Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Last month I put up my letter to the NY Times Sunday Book Review on the review of the Peter Cozzens book (see below).  Since then, I put up my own review of the book on Amazon. I gave it 2 stars mainly because Cozzens never directly confronts the issue of genocide and pretends that white invasion of Indian lands was a result of natural forces, not moral choices. I will post my review here next month, but this month, something else caught my eye about Darwin in another Times review.

Here is a good example of how popular writing about Darwin constantly mythologizes him. They give us a fictional Darwin who never existed. In a New York Times review of a book on the causes of World War I (Sunday Book Review, Dec. 11, 2016, p. 16), Margaret MacMillan, a professor at Oxford, writes, “Struggle, so Darwin could be twisted to say, was a natural part of human existence.” I suppose she means to imply that Darwin was more humane than that. She wants to distinguish Darwin from “social Darwinism and the racialist theories it spawned.” But you don’t have to twist Darwin to make him elevate struggle as the primary feature of all life or to make him espouse racist ideas of inferiority and superiority. He says these things himself.

Chapter III of The Origin of Species is entitled “Struggle for Existence”. The last words of Chapter VII are “let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Those words remained in place through all six editions (in the sixth edition, this was at the end of Chapter VIII). For the first ten pages or so of “Struggle for Existence”, Darwin is reminding the reader of the great destruction of life in nature, and using plants as an example, states that “the more vigorous … gradually kill the less vigorous.” No one has to make Darwin say any of this. He is quite clear about it and never tries to pretend that he sees life as anything less than a struggle to the death. “Fatal competition” as he says at the end of Chapter IV on natural selection. Extinction itself, which is the subject of one of the sections of Chapter IV, plays a large role in Darwin’s thinking. And lest we forget (how careless of me to leave this as the last example), the struggle for life was so important to Darwin that he put it in the subtitle of his book: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

I think the reason writers have felt enabled to so shamefully misrepresent Darwin’s views is that Darwin (the fictional Darwin) has been encapsulated into one sentence. This is the last sentence of Origin, which in truncated form reads as follows: “There is grandeur in this view of life … from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” This is the romantic Darwin and it is the chief source of the idealistic vision of him. But the real Darwin also wrote a sentence immediately before that, in which he explained how this evolution comes about. It results “from the war of nature, from famine and death.” This gives us, says Darwin, “the production of the higher animals.” And in the sentence immediately before that, he references “a Struggle for Life” and “the Extinction of less-improved forms.” These sentences, the second and third from the end of Origin, express and capture what most of The Origin of Species is about. The last sentence is a romantic departure from the main thrust of Origin.

That last sentence, quoted probably more often than any other from Darwin, has been used to create the fictional Darwin. No one ever bothers to tell you how atypical it is for the historical Darwin. The real Darwin can be found in the sentences leading up to the uncharacteristic last one. That Darwin would go on to make clear twelve years later in The Descent of Man that he believed Indigenous peoples all over the world were among the forms of life that would soon be exterminated by Europeans and particularly by Anglo-Saxons. He regarded this extermination of human beings as a natural process of extinction of the less improved forms of life. This historically real Darwin has been erased by the majority of writers and scholars who continue to present to the public their romanticized, dream-like image of him. That image may be attractive to many people, but he never existed.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer