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Darwin and Modern Science (1909)

Edited by A.C. Seward


Professor of Philosophy in the University of Copenhagen.


t is difficult to draw a sharp line between philosophy and natural science. The naturalist who introduces a new principle, or demonstrates a fact which throws a new light on existence, not only renders an important service to philosophy but is himself a philosopher in the broader sense of the word. The aim of philosophy in the stricter sense is to attain points of view from which the fundamental phenomena and the principles of the special sciences can be seen in their relative importance and connection. But philosophy in this stricter sense has always been influenced by philosophy in the broader sense. Greek philosophy came under the influence of logic and mathematics, modern philosophy under the influence of natural science. The name of Charles Darwin stands with those of Galileo, Newton, and Robert Mayer--names which denote new problems and great alterations in our conception of the universe.

First of all we must lay stress on Darwin's own personality. His deep love of truth, his indefatigable inquiry, his wide horizon, and his steady self- criticism make him a scientific model, even if his results and theories should eventually come to possess mainly an historical interest. In the intellectual domain the primary object is to reach high summits from which wide surveys are possible, to reach them toiling honestly upwards by way of experience, and then not to turn dizzy when a summit is gained. Darwinians have sometimes turned dizzy, but Darwin never. He saw from the first the great importance of his hypothesis, not only because of its solution of the old problem as to the value of the concept of species, not only because of the grand picture of natural evolution which it unrolls, but also because of the life and inspiration its method would impart to the study of comparative anatomy, of instinct and of heredity, and finally because of the influence it would exert on the whole conception of existence. He wrote in his note-book in the year 1837: "My theory would give zest to recent and fossil comparative anatomy; it would lead to the study of instinct, heredity, and mind-heredity, whole (of) metaphysics." ("Life and Letters of Charles Darwin", Vol. I. page 8.)

We can distinguish four main points in which Darwin's investigations possess philosophical importance.

The evolution hypothesis is much older than Darwin; it is, indeed, one of the oldest guessings of human thought. In the eighteenth century it was put forward by Diderot and Lamettrie and suggested by Kant (1786). As we shall see later, it was held also by several philosophers in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his preface to "The Origin of Species", Darwin mentions the naturalists who were his forerunners. But he has set forth the hypothesis of evolution in so energetic and thorough a manner that it perforce attracts the attention of all thoughtful men in a much higher degree than it did before the publication of the "Origin".

And further, the importance of his teaching rests on the fact that he, much more than his predecessors, even than Lamarck, sought a foundation for his hypothesis in definite facts. Modern science began by demanding--with Kepler and Newton--evidence of verae causae; this demand Darwin industriously set himself to satisfy--hence the wealth of material which he collected by his observations and his experiments. He not only revived an old hypothesis, but he saw the necessity of verifying it by facts. Whether the special cause on which he founded the explanation of the origin of species--Natural Selection--is sufficient, is now a subject of discussion. He himself had some doubt in regard to this question, and the criticisms which are directed against his hypothesis hit Darwinism rather than Darwin. In his indefatigable search for empirical evidence he is a model even for his antagonists: he has compelled them to approach the problems of life along other lines than those which were formerly followed.

Whether the special cause to which Darwin appealed is sufficient or not, at least to it is probably due the greater part of the influence which he has exerted on the general trend of thought. "Struggle for existence" and "natural selection" are principles which have been applied, more or less, in every department of thought. Recent research, it is true, has discovered greater empirical discontinuity--leaps, "mutations"--whereas Darwin believed in the importance of small variations slowly accumulated. It has also been shown by the experimental method, which in recent biological work has succeeded Darwin's more historical method, that types once constituted possess great permanence, the fluctuations being restricted within clearly defined boundaries. The problem has become more precise, both as to variation and as to heredity. The inner conditions of life have in both respects shown a greater independence than Darwin had supposed in his theory, though he always admitted that the cause of variation was to him a great enigma, "a most perplexing problem," and that the struggle for life could only occur where variation existed. But, at any rate, it was of the greatest importance that Darwin gave a living impression of the struggle for life which is everywhere going on, and to which even the highest forms of existence must be amenable. The philosophical importance of these ideas does not stand or fall with the answer to the question, whether natural selection is a sufficient explanation of the origin of species or not: it has an independent, positive value for everyone who will observe life and reality with an unbiassed mind.

In accentuating the struggle for life Darwin stands as a characteristically English thinker: he continues a train of ideas which Hobbes and Malthus had already begun. Moreover in his critical views as to the conception of species he had English forerunners; in the middle ages Occam and Duns Scotus, in the eighteenth century Berkeley and Hume. In his moral philosophy, as we shall see later, he is an adherent of the school which is represented by Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith. Because he is no philosopher in the stricter sense of the term, it is of great interest to see that his attitude of mind is that of the great thinkers of his nation.

In considering Darwin's influence on philosophy we will begin with an examination of the attitude of philosophy to the conception of evolution at the time when "The Origin of Species" appeared. We will then examine the effects which the theory of evolution, and especially the idea of the struggle for life, has had, and naturally must have, on the discussion of philosophical problems.


When "The Origin of Species" appeared fifty years ago Romantic speculation, Schelling's and Hegel's philosophy, still reigned on the continent, while in England Positivism, the philosophy of Comte and Stuart Mill, represented the most important trend of thought. German speculation had much to say on evolution, it even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution. But then the word "evolution" was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense. To speculative thought the forms and types of nature formed a system of ideas, within which any form could lead us by continuous transitions to any other. It was a classificatory system which was regarded as a divine world of thought or images, within which metamorphoses could go on--a condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes. Goethe's ideas of evolution, as expressed in his "Metamorphosen der Pflanzen und der Thiere", belong to this category; it is, therefore, incorrect to call him a forerunner of Darwin. Schelling and Hegel held the same idea; Hegel expressly rejected the conception of a real evolution in time as coarse and materialistic. "Nature," he says, "is to be considered as a SYSTEM OF STAGES, the one necessarily arising from the other, and being the nearest truth of that from which it proceeds; but not in such a way that the one is NATURALLY generated by the other; on the contrary (their connection lies) in the inner idea which is the ground of nature. The METAMORPHOSIS can be ascribed only to the notion as such, because it alone is evolution...It has been a clumsy idea in the older as well as in the newer philosophy of nature, to regard the transformation and the transition from one natural form and sphere to a higher as an outward and actual production." ("Encyclopaedie der philosophischen Wissenschaften" (4th edition), Berlin, 1845, paragraph 249.)

The only one of the philosophers of Romanticism who believed in a real, historical evolution, a real production of new species, was Oken. ("Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie", Jena, 1809.) Danish philosophers, such as Treschow (1812) and Sibbern (1846), have also broached the idea of an historical evolution of all living beings from the lowest to the highest. Schopenhauer's philosophy has a more realistic character than that of Schelling's and Hegel's, his diametrical opposites, though he also belongs to the romantic school of thought. His philosophical and psychological views were greatly influenced by French naturalists and philosophers, especially by Cabanis and Lamarck. He praises the "ever memorable Lamarck," because he laid so much stress on the "will to live." But he repudiates as a "wonderful error" the idea that the organs of animals should have reached their present perfection through a development in time, during the course of innumerable generations. It was, he said, a consequence of the low standard of contemporary French philosophy, that Lamarck came to the idea of the construction of living beings in time through succession! ("Ueber den Willen in der Natur" (2nd edition), Frankfurt a. M., 1854, pages 41-43.)

The positivistic stream of thought was not more in favour of a real evolution than was the Romantic school. Its aim was to adhere to positive facts: it looked with suspicion on far-reaching speculation. Comte laid great stress on the discontinuity found between the different kingdoms of nature, as well as within each single kingdom. As he regarded as unscientific every attempt to reduce the number of physical forces, so he rejected entirely the hypothesis of Lamarck concerning the evolution of species; the idea of species would in his eyes absolutely lose its importance if a transition from species to species under the influence of conditions of life were admitted. His disciples (Littre, Robin) continued to direct against Darwin the polemics which their master had employed against Lamarck. Stuart Mill, who, in the theory of knowledge, represented the empirical or positivistic movement in philosophy--like his English forerunners from Locke to Hume--founded his theory of knowledge and morals on the experience of the single individual. He sympathised with the theory of the original likeness of all individuals and derived their differences, on which he practically and theoretically laid much stress, from the influence both of experience and education, and, generally, of physical and social causes. He admitted an individual evolution, and, in the human species, an evolution based on social progress; but no physiological evolution of species. He was afraid that the hypothesis of heredity would carry us back to the old theory of "innate" ideas.

Darwin was more empirical than Comte and Mill; experience disclosed to him a deeper continuity than they could find; closer than before the nature and fate of the single individual were shown to be interwoven in the great web binding the life of the species with nature as a whole. And the continuity which so many idealistic philosophers could find only in the world of thought, he showed to be present in the world of reality.


Darwin's energetic renewal of the old idea of evolution had its chief importance in strengthening the conviction of this real continuity in the world, of continuity in the series of form and events. It was a great support for all those who were prepared to base their conception of life on scientific grounds. Together with the recently discovered law of the conservation of energy, it helped to produce the great realistic movement which characterises the last third of the nineteenth century. After the decline of the Romantic movement people wished to have firmer ground under their feet and reality now asserted itself in a more emphatic manner than in the period of Romanticism. It was easy for Hegel to proclaim that "the real" was "the rational," and that "the rational" was "the real": reality itself existed for him only in the interpretation of ideal reason, and if there was anything which could not be merged in the higher unity of thought, then it was only an example of the "impotence of nature to hold to the idea." But now concepts are to be founded on nature and not on any system of categories too confidently deduced a priori. The new devotion to nature had its recompense in itself, because the new points of view made us see that nature could indeed "hold to ideas," though perhaps not to those which we had cogitated beforehand.

A most important question for philosophers to answer was whether the new views were compatible with an idealistic conception of life and existence. Some proclaimed that we have now no need of any philosophy beyond the principles of the conservation of matter and energy and the principle of natural evolution: existence should and could be definitely and completely explained by the laws of material nature. But abler thinkers saw that the thing was not so simple. They were prepared to give the new views their just place and to examine what alterations the old views must undergo in order to be brought into harmony with the new data.

The realistic character of Darwin's theory was shown not only in the idea of natural continuity, but also, and not least, in the idea of the cause whereby organic life advances step by step. This idea--the idea of the struggle for life--implied that nothing could persist, if it had no power to maintain itself under the given conditions. Inner value alone does not decide. Idealism was here put to its hardest trial. In continuous evolution it could perhaps still find an analogy to the inner evolution of ideas in the mind; but in the demand for power in order to struggle with outward conditions Realism seemed to announce itself in its most brutal form. Every form of Idealism had to ask itself seriously how it was going to "struggle for life" with this new Realism.

We will now give a short account of the position which leading thinkers in different countries have taken up in regard to this question.

I. Herbert Spencer was the philosopher whose mind was best prepared by his own previous thinking to admit the theory of Darwin to a place in his conception of the world. His criticism of the arguments which had been put forward against the hypothesis of Lamarck, showed that Spencer, as a young man, was an adherent to the evolution idea. In his "Social Statics" (1850) he applied this idea to human life and moral civilisation. In 1852 he wrote an essay on "The Development Hypothesis", in which he definitely stated his belief that the differentiation of species, like the differentiation within a single organism, was the result of development. In the first edition of his "Psychology" (1855) he took a step which put him in opposition to the older English school (from Locke to Mill): he acknowledged "innate ideas" so far as to admit the tendency of acquired habits to be inherited in the course of generations, so that the nature and functions of the individual are only to be understood through its connection with the life of the species. In 1857, in his essay on "Progress", he propounded the law of differentiation as a general law of evolution, verified by examples from all regions of experience, the evolution of species being only one of these examples. On the effect which the appearance of "The Origin of Species" had on his mind he writes in his "Autobiography": "Up to that time...I held that the sole cause of organic evolution is the inheritance of functionally-produced modifications. The "Origin of Species" made it clear to me that I was wrong, and that the larger part of the facts cannot be due to any such cause...To have the theory of organic evolution justified was of course to get further support for that theory of evolution at large with which...all my conceptions were bound up." (Spencer, "Autobiography", Vol. II. page 50, London, 1904.) Instead of the metaphorical expression "natural selection," Spencer introduced the term "survival of the fittest," which found favour with Darwin as well as with Wallace.

In working out his ideas of evolution, Spencer found that differentiation was not the only form of evolution. In its simplest form evolution is mainly a concentration, previously scattered elements being integrated and losing independent movement. Differentiation is only forthcoming when minor wholes arise within a greater whole. And the highest form of evolution is reached when there is a harmony between concentration and differentiation, a harmony which Spencer calls equilibration and which he defines as a moving equilibrium. At the same time this definition enables him to illustrate the expression "survival of the fittest." "Every living organism exhibits such a moving equilibrium--a balanced set of functions constituting its life; and the overthrow of this balanced set of functions or moving equilibrium is what we call death. Some individuals in a species are so constituted that their moving equilibria are less easily overthrown than those of other individuals; and these are the fittest which survive, or, in Mr Darwin's language, they are the select which nature preserves." (Ibid. page 100.) Not only in the domain of organic life, but in all domains, the summit of evolution is, according to Spencer, characterised by such a harmony--by a moving equilibrium.

Spencer's analysis of the concept of evolution, based on a great variety of examples, has made this concept clearer and more definite than before. It contains the three elements; integration, differentiation and equilibration. It is true that a concept which is to be valid for all domains of experience must have an abstract character, and between the several domains there is, strictly speaking, only a relation of analogy. So there is only analogy between psychical and physical evolution. But this is no serious objection, because general concepts do not express more than analogies between the phenomena which they represent. Spencer takes his leading terms from the material world in defining evolution (in the simplest form) as integration of matter and dissipation of movement; but as he--not always quite consistently (Cf. my letter to him, 1876, now printed in Duncan's "Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer", page 178, London, 1908.)--assumed a correspondence of mind and matter, he could very well give these terms an indirect importance for psychical evolution. Spencer has always, in my opinion with full right, repudiated the ascription of materialism. He is no more a materialist than Spinoza. In his "Principles of Psychology" (paragraph 63) he expressed himself very clearly: "Though it seems easier to translate so-called matter into so-called spirit, than to translate so-called spirit into so-called matter--which latter is indeed wholly impossible--yet no translation can carry us beyond our symbols." These words lead us naturally to a group of thinkers whose starting-point was psychical evolution. But we have still one aspect of Spencer's philosophy to mention.

