Darwin And The Victrian Era Essay, Research Paper
Darwin and the Victrian era
The Victorian Age was a time when many views on human existence and destiny were formed and discussed. Strictly speaking the Victorian era denotes the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901. When this era came to an end, the ongoing concepts and controversies did not vanish. The old and the new are always confusingly interlocked in culture. The twentieth century inherited some of the ideas of the nineteenth century. Some of these new ideas culminated elaborate philosophical theories that contributed to many disasters. Nazism and Communism are some of the examples of this inherited misfortune. Unfortunately, Darwin in-directly contributed to many of the twentieth century’s misfortunes. Indeed, Darwin’s theories had a great impact upon the Victorian era, and upon the future generations.
Darwinism had great effects on nineteenth century thought because it was yet another wonderful new synthesis. It was connected by dimly perceived links with the other revelations of physical nature. Organic chemistry and, even more, bacteriology were already forging some links between the mathematical, physical, and biological sciences. It was suggested that life is a process of chemical change. Charles Darwin brought together these and other ideas to propound a new theory of life itself. Darwinism was the supreme achievement of contemporary trends towards synthesis and the publication of On the Origin of Species made the year 1859 a turning point in modern science and philosophy.
Darwin’s theories were characteristically rooted in the material and techno-logical progress of the time. The geological know1edge from which Darwin began had been greatly enhanced by the collection of fossils worldwide; biological knowledge of the selective breeding of plants and animals came from the experimental laboratory, farmers, and amateur breeders. Conceptions of evolution and even the role of evolution in differentiating species had been much discussed during the previous half-century as a result of the work of Lamarck. Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire in France had defended the idea of the unity of life, of a fundamental relationship between all living things, as the basis of biology. The idea of environment as a totality of the surrounding conditions determining life and human society was familiar to historians such as H. T. Buckle even before Darwin wrote (Woodward 530, Appleman 4-5).
The notion of competition as a principle of social life and economic activity, of progress coming through a struggle for survival, underlay the economic theories of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and all the laissez-faire arguments of the early nineteenth century. When Darwin brought together all these scattered ideas and integrated them into his daring thesis–that it is by constant adaptation to environment through a process of natural selection and struggle for survival that all species of living things have become differentiated– it was as if the whole Ark-load of animals had suddenly landed in the Garden of Eden, converting it into a jungle “red in tooth and claw” (Woodward 427).
According to Darwin there exists a constant struggle for existence among living organisms. Variations in individual organisms are present at birth. Thus, in a single litter of pigs there may be sturdy piglets and a runt piglet. The runt piglet is likely to get shoved aside in suckling by his more aggressive brothers, and in the wild state would be almost certain to die. In the struggle for existence, the weakling is proved “unfit.”
Here is the second key phrase of Darwinism, “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase actually borrowed from Herbert Spencer. The organism best endowed to get food and shelter lives to procreate young that will tend to inherit these favorable variations. The variations in structure that assist the organism are slight but they are cumulative after many generations; finally an organism so different from the long-distant ancestor is produced that we can speak of a new species. The new species has “evolved.” It has evolved by the working of “natural” selection. As a plant and animal breeder, man has long made use of this process, and has hastened and guided it by “artificial selection,” by breeding only the best strains– best, of course, from the human point of view. But man has been doing this for but a tiny period of geological time and with relatively few species. Over the eons natural selection has been the working force. For man himself, according to Darwin’s system, natural selection alone has been at work as man has not yet learned to breed his own kind as he breeds his domestic plants and animals.
Darwin held that variations in individuals of the same species at birth are accidental, and they are generally transmitted through in-heritance. But orthodox Darwinian biology holds that what an organism “learns” is what “happens” to it. Knowledge is not transmitted: it denies the inheri-tance of an “acquired characteristic.” Later, work however found that variations of size and importance in the evolutionary process are probably not so much the numerous tiny ones, but rather bigger and much more rare ones known as “mutations”. As Irvine notes, “many difficulties could be more easily met by basing evolution not so much on minute changes as on large, abrupt ones– in short, on mutations”(129). Still, a much-disputed geo-logical theory holds that catastrophic movements of the earth’s crust in the past have so radically altered environment as to wipe out whole species and speed up the evolution of others. Emphasis is placed upon swift change rather than gradual, as believed in the nineteenth century.
