Nietzsche and evolution

The Cafeteria is Closed has a very nice little discussion of whether Nietzsche was properly the foundation of German nationalism and anti-Semitism, answering, with documentary support, no to each claim. Given the recent slurs on evolutionary theory as the foundation for Nazism and the holocaust, it's a good point to make.

But is Nietzsche even a "Darwinist" (a term only the Discovery Institute, or as we like to call it, DIsco, seems to use these days, as it has no real meaning)? He certainly accepted that evolution occurred, and he managed to avoid some of the sillier philosophical claims about it. But he does one thing, which Spencer also did, that disqualifies him from being a proper Darwinian, and which was rejected by Huxley, and implicit in the views of many others: he takes what is to be right. This is the Naturalistic Fallacy of George Moore, which was largely framed to deal with Spencer, and possibly also Nietzsche, in his Principia Ethica.

Nietzsche says, in the Antichrist:

I call an animal, a species, an individual corrupt, when it loses its instincts, when it chooses, when it prefers, what is injurious to it.

On an evolutionary account, there is a term for forms of life that do this - extinct. Why have a moral valuation for this? Some organisms will do things, make a living and grow in ways that are relatively better than other forms of life, and some will survive because of it, and others will die off. Why make this a virtue? There is no moral claim here.

Nietzsche has a view of life as a struggle, and the superior forms survive. Thus far, this is Darwinian. But he seems to think there is an absolute scale for "superior" and "inferior", which has no warrant at all in evolutionary biology. If it turned out that the meek and mild inherit the earth, by subjugating themselves to the will of stronger cultures, forms or races, then they would be the superior race (using "race" here to mean a form of life that is subspecific) on a Darwinian account, no matter what Friedrich Nietzsche felt about meekness. Without that absolute scale, anchoring moral values in evolutionary facts strikes me as a purely arbitrary activity, and when these sorts of arbitrariness occur in moral reasoning, they always end up focussing on some contingent cultural milieu of the author.

In short, such theorists either end up claiming that God is an Englishman (or something similar) or they end up saying that God is going to come out of being English (or something similar - I use English because of F. H. Bradley's famous essay "My Station and its Duties", and because Nietzsche, ironically, hated German nationalism). And the next step is to say, we must defend the English way of life by attacking the Irish (or something similar - there is a theorem we might call the Irish Theorem: every ethnicity has an Ireland to deride). This, not evolution, is the basic error of eugenics and nationalisms. And it does not rely on evolution. It merely relies on an absolute ranking of things, which is something, also ironically, that Christianity, with all other religions, does very well.

Late note: I amended the title. I was going to talk about N's views on Christianity, and forgot to change the heading. Sorry.


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I seem to remember Nietzsche somewhere of accusing those who claimed that he was a Darwinist to be "scholarly oxen". He also wrote about the impossibility of sexual selection. I need to see if I dig the quotes up.

Your post me blog something I've been sitting on for ten years.

By John Lynch (not verified) on 17 Mar 2007 #permalink

I don't think it's fair to say that Nietzsche held that superior forms survive. This is definitively wrong as a statement of his sensibility - in _Philosophy In The Tragic Age..._ he explicitly mocks people those ascribe a telos to the historical survival of particular texts. He also certainly thought that inferior forms of culture overwhelm superior forms of culture, often because those superior forms become decadent and vulnerable.

Ah, then this makes the difference even starker - N is not taking any lesson from evolution here. This marks him out from the usual eugenicists.

Surely aphorism 14 in Twilight of the Idols, titled 'Anti-Darwin', is the smoking gun that Nietzche wasn't a Darwinist. Admittedly, it is based upon misunderstandings of Darwinism due to his reading second-hand German sources on Darwin, but it reads as follows:

'As for the famous 'struggle for existence' it seems to me asserted rather than proved. it occurs, but as an exception; the total appearnce of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering - and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.

Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence -and, indeed, it occurs - its result is unfortutaely the opposite of what Darwin's school desires,a nd what of what one might desire with them - namely, in favour of the strong, the priveledged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection; the weak prevail over the strong again and again and again, for they are the great majority - and they are more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit ['Geist']...'

Of course, Nietzche is wrong to conflate fitness with physical strength or beauty, yet nevertheless, his labl was that he was contra-Darwin...

I'd say that "what is" and "what is = what is right" are orthogonal questions: scoring highly on one axis doesn't prevent you from scoring highly on the other axis. I think the social Darwinists were still Darwinists -- it's unfair to disqualify them for espousing group selection, since almost everyone else did before the transition during the 1970s to more gene-centric models.

"Not necessarily" doesn't imply "necessarily not."

As for Nietzsche himself, then, whether he's a Darwinian or not depends just on his thoughts on evolution (which scholars can argue about), not any larger message he drew from such beliefs.

There's a lot of viewing the intellectual period of 1860-1930 through a post-Synthesis lens. What these intellectuals are discussing is not modern evolutionary biology, but it is the evolutionary thought of the period.

When discussing the period between the publication of The Origin of Species and the Modern Synthesis, perhaps it is helpful to distinguish between strict Darwinism (Darwin and Huxley), revisionist Darwinism (Spencer, Galton, Haeckel), and non-Darwinian evolutionary thought (orthogenesis, neo-Lamarckism, mutationism). Revisionist Darwinism and non-Darwinian evolutionary ideas were largely rejected by the Modern Synthesis; later, eugenics was rejected after WWII, and naive group selection was refuted by the Hamilton-Williams refinements of the 60s and 70s (as Agnostic mentioned).

Intellectuals in the late 19th C to the mid 20th C such as Nietzsche, Jack London, Engels, and many others were influenced by evolutionary ideas that were in the air, but these ideas - and their interpretations of them - markedly deviated from both modern (post-Synthesis) evolutionary biology and Darwin himself (who is often closer to post-Synthesis views than most of his contemporaries, rivals, and followers).

While it is not accurate to characterize the views of Nietzsche and many other intellectuals of that period as being wholly congruent with modern evolutionary biology or strict Darwinism, it is protesting too much - and inaccurate - to claim that they were not really influenced by evolutionary ideas or Darwinian thought (as defined by the time, even if it was actually highly revisionist "Darwinism") at all.

Did the pre-evolutionary Chain of Being play a strong role in many of these ideas? Yes, but it wasn't a static conception; rather, it was an evolutionary Chain of Being driven by struggle - which has very different theoretical and ideological implications than a static Chain of Being. Such progressionist ideas were commonplace in evolutionary thought prior to the Modern Synthesis. The fact that they were later mostly rejected doesn't make them non-evolutionary.

Some of the evolution-influenced ideas of that period are unsavory, sometimes even abhorrent. However, these unseemly views can often be traced to revisions of Darwin or wholly non-Darwinian evolutionary thought; and even good ideas can be perverted. There is a temptation to react to creationists who attempt to wrongly associate modern evolutionary biology with the Holocaust, the Gulag and other horrors by viewing the history of evolutionary thought through a myopic lens. However, the development of modern evolutionary biology involved decades of synthesis (e.g. Fisher), refinement (e.g. Williams) and the rejection of bad and incorrect ideas (much of Haeckel, gemmules and so on).

The unpleasant fact is that very few intellectuals influenced by evolutionary ideas in the period from 1860 to 1930 are progressive on race and class; some notable exceptions are A.R. Wallace and Franz Boas. (Whatever else they were, Marx and Engels were hardly progressive on nationality and ethnicity.)

I want to thank Colugo for those remarks.

Unfortunately, what you say is not widely known or appreciated.

Even by people who accept the evidence for evolutionary biology.

There certainly is a lot of blame to be assessed, if for no other reason than to avoid any repetition.

But let's make sure that blame is properly assigned.

Does anyone know of any reference where this topic is treated seriously?

I should add that most of those who rejected evolutionary ideas - not just evolutionists - from 1860-1930 also had reactionary views on race and class. Racist interpretations of the Bible were commonplace during that period; it was a very racist and imperialist era. (Similarly, the Koran was interpreted to justify the trans-Saharan slave trade.) So it would be incorrect to state that evolutionary ideas were responsible for the prevailing racist views of the period. But they were used in service of them, just as the Bible was.

Whether or not Nietzsche and Haeckel were Darwinists (no in the case of the former and a highly unorthodox one in the case of the latter) or were responsible for Nazi appropriations of their ideas, many of their ideas are quite unseemly on their own merits.

It should also be noted that in the 19th and early 20th centuries notions about social evolution and biological evolution were often extremely muddled. Boas' assertion that language, race, and culture were separable was a breakthrough.

I'm not sure that Nietzsche committed the naturalistic fallacy of Moore (although it might be a naturalistic fallacy of some other sort). As I understand it, Moore's point is that it is a fallacy to define 'good' in terms of a naturalistic entities or properties, e.g. pleasure. Someone might say "Pleasure is good", but Moore's response would be that you can ask still ask meaningfully (and that's the key word) "Is pleasure really good?" Since it seems like a meaningful question, 'pleasure is good' cannot be an analytic proposition. So, Moore claims that any such defining of 'good' in naturalistic terms will result in a similar 'open question': "Is x (some naturalistic property or entity) really good?" will always be meaningful.

However, you're probably right if you are attributing a 'naturalistic fallacy' in the sense of the is-ought distinction of Hume: one cannot infer what ought to be done or what ought to be the case by what (currently) is done or is the case. So, this is different from Moore's naturalistic fallacy: someone might be committing Moore's naturalistic fallacy by thinking pleasure is good yet he or she might not think that pleasure is something that is currently occurring, thereby not committing a naturalistic fallacy of the second sense.

If I screwed any of that up, feel free to correct. Thanks for the quality blog.

So, I just did some research. Maybe I should read more of Principia Ethica than I actually have! So, he does address Spencer.

I guess what had me confused was the phrase "he takes what is to be right". The naturalistic fallacy of Moore might more accurately be phrased, "he takes some aspect (e.g., pleasure, evolutionary success) of what is to be right, whereas other aspects of what is (e.g., pain, evolutionary failure) are wrong". So, Spencer and others aren't outright saying that everything that is the case is right. But, I guess, even if one were to do that, it would still be committing the naturalistic fallacy of Moore.

Sorry for my ignorance.

Curtis, I appreciate the effort you made - ignorance is no shame unless one wallows in it, and you didn't. Moreover, I have learned a bit about N in these comments, so I too am not beyond rescue.

As I understand the Naturalistic Fallcy, Moore holds that the identification of The Good with any Natural Property is a category error. Utilitarians dispute this, but I have, in my latter years. become a deontologist - for my money, the Good is whatever is required of you by your involvement in a moral system, and moral language is a different discourse from empirical or experimental language (qua Wittgenstein, to add another level of complexity to it). So I agree with Moore simply because the two domains are orthogonal.

Trying to derive normative claims from descriptive claims about evolution will fail because at best, evolution records what worked in the past. We do not have warrant for thinking that this is the best outcome or what will work in the future. For that reason, I think ethics is a work in progress, and the normative aspect is a mix of past experience and future projection. A simple claim that "X is fit" fails to note that fitness is a property tied to a time, place and context.