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Dirk R. Johnson, Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. x + 250 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-19678-9. Cloth, $85.00.

Reviewed by Keith Ansell-Pearson

This book makes an important intervention in contemporary Nietzsche studies in the English-speaking world. The author has especially fresh insights to offer into the Genealogy of Morality and in my view his reading is superior in some key respects to recent readings of this text and of which of late there has been a veritable overkill. The fundamental claim of this book is that we will not properly understand Nietzsche until we understand the main polemical target of his philosophizing. This target, the author wants to demonstrate, is the evolutionary naturalism of Darwin: “Nietzsche’s philosophy in his final years was premised on a fundamental anti-Darwinism” (p. 203). To a large extent the book seeks to substantiate an insight that, to the best of my knowledge, was first highlighted by Deleuze in his classic study of 1962, Nietzsche et la philosophie. This is the extent to which Nietzsche exposes the reactive character of a great deal of modern science, be it in physics or biology.[1]

According to Paul S. Loeb, who provides the puff on the back cover, the balanced and careful examination the book offers of this crucial test case, “results in a powerful critique of the prevalent naturalistic approach to Nietzsche.” In short, instead of trying to co-opt Nietzsche for fashionable projects we need to respect the independence of his philosophical thinking. There is, however, an ambiguity at the heart of Johnson’s book that is never satisfactorily resolved: is the suggestion that Nietzsche is not at all a naturalist, or is it that he needs to be liberated from his entanglement with a fashionable Darwinism? Note that Loeb is careful to speak of the “prevalent naturalistic approach” to Nietzsche, not naturalistic approaches per se. I personally would want to insist on Nietzsche’s naturalist credentials simply because it is one of the great traditions in emancipatory philosophy with a noble ancient lineage that was important to Nietzsche (Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, for example).  To free ourselves from the fears of the mind and prejudices of morality we need this naturalism, and I would argue that Nietzsche draws heavily on naturalist resources throughout his writings for this end.

Johnson’s book is divided into two main parts: in the first part he seeks to trace Nietzsche’s move towards an anti-Darwin stance, provides a reading of Z, especially the figure of the Übermensch, and tackles Nietzsche’s “agonists”; in the second part he offers a reading in three chapters of the three essays of GM. Johnson’s main aim in this study is to show how a “full-blown critique” of Darwin emerges at the end of Nietzsche’s intellectual career, especially after he had initially revealed close affinities with his ideas. He even goes so far as to claim that perhaps more than any other modern thinker it was Darwin that made Nietzsche’s mature period (1886-8) possible, so allowing him to become who he was.

There are three main premises guiding the study. First, there is the claim that Nietzsche’s engagement with Darwin was a constant one and “framed his philosophy from beginning to end” (p. 3). The author readily acknowledges that Darwin barely appears in the published writings. Moreover, what of the fact that Nietzsche appears not to have read Darwin at all, neither The Origin of Species nor The Descent of Man (with its explicit genealogy of man’s descent)? Johnson regards these objections as misguided for various reasons. He maintains that given the Zeitgeist it was not surprising that Nietzsche’s thinking, from first (think of the early essay on Strauss) to last should gravitate within a Darwinian orbit. Somewhat controversially, then, he maintains that Nietzsche understood Darwin and the implications of his theory—for example, the break with conventional understandings of morality and the complete secularization of the world—both early and well. Nietzsche, as we know, was well versed in the scientific concepts and developments of his day, largely gleaned from epic studies such as Lange’s History of Materialism and from popularizations of science, and there is no doubt that he did encounter Darwin’s ideas in this way, sometimes reliably and incisively. The early essay on Strauss shows that Nietzsche clearly understood the extent to which Darwin’s new theory necessitated a radical overhaul of both traditional metaphysics and ethics. Nietzsche’s reservations about Darwin, according to Johnson, are primarily philosophical and he does not approach his ideas as unimpeachable science. His critique is thus said to be “foundational” in character, resting on a criticism of Darwin’s core assumptions, such as his understanding of nature, his adoption of the egoism-altruism model, the priority given to competition and struggle, the belief in self-preservation, and so on.