Social Darwinism, which represented not Darwin’s own work as a biologist, but the application of Darwin’s ideas to human affairs had become a sound way of looking at nineteenth century life. Spencer had employed the “Darwinian theory to prove that the individualistic competitive society of Victorian England had been ordained by nature and was the sole guarantor of progress” (Semmel 29). The biological struggle for existence became for the Social Darwinist free competition among individuals in economic, social, and political activity. The “survival of the fittest” became success and leadership in these fields, and in particular, the economic. These ideas were a fine buttress for the already existing doctrines of laissez-faire, and the accompanying limitation on governmental action or community planning.
In strict Social Darwinian theory, the man who cannot earn a living in the competitive world is thereby proved unfit; for the sake of “progress,” which is the political and moral equivalent of evolution, he should be allowed to “starve”. “Nature,” wrote the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, “is often a little cruel that she may be very kind.” The true believers in Social Darwinism argued that to keep the incompetent or unfit alive by private charity or government was an unnatural attempt to interfere with the laws of Nature, and if pursued, would result in the physical and mental destruction of the human race. On the other side, the bark of these Social Darwinists was worse than their bite; Spencer specifically defended governmental charity towards the poor, the presumably unfit, as an evolutionary asset, should it not be overdone (Semmel 30-35).
Another variant of Social Darwinism treats the units competing in the struggle for life as racial and national units, not individual. Within these units, the Darwinian concept of the struggle for life is subdued, and mutual help prevails. Yet among all these units the struggle goes on as Evolution intends. The unit that beats another in war and economic competition is thereby proved to be the fittest and should use individuals of the deferred unit to serve the successful na-tion or race. Just as Darwin’s ideas, transferred to socio-economic problems, reinforcing nineteenth century laissez-faire individualism, so his ideas, transferred to international relations, justifying war and im-perial expansion by a dominant nation or race. Semmel notes within the Victorian hunger for progress that it was “reasonable to view ‘progress’ as the result of an evolutionary struggle between groups of men, between tribes or nations or races, the fittest group predominating in the ceaseless warfare which constituted the evolutionary process” (30). The English Spencerian objector Benjamin Kidd can be
credited for showing the implications of social darwinism to his generation through his
works: Social Evolution (1894) and Control of the Tropics (1898) (Ibid)+.
Within the nineteenth century, there existed a unique center of thought and feeling on matters of politics, morals, and even worldviews. While not limited to England, it may still be fairly described as the Victorian compromise. Basically it is a com-promise between the high hopes and aims for an almost literal heaven on earth cherished by some thinkers of the Enlightenment and the realities of the nineteenth century life. The ultimate aims, expressed as the doctrine of Progress, is not given up, but the comfortable Victorian accepts a much slower and more uneven rate of progress as inevitable. He will not conclude, as his forefathers did, that the poor shall never leave the land; but he will accept existing conditions of poverty, at least for the time being. He will hope one day men will not make war and will not quarrel over religious or political ideas; but for the moment he will patriotically support his nation in war and adhere more or less firmly to his own political party, his own religious sect, and his own artistic tastes and standards. He will, unless he is definitely to the Left or Right in such matters, believe that political and social democracy, civil rights, and universal education are all part of progress, arrived at by evolution, not revolution, gradually not catastrophically. He will place great hopes on education to prepare the masses for increasing power. He will believe in individual liberty, liberty from state interference save in matters of enforcing contracts and maintaining public order. He will share a good deal of the Jeffersonian distrust of government, and accept the doctrine that government governs best which governs least, and least expensively (Woodward 426-30).
The previous statement may make Western society in the nineteenth century sound most unstable, not to say anarchic. Yet, on the whole it was stable enough to achieve fundamental technological progress. A clue to this stability lies in the Victorian compromise itself. For however much an educated man in the nineteenth century may have believed in freedom of thought, freedom of business enterprise, freedom of asso-ciation, he also believed in a strict moral code (Victorian morality), in a foundation of social conformity, and above all, in law and order, and in gradual evolutionary-natural change, thanks to Mr. Darwin. As Irvine notes, “Progress was no longer the precarious, sporadic result of genius and accident. It had become organized, methodized, even mechanized. The method and the mechanism were of course science and its instruments” (Irvine 323-324).
The most radical outcome of Darwinism, which caused some anxiety among the Victorians, was that Darwinism apparently denied the act of Divine creation, and with it the whole familiar concept of great catastrophic occasions- the Fall, the Flood, Divine revelation. It re-placed them by a notion of gradual secular transformation and adaptation throughout millions of years. Darwin was regarded as a blasphemer attack-ing the very foundations of Christianity. A theological authority of the nineteenth century asserted, “If the Darwinian theory is true, Genesis is a lie, the whole framework of the book of life falls to pieces, and the revelation of god to man, as we Christians know it, is a delusion and a snare” (Appleman 363). In a speech at Oxford in 1864, British Prime Minister Disreali could solemnly announce that if it were the choice between apes and angels, he was on the side of the angels. The whole development of science was brought to a focal point, at which it challenged all existing creeds and philosophies, questioning the origin, nature, and destiny of mankind (Irvine intro, Woodward 556-557).
The challenge of science to philosophy had been there for some time. Until the mid nineteenth century general theories and philosophical doctrines of the natural goodness of man, of his natural rights and duties, of the importance of reason, of utopian socialism, and of Hegelism and Kantianism were regard-ed as of the utmost general importance. Battles about general theories had marked the age of revolutions, of romanticism, even of reaction. But part of the consequence of the disillusionment of the mid nineteenth century was the dis-crediting of all abstract theories, and a new disbelief in their im-portance for human life or their efficiency as roads to social change (Appleman 211-213, 314-317).
This decline in esteem for philosophy left a vacuum that was now overflowing by the belief in science. Scientific experiment, method, and theory represented a striking new synthesis of science that produced general concepts more comprehensible to the ordinary man, more obviously of great significance, and undeniably of momentous importance for all branches of learning and culture. “Finally,” Irvine writes, “science is more liberal and more useful than classical literature; it provides the mind with facts and a method of thought rather than with mere standards of beauty and a training in taste” (327). It was an age of efficient popularization by lecture, pamphlet, and journal, with a large and eager public in most European countries. The mood of boundless confidence and optimism did not long outlive the phase of scientific progress that had generated it. By the late nineteenth century, doubts, questions, and unanswer-able difficulties were already being raised. Scientific study began again along more specialized and separate channels, knowledge again became fragmentary and uncoordinated, and the mood of supreme confidence had never since been regained. The reception of Darwinism in itself marked the beginning of this new phase (Appleman 305-306).
Darwin had first formulated his theory in 1842, but delayed publishing it for seventeen years. It was not fully expounded until The Descent of Man appeared in 1871. But the first popularizers of it, notably T.H. Huxley, met an immediate gust of religious hostility and moral objection. The theory, indeed, seemed to minimize the importance of individual choice and moral values. It depicted human progress as the result of an impersonal process, the blind product of the struggle of species, of survival by a very-long adaptation to environment. It was intellectual dynamite because it contained an explosive compound of several ingredients, each of which could be interpreted differently. If material environment was the determining factor, then people’s spiritual qualities were challenged, degrading men to the level of mere pawns in a blind, age long process. As John Dewey remarks in his essay entitled, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” “In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the “Origin of the Species” introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion” (Appleman 305). Darwinism took what was once secure and brought it to a state of uncertainty. Although the first reactions to Darwinism were mostly uncertainty and worry, the long-range reactions were very diverse and versatile (Woodward 555-557).
Many different schools of thought could find in it fresh support for the old beliefs. Nationalists and believers in the Bismarckian “real politic” could find justification, or at least ex-planation, for rivalries between nations and conflicts between states in the suggestion that warlike qualities decide which is the fittest. Free thinkers of all kinds hailed Darwinism as an ally against clerica-lism and religious dogma. On the other hand, Marxism, too, thrived in the new climate of opinion created by the revolution brought about by Darwinism. The theories of Marx and Engels claimed to be based on economic data patiently observed, collected, and verified. They theorized that changes in social and political life are explicable only by underlying changes in the means of production and that the clue to all history is the struggle between economic classes. Irvine describes Marx’s theory of change through competition in the following quote: “In the larger dialectic of history, the class conflict is in each of its phases, at first economic, then political, and finally armed and violent; and out of armed violence is ultimately to materialize the idyllic vision of a classless society. Marx used competition to destroy competition” (219)-. This ideology of “economic imperialism” had Marxism claiming to be doing for the social sciences of economics, politics, history, and sociology, what Darwinism had done for biology (Semmel 23, 141-142).
Marx stated that his theory, like Darwinism, dealt with matters of the inevitable long term trend of human life; it also placed emphasis on the importance of the material environment as a conditioning or even determining factor; it also spoke in terms of struggle and conflict. Marx was so conscious of the affinities of his own theories with Darwinism that he wanted to dedicate to Darwin his greatest work, Das Kapital, of which the first volume appeared in 1867, but Darwin had cautiously declined the honor. When Engels made a funeral oration over Marx’s grave in 1883, he claimed that just as Darwin discover-ed the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history (Irvine 219-220).