This paper was presented to the 11th annual conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, Emmannuel College Cambridge,8th September 2001.
 

Nietzsche's Anti-Darwin

by

John S Moore

I want to focus upon a passage at Will to Power 685, from the opening "Anti-Darwin" up to the sentence:- "The error of the Darwinian school became a problem to me: how can one be so blind as to make this mistake?" The previous 684 also begins "Anti-Darwin". In both sections he makes a number of comments on Darwin's theory.

"Anti Darwin.- What surprises me most on making a general survey of the great destinies of man, is that I invariably see the reverse of what today Darwin and his school sees or will persist in seeing: selection in favour of the stronger, the better constituted, and the progress of the species. Precisely the reverse of this stares one in the face: the suppression of the lucky cases, the uselessness of the more highly constituted types, the inevitable mastery of the mediocre, and even of those who are below mediocrity. Unless we are shown some reason why man is an exception among living creatures, I incline to the view that Darwin's school is everywhere at fault. That will to power, in which I perceive the ultimate reason and character of all change, explains why it is that selection is never in favour of the exceptions, and of the lucky cases: the strongest and happiest natures are weak when they are confronted with a majority ruled by gregarious instincts and the fear which possesses the weak. My general view of the world of values shows that in the highest values which now sway the destiny of man, the happy cases among men, the select specimens, do not prevail: but rather the decadent specimens- perhaps there is nothing more interesting in the whole world than this unpleasant spectacle.

"Strange as it may seem, the strong have always to be upheld against the weak; and the well constituted against the ill constituted, the healthy against the sick and physiologically botched. If we drew our morals from reality, they would read thus: the mediocre are more valuable than the exceptional creatures, and the decadent than the mediocre, the will to nonentity prevails over the will to life, - and the general aim now is, in Christian, Buddhistic, Schopenhauerian phraseology 'It is better not to be than to be'.

I protest against this formulating of reality into a moral: and I loathe Christianity with a deadly loathing because it created sublime words and attitudes in order to deck a revolting truth with all the tawdriness of justice, virtue, and godliness....

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?"

Both 684 and 685 are dated March - June 1888, about the same time as a letter to Brandes, on May 4th, in which Nietzsche wrote:-

"These last weeks at Turin, where I shall stay till June 5th, have turned out better than any I have known for years, above all more philosophic. Almost every day for one or two hours I have packed such a pitch of energy as to be able to view my whole conception from top to bottom; so that the immense multiplicity of problems lies spread out beneath me, as though in relief and clear in its outlines. This requires a maximum of strength, for which I had almost given up hope, It all hangs together; years ago it was already on the right course, one builds one's philosophy like a beaver, one is forced to and does not know it. But one has to see all this, as I have now seen it, in order to believe it."

Taking Darwin's achievement as his thesis of the origin of species by natural selection, some might be tempted to conclude that the passage shows either that Nietzsche had not read him carefully or that he did not think it important to distinguish him from his interpreters and popularisers, like Huxley, Haeckel and Spencer. The first edition of The Origin of Species is a very powerfully argued book. What have Nietzsche's comments to do with the origin of species? Often he refers to "Darwin and his followers". To which followers is he referring? Spencer and Huxley, both passed for champions of Darwinism, yet in many areas their views diverged from Darwin's original idea, placing far more emphasis on evolutionary progress. The same applies to Haeckel, much read in Germany in the 1880s, who popularised Darwin's ideas in the service of his own materialist and anti religious ideology. Haeckel and Spencer introduce notions of teleology into a theory whose main merit was dispensing with such props.

It would be regrettable if we had to conclude that Nietzsche crudely misread Darwin, for crude misreading is something of which he himself has been much a victim. While one would not want to maintain that anything other than their most profound and original discoveries were the main source and origin of both Nietzsche and Darwin's respective fame and influence, it is a fact that in both cases the immediate range of that influence was as if for something much shallower. Thus Darwin became responsible for the popular spread of a sort of Lamarckian evolutionism, and Nietzsche for a kind of Spencerian social Darwinism. If it were true that Nietzsche himself had been incapable of reading Darwin properly and appreciating his argument, that would be much to his discredit. I suggest we can do better than this.

It must be conceded that in places Darwin himself expressed a form of evolutionary optimism. On the last page of the Origin of Species (first edition) he wrote:- "...as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection". We may consider such rhetoric peripheral to his real meaning. It lessened the impression of atheistic materialism and thereby helped to make evolution more popularly acceptable. In Nietzsche's defence it may be said that if we go beyond The Origin of Species, and take examples from The Descent of Man, there is plenty of warrant for Social-Darwinism, Galtonian eugenics and other such developments. The Descent of Man can be read for its revealing racist and elitist assumptions, as when Darwin deplores the fact the feckless Irish have far more children than the thrifty Scots. Again that is usually judged inessential. However ambiguous the core of Nietzsche's own thought, the idea of natural selection may seem quite plain. One difference between Darwin and Nietzsche is partly that Darwin went some way to condone much of the popular misrepresentation, if that is what it is. Nietzsche was never in a position to be able to do that as far as his own work was concerned.

By the sixth edition of the Origin, Darwin had considerably watered down his thesis, backed down in the face of criticism, and incorporated a great deal of Lamarckism, so much so that the heart of his message became ambiguous. Peter Bowler in Charles Darwin the Man and his Influence poses the question:- "What then should we mean by 'Darwinism'?' Is it the theory of open ended divergent evolution brought about by natural selection that modern biologists find so exciting, or is it the compromise that Darwin and his contemporaries favoured, in which evolution is the mechanism of inevitable progress?"

So we naturally ask what exactly did Nietzsche himself mean by Darwinism? Obviously the quoted passage might be taken simply as attacking inevitable progress theorists. There is no adequate reason to conclude that those individuals who manage to survive are necessarily 'better' in any objective sense. Nietzsche has an argument to show why they can be expected to be worse. To have made such a point would have been no great intellectual achievement. Even Huxley expressed strong reservations about ideas of inevitable progress. The attack on social-Darwinism and inevitable progress theories may be well taken, but Nietzsche means to go further. He would also, it appears, want to offer criticism of Darwin's core theory. To proclaim himself Anti-Darwin, was to issue a challenge. He thought he had in the will to power a scientific discovery that underpinned the rest of his philosophy, and that this contrasted significantly with Darwin's theory of evolution. What sense can be made of his points and do any of them have any validity?

An attack on Darwin's theory brings him into some unfortunate company, for Nietzsche shares more with Darwin than he does with most of Darwin's opponents. Early commentators often plausibly characterised him as a variety of Darwinist. Simmel claimed that Nietzsche underestimated the influence of Darwin upon him, and described him as a fanatic of evolution. He is committed to egoism, atheism, and elements of the invisible hand. Yet he says the whole Darwinian school has missed an overwhelmingly significant fact. How might his criticism be a fair one? And how far might Darwinism be restated so as to avoid it?

There are a number of reasons why Nietzsche might have been expected to be sympathetic to Darwin's theory. In the first place its atheism must have been attractive to him. Whatever Dawkins feels, it is not the case that atheism had no credibility before Darwin. Whether the world is ruled by a conscious principle or not has always been a matter of dispute, however often orthodox religion has succeeded in suppressing the atheist alternative, at least on the popular level. Nietzsche was much conscious of this from his enthusiastic reading of Lange's History of Materialism. Darwin's achievement was to have destroyed so called 'natural religion', which was something like 18th century deism. This did great service for the cause of atheistic enlightenment.

As Lange emphasised, with atheism tended to go egoism. This egoism had found expression in characteristically English science. It spread to France, with Helvetius and the eighteenth century enlightenment, in a form with which Nietzsche was generally sympathetic. It was opposed by Kant and particularly by Hegel, who reintroduced an anti-egoistic moralising element into philosophy. Nietzsche opposes Darwin, but only on specific points. He remains hostile to what he saw as the Kantian attack on materialistic enlightenment. The will to power, is a doctrine of radical egoism. Even knowledge itself is to be conceived as a product of this selfish will. Nietzsche did not object to the atheism or the egoism of English thought, but he did blame England for what he called the 'plebeianism of modern ideas'. This it was that was the real source of the sense of meaninglessness and nihilism that depressed the modern spirit, and the explanation for that lay with the 'revolting truth' to which Darwinists and others were so blind.

Nietzsche reiterates Stirner for whom the retreat from egoism is a form of mystification. Stirner, was influenced by the economic philosophers Adam Smith and Say, whom he translated. Nietzsche too defends a position which, like theirs and Darwin's, involves invisible hands. Egoism and invisible hand go together. Get certain basics right and you can do what you like. Selfishness is to do no harm, on the contrary it promotes progress. This was the original and influential thesis of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees.. Much of the beauty of Darwin's theory, like that of Adam Smith's economics, derives from this. The will to power theory belongs with these. If it did not one might have to agree with those critics for whom Nietzsche's whole philosophy is destruction and madness.

The persistence, even to the present day, of religious objections may obscure the extent to which anti-Darwinists have been far from always motivated by Christian apologetics. Samuel Butler and Bernard Shaw, both mocked Christian belief, yet found in Darwin's theory something objectionable that had to be fought.

Samuel Butler attacked Darwin and Weismann who had aimed to purge Darwinism of Lamarckian residue. In his essay The Deadlock in Darwinism he wrote:-

"According on the other hand to extreme Charles Darwinians and Weismannists, habit, effort, and intelligence acquired during the life experience of any one life goes for nothing. Not even a little fraction of it endures to the benefit of offspring. It dies with him in whom it is acquired, and the heirs of a man's body take no interest therein. To state this doctrine is to arouse instinctive loathing; it is my fortunate task to maintain that such nightmare of waste and death is as baseless as it is repulsive".

Anti-Darwinists like Shaw, invoke Nietzsche in support of sometimes crude ideas which diverge far from his real position. The preface to Back to Methuselah is a clever presentation of an anti-Darwinian case. Shaw complains how natural selection dispenses with will altogether, in every aspect of life. He says that if natural selection has any value as an explanation it could be used to explain the existence of all the books in the British Museum. His view of will to power was as something exerted primarily over oneself. Shaw shows why some people associate Darwinism with Marxism. He sees in it the fatalism, the proletarian perspective, as if effort does not matter, surrender of personal freedom and choice, a type of fatalism.

Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, writes "There are people in the world who want desperately not to have to believe in Darwinism. They seem to fall into three main classes. First there are those who far religious reasons want evolution itself to be untrue. Second there are those who have no reason to deny that evolution has happened, but who, often for political or ideological reasons, find Darwin's theory of its mechanism distasteful. Of these some find the idea of natural selection unacceptably harsh and ruthless, others confuse natural selection with randomness, and hence "meaninglessness" which offends their dignity, yet others confuse Darwinism with social Darwinism which has racist and other disagreeable overtones, Third there are people, including many working in what they call (often as a singular noun) 'the media' who just like seeing applecarts upset, perhaps because it makes good journalistic copy and Darwinism has become sufficiently established and respectable to be a tempting applecart".

None of these categories strictly fit Nietzsche, though the closest are those who object to Social Darwinism. He objects to that, not because of compassion for the weak, but a selfish love and concern for what he calls the strong.

Either underplaying or coarsening Nietzsche's stated objections, some commentators have interpreted his own philosophy as exaggerated enthusiasm for natural selection. Take this passage from Mugge's Nietzsche, his Life and Work, published in 1909:-

"…quite Nietzschean is Professor Wagner's statement that 'the recent improvements in the hygienic conditions of the masses preserve feeble individuals longer'.

"Beyond Good and Evil" means beyond the present Slave-morality, not " Beyond Good and Bad." Prohibitive marriage laws, liberty to administrative medical State-councils to kill hopeless or dangerous cases, less scrupulous methods in dealing with real criminals, will be some of the means by which we can obtain that Beyond.

Above all, however, the happiness of the best, the real aristoi, will be the chief aim. We, the white race, are the strong, the best, the aristoi at present. Let us try to preserve our strength, let us be the aristoi and rule! The civitae terra of Mr. Stead and the Peace Societies, even the "United Europe " in which Nietzsche still believed, who knows whether they are not dreams, impossible and even dangerous, at any rate at present ? …. .It is however not necessary for us to apply compulsory sterilisation to the black races; it is not by lowering the physical and mental qualities of the lower races that we shall rule but by increasing our own!

And here lies a fault of Nietzsche. His aristocracy is still rather tainted by some remains of the prejudices of feudalism. Noble and aristocratic men show, it is true, their noble-mindedness essentially by. being noble, not by acting nobly, but Nietzsche has laid too mach stress upon this fact. His is not the Aristocracy of Efficiency….."

The affinity of this kind of speculation with Nazism is plain. To a modern mind such opinions are shocking, all the more so as Mugge gives in many ways a well balanced account of Nietzsche's ideas and their context. His qualification is significant. Nietzsche's is not the aristocracy of efficiency. He is far too egoistic, far too preoccupied with his own taste, which is resolutely hostile to any such utilitarian programme. His reservations about Darwin go so deep that this cannot be a fair extrapolation from his thought, as distinct from some gratifying political fantasy. The mastery of the mediocre expresses itself in the presumption of those who would invest themselves with such power. There is no good reason to expect it to be so easy to breed superior beings that the protection of the strong against the combined strength of the weak is something to be achieved so facilely. What is needed is always the establishment of the perspective of will to power.

Mugge quotes Selliniere, whose words he says he endorses :- "Nietzsche conceived the Superman as a romantic genius until 1875, as a pseudo-Darwinian model of a problematic super species from 1880-1884, and after that date he tended towards the introduction of racial ideas into his ideal of the future."

To make such speculations the heart of Nietzsche's message is to trivialise him. But we do not have to put his great idea into a directly Darwinian framework to recognise that will to power and Darwin's struggle for existence, show significant resemblances as forms of explanation. Nietzsche wanted his ideas to be absorbed into the general culture in much the same way as Darwin's have been. What he was looking for with the will to power was objective backing for his strongest intuitions. He sought a form of scientific status for it. Darwin's work suggested one very promising line of investigation. Arguably Nietzsche's concern with Darwin was mainly his model of scientific explanation. For both Nietzsche and Darwin, talk about struggle, will, purposes in nature, are not to be taken literally but may be taken as shorthand for observable and demonstrable facts. In Darwin's case these were historical and natural facts. However, the metaphors he used lend themselves to tendentious assertions which conflict with other facts, those that Nietzsche is concerned to uncover and point out, one of which is the 'revolting truth' mentioned in the quote. By insisting on this Nietzsche exposes the falsification perpetrated by opposing values. Without the qualification he would want to introduce into evolution, an existing state of affairs, in the sense of adaptation or survival, may come to seem the objective, the aim of life. We get the idea of fulfilment as finding a niche in nature, or in Victorian industrial society. 'Drawing our morals from reality', such false teleology, for all its supposed metaphorical status, articulates a backing for the kind of principles one most wants to repudiate.

Darwin himself insisted on the metaphorical status of his the struggle for existence:-

"Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult - at least I have found it so - than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of the recurring year.

"I should premise that I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but its success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get 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 dependant on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds of which only one of an average comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The mistletoe is dependant on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it languishes and dies. But several seedling mistletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on them; and it may methodically be said to struggle with other fruit bearing plants, in tempting the birds to devour, and thus disseminate its seeds. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.

"A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms..."

Nietzsche's will to power may be taken in an equivalent metaphorical sense. He was using Darwin to express a thought of his own. The search to define an objective will to power was an attempt to demonstrate factual backing for his values and attitudes. Insofar as Darwinism suggests a teleological principle, that the aim of life be interpreted as survival, or worse adaptation, as in Spencer, he regards it as false, and opposes it with his own idea of will to power. However, such a teleological interpretation can easily be dismissed as careless understanding of the idea of natural selection. The good example Darwin provides for Nietzsche is his scientific claim, the evidence provided for a philosophy of life, and inspiration for a social and ethical programme, however objectionable this might be. Darwinism appeals to a body of facts, to natural realities. Nietzsche aimed to anchor his own philosophy in a comparable body of natural and historical fact. Just as a cautiously stated Darwin can do without teleology, so can Nietzsche's theory of will to power.

In explaining what he means by will to power, Nietzsche criticises a number of concepts like will to self preservation and usefulness, which appear in Darwin, but also in earlier writers like Schopenhauer or Spinoza. Some of these are at most peripheral to Darwin's own theory. Nietzsche's object was to discover a factual foundation for the will to power, to express his own idea as a scientific principle. If the will to power is conceived as related to these concepts, then the crude idea of natural force can be disregarded, yet a serious truth claim can be upheld. It is a truth that has primary application to human life, and particularly to the world of ideas. But it is still a simple straightforward truth of a factual kind. His interest in Darwin was largely to do with the application of his vision to the human world. It was not his concern to offer an alternative explanation of the origin of species, what was vitally interesting to him was scientific status. He wanted to set up a different principle in contrast to Darwin's, drawing on different facts, emphasising a different aspect of reality. But reflection even upon the origin of species falls within the scope of his principle. This comes out especially in any practical programme or further reflection that derives from it. Nor does he have to reject natural selection.

In speaking of the struggle for existence, Darwin was bringing attention to certain facts of nature. In speaking of will to power, Nietzsche was trying to draw attention to certain other facts. In neither case was there any reason to resort to inner forces or hidden feelings as having any explanatory value. Rather than proclaiming directly the metaphysical truth of will to power, Nietzsche upholds its value as exposing falsification, bringing out the facts with which the value judgments relating to the obnoxious ideal conflict.

A strictly cautious Darwinism would keep to value neutrality. But this is not particularly welcome in some human sciences, where normative values are demanded. In the course of the nineteenth century the abandonment of Platonic views about ideal Forms created a gap which was taken up by statistical interpretations of a norm in psychology and sociology. To hostile critics so called ordinary health can come across as massed mediocrity.

Schiller, in A Mobius Strip, 1982, writes:- '"Standard" had once been a concept held aloft by the classical notion of the "ideal norm", that is one of excellence. Scientifically unsatisfactory because not quantitative, it was suppressed in favour of the statistical norm. As this notion left no place for excellence however, it went on to become the basis for the twentieth century obsession with "normal" and "abnormal"'.

The materialism of Darwin as a picture of the world is attractive, the atheism may be commendable, less so the practice of 'drawing morals from reality', comparably hard headed as it may at first appear. In the Darwinist movement the detachment of valuation from physical fact was far from complete. Though strictly speaking one deals in metaphor as a kind of shorthand, value judgements creep in. To some of these Nietzsche took great exception. One object of the will to power theory was to set up a standard of strength, of inferiority and superiority, of rank as he puts it, that is rooted in reality, in nature, and that is different from the Darwinian standard of survival. Unlike what may be thought about Platonic forms, this is neither mysticism, nor pseudo-science, not is it mere literary perversity.

For Nietzsche the suppression of strength by mediocrity and decadence is as important a fact as any other. Thus even in nature he sees not so much healthy, triumphant life, realised possibilities, but the constant suppression of that. That might suggest his vision is as pessimistic as that of Malthus. This was far from his intention. From the viewpoint of will to power, for any value to express itself, other values, other possibilities, have been suppressed. Insistence upon the reality of what has been suppressed and its suppression gives a position from which it is possible to repel hostile judgement. With it Nietzsche succeeds in repelling the unacceptable valuations he sees implicit in Darwinism. This was a for him a great positive achievement of which he was most proud.

To establish his point was to emphasise an aspect of reality that he wants to see recognised as a universal principle. While we might argue that natural selection carries with it no warrant for any doctrine of inevitable progress, (of which Darwin himself was admittedly not entirely innocent), any application of Darwin's ideas that goes beyond the most purely theoretical must be subject to Nietzsche's qualification, meaning it must take account of what he regards as the overwhelming fact. This affects not only our perception of facts in the outside world, but reflects back upon our own motives in making judgments about them. Will to power is not something from which we can detach ourselves in our observations. Awareness of it is to determine the basic perspective from which we view the world.

What begins as only a metaphor has a tendency to take us where we might not want to go. Much Darwin inspired speculation has surreptitiously reintroduced something like teleology, purpose which goes beyond what is actually desired. The Nietzschean way of putting this would be to say it involves the interpretation of hard reality in a way that neglects will to power. There is something tendentious in the authority of Darwinism, a significant error however small in its origin. Tough minded materialism, dispensing with occult properties collapses what should be into what has been measured. Against this, Nietzsche's point is that one should begin from will to power as a fundamental perspective, not from any other, certainly not from any idea of the good of the species, the race, the gene or anything like that.

The will to power of the scientist is at the heart of Nietzsche's conception of science and what is to count as a scientific explanation. Granted one does accept Darwinian selection, how far might it be taken? If you agree with Dawkins that Darwin has solved the 'greatest of all mysteries' and 'the deepest of problems', then you may not feel the persistence of unsolved philosophical difficulties, and happily endorse his enthusiastic programme of atheistic enlightenment. For Dawkins natural selection has something of the force of a religious revelation and he wishes to promote science with an evangelical fervour. Nietzsche indicates how easy it is for science to be dominated by hidden philosophical assumptions. If he is right in the claim to be anti-Darwin, rather than just anti-Spencer or Haeckel, then his remarks must apply to modern neo-Darwinists, many of whom follow natural selection very closely. A Nietzschean eye may be turned onto modern socio-biology and genetics which can have their own social and political agenda, quite different from Social Darwinism, a term which came into use in the early years of the twentieth century. We may look at the work of Richard Dawkins, and see whether Nietzsche's criticisms have any relevance to his powerfully stated argumentation, considering whether metaphors he uses have a comparable tendency to mislead.

At Will to Power 680 Nietzsche writes:-

"I am opposed to the theory that the individual studies the interests of the species or of posterity at the cost of his own advantage: all this is only apparent. The excessive importance which he attaches to the sexual instinct is not the result of the latter's importance to the species; for procreation is the actual performance of the individual, it is his greatest interest, and therefore it is his highest expression of power (not judged from the standpoint of consciousness, but from the very centre of the individual)."

This may have some bearing on Dawkins' metaphor of the selfish gene, with its suggestion that even our instincts do not always operate in our own interests, or towards the survival that we presumably ought to prize. Should we think of an individual as caused by his genes or only as analysable into them? I have will, inanimate forces do not. The idea of will and interest only makes sense at the level of the individual. It is around will and interest that cluster the basic realities that determine our attitudes. Even his death is not against his interest if it is associated with some powerful desire, like the desire to mate. Nietzsche's egoism is more consistent than that of most Darwinists, because it is taken as covering his own thinking. If just on the level of slogans, analogies and metaphors Dawkins has displaced selfishness to the level of the gene, or to the cultural product, the meme. The further away the unit of selection moves from the individual organism the more meaningful Shaw's observation about the books in the British Museum. For Nietzsche it is the individual that bears the burden of the struggle for power, something it is possible to describe without invoking inner force or hidden drive. On the other hand, it must be conceded that Nietzsche himself sometimes switched the unit of will to power to the level of the instinct. That a gene might have will to power is not a proposition to which he would presumably have had much objection.

To discover what genes do has long been an aim of psychologists. It was a Darwinian point of view that inspired Eysenck in his personality testing. Insofar as it promoted normative values, such a project might be taken as an example of 'taking our morals from reality'. Recent speculations in genetics are more exciting and persuasive but open to a similar objection, even if with more detailed understanding there is less offensive value judgement. In the effort to understand the function of genes, standards are drawn from statistical norms. In resentment of the domination of the norm, of the apotheosis of the value of survival and adaptation. lies the origin of the Nietzschean will to power perspective that seeks out the facts that such deceptively innocuous value judgements miss or ignore.

A gene can have no purpose, no objective. To speak otherwise is to employ an anthropomorphic metaphor. Such a metaphor however, may be, as claimed, illuminating, a shorthand way of bringing out facts. One conceives the gene as aiming towards something. Here different models compete. To understand the purpose of a gene by extrapolation from statistical measurement of the actual is opposed to a will to power perspective. Will to power interprets any purpose in terms of an aggressive need to trespass upon other powers. To think in terms of the achievement of a niche in nature or in society, has all sorts of political implications. It is not more scientific than Nietzsche's alternative and far from value neutral. The will to power perspective does not pretend to value neutrality. It does claim, in its conscious hostility to the opposing perspective, to bring out facts which the other denies or ignores.

Perhaps even such a very good Darwinist as Dawkins is not entirely immunised against the old Victorian Spencerian idea of adaptation, though this is now in the context of a liberal feminist rather than an industrial capitalist order of things. The world he interprets is far from the war of all against all that Nietzsche sees, with all its waste and frustration. If this is what natural selection or the genes explain, this is where they are taken to lead. Something is counted as satisfactorily explained which cries out for a different kind of explanation. This is a form of value judgement. For Nietzsche the root of a value lies in an original feeling. From his resentment of hostile valuations derive his own. To oppose and criticise Dawkins it may be enough to begin with his notorious smugness. Beyond him there are proclaimed Darwinian philosophers like Ruse who endeavours to show (in Taking Darwin Seriously 1986) how the good moral principles of utilitarianism and Kant's categorical imperative have been implanted in us by natural selection. Even if it were shown that what Nietzsche describes as such shallow ideas are programmed into us, would that make them any more compelling?

If Nietzsche rejected Darwinian selection, and thought superior specimens had to be carefully nurtured, how did he think this could happen in nature? If it requires a will to do it, then could it be that such a will arise in nature naturally? In 684 and 685 of the Will to Power there are various suggestions. The importance of his observations about "the inevitable mastery of the mediocre, and even of those who are below mediocrity" to his psychological and moral theories is plain enough, but in his extension of these to the whole of nature he seems to suggest that progress cannot arise in nature. If so then how can excellence arise? Perhaps there is no progress, only change? Perhaps any excellence is only an ephemeral and accidental by-product (suggesting Schopenhauer's comparison of happy people to decoy birds). Always there is mediocrity, as well as decadence and dying off. It is suggested that the superior specimens that arise in nature have to take power into their own hands, to dominate the inferior. Even if conceded, Nietzsche's criticisms need not threaten natural selection, they only point out an additional consideration which needs to be taken into account. He distinguishes the welfare of the mediocre stock on which that of the higher individual in some way depends. As Dawkins says of Gould's punctuated evolution, what appears as an objection may amount to no more than a clarifying gloss.

An idea of objective progress or decline involves identifying a pattern in nature. There is always a subjective element, the factor of will involved in any judgement of what is 'better' or 'worse', 'healthy' or 'decadent'. To understand the judgement as more than the identification with one's own cause, one's own beliefs, is to enter contentious territory. The idea that what has survived is 'better' is a clear value judgement and it may be disguised. It is the expression of someone's will to power. To point this out is to challenge and probably to undermine it. Nietzsche is all for the happier, the well constituted, the genius, as a standard in principle measurable. This is an expression of his taste, that is his conscious egoism. What he sees as the revolting truth, the Darwinian reality, is the repetition throughout life of a pattern he has discovered in his own experience, the combination of weakness to outnumber and dominate strength. We must take in to account the will that underlies any perspective. Looking at nature we see that some life and will flourish. Always the crucial question is whether it is my life and will, the cause that I favour.

Projecting my cause onto nature, I conclude that nature is not to be trusted to produce a desirable progressive result. Some members of 'the Darwinian school' have tended to take it that it did, much as British in the 19th or Americans in the 20th century treated global free trade as an vehicle of inevitable progress. This unavoidable analogy between biology and economics must arouse suspicion. As a dissident Nietzsche was not one of those especially favoured by the existing order. But his philosophy is not the titanism with which some have identified it. He is not opposing some massive effort of defiance to nature, as Shaw would have him. He has enough in common with Darwin and even the Manchester school to accept that if conditions are right, progress may ensue. We his good readers, do not need to shackle our desire. We do not need to struggle against the lure of corrupt civilisation, only to the threat to our own selfishness. We do this through enlightenment by will to power philosophy.

