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Liberating Darwin from Darwinism

April 20, 2012 , , , , , , , , , ,


How do they do it? I can’t even begin to fathom how it’s possible. How do such distinguished scientists such as Richard Dawkins maintain their patience and composure when arguing the flagrant fatuity of creationism with its laughable adherents? Granted, in the case of Professor Dawkins he had already stated years ago that he will no longer accept any public challenges from creationists on the grounds that it only legitimates their cause when there is no longer any controversy to argue about: It’s over! Evolution has won! In all my glee, please excuse the tautology, it’s so hard not to gloat. Nonetheless, I encourage all who have not yet done so to reference videos found on YouTube (both the official and unofficial Richard Dawkins channels are good for this exercise) containing BBC documentaries produced by Professor Dawkins which show the stoic and patient encounters he has had with varying creationist mountebanks. The recalcitrant way in which creationists refuse to acknowledge or flat out deny the prodigious amount of evidence present in the fossil record and modern genetics (which destroys their argument of course) along with the way in which they maintain that Darwinism axiomatically leads to the egregious philosophies of Social Darwinism and Eugenics, it just seems unfathomable that anyone could hold back the deluge of animus elicited by such promiscuous ignorance.

Still, what these types of encounters have illustrated all the way from 1859 to the present day is that it is not so much the scientific veracity of evolution which causes the religious to timorously repine vampirish like from sunlight, but instead it is the philosophical ramifications of evolution which have had and continue to have such plangent implications on human existence. And as much as I admire Professor Dawkins’s work, which has given me most of my understanding of evolution by natural selection (as well as acquiescing me to his notion of a gene centered mechanism for natural selection), he has not shown as much insight in regards to the philosophic implications of Darwinism. Now I wouldn’t normally hold this against any scientist, let alone one of such esteem, but as it happens one of his colleagues did in fact make this sophistic mention at every journalistic opportunity which was afforded him.

It was the late great Stephen Jay Gould who regularly wrote about the greater philosophic effect of Darwinism which lay at the heart of the science/religion divide over evolution. Now with out my needing to say so, it is well known that Professor Gould was one of the greatest explicators and promulgators of science to the public (along with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins, to name but a few). Yet I can not help from believing that it is in fact his philosophic contribution to the understanding of evolution which is his greatest intellectual legacy, though my bias as a philosopher probably explains this feeling.

So what is this great philosophic contribution of Gould’s? Well, in his seminal essay Darwin’s Delay, Professor Gould shares his thoughts as to why it took Darwin nearly twenty years to publish his findings on natural selection, and then only because Alfred Russell Wallace was about to beat him to the punch with his own conclusions. In preparing to write the Origin of Species, Darwin was engrossed in examining his notebooks from 1838-9 which in Gould’s words were filled with, “his thoughts on philosophy, esthetics, psychology, and anthropology.” He goes on in stating that:

“On rereading them in 1856, Darwin described them as full of metaphysics on morals. They include many statements showing that he espoused but feared to expose something he perceived as far more heretical than evolution itself: philosophical materialism–the postulate that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. No notion could be more upsetting to the deepest traditions of Western thought than the statement that mind–however complex and powerful–is simply a product of the brain.”

And if this brilliance were not enough (remember he is writing this in the early nineteen seventies, long before cognitive neuroscience would vindicate his views):

“The notebooks prove that Darwin was interested in philosophy and aware of its implications. He knew that the primary feature distinguishing his theory from all the other evolutionary doctrines was its uncompromising philosophical materialism. Other evolutionists spoke of vital forces, directed history, organic striving, and the essential irreducibility of mind–a panoply of concepts that traditional Christianity could accept in compromise, for they permitted a Christian God to work by evolution instead of creation. Darwin spoke only of random variation and natural selection.

In the notebooks Darwin resolutely applied his materialistic theory of evolution to all phenomena of life, including what he termed the citadel itself–the human mind. And if the mind has no real existence beyond the brain, can God be anything more than an illusion invented by an illusion? In one of the transmutation notebooks, he wrote:

Love of the deity effect of organization, oh you materialist!…Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.”


It surely was this materialism that evolution fostered which was the devastating blow to religion (creationism) as well as our species vanity. Unfortunately, there was counter-revolution to this truly regnant and clarifying moment in human history. Gould correctly sites this blow back and ensuing manipulation and corruption of Darwin’s thought as emanating from the machinations of the obsequious Victorian pseudo-philosopher Herbert Spencer, who as it happens had his greatest vogue and appreciation here in the US. If there is one thing that continually pisses me off about people’s ignorance toward Darwinism it is the notion that the phrase Survival of the Fittest is not only Darwin’s but that this facile expression actually and accurately describes the process of natural selection. This obfuscation in reality emanated from the foul skull of Spencer, for these were words which Darwin never uttered. Darwin’s actual description for the process of natural selection was descent with modification. But how did Spencer accomplish this successful maligning of Darwin’s thought? In another one of Gould’s aureate essays, Darwin’s Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution, we learn that:

“Evolution entered the English language as a synonym for descent with modification through the propaganda of Herbert Spencer, that indefatigable Victorian pundit of nearly everything. Evolution, to Spencer, was the overarching law of all development. And, to a smug Victorian, what principle other than progress could rule the developmental processes of the universe?” (emphasis mine)

So, it was the Victorian obsession with Progress which allowed for the usurping of Evolution by Spencer. But this derision of Darwin’s thought had yet another disastrous consequence which was in part exacerbated by Darwin himself. He continually tried and mostly succeeded in staying out of the public controversies over his work and left his defense to his fellow scientist compatriots. By doing this, he all but guaranteed that his work would be misunderstood and mistreated, and as history has shown, this contingency has had an invidious evolution of its own:

“Ironically, however, the father of evolutionary theory stood almost alone in insisting that organic change led only to increasing adaptation between organisms and their own environment and not to an abstract ideal of progress defined by structural complexity or increasing heterogeneity–never say higher or lower. Had we heeded Darwin’s warning, we would have been spared much of the confusion and misunderstanding that exists between scientists and laymen today.(…)Today, it remains a primary component of our global arrogance, our belief in dominion over, rather than fellowship with, more than a million other species that inhabit our planet. The moving finger has written of course, and nothing can be done; yet I am rather sorry that scientists contributed to a fundamental misunderstanding by selecting a vernacular word meaning progress as a name for Darwin’s less euphonious but more accurate descent with modification.”


I mentioned that Spencer had his greatest reception here in the US. And it is this fact of history which I believe we are feeling the ramifications of most palpably today. The advent of Social Darwinism and Eugenics both bloom out the obscurantist eliding of Darwin’s thought proffered forth by Spencer in his books First Principles (1862) and Principles of Biology (1864-67). Yet it is Darwin who constantly gets the blame for these ideologies by the ignorant and misinformed (i.e. those who have never read a single page of Darwin let alone a whole book). Today though any conscientious educated individual would whole heartily contend that our society has successfully transcended the mephitic morality of Social Darwinism and Eugenics. I would mostly agree with this assessment, and yet I do not entirely. Social Darwinism as proffered forth by Spencer in the nineteenth century has not only survived but has flourished here in this republic in the twenty first. How you ask? Yet another irony of history in this tragic story is that Spencerian evolution arrived on America’s shores precisely at the moment in which this country was embarking on its path of world economic/industrial dominance and hegemony.

So of course the gospel of Spencer was ravenously eaten up by capitalists. After all, according to Spencer, science now provided the truth for capitalism to trump any socialist concern or advent in society. The proof of this is handily provided by one of Spencer’s most ardent acolytes, the squalid capitalist Andrew Carnegie. In 1900 he wrote a collection of screeds which were published as The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. In regards to the new science of evolution and the Spencerian Survival… Carnegie wrote that:

“We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race(…) Objections to the foundations upon which society is based are not in order, because the condition of the race is better with these than it has been with any other which has been tried. Of the effect of any new substitutes proposed we cannot be sure. The Socialist or Anarchist who seeks to overturn present conditions is to be regarded as attacking the foundation upon which civilization itself rests, for civilization took it start from the day when the capable, industrious workman said to his incompetent and lazy fellow, If thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap, and thus ended primitive Communism by separating the drones from the bees. One who studies this subject will soon be brought face to face with the conclusion that upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends–the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings-bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.”

One can almost see the self-satisfied and venal smile on Carnegie’s lips as he wrote this drivel. And doesn’t this febrile capitalist rhetoric sound so familiar? All one has to do is replace Carnegie’s millions for billions and you have the very same plea of today’s conservatives and reactionaries as they defend the plutocratic status quo. Over time, the words and thoughts of Carnegie and his ilk have formed the festered Spencerian carcass of which the plutocrats of the Right (and of the Left too I might add) have been dining on comfortably ever since. Within the view of any capitalist’s eyes, any attempt to ameliorate the plight of the exploited many over the concerns of the exiguous one percent would destroy the very foundations of society and civilization itself as Carnegie expounded so worryingly in his essay. He also put forth the still extant and ludicrous diatribe that the down trodden just need to work harder and save more to benefit and improve themselves and their lot, thus according to the laws of Spencerian evolution. More thrift, rectitude, and all ensuing contradictions of Free Enterprise for the Poor, and socialism only for the Rich is the order of the day (whether we owe this insight to Gore Vidal or Milton Friedman makes no difference to the verity of this observation).

The irony in these words are found in the fact that the great political-economic analyst Karl Marx realized this state of affairs nearly a half-century earlier than Carnegie and did so with more aptness and insight (I know, surprise surprise). In his Grundrisse, Marx wrote that:

“Although every capitalist demands that workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers. By no means does this apply to the remainder of workers, because they relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with babble about new needs.”


It would seem that Marx had Madison Ave. all figured out long before there even was such a thing as Mad Men. And the apologists for the advertising industry are the very same for radical capitalism in general. For do we not hear the same piddling excuses for the status quo oozing from the mouths of our political elites and their media overlords? If you are capable of intellectual honesty then I’m sure you know the answer already and are in no need of any of my allocutions, yet our criticism can not end here.

The supreme and erudite critic of American culture and more importantly character, Gore Vidal, also had great insight into this Spencerian phenomenon and its continuing effect on our society. Mr. Vidal was never better in the exercise of his essayistic acumen then when in the full flight of his polemics he could always be counted upon to render into sublime prose apposite criticisms of the American Way of Life. Very often he would accomplish this feat all the while investigating a topic seemingly non apropos to the task–such as an examination of the literary merit of L. Frank Baum and his Oz books. Writing about the Wizard in 1977, Vidal points out a fact of life we very much recognize today (and a lot more readily than most would have back during the collapsing scenery of the post-Watergate era), the reality that we all are now residing within a second Gilded Age of plutocracy, whether we elect to be or not:

“Failure has never been much fun in the United States. During the last two decades of the Gilded Age and the first decade of the American Empire, failure must have been uncommonly grim. On every side, enormous fortunes were conspicuously made and spent. To be poor was either a sign of bad character or of bad genes or both. Hard-hearted predestination was in the air. The Origin of Species, had greatly influenced United Statespersons, and through out Baum’s lifetime Darwin was constantly misread and misquoted in order to support laissez nous faire, the Puritan work ethic, and, of course, slavery.”

And in Mr Vidal’s exquisite Homage to Daniel Shays and his famous rebellion, he again reminds us of the undeniable reality of our history that:

“A dislike of economic equality is something deep-grained in the American Protestant character. After all, given a rich empty continent for vigorous Europeans to exploit (the Indians were simply a disagreeable part of the emptiness, like chiggers), any man of gumption could make himself a good living. With extra hard work, any man could make himself a fortune, proving that he was a better man than the rest. Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.

The vision of the rich empty continent is still a part of the American unconscious in spite of the Great Crowding and its attendant miseries; and this lingering belief in the heaven any man can make for himself through hard work and clean living is a key to the majority’s prevailing and apparently unalterable hatred of the poor, kept out of sight at home, out of mind abroad.”

With the devastating criticisms of both Marx and Vidal, what else is there to glean from their insight other than that Spencerian principles are still very much alive and well in modern political economy; to deny that this is the case is simply fatuous, which the most basic empiricism will readily confirm for anyone. Can there be any hope then for a social anodyne for this state of affairs? Well…maybe, and a very slim maybe at that. It is the very same cure which is needed to rectify the dearth in Darwinian cogency. Not to over simplify, but it’s education, free inquiry, unfettered investigation. When have these values ever not been a panacea for social malignancy?

This is exactly why Gould’s scientific and philosophic legacy are secure as is Dawkins and all the other great public explicators of science. For they make it undeniable that we who are alive at this moment in time are so lucky to be living in the second century of Darwin. I fully believe that Darwin’s life and career will come to be seen as a fundamental crux of history, on par with if not surpassing the Copernican revolution in profundity. It is through the emancipation of Darwinian thought that we are free from the manacles of creationism, superstition and every other form of benighted sectarianism. Hence, Darwin must be freed from the horrible ism which has been foistered upon his name for a true and wide spread understanding of his achievements and their continuing ramifications to take place.

Just like Marx, Darwin continually needs to be pulled out from under his Cromwellian pile of dead dogs of which the cynical and unscrupulous have buried him. Then, and only then, can a second enlightenment occur which will guide our species on the continuing path of evolution. In order for us to be able to entertain the possibility of anything like a metaphorical orthogenesis or teleology for our species, then it would have to be predicated by a transcending of our degenerate and dangerous tribalism. Anything short of this realization, and there shall truly be an eschatological terminus awaiting for us all–one not requiring any supernatural intervention for its realization. If there is anything beyond our corporeality which clearly demonstrates the stamp of our lowly origin, then it would have to be this sad reality and tribute to our species unfailing solipsism and ignorance.

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  1. social animals and cultural evolution of herds « the magic of language blog: partnering with reality – by JR Fibonacci reblogged this and added:

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