Most of the evolutionists before Charles Darwin—his own grandfather Erasmus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Constantine Rafinesque, and Robert Chambers—were far more holistic than he was. What was going on in the whole of nature grabbed their attention. They were excited by the idea that all creatures were related to each other and that this relation existed within the whole that gave each organism its part to play. Each of them may not have emphasized this idea in equal measure, but all of these naturalists gave it some force in their system of thought.
Lamarck argued that nature constituted a whole which did not act for the benefit of any one part. The whole might have a purpose, but whatever it is, the parts have no knowledge of it. Indeed, the parts of the whole may have a tendency to be very selfish and exaggerate their own importance. If a part could reason, it would probably say the whole is somehow deficient. In reality, the whole is perfectly organized and no one part may substitute itself for the whole.
For Lamarck, the development of the whole requires constant change in the parts—this is evolution, or la marche de la nature, as Lamarck called it—and if each part had a choice in the matter, it might wish to put a stop to that. But wherever evolution is headed, it must be good—at least, from the point of view of the whole.
Constant change was the key characteristic of evolution for Rafinesque. It should teach us, he argued, tolerance and love. We should honor the changes we see in nature. His view was that this is better than gloomy uniformity—which Chambers would call endless monotony. Chambers too celebrated variety and diversity in nature and our relationship to all other creatures. We all belong together in one vast system. This should teach us to respect the rights and feelings of lower animals. These are not my words. Rights and feelings are exactly the way Chambers put it.
Erasmus Darwin concluded we should love our brother emmets (ants) and sister worms. Rafinesque said the world was an organized animal rolling in space. Chambers compared nature to a pregnant woman going through stages of gestation. If they saw destruction and death in nature, as Erasmus Darwin and Rafinesque certainly did, they also saw rebirth in it. The continual birthing of new life forms gave them hope.
This is very different from the way Charles Darwin saw evolution. He did not emphasize wholeness and familial relationships so much as he emphasized a hierarchy of life forms with the dominant, (supposedly) most fit species on top. That is what comes through in The Origin of Species. Competition is perhaps the key factor in his scheme of evolution. Rafinesque abhorred competition. He believed it was destructive of human society.
Interestingly, Alfred Wallace, who came up with a version of natural selection similar to Darwin’s, also had ideas about the harm that competition among humans can do, especially competition between unequal parties—as, for example, competition between European nations and indigenous cultures. He wanted Europe to pull back from its ruthless pursuit of conquest and competition with societies that were not prepared for it.
And here is one of the most interesting points in all this: When we find racism in Darwin’s scientific thoughts about savages, it feels systemic. He builds it right into the system of nature as he saw it. Racism will sometimes rear its head in the writings of these other naturalists because it was a part of the society they lived in, but they never made it integral to their way of thinking. It rather appears as an aberration, something that does not really belong there. Racism has a kind of ideological permanency in Charles Darwin, but the others were headed in a very different direction. In their holism, racism does not play a part, even if this prejudice accidentally pops up on occasion.
Despite the deliberate overstatement in the title of this post, I would not say that holistic thinking is the only way to defeat racism, but it can help. And I would not say that anyone who fails to be holistic must inevitably incline towards racism. But it is interesting how often holism and anti-racism have gone together and it is especially instructive to see that there were other ways of being an evolutionist before Darwin, other ways which encouraged humanitarianism far more than he did.
©2014 Leon Zitzer