Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism

Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism

Een bespreking door Sven Gellens na het bestuderen van het werk ‘Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism’ door Dirk R. Johnson. Dit werk verscheen al in 2010 maar heeft vanwege de thematiek en uiteraard ook door de twee hoofdrolspelers Nietzsche en Darwin, niets aan houdbaarheid ingeboet. Sterker nog, toekomstige onderzoekers zullen volgens Gellens alleen al vanwege het onderwerp, niet om dit werk heen kunnen. Het boek verscheen in 2010 bij Cambridge University Pressen en is (al is het wat prijzig) gewoon verkrijgbaar via de (online) boekhandel.


Johnson’s book consists out of two parts. In the first part, Early Darwinism to the ‘Anti-Darwin’, he investigates the development and finalization of Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism. To illustrate these general claims Johnson provides in the second part Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, a close reading of GM. Therefore, in this review we will focus on some points of interest worked out in the first part. This way, remaining implicit about the second part of Johnson’s book, we hope to show the contributions and tensions these bring about.

Recent Nietzsche research discussing Darwin and Nietzsche is often seduced by the vast amount of empirical proof supporting Darwinism. Although they show respect for Nietzsche’s enticing remarks about evolution and human development, in the end they unequivocally praise Darwin’s theory dismissing Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism as ill-informed or rhetorical. (Ansell Pearson (1997) 86,105-106 Moore (2004) 55, Richardson (2002) 546, (2004) 17). Johnson describes Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism as a culmination of years of correct and critical understanding of the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. (2) Nietzsche’s aim was not to participate in a scientific but a philosophical discussion with Darwin, investigating the theoretic assumptions of Darwinism. (4) 

In the first chapter, called Towards the ‘Anti-Darwin’: Darwinian meditations in the middle period, Johnson claims Nietzsche’s mature points of critique were a radicalization of positions developed in his middle period. (17) He uncovers the presence of an ‘early Darwinism in the Untimely Meditation on David Strauss (1873). Nietzsche’s early Darwinism understands that Darwin’s worldview requires leaving traditional metaphysics and ethics behind and that morality can not be placed in a separate realm. (25) Pivotal, for Nietzsche’s later philosophy will become this Darwinian adherence to scientific standards, emptied of any moral or metaphysical assumptions. Although Nietzsche and Darwin initially tried to give an answer to the same problem: ‘how could morality have originated out of immanent natural struggle?’ they each provided alternative explanations in the end. (27-28) Johnson proposes that Nietzsche’s alienation of Wagner and Schopenhauer grew out of his early Darwinism, because of their insufficient support to develop a natural paradigm for morality (29). It is unfortunate, however, that Johnson ignores the post-Kantian body of Nietzsche’s earliest philosophy, where Nietzsche already had identified Kant’s thinking on nature (1867) as pre-Darwinian. (Ansell-Pearson 86, ft. 2) Was Nietzsche interested in Darwinism because it provided a natural paradigm to analyze morality or was it an offshoot of larger interest in the problem of nature and life? This tension lies at the hart of Johnson’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwin argument. It is conspicuous that Johnson reads Nietzsche to have divided Darwinism in two parts without substantiating this controversial claim with textual evidence: “and this division did not change during the course of his future engagement.” (26) According to Johnson Nietzsche separates out most of Darwin’s hypothesis about organic evolution, which he scarcely talks about. Nietzsche only treats Darwin’s ethical and genealogical dimension, with growing significance throughout his philosophical development. (26) This issue becomes even more important when Johnson claims Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism to be primarily concerned with Darwin’s moral perspective, being the main subject of his mature philosophy and especially GM. (8, 28) We find this a one-dimensional approach of Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwin argument, that bluntly ignores all Nietzsche’s remarks about organic evolution in GM, and other works, such as, to name but a few, life as will to power, adaptation as a secondary phenomenon, exaptation (which Dennett, 465 showed to be first formulated by Nietzsche). It also ignores interesting issues addressed by contemporary researchers, such as the topic of natural selection, which we will now illustrate.

While Forber (2007) showed that the issue of natural selection is pivotal in questioning Nietzsche and Darwin, Johnson refrains from giving a systematic discussion of this essential problem. Skowron (2009), for example, argued that we can find Nietzsche’s acceptance of natural selection in Der Antichrist (AC) 7. Johnson seems to ignore this and considers Nietzsche to undercut the principle of natural selection (69, 97, 120, 136). On this point it seems Johnson, willing to investigate Nietzsche’s philosophy without a priori judging it by accomplishments of Darwinian science (10), makes a straw man of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Natural selection is analyzed as primarily redemptive (49), teleological in always selecting the fittest (66) and even, through Malthus understanding of nature, capitalist (113). This misconception of Darwinism uncovers further two major difficulties. Primarily Johnson’s notion of (Nietzschean) will is, at best, specified as “a particular form of existence” (82). The concept of ‘will’ is unproblematically used for a wide range of authors. Sometimes it seems to refer to; (1) a multiplicity of what was in Schopenhauer a homogenous will, (2) the human organism in general, (3) a biological will in the tradition of German Idealism as an outer-directed orientation of human beings, (4) a Darwinian will (82) – which found its expression in Darwin’s theory of evolution – and (5) apparently in Darwinism we can also speak about ‘biological wills’ (33, 45,104). Since his own phrasings eventually lead to confusion and increasing incomprehensibility Johnson missed a chance to start a constructive discussion between Nietzsche’s will to power and Darwinism. See for example: “If an organisms fitness is measured in terms of its survivability, it also holds true that it “wills” to survive, that it is naturally programmed to preserve itself and procreate.” (60) Johnson’s misunderstanding of natural selection and his obscurity about the meaning of ‘will’ make it unclear whether Nietzsche’s philosophical, rather than scientific, critiques on Darwin are plausible. Let us illustrate this further with Nietzsche’s ‘creative antagonism’, as Johnson calls it.  

“While his earlier period developed into a critique of traditional metaphysics based on Darwin-inspired insights, his mature work became what I will refer to as a philosophy of ‘creative antagonisms’.” (14) In the third chapter, Nietzsche antagonistes: a personal challenge to Darwin, Johnson shows that Nietzsche’s final Anti-Darwin-position no longer singles out Darwin on the level of interpretation or theory, but on the level of personal wills. (79-81) As he did with Plato and Socrates Nietzsche came to dissect Darwinism as a theoretical expression of a particular form of existence – typified in the person of Darwin. (82) This is what Johnson calls the “creative antagonisms” of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy (6), and is a by-product of the will to power. “Nietzsche’s attempt to personalize his differences at this stage did not arise from any animosity he had begun to feel toward Darwin. His position was a logical by-product of his theory of the will to power.” (82) From 1888 on, because Nietzsche felt Darwin had rallied the wills to power of lesser ‘decadent’ types, he enters the agon with the world historical figure of Darwin. (86) Darwinism allows the English psychologists to project their ressentment, which is the active energy of weak wills, unto nature. The weak will inserts the world with a metaphysical or moral meaning, even when this means nature becomes distorted. (86, 105) Exemplary is the idea in Darwinism that under natural selection all wills are seen as equal. This is not a natural law, but rather a projection by the weak of their moral form of will to power. (97) The theory of evolution is therefore a symptom of underlying instinctual degeneration. (107) “Like Darwin, Nietzsche focuses on individual wills: but instead of endorsing the vision of an indifferent natural ‘struggle’, he distinguishes between active and reactive wills.” (104)

Morality is therefore not a priori, but is symptomatic of a particular type of will. This consequence of the will to power seems to be underlying Nietzsche’s mature Anti-Darwin argument as the twofold history of morality; between a master and slave morality. (143) “Ultimately, Nietzsche distinguished between two major types of will: active, strong wills, who realized their brand of will having recognized the essential ‘immorality’ of nature; and (re)active, weak, wills, those who could only become active by embodying a ‘moral’ perspective outside of nature that they can direct against the perceived ‘immorality’ of nature (including other ‘immoral’ wills).” (74) When in Götzen-Dämmerung (GD) 14 Nietzsche claims it are the weak that prevail when struggle occurs and not the strong, he undercuts natural selection in favor of a concept of struggle, “whereby individual wills clash in their pursuit of power, not survival.” (100) Instead of the Darwinian struggle for existence Nietzsche will promote the agon as a “neutral zone of power-assertion” (70). Nietzsche’s creative antagonism, as a personal opposition, could then be read as a critique of an abundant will (Nietzsche) against a reactive will (Darwin). A lot could be said about this perspective on Nietzsche’s personalized attack on Darwin, which certainly needs to be investigated very carefully. Johnson, however, because of earlier problematic claims and his ambiguous reading of Darwinism, did not provide enough substantial evidence to argue for the plausibility of Nietzsche’s personalized attack on Darwin. Eventually, in criticizing the person Darwin one gets the impression of Nietzsche as that German irrationalist, something Johnson set out to prevent. Also, it remains unclear whether the twofold history of morality forms a cause of Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism, or that it is itself a consequence. 