The second premise of the book concerns the question of whether Nietzsche’s polemics, beginning with GM, do in fact incorporate Darwin or strictly speaking targets social Darwinism and their application of Darwin’s ideas to aspects of humanity, society, and morality. Johnson admits that Nietzsche is not at all clear on this matter. The issue is recognized to be an important one simply because if the polemic is targeted at vulgar popularizations then one can extricate Darwin from it and argue the two thinkers are compatible with both seeking to found morality along strictly naturalistic lines. Johnson rightly notes, however, that in several passages in his writings Nietzsche lumps Darwin together with other British natural-law theorists, such as the “English psychologists” of GM. According to Johnson, Nietzsche sees Darwin as operating within the same tradition and set of perspectives as his British predecessors and contemporaries. This certainly serves to explain Nietzsche’s depiction of Darwin in BGE. A striking feature of Nietzsche’s thought, one that is all too often glossed over, is his openly hostile attitude towards British empiricism and Anglophone modes of philosophizing. In BGE Nietzsche says that the empiricists are “honest craftsmen” (BGE 213), and in GM that their discovery of “immoral and ungodly truths” is to be applauded (GM I:1). However, he locates in their work only a “plebeian ambition” with no instinct for the real nature of the problems being dealt with (BGE 213). For Nietzsche the “truths” that the modern mind has perceived are ones that “have charms and seductive powers only for mediocre spirits,” e.g. the “truths of English philosophy” or what he calls “the damnable Anglo-mania of ‘modern ideas’” (BGE 253). He is insistent that the plebeian nature of modern ideas is England’s, and he has in mind the likes of Darwin, Spencer, and John Stuart Mill (ibid.). Johnson’s study, at least in part, helps us to make sense of such revealing statements. According to Johnson, Nietzsche’s polemical target in his late period is the so-called “English” school of thought, including its attempt to establish morality on a new non-metaphysical and naturalist basis. In other words, Darwin never really questions the idea of a “moral sense”: the task is simply to “naturalize” this sense or faculty. Although Nietzsche’s polemic assumes the form of a “highly stylized personal opposition” (p. 6), it becomes imperative for him to engage with it because it does represent a new, albeit limited, form of the “critique” of morality—though, of course, Nietzsche maintains that no one before him has attempted a genuine critique.

The third premise of the book is to suggest that GM is best understood as a sustained and systematic critique of Darwin. Here the author wants to challenge the assumption that the late “anti-Darwin” passages we encounter in Nietzsche—e.g. in book five of GS and in TI—are sudden and unprecedented and out of keeping with the rest of his philosophy. Johnson is well aware that GM is a polemic and that it works as such. However, he aims to show that the arguments have a subversive function: what is being attacked in the book, and attacked the most, is evolutionary naturalism. Johnson argues that in order to carry out this subversion most effectively Nietzsche finds it necessary to enter the discursive parameters of naturalism and so chooses to engage with it from within—in short, he assumes the guise of a naturalist in order to discredit naturalism. Ruth Abbey has also argued that Nietzsche’s deployment of naturalism is largely rhetorical, but Johnson is making a much stronger point as concerns the rhetorical textuality of GM.[2] It’s here that we encounter the ambiguous character of Johnson’s reading: is it all forms of naturalism that are opposed by Nietzsche or only its modern incarnation in the English school? It’s difficult to conceive of Nietzsche as the anti-metaphysician he is—and is recognized to be such by Johnson—without thinking that this “overcoming” of metaphysics on Nietzsche’s part is not conducted in the name of some kind of naturalism since what else would enable us to get beyond metaphysics? [3] In a footnote the author seeks to clarify his position by stating that the position he really wishes to question is the one upheld by Brian Leiter in which the view is that philosophical inquiry should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences.[4]  Still, one could maintain that Nietzsche’s use of biological and physiological concepts and notions in GM is not solely rhetorical but part of his attachment to an alternative science. One thing missing from this book is any recognition or appreciation of Nietzsche’s alternative scientific sources such as Wilhelm Roux and Carl von Nageli. There is also in my view a lack to take seriously as a theory or doctrine the will to power. According to Johnson, Nietzsche in GM adopts the discourse of naturalists and Darwinists since it is the only means to subvert their framework and challenge their growing success (and we know that Nietzsche set out only to criticize victorious causes). But should his alternative "scientific" discourse not be examined, including its sources? Without this, Nietzsche’s polemic is read problematically in terms of a contest between an idiosyncratic theory—one that Johnson calls non-metaphysical and non-naturalist—and a hegemonic practice of modern, “respectable” science. I don’t think this is a satisfactory positioning of Nietzsche’s thinking, either in GM or elsewhere. It is one thing to claim, as the author does, that Nietzsche saw in modern naturalism (Darwinism) remnants of idealism and religious consolation, and another, as the author also does, that his thinking is directed at naturalism tout court. 

