This is my third essay for the Modernism MOOC I am doing. The tilte is: Darwin wrote ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.’ Compare Darwin’s view of the persistent effects of the past with Nietzsche’s work.
A mere eighteen years separate Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1887) from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). What do these two intellectual giants have in common? Well, much more than appears at first sight. Nietzsche is credited with ‘killing off God’ and Darwin responsible for de-deifying humankind. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, we are not uniquely created by a creator-God. The nineteenth century was the century par excellence of the shaking of the foundations of eternal values and absolutes. Both of these men described homo sapiens as a creature determined by a long history: Nietzsche in terms of civilisation’s decadence and Darwin by the engine of natural selection. Darwin had also read Lyell’s Principles of Geology and realised the fossils he’d found proved the earth was many millions of years old. (Biblical accounts put the Earth at 6,000 years in age!)
Darwin only broached the subject of humankind’s descent in his The Descent of Man (1871) but he was well aware of the shock waves it would send throughout the world. He wrote:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many.
The cultural abyss brought about by the nineteenth century’s collapse of values has been described as ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ In this view, we are left seemingly to fend for ourselves in a mechanistic, meaningless world. However, neither Nietzsche or Darwin were philosophical nihilists or pessimists! Both thinkers analysed the past to shed light on the present and future. That subsequent thinkers have appropriated their ideas for their own ends is regrettable. (Scientific reductionism, for example, sees life as purely quantifiable and without intrinsic moral values. The Nazis appropriated ‘survival of the fittest’ in their ‘final solution.’)
Let us examine how these thinkers described the human condition and how, ultimately, today, their findings can be interpreted optimistically rather than being a formula for spiritual disenchantment.
In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes how he discovered many animals on the different islands of the Galapagos Islands which, although the same genus had different morphic details such as shape and size of beaks in finches:
Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small intimately-related group of birds, one might fancy from an original paucity of birds in the archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.
The huge amount of data he collected enabled him to come up with his theory of evolution by natural selection. The reverberations of his revolutionary theory can be still felt today in the USA where court cases have been held to determine whether evolution should be taught in schools! Evolution in the Darwinian sense is purely biological but perhaps Darwin himself thought that ‘cultural evolution’ would save humankind from its aggressive, dog-eat-dog inheritance. He writes of humankind’s evolution from savagery to ‘god-like intellect’ thus:
and the fact of his having risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, [in the world] may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.
So, for Darwin, evolution does not diminish humankind; he emphasises our lowly origins but recognises our potential for the future. In hindsight, he has demolished our child-like attachment to an anthropomorphic God. However, his theory, once it was examined and argued over, caused a moral upheaval at the time which cannot be overestimated.
Nietzsche, too, caused consternation among the thinkers of his day. He is famously a ‘philosopher with a hammer.’ His approach is iconoclastic and he undermines the assumptions of the church, state and academia of his time. However, it is a mistake to regard him as a nihilist. He may remorselessly tear down the spiritual structures of his day but one of his books, Ecce Homo, is sub-titled, How One Becomes What One Is. Ultimately he is pleading for humankind to rise up from its legacy of consensus thinking and mental somnambulism. His concept of the Ubermensch is of the free-person who has struggled within him or herself and approaches life anew in each moment. Had he been alive today he would agree with Eckhart Tolle’s insistence on being mindful in the present moment. Only mature people will be able to live without the comfort-blanket of a father-figure God:
Few are made for independence – it is a privilege of the strong. (Beyond Good & Evil, 29)
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful men and peoples, and ask yourself whether a tree, if it is to grow proudly into the sky, can do without bad weather and storms. (The Gay Science)
The independent thinkers create their own values to replace the values of the past which have been based on fear, rewards and punishments. The Ubermensch accepts the totality of his life; the challenges especially.
What is Nietzsche’s legacy? Is it possible today to live a life-affirming life within a secular framework? What will replace God? Isn’t the defining feature of post modernism a moral vacuum or relativist values? Perhaps The Golden Rule would be a good place to start? This is the universal standard which says ‘do unto others what you would wish them to do to you!’ The negative formulation is – ‘don’t do to others what you would not wish them to do to you!’ Many of us today strive for equity, freedom of expression and fellowship based on empathy and compassion. Many of us today realise we live on a finite planet and that all life is connected. Climate change is a warning that we cannot go on exploiting the Earth’s resources; our self-serving short-term greed has not worked in the past. Only be living with more awareness of the consequences of what we do will we create a world fit for our grandchildren. We need to be content with less.
Both Nietzsche and Darwin were revolutionary thinkers who paved the way for a new way of approaching life. Both men dealt in detail with ‘the persistent effects of the past‘ but today we can see that these effects are not a hindrance but a spur to creating a world free from the shackles of superstition and bigotry. Their message is positive. It is rather like lancing a boil; all the rotten-ness had to be dispelled before healing could start.