Click for: CSSHS Archive Main Page
Vol. VIII • 1985

Attitudes About Nature and Society: Our Darwinian Legacy
Ralph E. Ancil

From about the sixteenth century onward, and especially during the so called "Enlightenment , there was a growth in secular, non-christian ideas. Philosophers espoused rationalism: the belief that man can understand everything without God or divine revelation: and naturalism: the belief that there is nothing of supernatural significance in man in either thought or deed. Politically, rulers embraced the notion of the "Divine Right of Kings" which was a return to pagan deification of the state and a rejection of the Christian concept which places the king under God and His law. Such absolutist thinking increased and centralized governmental power which included the accumulation of wealth. This resulted in territorial expansion, international conflicts and was, generally, a period of economic and material interests.1 A bifurcation of thought occurred in the sciences as a growing number of secular thinkers tried to break the strong, natural alliance of science and religion and, unlike its Christian founders, began linking science with a secular perspective in which the world was seen as a materialistic machine governed, not by a caring and sustaining God, but by impersonal autonomous "laws."

By the 19th century, then, a secular world view had become firmly entrenched in key areas of thought. It was in this historical setting that Charles Darwin published in 1859, his now famous book The Origin of Species by Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Although other writers had presented essentially evolutionary ideas before him, Darwin's emphasis on natural selection gave his explanation the appearance of "scientific" validity2: it was materialistic and mechanistic and thus suited the age.  

The Response of Some 19th Century Philosophers
The Darwinian concept of the "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" would suggest, it would seem, that nature is cold and implacable. Was there room for the individual or for a benevolent, transcendent God? Russett3 characterizes the matter this way:

One of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Darwinian view was Herbert Spencer, an English engineer turned philosopher. Spencer attempted to apply Darwin's concepts to society in general and advocated strict laissez faire economics. He portrayed man's economic role as a struggle against nature. In fact, Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" in a paper on human population.4 This application of Darwinian concepts is generally referred to as Social Darwinism. Spencer's influence on American intellectual thought was profound. Russett5 writes:

As a result of this philosophy, a controversy arose over whether or not free will existed. Two of Spencer's disciples split over this issue. One was William Graham Sumner who subscribed to the deterministic school of thought: man was the imp of nature. the victim of uncontrollable forces. He taught that all mankind lived under the inexorable law of the struggle for survival of the finest. Indeed, the primary struggle was of individuals fighting to win the means of subsistence from nature6:

Lester Frank Ward's attitude was somewhat different, namely, he believed in indeterminism; man was not controlled by nature, rather nature was to be used by man. This was due to the evolution of mind which gave man supreme power7:

Ward advocated an aggressive reform policy for society guided entirely by scientific foresight. He believed that man could and should transform the environment on behalf of man. The scientist and technologist should use nature to provide for the well-being of the masses.

As the Civil War started and the United States found herself shouldering these troubles as well as those of industrial expansion and urbanization, the concepts of Darwin added another disturbing element. Russett8 writes:

And later he ~

Clearly, the Darwinian view of evolution included a necessary hostility to nature. Nature was viewed as cruel, powerful and wasteful; only the species, not the individual, mattered. It was an opponent against which man must struggle to survive. And yet all this was the way of life and progress.  

The Naturalist Writers
American literature of the latter part of the 19th century was characterized by a certain kind of writing called naturalism which stressed the animality of man. Its proponents were quite popular and their works were widely read. It emphasized the fatalistic view of Darwinism called "scientific" determinism. Among its proponents were Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, Henry Adams, and Theodore Dreiser. These men strongly influenced 2Oth century writers including Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. In this section we will examine three representative authors of naturalism and highlight their attitude to nature, namely, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris.

One of the most famous advocates of Darwinism was Jack London. One source 10 writes:

His stories The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) depict "man and beast struggling against the overwhelming forces of nature."11

In the story of The Law of Life, London depicts not only man's necessary combat with the environment, but also the absence of meaning for the individual. Throughout the struggle, the individual has only one purpose, one obligation or law to obey: to reproduce to sustain the species:12

Regarding man's environment London states:13

London perpetuated the view that for man to survive he must fight his environment. Ultimately, of course, nothing mattered anyway. London suffered from alcoholism, mental disintegration and died most likely by his own hand at the age of 40.14 London, like so many other Darwinian evolutionists, was an Anglo-American racist.15

Theodore Dreiser read widely in the evolutionary writings of Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. He eventually lost his religious faith and was left with the deterministic belief that "man was a mechanism moved by chemical and physical forces beyond his control."16 Two of his most famous books, Sister Carrie (1 900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911), portrayed promiscuous, degenerate lives; the latter book was even modeled on the lives of his sisters. His characters reveal that the author's attitude to man was dark and chaotic. His characters were "haunted by poverty" and "helpless in the clutch of relentless fate".17

Commenting on Dreiser, Russett18 writes:

In other words the individual's struggle against his natural environment became extended to his struggle against his artificial environment, society. Frank Norris (1870-1 902) was influenced by his brief stay at Harvard and by the French literary world. He eagerly absorbed Leconte's lectures on evolution and seemed especially interested in the elements of man's animal nature. Like many others, Norris was caught up in the general enthusiasm for the idea of evolution during his years at Berkeley. He wrote of individuals "moved by powers they could not control and only rarely understood."19

In McTeague (1899), for example, he emphasized the animality of man: an element of his evolutionary past which was always just beneath the surface. In Vandover and the Brute (1914) he tells the story of a man's decline into drunkenness and sexual immorality and how he becomes a mental and physical wreck. Norris was almost obsessed with this bestiality, a preoccupation of all those who interpreted Darwin to mean that the animal ancestry of man left a beast beneath the skin who could explode at any moment. In Octopus (1901) Norris tells a tale of California wheat ranchers battling the railroad. And, according to Russett, Norris offers a religious system of thought with Nature in the place of God. Norris describes it:

By and large, then, naturalist writers spread the message of Darwin and Spencer. They stressed the animality of man and suggested that he was controlled by the evolutionary forces of nature which were beyond his control.21

1 Stearns, Raymond P.; 1961; Pageant of Europe; Harcourt, Brace &World, Inc.; New York; pp. 209-214.
2 Russett. Cynthia Eagle; 1976; Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1865-1912; H.W. Freeman and Company; San Francisco; p. 7.
3 Ibid, p. 3.
4 Ibid. p. 14.
5 Ibid. pp.16-77.
6 Ibid. p. 98.
7 Ibid, p.109.
8 Ibid, p. 88.
9 Ibid, p. 89.
10 McMichael, George, general editor; 1974; Anthology of American Literature, Vol.111. Realism to the Present, Macmillan Publishing Co., inc.; New York; p. 954.
11 Ibid, p. 954.
12 Ibid. p. 957
13 Ibid. p. 956.
14 Ibid. p. 954.
15 Russett, op. cit., p.179.
16 McMichael, op. cit., p. 978.
17 McMichael op. cit.. p. 978.
18 Russett, op. cft.. p.199.
19 McMichael, Op. cit., p. 940.
20 Russett. op. cit.. pp. 84-201.
21 McMichael. op. cit., p. 6.

"Attitudes About Nature and Society: Our Darwinian Legacy"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

Main Page:  CSSHS Archives