Friday, August 07, 2009

Nietzsche and Darwin

For a long time, it has been hard for me to understand Friedrich Nietzsche's relationship to Darwin and Darwinism.

On the one hand, Nietzsche seems to embrace Darwinism in declaring that everything has evolved--including human nature--because what appears fixed is the evolutionary product of selection carried out long before the 4,000 years of history that we are familiar with. So, there are "no eternal facts." Moreover, he seems to agree with Darwin in denying any cosmic teleology, in affirming that there is no purpose, no reason, no divinity in the apparent design of the cosmos, because it has all emerged by natural evolution. Human values, therefore, cannot be rooted in any cosmic order of rational or divine intention. Rather, values arise as the evolved conditions for human life.

On the other hand, Nietzsche often criticizes Darwin and Darwinians (especially Herbert Spencer) for failing to see that life is governed not by a "struggle for existence" but a "will to power," and for failing to see that apparently altruistic behavior is ultimately egoistic. Moreover, in arguing for the "will to power" as a cosmic force that rules the whole universe, Nietzsche seems to assume a cosmic, vitalistic teleology that contradicts his acceptance of the Darwinian attack on cosmic teleology. His teleological conception of the "will to power" resembles Leibniz's pan-animism, which manifests the influence of the cosmic teleology in Plato's Timaeus.

My thinking about this has been helped by some recent books--particularly, Gregory Moore's Nietzsche, Biology, and Metaphor (2002), John Richardson's Nietzsche's New Darwinism (2004), and Robin Small's Nietzsche and Ree.

Moore's book is a "historical" study of how Nietzsche's biological thinking was shaped by the biological ideas that he picked up from his extensive reading of nineteenth-century science. Richardson's book is a "philosophical" study of how Nietzsche's ideas can be made plausible by putting them into a Darwinian framework, despite the fact that Nietzsche himself never lays it out in this way. Small's book is a "biographical" study of how Nietzsche's thinking about Darwinism was influenced by his friendships with Paul Ree and Lou Salome. (Nietzsche, Ree, and Salome called themselves the "holy trinity" when they were trying to set themselves up as a household of free spirits who would share ideas and perhaps more. This strange menage-a-trois was made famous by the picture they staged in May, 1882, with Nietzsche and Ree pulling Salome in a cart with her holding a whip. That explains the true meaning of Nietzsche's remark about "when you go to a woman, take a whip"!)

There is no evidence that Nietzsche read any of Darwin's major writings, although it is probable that he read Darwin's article "A Biographical Sketch of an Infant." But Nietzsche did pick up Darwinian ideas from his reading of Friedrich Lange's History of Materialism, Spencer's Data of Ethics, John Lubbock's Origin of Civilization, and Walter Bagehot's Physics and Politics. He learned a lot about Darwinian ethics and psychology from Ree, whose writings lay out a Darwinian view of morality as a product of natural evolution. He also read extensively and carefully various books by scientific critics of Darwinism.

Nietzsche's acceptance of a Darwinian view of the cosmos and human nature as products of evolutionary history is clearest in his writings in the "middle period" of his life--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of the Gay Science. This was the period of his close friendships with Ree and Salome, who reinforced Nietzsche's interest in natural science and especially Darwinian science.

In both their style and their content, these middle writings are more moderate and sensible than Nietzsche's early and late writings. This sensible moderation comes from a Darwinian naturalism that is free from the romantic transcendentalism of his early writings or the ecstatic poetry and cosmic teleology of the "will to power" in his later writings.

Richardson does a wonderful job in restating Nietzsche's ideas in the most systematic and cogent manner by putting them into the framework of a Darwinian science that works through three levels of selection--natural selection, social selection, and self selection. Natural selection explains innate animal values. Social selection explains acquired human values. Self selection explains the possibility for a superhuman transvaluation of values by heroic individuals.

Richardson concedes that Nietzsche himself never lays out his thinking in precisely this way. But Richardson's argument is that this is the best way to make Nietzsche's thinking plausible.

