I think the main reason Darwin’s The Origin of Species is considered such a classic is because it promotes the worldview of that time and ours—that is, that conquering is good and the culture that does it the best or the most is the premier, superior culture on earth—and his book makes us feel good about this very selfish point of view by demonstrating that this is not a moral or immoral choice we are making, but simply, what nature wants, so we don’t have to feel guilty about it or the disappearance of other cultures, or feel anything at all but unqualified joy that we are so blessed.
I once heard an author of self-help books say in an interview on the radio that the first piece of advice he gives to anyone who wants to publish a successful book or create any kind of successful business is that you must not challenge the worldview of your audience. As I see it, that’s why western culture often seems to be a closed circle, we are all talking to each other within set parameters, thinking about how to advance our culture, while we pretend we are making objective discoveries about the world or adding something new to our world, when it’s always the same old same old.
But didn’t Darwin challenge the worldview people had that man is at the center of the universe and that organisms are fixed and could not possibly be changing as time goes by? No, he did not. There are two points to make about that.
First, man is still at the center of things in Darwin’s system, he is the goal of evolution, and not just any man, but European man, or even more specifically, British man. At the end of The Descent of Man, he calls man “the very summit of the organic scale” and at the end of Origin, he calls the higher animals, “the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving.” In Origin, he expresses his pride in the superiority of British life forms and the superiority of Britain’s ability to artificially create new varieties and export them to different parts of the world. It would not be a stretch to say that Origin was written to make British imperialists proud of their achievements (in case they were having any doubts). Darwin embraced the idea of changing species in a limited way. In his world, change reinforces the dominant species, so nothing ever really changes. The strong get stronger, the weak weaker.
Secondly, even if someone insisted that there is in evolutionary theory a completely different understanding of nature than the standard worldview of Darwin’s time, that credit should go to the evolutionists who preceded Darwin. In the limited space of this blog post, I will single out Robert Chambers who more than anyone else made the public comfortable with the idea of gradual change in the organic world, producing new species over long periods of time. Unlike Darwin, he did it in a radical way and did not strive to make evolution fit the imperialist mode. Achieving ever more dominant species was not Chambers’s vision of evolution.
As far as Chambers was concerned, evolution blessed all life on earth, the strong and the weak, all have a valuable place in nature, and in fact, the world was constantly changing so that a life form that was down one day could be up the next. For Darwin, evolution was about dominance and any life form that did not do that was on “the high road to extinction.” For Chambers, there was no inevitable extinction, nature was always ready to hand out blessings even to the weak and the small. Social classes were not fixed either. In a sense, for Chambers, all life was upwardly mobile. That was not true for Darwin who held all life to be divided into three categories—dominant, extinct, or on the way to extinction.
If anyone challenged our worldview, it was Chambers, which is probably the main reason his reputation has not fared so well. Chambers saw the meaning of evolution in the whole of nature in which mankind is just a piece. We get our dignity and our humility from being a part of the magnificent whole, not from being superior to other organisms. Chambers was delighted that human beings are descended from previous animal forms, making us a late arrival on earth, and drew the conclusion that because we are related to so-called lower animals who were here before us, we are bound to respect them and treat them well.
Darwin found the meaning of evolution in hierarchy and dominance. With the help of friends, he managed to make himself appear to be a revolutionary, while giving aid and comfort to the ruling classes. Very early in Origin, Darwin told his readers that dominant species “become still more dominant” which is exactly what the upper classes wanted to hear. He believed lower animals are here to serve us and while we should not be wantonly cruel towards them, we are entitled to experiment on them, including performing surgery on live animals, if necessary to find ways to improve the human condition. He pleaded with a Royal Commission not to recommend placing an outright ban on experimentation on living animals.
Darwin accepted the ranking of organisms that was popular in his time and had been popular at least since the Middle Ages. Darwin was a biological theologian. He made the theology of “groups subordinate to groups” (a phrase he frequently uses in Origin) the centerpiece of his system of thought. The previous evolutionists like Chambers and Erasmus Darwin challenged this stilted worldview. We still cannot forgive them for that. As long as western culture thrives, we will deprecate their insights and achievements.
So it goes. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot put it, “Worldview wins over the facts.”
© 2018 Leon Zitzer