This paper was
presented to the 11th annual conference of the
Friedrich Nietzsche Society,
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
"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
"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
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
It would be regrettable if we had to conclude that Nietzsche crudely misread
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
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
An attack on
There are a number of reasons why Nietzsche might have been expected to be
As Lange emphasised, with atheism tended to go egoism.
This egoism had found expression in characteristically English science. It
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
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
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
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,
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
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 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
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
In speaking of the struggle for existence,
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
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
What begins as only a metaphor has a tendency to take us where we might not
want to go. Much
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
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
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
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
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
One does not get the sense from this book that
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
Nietzsche would find quite a lot to object to in the Descent of
John S Moore 2001