Darwin in America
The history of evolutionary thought in the U.S. contains some surprises
by Robert Throckmorton
CYNTHIA EAGLE RUSSETT, a lecturer in American History at Yale, has written a book Darwin in America; the Intellectual Response, 1865-1912 (Freeman 1976), which demonstrates that far from making a solid, fundamentalist assault on Darwin’s theory, as the publicity surrounding the Scopes trial led us to believe, many American divines were eager to make use of it. In philosophy, Charles Peirce, perhaps the greatest American philosopher, drew upon Darwin for a new foundation for science, based both upon the primacy of chance and the active role of the scientist in establishing concepts. In the social sciences, the whole idea of time in a historical process was conceptualized. And in politics, reformers championed what they got out of Darwin to advocate not Social Darwinism but what Russett calls Reform Darwinism. If nothing else Darwin in America should give us a sympathetic appreciation of what much later degenerated into “liberalism.” Too often have we ripped liberalism out of its historical development and treated it as a disease dropped from on high.
The idea of evolution did not begin with Darwin. There was speculation on the subject by Hegel, Comte, Goethe, Lamarck, and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus. But there was as yet “no scientifically convincing alternative,” says Russett, to the special creation account of Genesis. It was up to Darwin to develop such an alternative. In 1838, he had become convinced that species changed over time. In reading Malthus’s treatises on population, Darwin had concluded (unlike Malthus himself) that the unfit would be weeded out. Thus was born the idea of natural selection, providing an acceptable mechanism for evolutionary change.
Darwin’s theory, however, was not to triumph for some time, indeed, not until the statistician Ronald Fisher rediscovered the work of Gregor Mendel. In fact, in later editions of The Origin of the Species, Darwin hinted that Lamarck’s thesis of the inheritance of acquired characteristics was in better accordance with newly discovered fossil evidence that seemed to show more direction in evolution than natural selection would allow. Also: Lamarck’s teleological inferences were more easily harmonized with theology. “In retrospect,” Russett writes, “it appears that neo-Lamarckianism may well have performed a valuable service for its rival by muting the initial harshness of the Darwinian challenge to established truths and this facilitated its general acceptance.”
The preachers jumped into the debate more vigorously than the scientists. A chair for the “Harmony of Science and Religion” was founded at Oberlin College for the Calvinist George Frederick Wright, who said, “If Calvinism is a foe to sentimentalism in theology, so is Darwinism in natural history.” Other churchmen saw evolution as a mechanism created by supernatural design, leading to the announcement of a “higher theology” whose end product was man. One reverend went so far in taming Calvin that Christ himself was turned into an evolutionist who had redeemed man in an upward spiral, whereby “the whole human race would become what Christ was.”
It was toward this kind of conciliation with science that American theology quickly moved after a short, initially hostile reaction. Religion, in any case, was not in a commanding position in the post-Civil War period. The second Great Awakening, which included the Mormons, had died out by then, and Christianity had not recovered from intellectual attacks ranging from David Hume to the new geology in the 1830s. Besides, Russett argues, the small-town, individualist outlook of Protestantism was inadequate for the increasingly urbanized society of the post-Appomattox years.
Most of us today are inclined to think that the early response to Darwin was a profound pessimism about the human condition; “nature red in tooth and claw,” in Tennyson’s overworked phrase. In point of fact, an optimistic response prevailed. “Darwin’s theory, a biological principle, became transmuted into Darwinism, a set of principles of presumably universal application,” Russett explains. Grand indeed were the evolutionary philosophies that started emerging even before Darwin’s Origin appeared in 1859. Herbert Spencer’s essay, “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), prefigured his own system of “cosmic evolution.” “It always rankled just a bit that he [Spencer, a civil engineer by training], who had coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ in an article on human population, had not thought to extend the principle to the plant and animal world as Darwin had done.” Not a few books by putative “liberals” claim that Darwin (good guy), unlike Spencer (bad guy), never used this expression. However, chapter 4 of Origin is titled “Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest” and the phrase also appears in Darwin’s Autobiography.
While Spencer argued for untrammeled capitalism and the furtherance of evolution, he “outlined a universe ever ascendant toward a more perfect equilibrium” — a cosmic optimism that had an impact often greater than Darwin’s constriction of evolution to the biological world. John Fiske was one of those who fell under Spencer’s Zarathustran spell. An amateur historian best known for his heroic histories of the United States, a jolly endomorph, and the author of Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, he spoke of a future “lighted with the radiant colors of hope, when peace and love shall reign supreme and strife and sorrow shall disappear.”
Fiske belonged to what Charles Peirce called the “Metaphysics Club,” an informal discussion group of amateurs and Harvard faculty members in Cambridge. The club’s membership, which included William James and philosopher Chauncey Wright, read like an honor roll of topflight American thinkers, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), the leading member of the club, criticized Spencer’s variety of evolution as being deterministic and argued that determinism was not necessary for science and had not in any case been proven by experiment. He remarked, “Mr. Darwin proposed to apply the statistical method of biology. The same thing has been done in a widely different branch of science, namely the theory of gasses.” To Peirce (and only to Peirce), the controversy over Darwin was mainly logical. Peirce held that natural selection was not the only possible evolutionary process, two others being the Lamarckian and the cataclysmic, both of which are being given something of a comeback today by Réné Thom’s Structural Stability and Morphogenesis, although in a quite transmuted form.
