Darwin & Nietzsche: Prophets for Today

darwin as ape

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.

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Blake’s Beasts

This is a chapter from my book in progress.

This is another striking engraving, almost mandala-like in its design and symmetry. There are some beautiful colour versions including this one. (My commentary is for the black and white engraving; if you want to compare them see the Blake Archive online.)

God at the top of the composition points down to the circle below Job where two beasts are enclosed on a circle. They are Behemoth with a human ear and a scaly Leviathan upturned in a seascape. Wicksteed sees them as monstrous, ‘terrible in their magnitude and their might, but unillumined by intelligence, or the knowledge of brotherhood.’

When we consider the natural world and its many ‘food-webs’ we soon realise it is a case of eat and be eaten in the wild. Every life-form is preying on some other life-form in order to live and reproduce. There is a lot of sex, killing and devouring in nature! If we also reflect on the millions of years in which dinosaurs lived and ruled the earth the vision of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ becomes even more obvious. (The largest land animal that has ever existed throughout earth’s long history was a species of titanosaur. The fossil remains of one suggests that the creature weighed around 77tons, was 130 ft long and 66 ft tall. It lived around 100-95 million years ago – named by scientists as Patagotitan mayorum.)

This is a useful alternative picture to put alongside the television wildlife programmes which are so popular and are mostly upbeat and promote the marvels and wonders of nature.

Blake of course did not know about natural selection but if he had lived in the time of Darwin perhaps he would have embraced his account of the creation and evolution of nature (including human beings?)!

In his own words:

[Nature] is a Creation that groans, living on Death, where Fish & Bird & Beast & Man & Tree & Metal & Stone live by Devouring, going into Eternal Death, continually.

Jerusalem

From a human point of view this alternative view of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ is another example of dukkha. In human terms there is no meaning or purpose in all of the competition within species, or killing between species – the evolutionary biologist’s mantra is, ‘each generation of a species needs to get its genes into the next generation.’ If, like Richard Dawkins, you can accept that this is ‘the greatest story ever told’ – the title of one of his books about evolution – then you will probably understand human love, creativity and aesthetics as mere by-products of evolution.

It is sobering to think that Blake lived when the industrial revolution was in full swing. What would he make of space flight, atomic bombs, military drones, factory assembly lines, and the computerisation of warfare? Probably he’d say, ‘I told you so.’ My point is not to be a Luddite, but merely to suggest that technology has this knock-on exponential effect and we unconsciously start to ‘worship’ it instead of ‘God’ (or instead of prioritising human values such as equality, self-knowledge or peace of mind) – and there has been a phenomenon going in an opposite direction during this scientific and technological progress; a diminishing of the stature of human beings. We become mere cogs in the vast machinery of societies; as envisioned by Blake and countless writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blake was concerned primarily about how the worship of Urizen (scientific materialism in our thinking) had a detrimental effect on consciousness and the ‘soul’ rather than being simply critical of science and technology per se.

Wicksteed says of this plate,

This design shows us the creation of the outer or natural world, which to Blake seemed but a shadow of the world within.

Joseph Wicksteed

Are we to believe that Blake was an out and out Gnostic; that he believed that the visible world was created by a demiurge and was intrinsically evil? Christopher Rowland explains that the bible itself is often ‘gnostic’ in terms of divine beings wielding power:

Of course the emergence of a contrast between an exalted divinity and lesser divine powers, and the opposition between God and Satan, are all deeply rooted in the bible. [. . .] other parts of the Hebrew Bible, suggest that, whilst God may have been the ultimate source of power in the universe, he was not the only one to wield such power.

Christopher Rowland

It is not my purpose in this book to trace all of Blake’s influences; sufficient to say that he read and admired Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg both of whom believed in a ‘spirit world.’ The latter wrote The True Christian Religion where we see that he believed literally in spirits, ‘One day as I was talking with an angel. . . and ‘as I was walking around Hell. . ‘ Blake actually satirises him in A Memorable Fancy so Blake’s understanding of angels and spirits is ambiguous to say the least.

For our purposes it is irrelevant whether we understand these elements as literal or allegorical although the latter position will serve us best in the long run. It is far more crucial to grasp Blake’s prescriptive project concerning how to ‘cleanse the doors of perception.’ One thing is certain and that is Blake was concerned how to fully appreciate this world as opposed to any ‘afterlife.’

Let’s return to our original question, did Blake believe the material world was evil? Clearly, posed like this it is seen as absurd; how could someone who writes, ‘Everything that lives is holy’ believe that this world is evil! The only evil Blake is cognisant of is whatever reinforces Single Vision – but many factors make up this single vision and the transformation to Fourfold Vision is difficult and subtle.

Renunciation is a word often used in a Buddhist context; usually when someone decides to renounce ‘household life’ and become a monk. However, it can also be used to describe the Buddhist path followed by a lay person. Unfortunately the word has negative connotations and may have ascetic overtones.

