Saturday, June 25, 2016


I don’t think one can find any two worldviews that are further apart than the worldviews of Charles Darwin and John Locke. One could even say they are downright opposed. One championed a hierarchy of beings, with favor given to the stronger and more dominant, and the other believed in equality of rights with no distinction between the more powerful and the weaker.

This might be an unfair comparison to make if Darwin had been strictly a biologist, while Locke was engaged in political philosophy. But Darwin did not stick to flora and fauna. He was happy to apply natural selection to human societies. He may not have always gone as far as other Social Darwinists, but he did choose to make pronouncements about the human situation. He thought about what was good and bad for human society and, in the answers he gave, he was very different from Locke.

Locke denied that the stronger over the weaker was a natural law. He was not saying that this never happens. He was a realist. The weak do get screwed and often. But he held that it was a violation of natural right. Whatever is extorted by force, he said, is “without Right … [and] bind[s] not at all.” For him, it was a fundamental law of nature that the small and weak never lose their basic rights. Disputes should be resolved by negotiation or mutual consent, not by force. There is nothing like negotiation in Darwin’s system of thought.

There were many humanitarians (in Darwin’s time and earlier) who thought like Locke. Saxe Bannister, Attorney General for New South Wales in the mid-1820s, said that “rights are never forgotten.” Respecting the rights of the smaller nations and indigenous peoples was a major theme for humanitarians. One cannot say the same for Darwin.

About 70 years after Locke, Emer de Vattel wrote a highly respected treatise on international law. He put it as memorably as anyone ever has: “A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” There is “a perfect equality of rights between nations.” Thus, every nation has a right to resist by force if another nation endangers the safety and welfare of its own society. The powerful do not have more rights in this regard, and the weak do not have fewer rights. Locke would agree.

This is very different from Darwin’s world and, I would say, more realistic. Darwin was a strict imperialist. He believed a stronger nation has a right to go around imposing itself on weaker nations. “Man is not an intruder,” he wrote in one of his Notebooks. Man, particularly European man, has a right to invade and intrude and bring its own jurisdiction along with its intrusion. His vision was of mankind in a kind of eternal state of warfare, until a stalemate of power was achieved.

But the humanitarians saw it differently. Realistically, man is an intruder and therefore has to learn to be a negotiator. That’s what human beings do. Sometimes they make war, but more often, they bargain and reach peaceful agreements. They do this based on an understanding that Locke, among others, promoted. We all have rights and have to learn to get along. The weak have to be protected to make sure they never lose the same rights they share with the more powerful.

One could say the questions are: What is the essence of being human or being a human cultural group, and what rights go along with this essence? For Locke, Vattel, and many others, size did not matter. For Darwin, it very much did.

In an imperialist age, it was the Darwinian vision that proved the more appealing. But Locke’s thoughts never went away. They just snuck underground.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer