In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin writes that “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”. Here, I compare Darwin’s views to those of Friedrich Nietzsche. In this essay I discuss two similarities between them: both Nietzsche and Darwin acknowledge the role of past events in their respective philosophies and theories, and both deny the existence of an ideal realm or perfect form. I also discuss two major differences between them, namely the nature and origin of these ‘persistent effects of the past’, and the writers’ recommendations for what to do with their insights.
In Darwin’s theory of evolution change comes about through contingent and unintended variation. Variation is a product of chance, and variations that serve adaptive needs are preserved; harmful variations become extinct, and neutral variations’ preservation fluctuate. The present form of any organism is thus the accumulation of many changes over a long period of time. Some, such as the human brain and our intelligence, help us in our current environment, while other parts of human life remain from a time of different circumstance. These parts may be neither harmful to nor necessary for survival now, and thus they may remain as an indelible stamp, a memory, of another time. According to Darwin’s theory, not every step in history is indelible – some may well be removed from existence – but the net result of these steps certainly is. This also implies there is no goal, no greater purpose to evolution, because this is a continuous process of adaption to the then ‘current’ environment. Nietzsche also acknowledges that our present is subject to the past. In The Genealogy of Morals, he states “Only something which has no history is capable of being defined”. In other words, those things that are socially constructed have no meaning in themselves, and they can only be understood by understanding how they obtained meaning over time. And, similar to Darwin, by saying “God is dead” he dismisses the ideal realm, and the idea has life has some profound and fundamental truth to it that we should be moving towards. He questions these conventions and believes they merely inhibit our ability to become our true selves and to live with intensity.
At this point, I would like to note that there is a distinction between the theory that Darwin proposes and his private ideologies. Unlike Nietzsche, for Darwin not subscribing to an ideal realm for evolution, does not mean he dismisses this idea altogether. Preceding the quote that prompted this essay he refers to “man” in the same paragraph as a being with “god-like intellect”, and in The Origin of Species, he states that his theory should not be in conflict with religious views, and that “There is grandeur in this view of life […] having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; […] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. This is Darwin placing his work in a context appropriate for his era, and perhaps also his personal beliefs. This leads me to the differences between Darwin and Nietzsche. Darwin’s history is subject to forces of nature: “I have called this principle […] by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection”. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s fascination is with a past that is at least in part man-made in the form of social constructs. And, according to Nietzsche, our ‘history’ holds us back and we need to let go of these social constructs to be truly free and to live with intensity. Nietzsche is clear on the implications of his work. Darwin, on the other hand gives us an explanation for how we came to be as we are, but he does not tell us what to do with this newfound knowledge. Again, I would like to add a note on Darwin in that though he says there is no purpose to evolution, his writings certainly do not suggest all creations of evolution are equally worth of admiration. In The Descent of Man he states “there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians”, a savage who “knows no decency”.
In conclusion, Nietzsche and Darwin similarly acknowledge the role of historical developments, and they dismiss a purpose or ideal. But, while one – Darwin – observes nature and gives no advice with his explanation, the other – Nietzsche – observes the intricacies of the human mind and suggests an alternative philosophy. For Nietzsche we still allow the indelible stamps of our lowly origin – that have no foundation other than the weight attributed to them by our predecessors – to hold us back from intensity.
Darwin, C. (1999). The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2009
Darwin, C. (2000). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2300
Nietzsche, F. (2016). The Genealogy of Morals. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52319