think eugenics and the disregard for the lives of the natives colonized during Empire-building) with a strong pragmatic touch, all sprinkled liberally with the economics of Adam Smith. Darwinism was, if not exactly inevitable, at least a typical product of Victorian England. According to the historian Robert Young, the creation myth as seen in the book of genesis was a myth that suited the agrarian, pastoral world ruled by aristocrats before the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, the theory of natural selection with its Malthusian undertones, obviously ‘reflects a competitive, urban, industrial world’. This means that Darwinism basically consists of a reactive vocabulary, shot through with herd sentiments. None other than Karl Marx, in a letter to his collaborator Friedrich Engels, wrote: ‘It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions”, and the Malthusian struggle for existence. It is Hobbes’ bellum ominum contra omnes’ [war of all against all]. (Marx quoted in Schmidt 1971: 46). This is already a case of one hermeneutician of suspicion suspecting another. It was of course Engels who famously put Darwin’s Malthusianism in its classic political context:

The whole Darwinist teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’ bellum ominum contra omnes, and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine of competition together with Malthus’ theory of population. When this conjuror’s trick has been performed, the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history, and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.[2]
It is not clear how much Nietzsche derived directly from Darwin; most of his sources are second-hand, from sources like the Darwinians Ernst Haeckel, and Walter Bagehot, quoted twice in UM III, Schopenhauer as Educator. It is clear, however, that Nietzsche was familiar with Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics, translated into German in 1879. Whereas Darwin occupied himself more or less with pure science – inasmuch as science can be pure – Spencer developed a social theory around the theory of natural selection which is every bit as teleological as Hegel. Spencer upholds a model of human development that sees egoism and altruism eventually reconciled. Hegel’s influence is obvious in Spenserian remarks like ‘Truth generally lies in the co-ordination of antagonistic opinions’. This is mainly why Nietzsche regards him as a decadent.

Even the ideals of science can be deeply, even unconsciously, influenced by decadence: our entire sociology is proof of that. The objection to it is that from experience it knows only the form of decay of society, and inevitably it takes its own instincts of decay for the norms of sociological judgement.
In these norms, the life that is declining in present-day Europe formulates its social ideals: one cannot tell them from the ideals of out races that have outlived themselves –
The herd instinct – a power that has now become sovereign – is something totally different from the instinct of an aristocratic society: and the value of the units determines the significance of the sum. Our entire sociology simply does not know any other instinct than that of the herd, i.e, that of the sum of zeroes – where every zero has equal rights; where it is virtuous to be zero. –
The valuation that is today applied to the different forms of society is entirely identical with that which assigns a higher value to peace than to war: but this judgement is antibiological, itself a fruit of the decadence of life. – Life is a consequence of war, society itself a means to war. – As a biologist, Mr. Herbert Spencer is a decadent; as a moralist too (he considers the triumph of altruism a desideratum!!! (WP 53).
Darwin may have been a genius, but he was a timely one. That is, unlike Nietzsche himself, he fitted the values of his age, even if, superficially, he appeared to be in conflict with its key institutions. As we will see in our Mill chapter, his was an age that lacked ambition – mere survival and the search for pleasure was considered sufficient to serve as a sign of strength. However, survival is no measure for the value of life: it generates the same paradox as seeing the avoidance of pain and the hunt for pleasure as goals for existence. Natural selection gives us an account of how life came to be in its present form – not why the human phenomenon is worth having in the first place. Nietzsche gives us an answer to that question early in his oeuvre: it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that life is ultimately justified. That is, life becomes meaningful only through human evaluation. Although Nietzsche persistently asks that man be ‘translated back into nature’, he has something very different from Darwin in mind. Darwin certainly translates man back into nature. After The Origin of the Species there could no longer be a question of man as directly formed by a divine hand. However, there are better and worse translations. Edward Fitzgerald’s translation The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam is a work of art in itself. Reading crude determinism into Nature is not.Before the publication of The Origin of the Species, the young German philologist took it for granted that the most important part of man’s history was a natural history. As early as Homer’s Contest, Nietzsche describes man as a creature immersed in nature:

When we speak of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something that separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, there is no such separation: ‘natural’ qualities and those we call truly ‘human’ are inseparably grown together. Man in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual nature (Homer’s Contest).
 What Nietzsche objected to, is that modernity failed to seize upon the advantages that the new Darwinian theory offered. Rather than to recognize Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, nineteenth century moralists like sought to place Christian morality on an even more secure basis than narrative ever did. At least the latter had a Machiavelli to show for it. Instead of freeing up space for mastership, the ‘rules’ that the likes of Spencer read into ‘Nature’ threatened to secure man more tightly than ever before in a position of slavery. Where the priest in the black cassock was, there the one in the white coat shall be. Call an ascetic by any other name…
For Nietzsche, as was the case for Marx and Engels, the theory of natural selection only succeeds in lending support to the worst aspects of the reigning ideology. Nietzsche sees these as the reactive forces that triumphs in the form of modern culture. Giles Deleuze names these forces explicitly as ‘adaptation, evolution, progress, happiness for all, and the good of the community’[3] Although Nietzsche obviously accepts the thesis that existence is struggle, he is far less optimistic that natural selection truly favours the strongest and the best. If anything, natural selection has only the welfare of the species in mind, not the quality of the individual. It appears to destroy the ill-adapted in a purely indifferent fashion, and forces species and individual alike to aim for a position of equilibrium and stability. Darwin himself made it clear in the third edition of The Origin of the Species that natural selection should not be understood as automatically bringing about variability; it is concerned only with the bringing about and preservation of variations that prove beneficial to a particular species and the environment in which it finds itself. As Ansell-Pearson points out, natural selection, with its emphasis on the preservation of the species, is actually a highly conservative strategy.[4] (Ansell-Pearson 2000: 89). Perhaps Marx and Engels were right: natural selection does appear to favour, if not the bourgeois in person, then at least their values. It should come as no surprise that John Stuart Mill, as hesitant as he was to grant natural selection the status of a fully-fledged scientific hypothesis, he was willing to acknowledge it as a real, and not fictional causal process, a vera causa.
At the beginning of ‘history’, it is of course an entirely different story. There the strong warrior class conquers openly. Gradually, however, the bad consciousness pushed man into decadent over-refinement, not a goal for which Nietzsche considers worth striving. Writing about Paul Rée in the Preface to The Genealogy of Morals

But he had read Darwin, so that to some extent in his hypotheses the Darwinian beast and the most modern modest and tender moral sensibility, which ‘no longer bites’, politely extend their hands to each other in a way that is at least entertaining—with the latter bearing a facial expression revealing a certain good-natured and refined indolence, in which is mixed a grain of pessimism and exhaustion, as if it is really not worth taking all these things, the problems of morality, so seriously (GM, Preface).
It is perhaps for this reason that Nietzsche avoids a Darwinian vocabulary in The Genealogy of Morals, and his Will to Power thesis. ‘Adaptation’ belongs to slaves; it is the yielding to external circumstances. It is an influence that shows itself only after the active, shaping powers have had their day on the worldly playing field. It is these forces that are of true importance in the world. The ‘English psychologist’ and scientist display their slavishness by depicting life in terms that bespeak poverty rather than richness. This is a sign of a fundamental mistrust in life, or the ‘musty air of English overpopulation’ (GS 349) and the ‘Salvation Army’ (Beyond Good and Evil  252). Like all the Englishmen hitherto discussed, Darwin, for all his interest in it, is secretly anti-life: for him, the will to self-preservation operates as an excuse for the struggles that accompany life in all its forms. It is thus, just like human laws formed under the delusion that it promotes ‘justice’ as a ‘means against fighting in general’ (Genealogy of Morals II, 12). This attitude is in fact an assassination of the future of man, ‘a secret path to nothingness’ (GM II, 12) of an unambitious thinker.

Anti-Darwin. — 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 favor 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). (TwiIight of the Idols, Skirmishes Of An Untimely Man 14).
Nietzsche prefers the less scientifically sound Lamarck, because he identified a truly active, plastic force prior in relation to adaptation – a force of metamorphosis. Strictly speaking, a revaluation of values would imply an overhaul of Darwinian values as well. This is perhaps why he distances himself from Darwin with such fierceness in Ecce Homo III I, where he expresses surprise at the naïve misunderstandings with which his Zarathustra was received ‘Other scholarly oxen have suspected me of Darwinism’.
A richer approach than the narrow notion of the ‘survival instinct’ is the idea of the Will to Power.

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.
… that our modern natural sciences have become so thoroughly entangled in this Spinozaist dogma, most recently and worst of all, Darwinism with its incomprehensibly one-sided doctrine of the struggle for existence, is probably due to the origins of most natural scientists: In this respect they belong to the ‘common people’; their ancestors were poor and undistinguished people who knew the difficulties of survival only too well at first hand. The whole of English Darwinism breathes something like the musty air of English overpopulation, like the smell of the distress of and overcrowding of small people (GS 349).
Rather than to simply react to external forces, the Will to Power is part and parcel of them, creating forms from within; utilizing and exploiting external circumstances as the arena of its own agonal actions. To be true to Nietzsche though, the Will to Power is arena and actor all in one. With the will to Power, Nietzsche rehabilitates the active dimension to life, as well as the playful side to evolution. The development of an organism is no single story, there is no genuine link between origin and telos. Instead of speaking of evolution at all, one should rather speak of a series of successive life-forms subject to an immanent, open-ended dynamics. Understood in this way, every life-form is fluid and never final, nor are the aims or directions open to it. The world is indeed the Will to Power –
and nothing else besides. Darwinian evolution is but a moment in the operation of the Will to Power – its bourgeois face. As an approach to life, the Will to Power has much more to offer, it applies to all life forms, not merely the biological. It also includes the physiological, psychological, technological and cultural domains.

[T]he ‘development’ of a thing, a practice, or an organ has nothing to do with its progress towards a single goal, even less is it the logical and shortest progress reached with the least expenditure of power and resources, but rather the sequence of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of overpowering which take place on that thing, together with the resistance which arises against that overpowering each time, the transformations of form which have been attempted for the purpose of defence and reaction, the results of successful countermeasures. Form is fluid—the ‘meaning’, however, is even more so . . . Even within each individual organism things are no different: with every essential growth in the totality, the ‘meaning’ of an individual organ also shifts—in certain circumstances its partial destruction, a reduction of its numbers (for example, through the destruction of intermediate structures) can be a sign of growing power and perfection (GM II, 12).
Importantly, as both Paul Patton and Keith Ansell-Pearson have pointed out, what matters for Nietzsche is the experience of power, not its actual exercise. That is to say, power is evaluated in terms of its intensity, not its extensity. It is the battle itself, and one’s display of power in it, that matters, not some abstract teleological goal. Nietzsche was fast to distance himself from the utilitarian vocabulary of Charles Darwin:

‘Useful’ in the sense of Darwinian biology means: proved advantageous in the struggle with others. But it seems to me that the feeling of increase, the feeling of becoming stronger, is itself, quite apart from any usefulness in the struggle, the real progress: only from this feeling arises the will to struggle – (WP 648).