Spencer founded his "laws of evolution" on an inductive basis, but he was convinced that they could be deduced from the law of the conservation of energy. Such a deduction is, perhaps, possible for the more elementary forms of evolution, integration and differentiation; but it is not possible for the highest form, the equilibration, which is a harmony of integration and differentiation. Spencer can no more deduce the necessity for the eventual appearance of "moving equilibria" of harmonious totalities than Hegel could guarantee the "higher unities" in which all contradictions should be reconciled. In Spencer's hands the theory of evolution acquired a more decidedly optimistic character than in Darwin's; but I shall deal later with the relation of Darwin's hypothesis to the opposition of optimism and pessimism.

II. While the starting-point of Spencer was biological or cosmological, psychical evolution being conceived as in analogy with physical, a group of eminent thinkers--in Germany Wundt, in France Fouillee, in Italy Ardigo-- took, each in his own manner, their starting-point in psychical evolution as an original fact and as a type of all evolution, the hypothesis of Darwin coming in as a corroboration and as a special example. They maintain the continuity of evolution; they find this character most prominent in psychical evolution, and this is for them a motive to demand a corresponding continuity in the material, especially in the organic domain.

To Wundt and Fouillee the concept of will is prominent. They see the type of all evolution in the transformation of the life of will from blind impulse to conscious choice; the theories of Lamarck and Darwin are used to support the view that there is in nature a tendency to evolution in steady reciprocity with external conditions. The struggle for life is here only a secondary fact. Its apparent prominence is explained by the circumstance that the influence of external conditions is easily made out, while inner conditions can be verified only through their effects. For Ardigo the evolution of thought was the starting-point and the type: in the evolution of a scientific hypothesis we see a progress from the indefinite (indistinto) to the definite (distinto), and this is a characteristic of all evolution, as Ardigo has pointed out in a series of works. The opposition between indistinto and distinto corresponds to Spencer's opposition between homogeneity and heterogeneity. The hypothesis of the origin of differences of species from more simple forms is a special example of the general law of evolution.

In the views of Wundt and Fouillee we find the fundamental idea of idealism: psychical phenomena as expressions of the innermost nature of existence. They differ from the older Idealism in the great stress which they lay on evolution as a real, historical process which is going on through steady conflict with external conditions. The Romantic dread of reality is broken. It is beyond doubt that Darwin's emphasis on the struggle for life as a necessary condition of evolution has been a very important factor in carrying philosophy back to reality from the heaven of pure ideas. The philosophy of Ardigo, on the other side, appears more as a continuation and deepening of positivism, though the Italian thinker arrived at his point of view independently of French-English positivism. The idea of continuous evolution is here maintained in opposition to Comte's and Mill's philosophy of discontinuity. From Wundt and Fouillee Ardigo differs in conceiving psychical evolution not as an immediate revelation of the innermost nature of existence, but only as a single, though the most accessible example, of evolution.

III. To the French philosophers Boutroux and Bergson, evolution proper is continuous and qualitative, while outer experience and physical science give us fragments only, sporadic processes and mechanical combinations. To Bergson, in his recent work "L'Evolution Creatrice", evolution consists in an elan de vie which to our fragmentary observation and analytic reflexion appears as broken into a manifold of elements and processes. The concept of matter in its scientific form is the result of this breaking asunder, essential for all scientific reflexion. In these conceptions the strongest opposition between inner and outer conditions of evolution is expressed: in the domain of internal conditions spontaneous development of qualitative forms--in the domain of external conditions discontinuity and mechanical combination.

We see, then, that the theory of evolution has influenced philosophy in a variety of forms. It has made idealistic thinkers revise their relation to the real world; it has led positivistic thinkers to find a closer connection between the facts on which they based their views; it has made us all open our eyes for new possibilities to arise through the prima facie inexplicable "spontaneous" variations which are the condition of all evolution. This last point is one of peculiar interest. Deeper than speculative philosophy and mechanical science saw in the days of their triumph, we catch sight of new streams, whose sources and laws we have still to discover. Most sharply does this appear in the theory of mutation, which is only a stronger accentuation of a main point in Darwinism. It is interesting to see that an analogous problem comes into the foreground in physics through the discovery of radioactive phenomena, and in psychology through the assumption of psychical new formations (as held by Boutroux, William James and Bergson). From this side, Darwin's ideas, as well as the analogous ideas in other domains, incite us to renewed examination of our first principles, their rationality and their value. On the other hand, his theory of the struggle for existence challenges us to examine the conditions and discuss the outlook as to the persistence of human life and society and of the values that belong to them. It is not enough to hope (or fear?) the rising of new forms; we have also to investigate the possibility of upholding the forms and ideals which have hitherto been the bases of human life. Darwin has here given his age the most earnest and most impressive lesson. This side of Darwin's theory is of peculiar interest to some special philosophical problems to which I now pass.