How much should we fear decadence? Are we protected against it by an invisible hand? Nietzsche's mistrust of nature had its limits. If nature is not to be trusted to produce real excellence, he was enough of a Darwinist not to anticipate unlimited disaster. He ridiculed the sort of anxieties expressed in Parsifal, where Klingsor's garden and the racial hybrid Kundry represent the poisonous lure of corrupt civilisation. Darwin and Mendel give some warrant for trusting in nature, in the assurance that vile conditions are not catastrophic, and that the mistakes and failings of the individual are not passed on.. In the escape from the pressure of the norm, an ideal of health that expresses the massed power of mediocrity, Nietzsche comes to affirm the value of the sick and the perverse. A degree of Darwinism gives scope for rebellious perversity. Trusting in Nature, we can delight in surrendering to the joys of so called decadence.

Also there will occasionally be lucky hits. Higher men will sometimes appear. As he writes in Antichrist 4:- "Such chance occurrences of great success have always been possible and perhaps always will be possible". But he could hardly have foreseen the progress of the biological sciences holding out the prospect of a corruption so deep as to abolish this assurance. It is easy to construct a scenario where the threat of degeneration would now be real. Whatever delight we take in decadence and corruption, potential powers to modify human nature pose an ultimate challenge. Suppose we think of Kundry as a genetically modified freak rather than simply a racial hybrid? Sometimes we find beauty in decadence, voluptuous temptation to which we may happily yield. But we can envisage a form of decadence so hateful that we have to join in resistance to it. This is one possible future of humanity as in the hands of genetic engineers. The idea of bypassing natural selection raises the prospect of such a crisis.

Naive trust in scientists is as bad as in nature. There is a large sphere in which we may take the invisible hand as working. On this Nietzsche is at one with Malthus and Adam Smith. Get the basic conditions right and egoism may be given a free range. But these conditions are likely to be satisfied neither by a democratic consensus or by the authority of a committee of scientific experts, where Nietzsche's law, the omnipresence of the abominable unpleasant fact, will doubtless operate.

I conclude with a few remarks on The Descent of Man, in the light of which book Nietzsche’s attack on Darwin and his followers, can actually seem quite reasonable. Evolutionary theory is here applied to the human world, including society and culture. We get a sense of a movement known as Darwinism, which may justifiably be accused of enshrining and embodying mediocrity.

 

One does not get the sense from this book that Darwin’s intellect is quite as first rate as Dawkins and Dennett claim. At least there appears to be some intellectual decline since the first edition of the Origin. There is some confusion about natural selection. If there are other principles driving evolution, how they could have come about would need explanation and it would seem that could only be natural selection unless we admit some sort of design.

 

The primary purpose of the book is of course to show the descent of man from the apes against common religious objections, and it this it was obviously successful.

From a seemingly anti-religious work one may hope for a measure of Gibbonian irony. One might at first suspect this in the chapter ‘Moral Sense’, his excursion into ethics, where he comes out as a follower of Kant. Even what he calls the highest feature of mankind, his moral nature, he reduces to what his opponents would regard as base animal origins. However he appears to be serious. Kant has done his destructive work. Darwin explicitly repudiates 18th century egoistic derivations of morality, and bases all ethics on the Golden Rule.

 

Nietzsche would find quite a lot to object to in the Descent of Man. One thing would be the shift from the individual to the collective as a unit of evolution. Darwin shows great admiration for ants, which he connects with what he considers the admirable Christian virtues of self sacrifice. He moves away from the invisible hand and egoism of the eighteenth century, in which the economy and beauty of his natural selection theory were rooted. He now plays down the role of struggle and conflict between individuals in human evolution, to speak instead of that between groups, insisting on the importance of the sympathetic feelings that make for social cohesion. And in this it is easy to see how and why Nietzsche can accuse him of ignoring some very obvious realities with implications far beyond biology. Darwinism in this sense as a movement of supposed scientific enlightenment was riddled with Christian dishonesty.

 

 

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John S Moore 2001



 


 

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