It is in chapter two of the book that we begin to see what for Johnson is the fundamental opposition or antagonism structuring Nietzsche’s philosophy: Dionysus versus Darwin! He notes that while Darwin’s theory of natural selection greatly disturbs religious assumptions about man’s central role in the universe, the metaphors, images, and overall narrative voice of the Origin, “offer metaphysical solace and resignation in the face of a law-bound evolution of life,” in which, as Darwin has it, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved” (cited in Johnson, p. 48). Thus, while offering a bleak picture of nature, with war, famine, death, and extermination ever-present realities, Darwin’s text ultimately provides a redemptive portrait of the evolution of life, with nothing less than a Darwinian sublime: “from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows” (Darwin cited in Johnson p. 49). Thus, although we encounter pain, anguish, and struggle everywhere in nature, we can also find consolation in the greater wisdom of evolution. And the most exalted object we can conceive is that of our faculty of reason: it is reason that will enable us to perceive nature’s ultimate wisdom. By contrast, Johnson argues, Nietzsche undermines this faith in "reason," emphasizing not this faculty but exuberant physicality and the imminent attainability of a superior type, albeit one that cannot be described in prose but only "conjured" through "poetic affirmation" (p. 50). Darwin places the emphasis of values on survival, extinction, and struggle, and for Johnson this makes him a fundamentally pessimistic thinker. By contrast, Nietzsche is a tragic and Dionysian philosopher in which the highest art consists in saying Yes to life in its strangest and most difficult problems: “the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types…” (Nietzsche cited in Johnson, p. 78). Of course, what this overlooks is that Nietzsche too cannot do completely without consolations of his own (one thinks of eternal recurrence, of the Dionysian promise—eternal rebirth, life’s inexhaustible nature, and so on). To think that Nietzsche has dispensed with consolations altogether is mistaken and Johnson does not comment on these “Dionysian” consolations at all.

The author claims that Nietzsche is combating Darwin and Darwinian ideas agonistically, seeking to ensure that there is on offer a healthy multiplicity of conceptions of “life.” On one level, he suggests, Nietzsche accepts the necessity of Darwin’s position since it is the inevitable consequence of a particular “type” of will (this must mean that Nietzsche is saying both “Yes” and “No” to Darwin). In short, Nietzsche’s personalized anti-Darwin position is part of the larger project of the final period in which Nietzsche has many “agonists” that he is taking to task and that taken collectively represent a set of world-historical figures whose teachings reflect the wills to power of decadent types contra the claims of higher or aristocratic forms of culture. The central question for Nietzsche, according to Johnson, is whether ascetic scientific practice can allow “for an affirmative, active projection of will to power” or whether, in the end, it reflects nothing other than a reactive will that is directed against all “outer-directed creative energy through an ascetic interpretation of existence…” (p. 195). As Johnson reads him, Nietzsche comes to hold to the view that modern science denigrates “all active realms of existence that do not fall under the purview of scientific rationalism.” Purporting to discover rational, mechanical processes (e.g. “natural laws”) at work in nature, it seeks to eliminate or marginalize active and so-called “irrational” disturbances (p. 197). Johnson leaves his readers ultimately on a hopeful note. In presenting an alternative genealogy Nietzsche’s genealogical tree has two main branches: while one has its roots in priestly asceticism, the other “incorporates all strong, active wills within an open-ended history, one whose lineage has yet to be established and whose traditions have yet to be fixed” (p. 201).

Johnson is surely right when he suggests that the polemical and culturally contingent “anti-Darwinism” of GM needs to be taken more at face value, at least as a way of countering the tendency to treat the text as a “straightforward articulation of the biologist-naturalist preoccupations of the age” (p. 214). However, it is highly problematic to suggest that the polemical thrust of Nietzsche’s late writings can be reduced to a single target and that this target is Darwin. Such a move reminds one of Deleuze’s outlandish claim that anti-Hegelianism runs through Nietzsche’s corpus as its cutting edge. Johnson has written a study that merits being read by anyone with an interest in Nietzsche’s relation to science, especially Darwinism, and an investment in the stakes of reading one of Nietzsche’s masterpieces, On the Genealogy of Morality.

University of Warwick

 [1] See Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. H. Tomlinson (London: Continuum, 1983), pp. 44-7. On p. 45 Deleuze writes: “Nietzsche shows that science is part of the ascetic ideal and serves it in its own way…But we must also look for the instrument of nihilistic thought in science. The answer is that science, by inclination, understands phenomena in terms of reactive forces and interprets them from this standpoint. Physics is reactive in the same way as biology; things are always seen from the petty side, from the side of reactions.”

[2] Ruth Abbey, Nietzsche’s Middle Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 7-10.

[3] Unless, of course, one has Heideggerean-inspired commitments to the question and history of Being.

[4] See Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 3.