Peirce’s belief in universals should be absorbed by anyone studying evolution. The medieval debate between the Platonist “realists” and the “nominalists” had more or less been won by the latter until Peirce’s writings. The Platonists believed that true reality was a series of abstract ideas, of which we can only catch a few glimpses. An antithetic school following William of Occam declared the objects we see are real and that our concepts are only arbitrary names (hence “nominalism”). For Peirce both the concepts and the objects conceptualized have reality.
Peirce was rather aloof from social problems, as was his friend Chauncey Wright, but many others were not. Darwin himself was of two minds about how tough-minded the prescriptions to be drawn from his discoveries were to be. At times he could be as tough-minded (though reluctantly so) as Spencer; at other times he saw no such necessity.
Oswald Spengler, in his Decline of the West, snorted that Darwinism was the application of English business ethics to the biological world. But Russett argues that businessmen rarely if ever espoused Social Darwinism. Rather, they were good Christians and believed that frugality and hard work (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic) were the keys to success. Besides, since only a small minority of businessmen even finished high school, they were unlikely to come across the tomes of the Social Darwinists. This is all contrary to Richard Hofstadter’s widely (far too widely) accepted Social Darwinism in America, a book by a man who dislikes his subject.
Andrew Carnegie provides a partial exception, as he did espouse Social Darwinism to a certain extent. His literary assistant, James H. Bridge, had formerly been associated with Herbert Spencer, some of whose ideas he put into speeches written for Carnegie. But, according to Russett, it was not all “survival of the fittest” for Bridge, who “looked forward to a ‘rational industrialism’ prefigured by the trusts, in which ‘we are to pass from the cruel egoism of the old system to the kindly altruism of the new.'”
Not all Social Darwinists were so rigidly against government as a matter of principle as Spencer. William Graham Sumner, while more pessimistic than Spencer on the whole, believed that most arguments for collective action should be rejected but could be justified case by case. For instance, Sumner supported public education and municipal sewage systems, both controversial in those days. Nor did Sumner have any use for Spencer’s “natural rights.” He saw the best of society residing in the middle class. In his essay, “The Forgotten Man,” he made the famous characterization: “He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all he pays.”
While the Social Darwinists grew more flexible in regard to reform, the reformers themselves were using Darwin’s ideas to advocate change. Lester H. Ward pointed out the great waste in nature and noted the benefits of animal breeding and improved nutrition in crops. He saw the mind as an entirely new factor emerging in evolution. Man had managed to acquire some control over his evolutionary destiny, as well as being a part of it. Education was urged as a means of stimulating men to make more use of their mental facilities.
In a somewhat similar vein, John Dewey searched for a “theory of consciously organic activity.” He said the thinking process correlated organism and environment and opposed what he called the “spectator-theory of knowledge” of the British empiricists. Dewey has been given a bad press by the conservatives, but Russett offers us a sympathetic view of Dewey’s quest to place the unique aspects of the human mind into an evolutionary perspective. The book, unfortunately, does not cover the whole development of Dewey’s thought, so one will have to turn to Dewey’s later writings to see whether his own kind of pragmatism and his ideas on “progressive education” were really the monsters they have been made out to be.
Dewey, like many American intellectuals of the last century, went to Germany and soaked up Hegel. But Hegel was too metaphysical for an American empiricist. Still, the attempt was made to effect some sort of fusion between Hegel and Darwin. James M. Baldwin saw the individual as a product of society (though not quite of the “state”) and Charles H. Cooley saw collective customs arising from their social utility after a Darwinian struggle. A fusion, then, was made between the collectivity as the only reality (Hegel) and the individual as the only reality (the Social Darwinists).
In the economist Thorstein Veblen we meet another great evolutionary optimist, who saw competitive predation giving way to cooperation. He criticized competition not for its ruthlessness (which could be excused), but for its inefficiency (which could not). The most radical of the reformers, he wanted to replace capitalism with economic control by engineers.
Among those whom Russett calls the Reform Darwinists we do not recognize the egalitarians and environmentalists of today. Nor do we see the maudlin do-gooders. Rather we see men who absorbed the meaning of evolution and its importance, but who, through that very understanding, came to regard nature’s way as not being as efficient as what could be devised by men (products, but very active ones, of that evolution). Hence the possibility of improvement. How this degenerated into the contemporary “human betterment industry” is a subject for another book.
It would be poor history to regard Dewey or Veblen or any of the Reform Darwinists as the conscious or unconscious founders of the present-day liberal-minority school of thought. One of the principal legacies of Darwinism has been the idea that history is the result of cumulative causation. It is neither the confirmation of biblical prophecies nor the result of mechanistic (Newtonian) progress. Until Darwin’s era, Russett asserts, the irreversible, evolutionary character of time was not appreciated and thought was based not upon “the study of origins, histories, developments” but on abstract deduction and idealization. The new way of looking at time was then called the “genetic method,” and this term is still used by Jean Piaget, the psychologist who studies the progressive unfolding of children’s mental abilities.
Another legacy of Darwinism is cultural relativism. This should be nothing more than the elementary observation that cultural institutions also undergo a selection process and should be judged according to the utility of circumstance rather than a set of abstract principles. But relativism, like the reform movements, has been misused to the advantage of the present ruling class, the education-welfare establishment. Evolutionary optimism has gone out of liberalism, which now seeks to perpetrate itself by moral abstractions.
The essential points of Darwinism, its optimism, its promise of eugenics as well as effective and meaningful social reform, its challenge to better self-understanding, most of these are now under lock and key in liberalism’s dark tower, awaiting rescue by a new generation of Majority scientists and philosophers.
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Source: Instauration magazine, November 1979