Reading Nietzsche: Darwinism and its Discontents

I’ve been saying for quite some time now that we should stop using the terms “Darwinist” or “Darwinian” when talking about natural selection. Darwin did not invent the process; it was going on long before he was born, and would happen with or without his discovery (or even his existence). Besides, we might call it “Wallace-ism” if we were to give credit where it’s due, and so many things are piled onto the theory (“Social Darwinism” being the heaviest) that it’s confusing at best, a non-starter at worst. Nature selects the traits in organisms that will increase their chances of reproduction, and heredity does the rest. This process is no more Darwinist than workers collectivizing is Marxist (unless, as in the case of many unions, including the Internationals, Marx himself was directly involved); Darwin and Marx simply observed and explained these processes, and indeed their explanation was that these processes (natural selection in Darwin’s case, capitalism running up against material/political limits in Marx’s) occurred regardless of anyone’s belief in them. Or rather, put as a question: Does a kingfisher reproducing and thus (imperfectly) copying its genes make it a Darwinist?

“Darwinist,” after all, is usually a blunt instrument: a term used to label someone as a “cold” rationalist, a nihilist, or an atheist—i.e. as an amoral degenerate, a sort of sinester pariah or calculating manipulator. Nietzsche, for many reasons, is usually described as such. But his writing on Darwin’s work is a bit curious, made even more puzzling by its brevity. Nietzsche wrote in Twighlight of the Idols:

As for the famous “struggle for existence,” so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance 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.

He goes on to explain further, but, as is often the case with Nietzsche, he leaves the reader with far more questions than answers:

Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence—and, indeed, it occurs—its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them—namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority—and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it.  … It will be noted that by “spirit” I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).


On one hand, Nietzsche seems to be making the critique of scientists that people like Derrick Jensen make today: that they see the natural world only for its cruelty and misery, ommitting that among other species there is also great joy, friendship, and love. “Let us not mistake Malthus for nature.”

On the other hand, Nietzsche seems to contradict himself at least twice. On the first occasion, by saying the struggle for existence is merely asserted, but then quickly adding “and, indeed, it occurs,” before listing the many negative attributes of group-think. The second occasion is precisely that: bemoaning the fact that organisms replicate themselves through heredity, as if were a philosophical/political system, and not simply how genetic material operates. “The species do not grow in perfection,” he laments. But perfection seems a silly, if not delusionary goal for both the rationalist and the Dionysian. Of course the species does not grow in perfection, because A. the species is made up of individuals, B. “perfection” is arbitrary and meaningless, and C. evolution by natural selection is not directional; there is no aim. If the natural environment never changed, and if DNA didn’t replicate with small mutations throughout generations, no evolution would occur.

Nietzsche writes that Darwin “forgot the spirit,” adding a quip about how dry and sardonic English people are, but in my estimation Darwin did the opposite: he recognized that nature doesn’t simply select for one trait, e.g. physical strength, but rather multiple traits working in conjunction, and indeed a diversity of traits simultaneously, since any trait that increases the chances of successful reproduction (including spirit) could conceivably be favored by any particular habitat. It’s not entirely clear to me what Nietzsche is saying about that. Is it unfortunate that this is true, or unfortunate that the Darwinists (here I am, writing “Darwinists”) wish the opposite to be true, or both? In this case Nietzsche might be guilty of anthropomorphizing (which I can’t believe I’m accusing anyone of!), i.e. of projecting what he perceives to be negative consequences of human “herd morality” onto other species—which, since they don’t have such ills as organized religion, nation-states, or weapons of mass destruction, strikes me as entirely unfair.

Evolution itself does not produce the over-man. This much is patently true. But then, that is precisely the definition of over-man: one who has willed individual meaning into existence, and who strives to rise above the crowd through introspection and critique (i.e. as a philosophical endeavor, not a political one).


4 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Darwinism and its Discontents

  1. Interesting – reminds me of the Marxist joke about Hobbes being “nasty, British, and short.” At the same time, genes do compete to be replicated, and indeed that’s their main function. But gene expression does not inform political organization, let alone morality.

  2. What he means in the first paragraph is that our basic instinct is not survival, but domination. At the highest level, the will to existence does not exist (see Of Self-Overcoming, from his Zarathustra); every will is derived from the will to power.

    In the second paragraph, he is ridiculing Darwin’s conception of a continuous, linear evolution that’s supposed to have some sort of “goal” towards perfecting species. For more on this, see his Will to Power, sections 684 and 685.

  3. Thanks Bleda – I will check out the passages you mention. I don’t remember Darwin making any claims that evolution produced perfection, as he differentiated between artificial selection and natural selection, with the latter simply selecting for the traits that give an organism enough of an edge in a certain ecosystem to be able to reproduce. Anyway, the point is that it doesn’t matter what Nietzsche thought of it; it happens on a genetic level regardless of anyone’s opinion.

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