Although I agree with much of what Richardson claims, I disagree on various points. First, he insists that the Nietzschean account of "social selection" and "self selection" goes beyond the Darwinian inclination to reduce everything to natural selection. But I would argue that Darwin and the Darwinian tradition generally recognizes the importance of social selection through cultural learning and self selection through individual judgment. These three levels correspond to what I have analyzed as a hierarchy of natural order, customary order, and deliberate order. In the study of morality, this would correspond to the three levels of moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. Similarly, Frans de Waal distinguishes the three levels as moral sentiments, social pressure, and judgment/reasoning. (Occasionally, Richardson himself acknowledges that Darwin allows for social evolution through cultural learning and that this is an important part of modern coevolutionary theorizing.)

Although a Darwinian science recognizes "self selection" in the deliberate judgments exercised by individuals, it also recognizes that this deliberate choosing is constrained both by nature and by culture. This recognition of the severe restraints on the self-choosing freedom of even the most "free spirits" is evident in Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human. But this moderation falls away in his later writings as he looks up to the superhuman freedom of the "overman." Occasionally, Richardson admits that freedom as self selection is never complete or absolutely unbounded (103, 115-16, 170, 188-89, 215, 218, 261, 267, 270). I would stress this point. And I would also stress that the extremism of Nietzsche's later writings comes from a tendency to heroic transcendentalism that ignores the sober limits on human nature and human society that are prominent in the more Darwinian stance of his middle writings.

Richardson sees that the "dominant" view of "will to power" in Nietzsche's writings assumes, at least implicitly, a cosmic teleology and anthropomorphism in which a cosmic mind rules over all. I agree with Richardson that a "recessive" view of "will to power" as a product of natural selection would be more plausible. We could say then that the natural disposition of living beings to expand, increase, and dominate--to enhance their power--has arisen by evolution because it enhanced their fitness. The desire for power is teleological, because it is directed to ends or goals, but the teleology here is immanent rather than cosmic. This desire is not the product of some cosmic intelligent design such as that set forth in Plato's Timaeus. This desire can be explained as the product of a selective process--natural selection working on inherited variations and social selection working on cultural variations--that does not itself have any "purpose."

Nietzsche's inclination in his early and late writings towards a cosmic teleology of eternal values reflects the religious longings seen by Salome. In his middle writings, he shook off those religious longings under the influence of Darwinian science. But they returned in his later writings. So, for example, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human declares that "man has evolved," because "everything has evolved; there are no eternal facts" (sec. 2). But the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil looks to "the eternal basic text of homo natura" (sec. 230).

In his article on Beyond Good and Evil, Leo Strauss stresses the importance of this appeal to eternal human nature. This raises the question of whether Strauss--like Nietzsche--yearned for an eternal cosmic order that would support human values.

In his Untimely Meditations (ii.9), Nietzsche worries: "If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines which I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future."

Some of the Straussians agree with Nietzsche's fear of the deadliness of Darwinian science. For example, Harvey Mansfield warns: "Darwin was not a nihilist, but he prepared his generation and later generations for nihilism. His theory of evolution not only denied the eternity of the species but also undermined all eternities, all permanence of meaning" (Manliness, 83). Mansfield presents the "manly nihilism" of Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt as a rebellion against the Darwinian teaching that there is no purposeful and eternal cosmic order of nature to provide standards for human excellence and importance (86, 89, 93, 105, 111, 121). Nietzsche looks to the manliness of the "overman" (Ubermensch), while TR looks to the manliness of the "leader" (Fuhrer).

But isn't there something dangerous about the extremism of this vision of redemptive leadership? Far more healthy, I suggest, is the moderation of Nietzsche's Darwinian science in Human, All Too Human.


Troy Camplin said...

I just left a comment on my own blog on this posting:

The Fractal Nietzsche

Paul said...

I thought that the "will to power" wasn't merely meant to be an explanation of life, but also an explanation of how any phenomenal thing can exist in a cosmos devoid of any true subject or individual. Just as life emerges from compounds of molecules, which themselves emerge from atoms, which again are merely emergent, compounded phenomena, and so on ad infinitum, so too do all phenomena exist and come to be. I would claim that Nietzsche thinks that the will to power explains all of these evolutionary processes. It is based upon that insight that he likely regained confidence in the teleological nature of the cosmos.