Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin, 2004 [reprint of second edition, London: John Murray, 1879]).
Western intellectual life today is characterized by a marked schizophrenia. On the one hand, virtually everyone accepts the scientific theory of Charles Darwin concerning the emergence and evolution of the various species in the world, including humanity, through the process natural selection. The only exceptions to this rule are a few Creationist hold-outs. On the other hand, our culture denies the biological reality of race and the relevance of hereditarian thinking to human societies. Our egalitarian culture rejects heredity’s implications in toto — both the descriptive (in-born human differences between individuals and races) and prescriptive (e.g. eugenics). Given how taboo racialist thinking still is, it is then useful — in order to think freely — to go back to the roots of evolutionary thinking by looking at what Darwin himself had to say about human evolution and racial differences.
The concept of race or lineage is central to Darwin’s evolutionary thinking. His classic The Origin of Species is indeed subtitled By Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In one place, Darwin defines a race as the “successive generations” of a particular population (102). Darwin’s model for evolutionary change is simple and powerful: every species will tend to bear too many offspring, leading to overpopulation, a huge percentage of these will die before reaching maturity or in competition with others (whether of the same species or not), those who survive this struggle will be those with the traits best suited for their particular environment. The constant generation and culling of “races,” that is to say new of populations with different traits, is then central to his system, which also applies to human evolution.
The foundation of Darwin’s entire system is the reality of heredity — that the offspring of plants, animals, and humans tend to inherit the physical and/or mental characteristics of their parents. Concerning humans, Darwin follows the observations of the ancient philosophers in asserting that man’s specificity is in being both a social and rational creature. This, along with his free hands, have enabled humanity’s remarkable conquest of the Earth: our intelligence and dexterity allowed our prehistoric forbears to fashion tools, our social instincts enabled us to work together to bring down much larger animals, and the combination gave us a unique ability to adapt to the most varied environments. Darwin says concerning intelligence and sociability: “The supreme importance of these characters has been proved by the final arbitrament of the battle for life” (68). Our hands and brains were incidentally developed at considerable cost: we are awkward bipeds and the tension between enormous heads and narrow hips means that childbirth is quite dangerous to our women.
Darwin takes differences in intellectual ability for granted, both between individuals and races: “The variability or diversity of the mental faculties in men of the same race, not to mention the greater differences between the men of distinct races, is so notorious that not a word need here be said” (45). Furthermore: “The individuals of the same species graduate in intellect from absolute imbecility to high excellence” (100). He had no doubt that psychological traits such as personality and intelligence were heritable:
[I]n regard to mental qualities, their transmission is manifest in our dogs, horses, and other domestic animals. Besides special tastes and habits, general intelligence, courage, bad and good temper, &c., are certainly transmitted. With man we see similar facts in almost every family; and we now know through the admirable labours of Mr [Francis] Galton, that genius which implies a wonderfully complex combination of high faculties, tends to be inherited; and, on the other hand, it is too certain that insanity and deteriorated mental powers likewise run in families. . . .
Domesticated animals vary more than those in a state of nature; and this is apparently due to the diversified and changing nature of the conditions to which they have been subjected. In this respect the different races of man resemble domesticated animals, and so do the individuals of the same race, when inhabiting a very wide area, like that of America. We see the influence of diversified conditions in the more civilised nations; for the members belonging to different grades of rank, and following different occupations, present a greater range of character than do the members of barbarous nations. (45–46)
Humanity’s Moral Improvement Through Perpetual Tribal Warfare
An “uncontacted tribe” in the Amazon responds to a helicopter.
Darwin asserts that the same relentless struggle for survival was the driver for humanity’s evolution into a more intelligent, social, and even moral being. Human tribes spread across the globe, reproduced beyond the ability of their environment to sustain them, and entered into relentless competition and warfare with other tribes.
Darwin considers the emergence of pro-social traits such as sympathy, love of kin, shame, and regret to be central to human evolution. These feelings were certainly not universal however. He observes that prehistoric tribes, like modern savage tribes, were perpetually at war with one another. “It is no argument against savage man being a social animal, that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other; for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species” (132).