In the second chapter, Overcoming the ‘man’ in man: Zarathustra’s transvaluation of Darwinian categories, the elusive concept of Übermensch is scrutinized. Since Nietzsche lost confidence in the notion of ‘man’, as presented in other philosophers or scientists, and in the terminology they applied to characterize that conception, he now tried to overcome the polarities and dichotomies he had uncovered in his critiques of the middle period. (47) The Übermensch is “an entirely self-contained, outer-directed will unaffected by ruptures within the soul and able to expand its superabundance on its surroundings.” (50) In Also sprach Zarathustra (Z) we find Nietzsche’s first real departure from Darwin. (50) Contrary to Darwin Nietzsche does not relativize individual contribution in evolution. (56) He stresses the internal factors of an individual and how it forms its own reality. While Darwinian evolution of man is mechanistic and focused on external factors of adaptation, making an individual’s will obsolete. (57-59, 81) The ‘fitness’ of the Übermensch can no longer be judged by means of self-preservation but rather by the expenditure of power. “In sum, Nietzsche’s Übermenschembodies Wohlgerathenheit, or the condition of being instinctually ‘well-turned out’. In some senses, it is Nietzsche’s variation on Darwinian ‘fitness’.” (58) When Nietzsche talks about breeding (Züchtung) the Übermensch we cannot read it as breeding under natural selection. (64, 65) Nietzsche’s form of Züchtung is inconsistent with purposeful breeding since he is indifferent to survival. Darwin, on the other hand, is interested in the survival of specimens, since it is nature that ‘selects’ the ‘fittest’. (65) 

Promising to provide a solution for Nietzsche’s biologism (14) – a question that haunts Nietzsche-interpreters for over a hundred years – Johnson refrains from giving an elaborate analysis. We are very sympathetic to Johnson’s reading of the Übermensch as a concept that deals with inner criteria, but because of his indeterminate description of ‘will’ he is unable to explain Nietzsche’s deliberate use of strong biological phrasings in his later works. Johnson’s explanation of Züchtung is quite plausible, however, incomplete since Nietzsche calls up for a deliberate breeding of the Übermensch in AC 3 and strengthening of the human species in GM II 12, something Johnson denies Nietzsche ever from doing.

Despite these issues the book will undoubtedly influence future researchers occupied with Nietzsche and Darwin. First of all Johnson provides an excellent overview of Nietzsche’s reading of the French moralistes as a turning-point in his own philosophical thinking and starting-point of his re-evaluation of Darwinism. (34) “He also recognized how unchallenged Christian moral values had inspired the moralistes, but that future thinkers merely elaborated on this foundation without a critical appraisal of the genesis of their terms.” (45) Their search for an objective analysis of human behavior was still driven by Christian moral scepsis (35-36). Also, their motto ‘behind all values are vices’[1] implicitly accepted the belief in a single human self or ego. (40-41) Secondly Johnson’s methodological stand should be admired. He explicitly refrains from using the apocryphal Will to Power and argues, correctly in our sense, for the primacy of Nietzsche’s published works over the Nachlass (12). This alone makes him an exceptional researcher in the Anglo-Saxon landscape. The book is also a helpful tool to get an overview of the current state of Nietzsche-research occupied with Nietzsche and Darwin. Last but not least Johnson has identified the themes to be discussed when giving an in-depth analysis of Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism: the will to power and Malthus, the moralism underlying Darwinism and the Eternal Recurrence, the notion of struggle for existence and agon, Darwin and Nietzsche’s account of ‘fitness’, and both thinkers understanding of the human organism. As such, this book clears the path for future research. 


Ansell Pearson, K. (1997), Viroid Life. Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition. London/New York.

Dennett D. (1995), Darwin’s dangerous idea, London

Forber, P. (2007) Nietzsche was No Darwinian, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXV No. 2, September, International Phenomenological Society. Berlin, 471-488.

Moore, G. (2004), Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor. Cambridge.

Richardson, J. (2002), Nietzsche contra Darwin, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 65, no. 3, 537-575. 

Richardson, J. (2004), Nietzsche’s New Darwinism, Oxford. 

Skowron, M. (2008), Nietzsches “Anti-Darwinismus”, Nietzsche-Studien 37, 160-195.

Sven Gellens

[1] Behind all selfless action lies self-interest.

Eén gedachte over “ Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism

  1. In een artikel over of de mens nog evolueert, poneerde ik de stelling dat de mens momenteel evolueert met de snelheid van het licht. Vele maanden later erkende een evolutiebioloog dat ik daarin gelijk heb. Dit erkennen echter houdt in dat je geleidelijke evolutie dient te verwerpen. We hebben geen meetlat om de snelheid van evolutie te meten, toch over de tijd is het onlogisch dat evolutie eenzelfde snelheid zal blijven behouden. Aanpassingen zouden logischerwijze ook versnelling moeten betekenen, waar die ook gevonden zou moeten worden. Via de taal evolueert de mens met de snelheid van het licht!

    Het ongrijpbare van Nietzsche zit hem in zijn monisme. Realiseer goed dat we allemaal als idealist worden geboren, dat wil zeggen dualist, ook Nietzsche moest het dualisme herkauwen en herkauwen totdat het ‘lezen als een koe’ zo fysiek werd als je het maar kon voorstellen. De taalevolutie van het dualisme heeft een lange weg bewandeld. Kant heeft middels de Copernicaanse wending de polen tot het uiterste van elkaar verwijderd, kon daaruit nog iets anders dan een monsterlijke ideologie als de dialectiek van Hegel uit ontstaan? Er is geen wetenschappelijk bewijs dat denken het gevolg is van het lichaam, dat wil zeggen dat denken na het lichaam komt, deze processen kunnen heel goed gelijktijdig verlopen. Neem daarbij dat voor Nietzsche geest een vooroordeel is, dan kun je geest wegstrepen en houd je lichaam over. We leven in een taalgemeenschap, in een strijd om het bestaan van de betekenis. Dualisme en monisme zijn twee verschillende betekenissystemen, hoeveel Nietzsche’s zijn er nodig voor het hervormen naar een monistsch betekenissysteem? Verlaat Zarathustra, geloof hem niet, zoek je eigen waarheid, bouw op hem, maak je meester van hem, blijf geen leerling van Nietzsche, maak het project af waarvan hij de gevolgen zelf niet kon overzien: de übermensch.

    Ecce homo, een moeilijk snoepje, de megalomane toon, ‘waarom ik zo knap ben’ : voeding, standplaats en klimaat, ontspanning, behandelt hij zichzelf niet als bijvoorbeeld een kweker van een bonsai boom? Kweker en boom tegelijk? Hoe lichamelijk vat Nietzsche de taal op? Filosofen beweren dat Nietzsche een voorkeur had voor het lichaam. Hoe zou hij een voorkeur überhaupt kunnen hebben als geest en lichaam hetzelfde zijn?

    Nietzsche maakt een opmerkelijke fout, het afwijzen van causa sui. Enerzijds zegt hij dat onze vrijheid in de waarden zit die niet causaal verbonden zijn. Anderzijds wijst hij het aanpassinssysteem van Darwin af. Echter evolutie als een vernietiginsdrang van ‘binnenuit’ vereist een causa sui. Ik denk dat dat wat waar is tussen Nietzsche en Darwin in ligt. Evolutie is niet te verklaren zonder een vleugje Lamarcksisme, het gelijk van Nietzsche, in de lagere regionen moet je alleen niet kijken naar het individu, maar naar het grote overschot aan ‘overtolligen’. Evolutie komt tot stand pas als het biologisch gedrag veranderd, ook hier echter moeten we realiseren dat lichaam en biologisch gedrag een zijn. De basisvoorwaarden voor verandering is weliswaar in het organisme aanwezig, maar een biergist evolueert pas als het doet, van voedselpatroon verandert. Deze aanwezigheid is Darwiniaanse toeval. Neo Darwinisten zijn geen Darwinisten omdat ze evolutie op Newtoniaanse willen verklaren, Nietzsche zat met hetzelfde probleem, alleen andersom.

    Ik zou vanuit voortschrijdend inzicht Nietzsche geen anti-Darwinisten willen noemen. Een betere evolutiepsycholoog heeft de wereld nooit gehad, al was het maar dat hij zowel de patiënt als psychiater heeft onderzocht, maar juist ook omdat hij de sleutel is om de evolutietheorie compleet te maken.

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