Darwinism and its Implications in Other Fields

Charles Darwin, the son of a wealthy doctor/financier, originally studied medicine before developing a fascination with natural history. While traveling aboard the HMS Beagle as a “self-financed naturalist”, he collected flora and fauna from many different parts of the world, one of which, the Galapagos Islands specifically influenced his work On the Origin of Species. The island had species that, although geographically isolated, shared similar traits with species from nearby South America. His idea was that although they shared similar ancestors, each of these species had developed traits beneficial to their survival in their own respective environments.The slow and methodical transformations resulted in drastic changes over millenniums (which humans cannot see) and the creation of two distinct species. This work was published as a result of his research and other scholarly works on the subject of evolution; however, it took him 25 years to publish his work as a result of the trip. His tone in the piece reflects a philosophical upbringing designed to persuade readers to support his idea of ‘natural selection’ as a natural phenomena.

Future thinkers would corrupt Darwin’s idea that pre-determined traits create advantageous or disadvantageous realities for creatures; while influential in biology and the sciences, thinkers like Francis Galton would corrupt it and propose human manipulation of these concepts in order to create a “perfect” individual. While one cannot state that Darwin’s ideas caused many eugenics programs around the world, they did add scientific reason behind individuals’ desires to attempt to shape their realities through science. Social Darwinism was built upon this idea of “survival of the fittest” (a phrase which does not appear in On the Origin of Species) to apply nature to explain human enterprises, specifically the success or failures of groups and organizations.

Spencer’s Social Progress

Author: Herbert Spencer, English philosopher

Context: 1857, prior to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, on the tail-end of the first Industrial Revolution

Language: inquisitive and scholarly; here he asked what social progress really meant and whether it should be redefined

Audience: the intelligent but uninformed, more specifically those interested in philosophy and anthropology

Intent: to direct scholars’ attention to another way of thinking about society and social progress; until this time most were under the impression that social progress meant that societies were improving the standard of living. Spencer argued instead that social progress meant that people were living on more equal terms rather than on better terms in general.

Message: The point that Spencer tried to make in this essay was that people needed to rethink what they knew about social progress. Until this time people thought that social progress was the improvement of the quality of life through the advancement of technology. Instead, social progress meant that different factions of society were becoming more equal rather than just finding their lives easier. He analogized social progress to that of organic progress; that all organisms grow in the same way, from homogeneous to heterogeneous. He said that all forms of progress take this course, including social progress. He said that social progress had been doing so due to the division of labor, specialization, and the intervention of government. Society had been dividing itself based on what individuals within a community practiced, and how the need for trade arose as a result of this specialization, which in turn leads to an even greater level of subdivision, that of playing a single part in the creation of a final product.

The Confession of Faith of a Man of Science

Author: Ernst Haeckel. Born in 1834, died in 1919. He was born in Potsdam- in what was then Prussia. He was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, professor and artist. Haeckel established and named thousands of species and devised many biology terms (i.e. anthropogeny, stem cell, ecology, and phylogeny). He also read Charles Darwin’s work and encouraged it, spreading it throughout Germany. He believed that races were separate species and that caucasians were the highest among these. According to him, the lower races (or primitives) were subject to annihilation. In 1905, he established a group called the “Monist League” in order to incite his ideas as well as his political and religious beliefs. The Nazi’s later unfortunately used Haeckel’s rationalizations as evidence for fueling their anti-Semitic propaganda and dogma as a means to support nationalist sentiments in the interwar and World War II era.

Context: This work was published in 1892 and was influenced by Darwinism and German idealistic tradition.

Language: This piece is opinionated, and written in a knowledgeable manner with evidence to support reasoning. Haeckel confers with the audience directly (“this assembly”, “we”, “our”, “I”).

Audience: Other monists, darwinists, and philosophers of his time.

Intent: Haeckel’s intent in this document was to emphasize that faith is central to monism and open people’s eyes to “a true knowledge of nature”, believing that this understanding was necessary to content the individual’s pursuit for comprehension of mankind.

Message: The inorganic and organic universe which we perceive are intertwined and spirit is ubiquitous throughout nature and natural beings. Monism, or believing that we are all a part of one type of spirit under one God, is a primary sentiment which Haeckel holds, and which he believes the human mind embraces. He realizes the need man has to understand nature and where it originates. Haeckel discusses the prevalent equation of god with nature, god being an atomic force within all organisms. He coins this notion “gaseous vertebrate”- that god is an unseen backbone for all that is living. To Haeckel, monistic exploration is an attempt to comprehend the truth of nature, exercise proper morals, and ascertain beauty. Once man synthesizes these distinguished segments of monism, he can “gain the pure idea of God” (Haeckel).