Darwin firmly believes that group selection was the mechanism by which many human psychological traits emerged. Group selection means that traits not necessarily beneficial to the individual but rather to the group (such as altruism) spread through competition between groups (for instance: one tribe defeats and exterminates another tribe through its individuals’ superior willingness to sacrifice themselves). The group selection hypothesis is considered controversial today in some evolutionary circles. Darwin for his part wrote:
A community which includes a large number of well-endowed individuals increases in number, and is victorious over other less favoured ones; even although each separate member gains no advantage over the others of the same community . . . [Certain mental] faculties have been chiefly, or even exclusively, gained for the benefit of the community, and the individuals thereof, have at the same time gained an advantage indirectly. (83)
Strikingly, Darwin affirms that humanity was intellectually and even morally improved through such relentless tribal warfare:
[N]atural selection arising from the competition of tribe with tribe . . . together with the inherited effects of habit, would, under favourable conditions, have sufficed to raise man to his present high position in the organic scale. (85)
These [intellectual and moral] faculties are variable; and we have every reason to believe that the variations tend to be inherited. Therefore, if they were formerly of high importance to primeval man and to his ape-like progenitors, they would have been perfected or advanced through natural selection. Of the high importance of the intellectual faculties there can be no doubt, for man mainly owed to them his predominant position in the world. We can see, that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious, who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were the best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes, which included the largest number of men thus endowed, would increase in number and supplant other tribes. (153)
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be born in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. . . . Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world. (155)
Darwin also argued that humans had an in-born proclivity for other pro-social behaviors, such as language and religiosity.
Adaptive Traditional Culture
Mankind’s specificity is also in being both a genetic and profoundly cultural being. Our individual and collective behavior are powerfully influenced by both our genetic inheritance and our particular, highly-fungible cultural norms and practices. We would expect the tribes with both a genetic propensity and a culture favoring group-solidarity and organization to overcome less well-endowed tribes.
[A]n increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (157)
Indeed, Darwin sees traditional cultures in general as prescribing, in a very rough-and-ready way, particular norms and behavior on the individual which are beneficial to the community as a whole:
The judgment of the community will generally be guided by some rude experience of what is best in the long run for all the members; but this judgment will not rarely err from ignorance and weak powers of reasonings. Hence the strangest customs and superstititons, in complete opposition to the true welfare and happiness of mankind, have become all-powerful throughout the world. (146)
The adaptive nature of traditional culture is notably evident in Herodotus’ encyclopedic overview of the nations of the ancient world: these typically emphasize adherence to local cultures, family formation, filial piety, loyalty to one’s kin and nation against foreigners, and martial prowess and manliness.
Nature’s Communitarian Ethos
Bees commonly exterminate their fellows if this is beneficial to the hive.
Darwin personally adhered to a liberal, high-minded and humane Christian-inspired morality typical of the Victorian middle classes. Yet, he cannot help but observe that nature’s law is extremely cruel, with the proverbial “favored races” often triumphing through a ruthless ethos brutally subordinating the interests of the individual to that of the group. Darwin takes the example of bees, an even more social animal than humans, who when under resource pressure exterminate superfluous individuals:
In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a have sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. (122)
Darwin adds in a footnote that primitive human patterns are quite similar: “many or most savages [solve] the problem by female infanticide, polyandry and promiscuous intercourse” (122). (From a strictly evolutionary point of view, a human community under pressure from other tribes and a poor environment may benefit from fewer females, preferring to dedicate scarce resources to fighting males.)
Darwin’s critics were quite cognizant of the potential threat posed by his theory to liberal and Christian ethics. He writes:
Miss Cobbe, in commenting (‘Darwinism and his Morals’ ‘Theological Review’, April, 1872, pp. 188-191) on the same illustration, says, the principles of social duty would be thus reversed; and by this, I presume, she means that the fulfillment of social duty would tend to the injury of individuals; but she overlooks the fact, which she would doubtless admit, that the instincts of the bee have been acquired for the good of the community. She goes so far as to say that if the theory of ethics advocated in this chapter were ever generally accepted, ‘I cannot but believe that in the hour of their triumph would be sounded the knell of the virtue of mankind!’ It is to be hoped that the belief in the permanence of virtue on this earth is not held by many persons on so weak a tenure. (122-23)
Darwin observes that animal communities are collectivist and hierarchically organized, with different roles according to the nature of each individual, so as to optimize collective well-being and survival. When threatened, bull bison form a ring around the herd, protecting the young and females in the center (124). Put another way, the herd instinctively and collectively discriminates against males, putting their security at risk, so that the herd as a whole benefits from their superior strength and the sacrifice of their reduced reproductive value (sperm is far more easily replaced than ovaries).
Darwin adds that both herd animals and human tribes exterminate weaker members to promote the survival of the group:
[Animals] will expel a wounded animal from their herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in natural history, unless, indeed, the explanation which has been suggested is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be tempted to follow the troop. In this case their conduct is not much worse than that of the North American Indians, who leave their feeble comrades to perish on the plains; or the Fijians, who, when their parents get old, or fall ill, bury them alive. (125)
Darwin concludes: “actions are regarded by savages, and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe — not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe” (143).
Darwin claims that the “low morality of savages” is due to the limitation of sympathy to their own tribe and their inability to reason through the negative consequences of their behavior. He does not indiscriminately endorse such savage practices. His position is ambiguous, typical for evolutionary liberals, at once lamenting the cruelty and welcoming the evolutionary consequences of the brutal struggle of the survival of the fittest:
It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent. But as man suffers from the same physical evils as the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence. Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to his present rank. (168)
Today, even seven decades after World War II, in the background of all this looms the legacy of Adolf Hitler. Evolutionary and hereditary principles were widely accepted in the early twentieth century. In that intellectual and cultural context, Hitler transformed his nation politically and culturally, believing that a zealous, communitarian, warlike, expansionary, racial, and ethno-nationalist ethos would enable Germany’s salvation and the biological and spiritual improvement of mankind. Hitler believed his leadership and politics adhered closely to what he called “the law of life.” It is indeed an uncomfortable fact for many evolutionists that many of passages in Mein Kampf are eerily reminiscent of Darwin’s own account of human history, in particular the emergence of morality through eons of tribal warfare.
In the end, Darwin seems to endorse a communitarian ethic moderated and informed by reason (my emphasis):
In the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate to speak of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species. The term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by nearly the same steps, it would be advisable to take as the standard of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation account of political ethics. (145)
This argument appears to be a critique of English philosopher J. S. Mill’s argument for ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ as the yardstick of morality. Instead, Darwin is advocating something remarkably close to the ancient principles of political philosophy, as notably expounded by Aristotle (whose background as a biologist actually informed his politics): the organization of society so as to enable the community’s collective flourishing, with individual roles and social goals appropriate according to the individual’s and the species’ particular biological nature (in the case of man, that of a rational social animal).
Personally, I believe the ancient republican principles are overwhelmingly superior to the modern and would endorse an Aristotelian-Darwinian political philosophy as particularly appropriate to our scientific age.
The ideas of Locke and Rousseau — extolling equality, rights, and the popular will as ends-in-themselves — have led to perpetual confusion among our people and to our inexorable collapse since the beginning the twentieth century. In 1914, we essentially dominated the world and made up a third of human population. Before 2100, a blink of an eye in historical let alone evolutionary terms, we will have lost control not only of our colonial empires but even of our own homelands, being reduced to minorities in not only North America but even Western Europe. We will make up less than 5 percent of the global population. The triumph of liberal-democracy’s individualist and egalitarian principles have coincided with Europeans’ evolutionary suicide.
End of Part 1 of 2.
Indeed, Darwin approvingly refers to the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in places (121, 148). He also, like many philosophers, considers familial affection to be the foundation for social affection (129).
Darwin acknowledges that humans had never so subjugated another human population as to carefully breed them as we do domestic animals (although, we might observe, human reproductive patterns have been profoundly influenced by very varied power asymmetries and socio-cultural norms). He notes however the existence of infanticidal eugenics in ancient Sparta and that Frederick William I of Prussia had created a regiment of tall grenadiers on whom “it is asserted that many tall men were reared in the villages inhabited by the grenadiers and their tall wives” (47).
We recall the recent case of the Asian-American missionary John Allen Chau who visited the indigenous tribesmen of North Sentinel Island in order to convert them to Christianity and was promptly massacred by them. Between 1970 and 2005, tribal peoples killed about 120 workers of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), mostly in episodes of first contact.
On the extreme cruelty of tribal peoples towards outsiders, Darwin observes that Amerindian women and children joyously participate in the torture of captives and that “common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, ‘Never, never trust an Indian’” (142).
There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. . . . If, however, we include under the term ‘religion’ the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence. . . . The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of dependence, fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements. No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level. (116–18)
Darwin argues that fear of God encourages, but is not necessary for, moral behavior.
Guillaume Durocher, “Culture and Nationhood in the World of Herodotus: An Evolutionary Analysis,” The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 17, no.4, winter 2017–2018. https://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2017/07/08/culture-and-nationhood-in-the-world-of-herodotus-an-evolutionary-analysis/
On which see Israeli historian Yuval Harari’s fairly balanced appraisal of Hitler: Guillaume Durocher, “Towards a Global Biopolitics?: Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindby Yuval Noah Harari,” The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, Spring 2018. https://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2017/12/29/towards-a-global-biopolitics-a-review-of-yuval-hararis-sapiens/