Among philosophical problems the problem of knowledge has in the last century occupied a foremost place. It is natural, then, to ask how Darwin and the hypothesis whose most eminent representative he is, stand to this problem.

Darwin started an hypothesis. But every hypothesis is won by inference from certain presuppositions, and every inference is based on the general principles of human thought. The evolution hypothesis presupposes, then, human thought and its principles. And not only the abstract logical principles are thus presupposed. The evolution hypothesis purports to be not only a formal arrangement of phenomena, but to express also the law of a real process. It supposes, then, that the real data--all that in our knowledge which we do not produce ourselves, but which we in the main simply receive--are subjected to laws which are at least analogous to the logical relations of our thoughts; in other words, it assumes the validity of the principle of causality. If organic species could arise without cause there would be no use in framing hypotheses. Only if we assume the principle of causality, is there a problem to solve.

Though Darwinism has had a great influence on philosophy considered as a striving after a scientific view of the world, yet here is a point of view --the epistemological--where philosophy is not only independent but reaches beyond any result of natural science. Perhaps it will be said: the powers and functions of organic beings only persist (perhaps also only arise) when they correspond sufficiently to the conditions under which the struggle of life is to go on. Human thought itself is, then, a variation (or a mutation) which has been able to persist and to survive. Is not, then, the problem of knowledge solved by the evolution hypothesis? Spencer had given an affirmative answer to this question before the appearance of "The Origin of Species". For the individual, he said, there is an a priori, original, basis (or Anlage) for all mental life; but in the species all powers have developed in reciprocity with external conditions. Knowledge is here considered from the practical point of view, as a weapon in the struggle for life, as an "organon" which has been continuously in use for generations. In recent years the economic or pragmatic epistemology, as developed by Avenarius and Mach in Germany, and by James in America, points in the same direction. Science, it is said, only maintains those principles and presuppositions which are necessary to the simplest and clearest orientation in the world of experience. All assumptions which cannot be applied to experience and to practical work, will successively be eliminated.

In these views a striking and important application is made of the idea of struggle for life to the development of human thought. Thought must, as all other things in the world, struggle for life. But this whole consideration belongs to psychology, not to the theory of knowledge (epistemology), which is concerned only with the validity of knowledge, not with its historical origin. Every hypothesis to explain the origin of knowledge must submit to cross-examination by the theory of knowledge, because it works with the fundamental forms and principles of human thought. We cannot go further back than these forms and principles, which it is the aim of epistemology to ascertain and for which no further reason can be given. (The present writer, many years ago, in his "Psychology" (Copenhagen, 1882; English translation London, 1891), criticised the evolutionistic treatment of the problem of knowledge from the Kantian point of view.)

But there is another side of the problem which is, perhaps, of more importance and which epistemology generally overlooks. If new variations can arise, not only in organic but perhaps also in inorganic nature, new tasks are placed before the human mind. The question is, then, if it has forms in which there is room for the new matter? We are here touching a possibility which the great master of epistemology did not bring to light. Kant supposed confidently that no other matter of knowledge could stream forth from the dark source which he called "the thing-in-itself," than such as could be synthesised in our existing forms of knowledge. He mentions the possibility of other forms than the human, and warns us against the dogmatic assumption that the human conception of existence should be absolutely adequate. But he seems to be quite sure that the thing-in- itself works constantly, and consequently always gives us only what our powers can master. This assumption was a consequence of Kant's rationalistic tendency, but one for which no warrant can be given. Evolutionism and systematism are opposing tendencies which can never be absolutely harmonised one with the other. Evolution may at any time break some form which the system-monger regards as finally established. Darwin himself felt a great difference in looking at variation as an evolutionist and as a systematist. When he was working at his evolution theory, he was very glad to find variations; but they were a hindrance to him when he worked as a systematist, in preparing his work on Cirripedia. He says in a letter: "I had thought the same parts of the same species more resemble (than they do anyhow in Cirripedia) objects cast in the same mould. Systematic work would be easy were it not for this confounded variation, which, however, is pleasant to me as a speculatist, though odious to me as a systematist." ("Life and Letters", Vol. II. page 37.) He could indeed be angry with variations even as an evolutionist; but then only because he could not explain them, not because he could not classify them. "If, as I must think, external conditions produce little DIRECT effect, what the devil determines each particular variation?" (Ibid. page 232.) What Darwin experienced in his particular domain holds good of all knowledge. All knowledge is systematic, in so far as it strives to put phenomena in quite definite relations, one to another. But the systematisation can never be complete. And here Darwin has contributed much to widen the world for us. He has shown us forces and tendencies in nature which make absolute systems impossible, at the same time that they give us new objects and problems. There is still a place for what Lessing called "the unceasing striving after truth," while "absolute truth" (in the sense of a closed system) is unattainable so long as life and experience are going on.

