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Darwinism Paved the Way to Our Perilous Cultural Moment

Photo: Portland riot, by Tedder / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

The year so far has delivered a stunning lesson in the fragility of freedom and of civilization. Endless lockdowns matched with urban chaos — it’s hard to believe these two shattering phenomena overlapped entirely by accident. How exactly, though, do they relate? At Mind Matters, Michael Egnor suggests Darwinism as a missing link.

Democracy and Tyranny

Egnor cites Plato, as analyzed by philosopher Edward Feser. Plato charted a devolution in forms of government, from what he regarded as the best (a sort of “philosophical aristocracy”) to oligarchy, timocracy, issuing in base democracy, followed by tyranny. Egnor understands  totalitarianism — Nazism and Communism — as the special modern iteration of tyranny, which received its “scientific imprimatur” from the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The transformation of tyranny to totalitarianism, as explained by philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) is Darwinian. Arendt notes that 

“Darwinism met with such overwhelming success [in totalitarian systems] because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race and well as class rule …

“Underlying the Nazi’s belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks’ belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.”

Nazism was clearly inspired in no small part by Darwin’s theory and Arendt notes that Marx and Engels explicitly credited Darwin with insights essential to Marxism. She points out,

“… the great and positive interest Marx took in Darwin’s theories; Engels could not think of a greater compliment to Marx’s scholarly achievements than to call him the ‘Darwin of history’… the movement of history and the movement of nature are on and the same.”

This is not to say that Darwin caused totalitarianism. Totalitarians were on the scene a century before Darwin. Marx also drew heavily from Hegel’s “World-Spirit” metaphysics and from Feuerbach’s atheism and materialist anthropology. But Darwin provided a naturalist rationale — a scientific imprimatur — for the indispensable characteristic of totalitarian movements, which is the claim that their triumph is an inexorable natural movement. In the Platonic scheme, totalitarians are tyrants (thugs) who rule not by their mere base lusts but by a fanatic devotion to an ideology of human evolution — biological/racial evolution (Hitler) or economic/class evolution (Marx, Lenin, Mao).

In each totalitarian variant of tyranny, the pandemonium of late democracy is atomized, terrorized, and paralyzed, like a herd of unruly cattle stampeded in a single direction dictated by the alleged irresistible laws of nature. Totalitarianism is, in short, the tyranny of guided evolution. Thus, Darwin provided a scientific imprimatur for this modern mutation of ordinary Platonic tyranny.

A Framework and a Pretext

In other words, Darwinism provides a framework and pretext for totalitarian thinking, which sees itself as fulfilling an evolutionary destiny. You can have totalitarian tyranny without Darwin, but the idea of evolution paves the way.

Does this sound overstated? Melodramatic? It would be interesting to ask Cliff Mass. The University of Washington climate scientist took a two-hour walking tour last week through largely abandoned and boarded up downtown Seattle. From lockdown to looting and riot, our once-lovely city has been on a mad plunge to suicide. On his blog, Mass compared what has happened to the city to Kristallnacht, the November 9, 1938 “Night of Broken Glass” in Hitler’s Germany. An online mob came for Professor Mass for that one, and he got cancelled from his gig commenting on the weather — the weather! — for NPR. Analogies are always risky, especially when they encompass anything to do with the Nazis. But he wasn’t entirely off-base. While Nazis rampaged against Jewish businesses, Antifa and other “protestors” have targeted all business and normal life in general. The government in both cases winked at it, while good people were afraid to speak out.

In 2020, our culture could well be poised on the edge of something still darker than what we’ve seen so far. Antifa was at it once more last night in Seattle, as Chicago again witnessed rampant looting and anti-police violence. And then there is the ongoing chaos in Portland. Hannah Arendt would not have seen such mayhem and the isolation and powerlessness of lockdown as separate and unrelated. In Michael Egnor’s reading, neither would Plato. The “pandemonium of late democracy” walks hand in hand with atomization, terror, and paralysis. The contribution of evolutionary ideology in getting us here should not be neglected.