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  • Post-Darwinian, “Evolutional” Theories of Morality in the 19th Century

    Posted on October 26th, 2014 Helian No comments

    It’s become fashionable in some quarters to claim that philosophy is useless.  I wouldn’t go that far.  Philosophers have at least been astute enough to notice some of the more self-destructive tendencies of our species, and to come up with more or less useful formulas for limiting the damage.  However, they have always had a tendency to overreach.  We are not intelligent enough to reliably discover truth far from the realm of repeatable experiments.  When we attempt to do so, we commonly wander off into intellectual swamps.  That is where one often finds philosophers.

    The above is well illustrated by the history of thought touching on the subject of morality in the decades immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  It was certainly realized in short order that Darwin’s theory was relevant to the subject of morality.  Perhaps no one at the time saw it better than Darwin himself.  However, the realization that the search for the “ultimate Go0d” was now over once and for all, because the object sought did not exist, was slow in coming.  Indeed, for the most part, it’s still not realized to this day.  The various “systems” of morality in the decades after Darwin’s book appeared kept stumbling forward towards the non-existent goal, like dead men walking.  For the most part, their creators never grasped the significance of the term “natural selection.”  Against all odds, they obstinately persisted in the naturalistic fallacy; the irrational belief that, to the extent that morality had evolved, it had done so “for the good of the species.”

    An excellent piece of historical source material documenting these developments can be found at Google Books.  Entitled, A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution, it was written by one C. M. Williams, and published in 1893.  According to one version on Google Books, “C. M.” stands for “Cora Mae,” apparently a complete invention.  The copying is botched, so that every other page of the last part of the book is unreadable.  The second version, which is at least readable, claims the author was Charles Mallory Williams and, indeed, that name is scribbled after the initials “C. M.” in the version copied.  There actually was a Charles Mallory Williams.  He was a medical doctor, born in 1872, and would have been 20 years old at the time the book was published.  The chances that anyone so young wrote the book in question are vanishingly small.  Unfortunately, I must leave it to some future historian to clear up the mystery of who “C. M.” actually was, and move on to consider what he wrote.

    According to the author, by 1893 a flood of books and papers had already appeared addressing the connection between Darwin’s theory and morality.  In his words,

    Of the Ethics founded on the theory of Evolution, I have considered only the independent theories which have been elaborated to systems. I have omitted consideration of many works which bear on Evolutional Ethics as practical or exhortative treatises or compilations of facts, but which involve no distinctly worked out theory of morals.

    The authors who made the cut include Alfred Russell Wallace, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, John Fiske, W. H. Rolph, Alfred Barratt, Leslie Stephen, Bartholomäus von Carneri, Harald Hoffding, Georg von Gizycki, Samuel Alexander, and, last but not least, Darwin himself.  Williams cites the books of each that bear on the subject, and most of them have a Wiki page.  Wallace, of course, is occasionally mentioned as the “co-inventor” of the theory of evolution by natural selection with Darwin.  Collectors of historical trivia may be interested to know that Barratt’s work was edited by Carveth Read, who was probably the first to propose a theory of the hunting transition from ape to man.  Leslie Stephen was the father of Virginia Woolf, and Harald Hoffding was the friend and philosophy teacher of Niels Bohr.

    I don’t intend to discuss the work of each of these authors in detail.  However, certain themes are common to most, if not all, of them, and most of them, not to mention Williams himself, still clung to Lamarckism and other outmoded versions of evolution.  It took the world a long time to catch up to Darwin.  For example, in the case of Haeckel,

    Even in the first edition of his Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte Haeckel makes a distinction between conservative and progressive inheritance, and in the edition of 1889 he still maintains this division against Weismann and others, claiming the heredity of acquired habit under certain circumstances and showing conclusively that even wounds and blemishes received during the life of an individual may be in some instances inherited by descendants.

    For Williams’ own Lamarckism, see chapter 1 of Volume II, in which he seems convinced that Darwin himself believes in inheritance of acquired characteristics, and that Lamarck’s theories are supported by abundant evidence.  We are familiar with an abundance of similar types of “evidence” in our own day.

    More troublesome than these vestiges of earlier theories of evolution are the vestiges of earlier systems of morality.  Every one of the authors cited above has a deep background in the theories of morality concocted by philosophers, both ancient and modern.  In general, they have adopted some version of one of these theories as their own.  As a result, they have a tendency to fit evolution by natural selection into the Procrustean bed of their earlier theories, often as a mere extension of them.  An interesting manifestation of this tendency is the fact that, almost to a man, they believed that evolution promoted the “good of the species.”  For example, quoting Stephen:

    The quality which makes a race survive may not always be a source of advantage to every individual, or even to the average individual.  Since the animal which is better adapted for continuing its species will have an advantage in the struggle even though it may not be so well adapted for pursuing its own happiness, an instinct grows and decays not on account of its effects on the individual, but on account of its effects upon the race.

    The case of Carneri, who happened to be a German, is even more interesting.  Starting with the conclusion that “evolution by natural selection” must inevitably favor the species over the individual,

    Every man has his own ends, and in the attempt to attain his ends, does not hesitate to set himself in opposition to all the rest of mankind.  If he is sufficiently energetic and cunning, he may even succeed for a time in his endeavors to the harm of humanity.  Yet to have the whole of humanity against oneself is to endeavor to proceed in the direction of greater resistance, and the process must sooner or later result in the triumph of the stronger power. In the struggle for existence in its larger as well as its smaller manifestations, the individual seeks with all his power to satisfy the impulse to happiness which arises with conscious existence, while the species as the complex of all energies developed by its parts has an impulse to self preservation of its own.

    It follows, at least for Carneri, that Darwin’s theory is a mere confirmation of utilitarianism:

    The “I” extends itself to an “I” of mankind, so that the individual, in making self his end, comes to make the whole of mankind his end. The ideal cannot be fully realized; the happiness of all cannot be attained; so that there is always choice between two evils, never choice of perfect good, and it is necessary to be content with the greatest good of the greatest number as principle of action.

    which, in turn, leads to a version of morality worthy of Bismarck himself.  As paraphrased by Williams,

    He lays further stress upon the absence of morality, not only among the animals, in whom at least general ethical feelings in distinction from those towards individuals are not found, but also among savages, morality being not the incentive to, but the product of the state.

    Alexander gives what is perhaps the most striking example of this perceived syncretism between Darwinism and pre-existing philosophies, treating it as a mere afterthought to Hegel and Kant:

     Nothing is more striking at the present time than the convergence of different schools of Ethics. English Utilitarianism developing into Evolutional Ethics on the one hand, and the idealism associated with the German philosophy derived from Kant on the other.  The convergence is not of course in mere practical precepts, but in method also. It consists in an objectivity or impartiality of treatment commonly called scientific.  There is also a convergence in general results which consists in a recognition of a kind of proportion between individual and society, expressed by the phrase “organic connection.”  The theory of egoism pure and simple has been long dead.  Utilitarianism succeeded it and enlarged the moral end. Evolution continued the process of enlarging the individual interest, and has given precision to the relation between the individual and the moral law.  But in this it has added nothing new, for Hegel in the early part of the century, gave life to Kant’s formula by treating the law of morality as realized in the society and the state.

    Alexander continues by confirming that he shares a belief common to all the rest as well, in one form or another – in the reality of objective morality:

    The convergence of dissimilar theories affords us some prospect of obtaining a satisfactory statement of the ethical truths towards which they seem to move.

    Gyzicki embraces this version of the naturalistic fallacy even more explicitly:

    Natural selection is therefore a power of judgment, in that it preserves the just and lets the evil perish.  Will this war of the good with the evil always continue?  Or will the perfect kingdom of righteousness one day prevail.  We hope this last but we cannot know certainly.

    There is much more of interest in this book by an indeterminate author.  Of particular note is the section on Alfred Russell Wallace, but I will leave that for a later post.  One might mention as an “extenuating circumstance” for these authors that none of them had the benefit of the scientific community’s belated recognition of the significance of Mendel’s discoveries.  It’s well know that Darwin himself struggled to come up with a logical mechanism to explain how it was possible for natural selection to even happen.  The notions of these moral philosophers on the subject must have been hopelessly vague by comparison.  Their ideas about “evolution for the good of the species” must be seen in that context.  The concocters of the modern “scientific” versions of morality can offer no such excuse.

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