Every thinker is holistic in the sense that they want to explain the whole of life with one principle. Even someone who advocates pluralism wants to bring everything under that umbrella. Who isn’t a holistic thinker? You can count Darwin in on this too. But true holistic thinking is about making the whole more important than the parts, and that does not fit Darwin’s vision.
Decades before Darwin’s Origin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who deserves more credit for helping to establish evolution than he usually gets, gave what could be considered a classic statement of holism:
“Nature—that immense assemblage of various existences and bodies … an eternal cycle of movements and changes controlled by laws—an assemblage that is only immutable so long as it pleases her sublime Author to continue her existence—should be regarded as a whole made up of parts, with a purpose that is known to its Author alone, but at any rate not for the sole benefit of any single part.” He goes on to say that “each part has an interest which is contrary to that of the whole; and if it reasons, it finds that the whole is badly made.”
The reasoning of a selfish being (like man, though he does not explicitly say this) does not really understand the whole and will misconceive what benefits the big picture. Darwin’s system is not so much about the wholeness of nature as about those parts, each struggling for its own aims. The reasoning creature places all things in a hierarchy of groups (which the whole, if it reasons, would probably not do) and puts a particular emphasis on dominant groups beating the weaker in the struggle for life. Every organism falls under the rule of competition. Darwin’s entire thinking is about distinguishing between success and failure, and banishing the failed groups to non-existence.
It is easy to be a racist in Darwin’s scheme. Or, let’s say his thinking serves racism well because superior and inferior are constant categories. It is much harder to be a racist in holistic thinking because superiority, success, and dominance are not key elements.
I am not arguing that every system of thought necessarily has fixed consequences. One could be holistic and yet believe that inferior and superior groups are a part of life and that the inferior must suffer the consequences. And one could embrace the competitiveness of natural selection and still think that the stronger groups must care for the weaker and not abuse them. These are not impossibilities. But it does not usually work out this way.
Darwin took the competition embedded in natural selection as far as it could go—to the detriment of all those “lower races” that he anticipated would be exterminated by Anglo-Saxons. On a personal level, he was more compassionate than that, but compassion is not inherent in the design of Darwin’s theory. Even in Descent where he speaks of the patriotic and brave as sacrificing themselves for their country, it feels tacked on to the theory. In Origin, he told us that every individual is out for its own good and that natural selection will never produce a change in one organism for the exclusive purpose of benefitting another.
Whereas someone like Robert Chambers, who was as genuinely holistic as Lamarck, believed that man had only a place in the whole and that this place, even if exalted, did not give him any superior rights. Animals, for example, had rights and feelings too, which had to be respected by mankind—not something Darwin would ever say. So although holistic thinking is no guarantee of compassion and humanitarianism, it is far more likely to get you there.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer