Nietzsche & Evolution
H. James Birx looks at Darwin’s profound influence on Nietzsche’s dynamic philosophy.
The scientist Charles Darwin had awakened the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche from his dogmatic slumber by the realization that, throughout organic history, no species is immutable (including our own). Pervasive change replaced eternal fixity. Going beyond Darwin, the German thinker offered an interpretation of dynamic nature that considered both the philosophical implications and theological consequences of taking the fact of biological evolution seriously.
Nietzsche was not previously oblivious to either geological time or the paleontological record. He accepted the most controversial ramification of Darwin’s theory: humankind had evolved from remote apelike ancestors, in a completely naturalistic way, through a process of chance and necessity (fortuitous random variations appearing in, and inevitable natural selection acting on, individuals within a changing environment). Even the mental faculties of human beings, including love and reason, were acquired during the course of evolutionary ascent from earlier primate forms.
For Nietzsche, evolution is the correct explanation for organic history but it results in a disastrous picture of reality, since evolution (as he saw it) has far-reaching truths for both scientific cosmology and philosophical anthropology: God is no longer necessary to account for either the existence of this universe or the emergence of our species from prehistoric animals. In fact, this philosopher held that Darwinian evolution led to a collapse of all traditional values, because both objective meaning and spiritual purpose had vanished from reality (and consequently, there can be no fixed or certain morality).
Nietzsche knew that the previous philosophical systems from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Hegel were inadequate to deal with the crisis of evolution. As a result, a totally new philosophy of the world was now required. Nietzsche offered an interpretation of reality that accepted the fluidity of nature, species, ideas, beliefs and values. Furthermore, he held that it is nonsense to think that the fact of evolution can ever be taught as if it were a religion (since the process of evolution contains nothing that is stable or eternal or spiritual).
One can imagine Nietzsche’s tirades against the biblical fundamentalism and so-called scientific creationism that have threatened science and reason during the twentieth century. An atheist, Nietzsche would have also abhorred Stephen J. Gould for upholding an unwarranted dualistic ontology which supports both the natural world of the scientist and the transcendent realm of the theologian. Instead, as a monist, he would have admired Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett for their strictly naturalistic framework, which gives no credence to supernaturalism.
Nietzsche had assumed that the outcome of Darwinian evolution could only account for the success of inferior (weak and mediocre) forms of life simply in terms of sheer numbers, e.g., the ubiquitous viruses, bacteria, insects and fishes. The philosopher argued that Darwin’s blind speciesstruggle of the masses for existence needed to be replaced by his own discovery of the individual-struggle of a few for selfcreation and excellence.
Nietzsche saw the explanatory mechanism of natural selection as merely accounting for the quantity of species within organic history, but (for him) it is a vitalistic force that increases the quality of life forms throughout progressive biological evolution. He held that nature is essentially the will to power. Evolving life is not merely the Spencerian/Darwinian struggle for existence but, more importantly, it is the ongoing striving toward ever-greater complexity, diversity, multiplicity and creativity. In short, reminiscent of the interpretations offered by Lamarck and Henri Bergson (among others), Nietzsche’s vitalism had substituted Darwin’s adaptive fitness with creative power.
The philosopher held that the evolution of organisms had its origin in primordial slime, but our species now stands high and proud on the pyramid of life. Even so, he saw a natural tendency for the human animal to evolve toward common mediocrity. But, through the will to power, superior individuals have the potential to master their lives (overcoming nihilism and pessimism) and the intellect to actualize creative activity.
As with Thomas Huxley, Ernst Haeckel and Darwin himself, Nietzsche taught the historical continuity between human beings and other animals (especially the chimpanzees). However, the philosopher did assert that some individuals will rise far above the beasts, including our own species, but this will only occur in the remote future.
If our species has ascended from the fossil apes, then why should it not be followed by an even higher form of life as the ape has been surpassed by the human animal of today? According to Nietzsche, our biological species is the meaning and purpose of the earth so far, because it is the arrow pointing from the past ape to the future overman; this exalted but unimaginable being will be as intellectually advanced beyond the present human animal as our species is biologically advanced beyond the lowly worm!
For Nietzsche, the aesthetic evolutionist as sculptor, the coming overman is like an ideal image sleeping in a crude rock. In carving this superior being, the philosopher was guided by its shadow, although he remained indifferent to the destruction resulting from his intense creativity: “Fragments fly from the stone; what is that to me?”
Unlike the silenced priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a geopaleontologist and Jesuit mystic, Nietzsche did not foresee a final end-goal or an ultimate omega point for human evolution. Instead, his metaphysics is grounded in the eternal recurrence of this same universe, i.e., an infinite series of identical cosmic cycles. As such, there is no progressive evolution from universe to universe. Consequently, Nietzsche’s process cosmology represents being as becoming, and its teleological evolution to the overman within each cycle is strictly determined.
Nietzsche did not speculate on life or intelligence or exoevolution elsewhere in this universe. Furthermore, this philosopher could not have imagined mass extinctions, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and human space travel to other planets. Clearly, continuing advances in science and technology will offer awesome possibilities for neolife and overbeings in the ages ahead.
Friedrich Nietzsche had taken time, change and evolution seriously. He was acutely aware that this universe is totally indifferent to human existence. Yet, his philosophy offers an optimistic challenge for those who are willing to follow the lightning bolts of his heroic vision.
© H. James Birx 2000
H. James Birx, Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin, Prometheus, 1991.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885),
Prometheus, 1993, esp. pp.13-27.
Keith Ansell Pearson, Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition, Routledge, 1997.
Peter Poellner, Nietzsche and Metaphysics, OUP, 1995.
Eric Steinhart, On Nietzsche, Wadsworth, 2000.
Irving M. Zeitlin, Nietzsche: A Re-examination, Polity, 1994.