Feeling powerful does not depend upon one’s comparative power over someone else, as is the case with undiluted Darwinism. This puts the value of self-preservation into an entirely new perspective. Nietzsche warns that we should not automatically assume that the mere continuance of life is life’s supreme goal:
Physiologists should think again before positing the ‘instinct of preservation’ as the cardinal drive in an organic creature. A living thing wants above all to discharge its force: ‘preservation’ is only a consequence of this. Beware of superfluous teleological principles! The entire concept ‘instinct of preservation’ is one of them (WP 650).
As much as Nietzsche argued for a return to Nature, he did not want to have man dictated to by her. If, as we have seen in our Hume chapter, man was ultimately determined by the operations of nature, there was no need to emphasize this fact. Instead, man’s freedom as a creator had to be celebrated. Because Nietzsche frequently emphasizes Becoming over Being, it does not follow automatically that he is positing becoming as the essence of existence. What this means is that the nature of power precludes thinking of it as in terms of the termination of a process, a mere end. Instead, it is always transitive or intentional, it is potential. That is, power never simply brings about a sense of completeness and finality, rather, where there is life, there is struggle. Martin Heidegger has of course, famously declared Nietzsche to be the culmination of the metaphysical tradition, reading both the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power as reversed expressions of a traditional ontology. Johan Figl, too, also describes Nietzsche’s use of becoming as a process of substitution (Figl 1982: 73). Read this way, however, change becomes a new, stable ‘permanent’. If anything, the world is simply too mysterious, too feminine (that is, it always dons a mask) to allow for narrow metaphysical categories.
As German as it is to find rules in Reason (e.g. the Categorical Imperative), as English is it to find rules in Nature. If there is a moral to be derived from Nature, it is one that celebrates generosity. Only an Englishman, or to be fair, a nineteenth century Englishman, would argue that it is scarcity and lack that propels man forward.

But a natural scientist should come out of his human nook; and in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant, but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power – in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life (GS 349).
This is a key difference between Nietzsche and Darwin. Nietzsche, for all his sharp words, do not evaluate Nature in harsh terms. Nature is more generous than harsh in the Nietzschean book. Furthermore, Nietzsche – who, after all, grew up in nineteenth century Germany, where history dominated everything – simply did not see evolution as such an earth-shattering fact, but simply one more episode in the history of metaphysics.

There are truths which are recognized best by mediocre minds because they are most suited to them, there are truths which possess charm and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits one is brought up against this perhaps disagreeable proposition just at the moment because the spirit of respectable but mediocre Englishmen ‑ I name Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Herbert ‑is starting to gain ascendancy in the midregion of European taste. BGE 257).
Nature is as rich, generous and self-contradictory as Nietzsche’s texts, and therefore renders ethical naturalism a virtual impossibility. After all, an ethical naturalist needs an end or some standard in terms of which value can be measured. Lest any residual utilitarianism raises its ugly head, Nietzsche assures us that ‘well-being as you understand it – that seems to us no goal, that is an end, a state which soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish (BGE 225). Endless becoming means that value is immeasurable, and that nature gives us no ethics. Instead, ‘becoming should be explained without recourse to final intention, becoming must appear justified at every moment or incapable of being evaluated; which amounts to the same thing (WP 708). This makes ethical naturalism, particularly the Darwinian version espoused by Richard Dawkins, difficult to maintain. Even if altruism should be proven to have Darwinian origins, as Dawkins holds, there is no reason why we should follow the ‘rule of nature’. In addition, Nietzsche speculates upon the ‘order of rank’ (BGE 228) among human values, holding that legislation values is what ultimately makes us human.


Keith Ansell-Pearson, Viroid Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Giles Deleuze, Nietzsche’s Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2006.
Johann Figl, Interpretation Als Philosopisches Begriff. Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1982.
Jonathan Hodge and Geoffery Radick (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
Robert Young, Darwin’s Metaphor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Albrecht Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971.

[1] Gregory Radick in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, ed. By Hodge and Radick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.144.
[3] Giles Deleuze , Nietzsche and Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2006), p.151.
[4]  Keith Ansell-Pearson, Viroid Life (London: Routledge 2000), p. 

Author: Dr Louise Mabille

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Louise Mabille taught philosophy at the University of Pretoria, first as a tutor, then as a lecturer, between 2001 and 2013. After pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Pretoria on Nietzsche’s concept of justice, she followed it up with a second one on Milton’s concept of parrhêsia, completed at the University of Hull in Yorkshire. She is currently attached to the Theology Faculty at the Northwestern University (NWU). 


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