Attitudes About Nature and Society: Our Darwinian Legacy
Ralph E. Ancil
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:
"(Darwinism) destroyed the traditional reliance of orthodox religion on the works of nature as evidence of the hand of God. It destroyed, just as surely, the transcendentalists' conduit of divinity. For the benevolent, spirit-impregnated nature of the transcendental vision it substituted an iron maiden presiding over endless panoramas of anguish and extinction. The serene cosmic pattern was replaced by the blind movement of mindless forces eternally sifting and shaping all living things, men as well as the lowliest mollusk, toward ends unperceived and perhaps nonexistent. Assaulting the optimistic democratic faith in the worth of the individual, Darwinism disclosed a slaughter of the innocents sanctioned, as it seemed, by a nature concerned with the preservation not of the individual but of the type."
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:
"Serious philosophers, among them James, Dewey, and Royce, had to clear their paths of Spencer before proceeding on their own way. He was one of the founders of the new study of society called sociology, and theorists as widely divergent as Lester Frank Ward and William Graham Sumner turned to him for guidance. At the level of popular culture his presence was similarly inescapable. He served as the common man S Darwin, proffering the intellectual certainties of Darwinism on a cosmic scale, without Darwin's scientific rigor."
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:
"Nature broods over Sumner's universe like a savage matriarch, bestowing boons and buffets with contemptuous indifference. She is a 'hard mistress', an 'opponent' against whom men strive for the means of subsistence. There are no gifts in this world: nothing is gotten without pain. Men 'wrestle' with nature to 'extort' from her what they need."
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:
"'An entirely new dispensation has been given to the world. All materials and forces of nature have been thus placed completely under the control of one of the otherwise least powerful of the creatures inhabiting the earth . . . Nature has thus been made the servant of man.'
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:
As early as 1861, Charles Eliot Norton, the Brahmin conservative, had been moved to reflect on the likenesses between the Civil War and the war of nature, both painful, both costly in untimely death, and untoward suffering, yet both essential to true progress. Taken simply at face value, Norton mused, Darwinian ideas tended to promote a harsh view of life: 'Nature is careless of the single life. Her processes seem wasteful, but out of seeming waste, she produces her great and durable results. Everywhere in her works are the signs of life cut short for the sake of some effect more permanent. . .' Wastefulness, strife, warfare, suffering, death these were, so Darwin himself had concluded, essential elements in the progress of organic life as a whole.
And later he ~
"In private, Darwin gave expression to bleaker views (than what he had expressed in the Origin): 'What a book a devil's chaplain might write,' he exploded to Hooker, 'on the clumsy wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature!'
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:
"From Social Darwinism London had absorbed the idea that to survive, man must adapt to irresistible natural forces and to 'the stress and strain of life, its fevers and sweats and wild indulgences.' . . . from Nietzsche he borrowed the idea of the super human. . . From Marx he took the idea of the need for social reform and the power of economic determinism.
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
"Nature did not care. To life she set one task, gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death."
Regarding man's environment London states:13
"Nature was not kindly to the flesh. She had no concern for that concrete thing the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race. . . But one task she set the individual. Did he not perform it, he died. Did he perform it was all the same, he died. Nature did not care; there were plenty who were obedient, and it was only the obedience in this matter, not the obedient, which lived and lived always."
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:
"Dreiser understood that society needed to be conceived as an extension of nature, that a close analysis of the forces of social life would show that civilization, whatever its complexities, was no stranger to the law of tooth and claw." (emphasis added)
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:
"Nature was, then, a gigantic engine, a vast cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance...20
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