Speaking personally I came to Buddhism out of despair; I was sick of suffering and knew that psychology, philosophy and any other ‘worldly’ prescription for my malaise was inadequate. I came to ‘renounce’ the ordinary method of looking for satisfaction in the usual places such as career, intellectual pursuits, cultural activities, relationships and so on. John Middleton Murray expresses the difference between material knowledge and spiritual knowledge very well:

The cry of the human soul is for ever more knowledge. Were the only knowledge to be had that of the Five Senses and the Reason, which reduces all things to an abstract sameness, this hunger of the soul would drive men mad; more knowledge would be only ‘a repetition of the same dull round.’ But this hunger of the soul can be satisfied. But it can be satisfied only if there is a knowledge of a different kind from that of Reason and the Five Senses: and this knowledge must be of such a kind that to know one single thing by its means is to know all. . . If he can see the Eternal Individuality in every thing, then at every moment of such knowledge, he knows not merely the particular thing but the mode in which it is real; the mode in which all things are real, and in which they are real. That mode is Eternity. In the knowledge of Eternity the desire of man for All is justified: in an eternal moment he can possess All, and in possessing All, he becomes All.

J Middleton Murray

This is similar to how Eckhart Tolle speaks of the difference between one’s ‘life situation’ and ‘being.’

What you refer to as your ‘life’ should more accurately be called your ‘life situation.’ It is psychological time: past and future. Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past, and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focussed on the future, and this continued focus perpetuate your denial of the Now and therefore your unhappiness. . .Your life situation exists in time. Your life is now. Your life situation is mind-stuff. Your life is real. Find the ‘narrow gate that leads to life.’ Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problems at this moment. Not tomorrow or in ten minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?

Eckhart Tolle

If ever there was a poet of the Now it must surely be Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

(Eternity)

I think there is some equivalence between Blake’s Poetic-Genius and Eckhart Tolle’s ‘mindful’ focussing on the present. Both are eloquent about the identification of self with mere thinking and self-consciousness. In There is No Natural Religion Blake says:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. (emphasis added)

NNR

This is the real meaning of his ‘dark satanic mills.’ He often used the metaphor of mill machinery to stand for this mechanical, prosaic approach to life. Locke thought we come into the world as blank slates and that perception is passive. Blake disagrees and says we possess wisdom from the beginning and that our perception is heightened by the use of imagination and intention.

Innate ideas are in Every Man, Born with him: they are truly himself. The Man who says that we have no Innate Ideas must be a Fool & Knave, having No Conscience or Innate Science.

Annotation to Reynolds

Frye comments on this quotation:

Sense experience is itself a chaos. . . The wise man will choose what he wants to do with his perceptions just as he will choose the books he wants to read, and his perceptions will thus be charged with an intelligible and coherent meaning. Meaning for him, that is, pointing to his own mind and not to, for instance, nature.

Northrop Frye

We should now be able to see that Blake did not belittle or undervalue the natural world. He simply prioritised the Imagination and saw the ‘developed’ human being as the creator of her world; a creation accomplished by ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ anew in each moment. Blake concurs completely with Tolle’s ‘present moment’ – in Milton he has these wonderful lines:

There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find

This Moment & it multiply & when it is found

It renovates every Moment of the Day, if rightly placed.

Milton

This is no different to Soto Zen’s, ‘when hungry eat, when tired sleep, and when doing the dishes just do the dishes.’

 

Autumn Musings

DNA

Red, orange and yellow hiding beneath the green
the necessary chlorophyll  just a screen
to soothe our eyes in summer –

the colour of the leaves, so much chemical waste
nature’s patterns don’t really pander to our taste –
yet poets and artists see design everywhere –

on one oak tree 700,000 leaves fall without a song
a red (and orange) carpet for poets to walk along –
there is rhyme and rhythm in the fall of each leaf –

We share DNA with leaf and acorn –
three billion years ago the double helix was newborn –
now we are aweful testimony to its hidden code.

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkin’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth and this has influenced this poem. Dawkins lays out in detail how the theory of evolution is now considered as scientific fact along with such other facts as the heliocentricity of our solar system. As the title of one of his chapters has it, there is grandeur in this view of life! In my poem I’ve more than hinted at the dichotomous nature of human intelligence.

Darwin’s eye

I wouldn’t usually have a note which is longer than the poem! However, I think it is important to know what Darwin actually said about this. Creationists in their propaganda often select the first part of this quote to back up their anti-science views. Please read the poem before reading the note.

 

 

human eye

 

Darwin’s Eye

 

grass   fly   worm

ubiquitous life

here   now     this is it

Darwin’s eye told us how

 

that miraculous lens

letting in light

 

 

 

 

Note

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

Charles Darwin