There is here a special remark to be made. As we have seen above, recent research has shown that natural selection or struggle for life is no explanation of variations. Hugo de Vries distinguishes between partial and embryonal variations, or between variations and mutations, only the last- named being heritable, and therefore of importance for the origin of new species. But the existence of variations is not only of interest for the problem of the origin of species; it has also a more general interest. An individual does not lose its importance for knowledge, because its qualities are not heritable. On the contrary, in higher beings at least, individual peculiarities will become more and more independent objects of interest. Knowledge takes account of the biographies not only of species, but also of individuals: it seeks to find the law of development of the single individual. (The new science of Ecology occupies an intermediate position between the biography of species and the biography of individuals. Compare "Congress of Arts and Science", St Louis, Vol. V. 1906 (the Reports of Drude and Robinson) and the work of my colleague E. Warming.) As Leibniz said long ago, individuality consists in the law of the changes of a being. "La loi du changement fait l'individualite de chaque substance." Here is a world which is almost new for science, which till now has mainly occupied itself with general laws and forms. But these are ultimately only means to understand the individual phenomena, in whose nature and history a manifold of laws and forms always cooperate. The importance of this remark will appear in the sequel.


To many people the Darwinian theory of natural selection or struggle for existence seemed to change the whole conception of life, and particularly all the conditions on which the validity of ethical ideas depends. If only that has persistence which can be adapted to a given condition, what will then be the fate of our ideals, of our standards of good and evil? Blind force seems to reign, and the only thing that counts seems to be the most heedless use of power. Darwinism, it was said, has proclaimed brutality. No other difference seems permanent save that between the sound, powerful and happy on the one side, the sick, feeble and unhappy on the other; and every attempt to alleviate this difference seems to lead to general enervation. Some of those who interpreted Darwinism in this manner felt an aesthetic delight in contemplating the heedlessness and energy of the great struggle for existence and anticipated the realisation of a higher human type as the outcome of it: so Nietzsche and his followers. Others recognising the same consequences in Darwinism regarded these as one of the strongest objections against it; so Duhring and Kropotkin (in his earlier works).

This interpretation of Darwinism was frequent in the interval between the two main works of Darwin--"The Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man". But even during this interval it was evident to an attentive reader that Darwin himself did not found his standard of good and evil on the features of the life of nature he had emphasised so strongly. He did not justify the ways along which nature reached its ends; he only pointed them out. The "real" was not to him, as to Hegel, one with the "rational." Darwin has, indeed, by his whole conception of nature, rendered a great service to ethics in making the difference between the life of nature and the ethical life appear in so strong a light. The ethical problem could now be stated in a sharper form than before. But this was not the first time that the idea of the struggle for life was put in relation to the ethical problem. In the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes gave the first impulse to the whole modern discussion of ethical principles in his theory of bellum omnium contra omnes. Men, he taught, are in the state of nature enemies one of another, and they live either in fright or in the glory of power. But it was not the opinion of Hobbes that this made ethics impossible. On the contrary, he found a standard for virtue and vice in the fact that some qualities and actions have a tendency to bring us out of the state of war and to secure peace, while other qualities have a contrary tendency. In the eighteenth century even Immanuel Kant's ideal ethics had--so far as can be seen--a similar origin. Shortly before the foundation of his definitive ethics, Kant wrote his "Idee zu einer allgemeinen Weltgeschichte" (1784), where--in a way which reminds us of Hobbes, and is prophetic of Darwin--he describes the forward-driving power of struggle in the human world. It is here as with the struggle of the trees for light and air, through which they compete with one another in height. Anxiety about war can only be allayed by an ordinance which gives everyone his full liberty under acknowledgment of the equal liberty of others. And such ordinance and acknowledgment are also attributes of the content of the moral law, as Kant proclaimed it in the year after the publication of his essay (1785) (Cf. my "History of Modern Philosophy" (English translation London, 1900), I. pages 76-79.) Kant really came to his ethics by the way of evolution, though he afterwards disavowed it. Similarly the same line of thought may be traced in Hegel though it has been disguised in the form of speculative dialectics. ("Herrschaft und Knechtschaft", "Phanomenologie des Geistes", IV. A., Leiden, 1907.) And in Schopenhauer's theory of the blind will to live and its abrogation by the ethical feeling, which is founded on universal sympathy, we have a more individualistic form of the same idea.

It was, then, not entirely a foreign point of view which Darwin introduced into ethical thought, even if we take no account of the poetical character of the word "struggle" and of the more direct adaptation, through the use and non-use of power, which Darwin also emphasised. In "The Descent of Man" he has devoted a special chapter ("The Descent of Man", Vol. I. Ch. iii.) to a discussion of the origin of the ethical consciousness. The characteristic expression of this consciousness he found, just as Kant did, in the idea of "ought"; it was the origin of this new idea which should be explained. His hypothesis was that the ethical "ought" has its origin in the social and parental instincts, which, as well as other instincts (e.g. the instinct of self-preservation), lie deeper than pleasure and pain. In many species, not least in the human species, these instincts are fostered by natural selection; and when the powers of memory and comparison are developed, so that single acts can be valued according to the claims of the deep social instinct, then consciousness of duty and remorse are possible. Blind instinct has developed to conscious ethical will.

As already stated, Darwin, as a moral philosopher belongs to the school that was founded by Shaftesbury, and was afterwards represented by Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith, Comte and Spencer. His merit is, first, that he has given this tendency of thought a biological foundation, and that he has stamped on it a doughty character in showing that ethical ideas and sentiments, rightly conceived, are forces which are at work in the struggle for life.

There are still many questions to solve. Not only does the ethical development within the human species contain features still unexplained (The works of Westermarck and Hobhouse throw new light on many of these features.); but we are confronted by the great problem whether after all a genetic historical theory can be of decisive importance here. To every consequent ethical consciousness there is a standard of value, a primordial value which determines the single ethical judgments as their last presupposition, and the "rightness" of this basis, the "value" of this value can as little be discussed as the "rationality" of our logical principles. There is here revealed a possibility of ethical scepticism which evolutionistic ethics (as well as intuitive or rationalistic ethics) has overlooked. No demonstration can show that the results of the ethical development are definitive and universal. We meet here again with the important opposition of systematisation and evolution. There will, I think, always be an open question here, though comparative ethics, of which we have so far only the first attempts, can do much to throw light on it.

It would carry us too far to discuss all the philosophical works on ethics, which have been influenced directly or indirectly by evolutionism. I may, however, here refer to the book of C.M. Williams, "A Review of the Systems of Ethics founded on the Theory of Evolution" (New York and London, 1893.), in which, besides Darwin, the following authors are reviewed: Wallace, Haeckel, Spencer, Fiske, Rolph, Barratt, Stephen, Carneri, Hoffding, Gizycki, Alexander, Ree. As works which criticise evolutionistic ethics from an intuitive point of view and in an instructive way, may be cited: Guyau "La morale anglaise contemporaine" (Paris, 1879.), and Sorley, "Ethics of Naturalism". I will only mention some interesting contributions to ethical discussion which can be found in Darwinism besides the idea of struggle for life.

The attention which Darwin has directed to variations has opened our eyes to the differences in human nature as well as in nature generally. There is here a fact of great importance for ethical thought, no matter from what ultimate premiss it starts. Only from a very abstract point of view can different individuals be treated in the same manner. The most eminent ethical thinkers, men such as Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, who discussed ethical questions from very opposite standpoints, agreed in regarding all men as equal in respect of ethical endowment. In regard to Bentham, Leslie Stephen remarks: "He is determined to be thoroughly empirical, to take men as he found them. But his utilitarianism supposed that men's views of happiness and utility were uniform and clear, and that all that was wanted was to show them the means by which their ends could be reached." ("English literature and society in the eighteenth century", London, 1904, page 187.) And Kant supposed that every man would find the "categorical imperative" in his consciousness, when he came to sober reflexion, and that all would have the same qualifications to follow it. But if continual variations, great or small, are going on in human nature, it is the duty of ethics to make allowance for them, both in making claims, and in valuing what is done. A new set of ethical problems have their origin here. (Cf. my paper, "The law of relativity in Ethics," "International Journal of Ethics", Vol. I. 1891, pages 37-62.) It is an interesting fact that Stuart Mill's book "On Liberty" appeared in the same year as "The Origin of Species". Though Mill agreed with Bentham about the original equality of all men's endowments, he regarded individual differences as a necessary result of physical and social influences, and he claimed that free play shall be allowed to differences of character so far as is possible without injury to other men. It is a condition of individual and social progress that a man's mode of action should be determined by his own character and not by tradition and custom, nor by abstract rules. This view was to be corroborated by the theory of Darwin.

But here we have reached a point of view from which the criticism, which in recent years has often been directed against Darwin--that small variations are of no importance in the struggle for life--is of no weight. From an ethical standpoint, and particularly from the ethical standpoint of Darwin himself, it is a duty to foster individual differences that can be valuable, even though they can neither be of service for physical preservation nor be physically inherited. The distinction between variation and mutation is here without importance. It is quite natural that biologists should be particularly interested in such variations as can be inherited and produce new species. But in the human world there is not only a physical, but also a mental and social heredity. When an ideal human character has taken form, then there is shaped a type, which through imitation and influence can become an important factor in subsequent development, even if it cannot form a species in the biological sense of the word. Spiritually strong men often succumb in the physical struggle for life; but they can nevertheless be victorious through the typical influence they exert, perhaps on very distant generations, if the remembrance of them is kept alive, be it in legendary or in historical form. Their very failure can show that a type has taken form which is maintained at all risks, a standard of life which is adhered to in spite of the strongest opposition. The question "to be or not to be" can be put from very different levels of being: it has too often been considered a consequence of Darwinism that this question is only to be put from the lowest level. When a stage is reached, where ideal (ethical, intellectual, aesthetic) interests are concerned, the struggle for life is a struggle for the preservation of this stage. The giving up of a higher standard of life is a sort of death; for there is not only a physical, there is also a spiritual, death.


The Socratic character of Darwin's mind appears in his wariness in drawing the last consequences of his doctrine, in contrast both with the audacious theories of so many of his followers and with the consequences which his antagonists were busy in drawing. Though he, as we have seen, saw from the beginning that his hypothesis would occasion "a whole of metaphysics," he was himself very reserved as to the ultimate questions, and his answers to such questions were extorted from him.

As to the question of optimism and pessimism, Darwin held that though pain and suffering were very often the ways by which animals were led to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial to the species, yet pleasurable feelings were the most habitual guides. "We see this in the pleasure from exertion, even occasionally from great exertion of the body or mind, in the pleasure of our daily meals, and especially in the pleasure derived from sociability, and from loving our families." But there was to him so much suffering in the world that it was a strong argument against the existence of an intelligent First Cause. ("Life and Letters" Vol. I. page 310.)

It seems to me that Darwin was not so clear on another question, that of the relation between improvement and adaptation. He wrote to Lyell: "When you contrast natural selection and 'improvement,' you seem always to overlook...that every step in the natural selection of each species implies improvement in that species IN RELATION TO ITS CONDITION OF LIFE...Improvement implies, I suppose, EACH FORM OBTAINING MANY PARTS OR ORGANS, all excellently adapted for their functions." "All this," he adds, "seems to me quite compatible with certain forms fitted for simple conditions, remaining unaltered, or being degraded." (Ibid. Vol. II. page 177.) But the great question is, if the conditions of life will in the long run favour "improvement" in the sense of differentiation (or harmony of differentiation and integration). Many beings are best adapted to their conditions of life if they have few organs and few necessities. Pessimism would not only be the consequence, if suffering outweighed happiness, but also if the most elementary forms of happiness were predominant, or if there were a tendency to reduce the standard of life to the simplest possible, the contentment of inertia or stable equilibrium. There are animals which are very highly differentiated and active in their young state, but later lose their complex organisation and concentrate themselves on the one function of nutrition. In the human world analogies to this sort of adaptation are not wanting. Young "idealists" very often end as old "Philistines." Adaptation and progress are not the same.

Another question of great importance in respect to human evolution is, whether there will be always a possibility for the existence of an impulse to progress, an impulse to make great claims on life, to be active and to alter the conditions of life instead of adapting to them in a passive manner. Many people do not develop because they have too few necessities, and because they have no power to imagine other conditions of life than those under which they live. In his remarks on "the pleasure from exertion" Darwin has a point of contact with the practical idealism of former times--with the ideas of Lessing and Goethe, of Condorcet and Fichte. The continual striving which was the condition of salvation to Faust's soul, is also the condition of salvation to mankind. There is a holy fire which we ought to keep burning, if adaptation is really to be improvement. If, as I have tried to show in my "Philosophy of Religion", the innermost core of all religion is faith in the persistence of value in the world, and if the highest values express themselves in the cry "Excelsior!" then the capital point is, that this cry should always be heard and followed. We have here a corollary of the theory of evolution in its application to human life.

Darwin declared himself an agnostic, not only because he could not harmonise the large amount of suffering in the world with the idea of a God as its first cause, but also because he "was aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose." ("Life and Letters", Vol. I. page 306.) He saw, as Kant had seen before him and expressed in his "Kritik der Urtheilskraft", that we cannot accept either of the only two possibilities which we are able to conceive: chance (or brute force) and design. Neither mechanism nor teleology can give an absolute answer to ultimate questions. The universe, and especially the organic life in it, can neither be explained as a mere combination of absolute elements nor as the effect of a constructing thought. Darwin concluded, as Kant, and before him Spinoza, that the oppositions and distinctions which our experience presents, cannot safely be regarded as valid for existence in itself. And, with Kant and Fichte, he found his stronghold in the conviction that man has something to do, even if he cannot solve all enigmas. "The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty." (Ibid. page 307.)

Is this the last word of human thought? Does not the possibility, that man can do his duty, suppose that the conditions of life allow of continuous ethical striving, so that there is a certain harmony between cosmic order and human ideals? Darwin himself has shown how the consciousness of duty can arise as a natural result of evolution. Moreover there are lines of evolution which have their end in ethical idealism, in a kingdom of values, which must struggle for life as all things in the world must do, but a kingdom which has its firm foundation in reality.

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