There is a strange belief abroad that critics of Darwinism are found chiefly among right-wing, ultra-conservative reactionaries and their cadre of uneducated backwoods religious fundamentalists for whom, according to Philip Kitcher, Darwin “serves evangelical Christians as the bogeyman.”1 Keith M. Parsons, writing for Eugenie Scott’s National Center for Science Education (largely an organization devoted to fear-mongering against ID), praised James H. Fetzer in his Review: Render Unto Darwin for effectively tying “creationism to larger political and ideological forces that provide the impetus for creationism as a social movement and prompt wealthy sympathizers to bankroll its organizations.” Parsons further sensationalizes these “elements of the religious right” as “fascist.”
Of course it is easy enough (persistent conflations of creationism and ID aside) to discount such stereotyping as itself the product of ignorance and ideological prejudice. A recent Zogby poll, for example, showed that self-identified liberals supported the teaching of evidence both for and against Darwinian evolution by a significant percentage over self-identified conservatives. Quick and easy typecasting does not, it would appear on closer scrutiny, hold up. In fact, critics of Darwinian evolution can be found across the ideologicial spectrum, from the conservative right to the radical left, a fact worthy of further investigation.
Though seldom discussed or analyzed, the left has indeed directed some telling criticisms at Darwinism and none so interesting or instructive as that of Max Horkheimer (1895-1973). Although Horkheimer is hardly a household name, his assumption of the directorship of the Instutute for Social Research placed him within the center of leftist intellectual circles, and he would exert important influences over Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas.
Horkheimer is most notably associated with the Frankfurt School, a group of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics who championed “critical theory,” a leftist analytic with varying admixtures of Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Freud. Thus, on one level Horkheimer’s philosophy was an idiosyncratic blend that lent itself well to an overarching pessimism that ultimately wound up as an ineffectual nihilism. For all of Horkheimer’s flaws as a philosopher–and they were many–he refused to rubber-stamp the Communist regimes of the 20th century, accusing the “murderers in the Kremlin” of adopting the fascist tactics they had so recently defeated. Even as Horkheimer retreated from the strident and at times ebullient Marxism of his youth, his leftist transcendentalism offered a spiritualism without spirit, a scathing critique of the Englightenment and modernity with no clear enlightened replacement save for a vague demand for “otherness.”
None of this should suggest a sweeping dismissal of Horkheimer’s views, however. “To acknowledge the latent nihilism in Horkheimer’s thought as a whole . . .,” observes Brian J. Shaw, “is not to deny those real flashes of critical insight which illuminate even the most obscure and wrong-headed regions of his philosophy. That Horkheimer mistakenly poses the alternative to contemporary society in an uncompromising manner does not automatically disqualify the validity of each of his insights into its problematic nature. One does not have to possess the cure to an illness to recognize illness when one sees it.”2 One of the illnesses endemic to contemporary society Horkheimer identified as Darwinism.
Horkheimer did not work alone or in a vaccuum. Witnessing the march of fascism throughout Europe following World War I, Horkheimer was forced to flee Germany in 1933. Shaw describes him arriving in New York “a bitter and shaken man.”3 During the 1940s he worked with Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) in developing a “critical theory” detailed in their Dialectic of Enlightenment and later in his Eclipse of Reason (essays the basis of which were a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University in 1944), admitting, “It would be difficult to say which of the ideas originated in his mind and which in my own; our philosophy is one.”4
As mentioned earlier, Horkheimer’s critique of the contemporary world was bereft of concrete solutions leaving him, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, the chief architect of the “melancholy left.” The sources of that melancholia were many, but Darwinism was clearly one of them.
The starting point for understanding Horkheimer’s critique of Darwinism rests in his observation that “the philosophy underlying his [Darwin’s] ideas was plainly positivist.”5 This feat of analytic acuity long preceded the work of historians like Neal C. Gillespie and others who noted Darwin’s early exposure to the father of positivism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857).6 Horkheimer’s association of Darwin and the ism that bears his name with positivistic philosophy forms the initial basis for his scathing analysis of a theory that had secured itself paradigmatic status.
On the face of it the association of Darwin with positivism raises some questions. Comte eschewed all metaphysics as a “fiction of abstractions” and emphasized the study of “things as they are” through scientific inquiry applied through a strict methodological naturalism. Ultimately Comte called for a religion without God, a new humanistic faith leaving behind the myths of theology and the metaphysics of philosophy. Thus, to say that Darwin, imbued with ideas of positivism, was materialistic or even possessed of a metaphyic might be misplaced. After all, can we say that Darwin the positivist even had a metaphysic? For that matter, from this perspective, was Darwin really a materialist at all? Answering “no” to both these questions is too hasty; it presumes that Comte was actually successful at achieving his claims, and it is here that Horkheimer effectively disentangles Darwin from this philosophical web.
In his extremely useful essay, “Materialism and Metaphysics,” Horkheimer begins with two philosophers (one a contemporary) known for their harsh criticism of positivism, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). Dilthey considered materialism a form of metaphysic and Jaspers viewed materialism as a form of positivism. Horkheimer admits the connection by pointing out, “Materialism has in common with positivism that it acknowledges as real only what is given in sense experience and it has done so since its beginnings.”7 While he is critical of Dilthey and Jaspers regarding some of their metaphysical views, he is careful to use metaphysics as a corrective tool by which science and it most odious corruption–scientism–can be analyzed. As for positivism and metaphysics, positivists ally themselves with what Horkheimer calls a “metaphysics of intuition” so that both “are simply two different phases of one philosophy which downgrades natural knowledge and hypostatizes abstract conceptual structures.” It is on this basis that Horkheimer considers the positivist claim to have thrown off the speculative impediments of metaphysics a sham:
The metaphysics of the elements, the interpretation of reality as a sum-total of originally isolated data, the dogma of the unchangeableness of the natural laws, the belief in the possibility of a defintive system are all the special theses of positivism. It has in common with intuition the subjectivist claim that immediate primary data, unaffected by any theory, are true reality, as well as the use of “only” by which both philosophies try to limit any theory of rational prevision (a theory which, we must admit, they wrongly interpret along mechanistic lines).8
Here Horkheimer in some ways merely echoes James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Maxwell chided the positivists for restricting scientists only to observation yet at the same time committing themselves to a “peculiar faith . . . in the universal validity of laws” and convinced of a predictive metaphysic that “new truths will fall into old moulds, even in sciences yet unborn.”9
In some important ways Darwin may, therefore, be seen as a materialist whose metaphysic is positivism. Dilthey’s characterization of materialism summarized by Horkheimer also rings true: “Materialism is understood either as trying to explain everything spiritual, and especially consciousness and reason, as pure illusion (in contradiction to the most instinctive thrust of reason itself) or as trying to derive the spiritual from material process with the aid of artificial hypotheses and questionable appeals to future scientific discovery.”10 But rather than simply dismissing materialism, Horkheimer tried to find a middle ground through which a materialistic program of social research could incorporate empirical analysis on the one hand and theory on the other while still maintaining a non-reductionist view of humanity. His inability to successfully perform that balancing act is just one of several points upon which Horkheimer himself could be criticized. Nevertheless, Horkheimer’s materialism was vastly different from Darwin’s and it led to his broad, overarching indictment of that theory. His analysis of materialism, positivism, and metaphysic forms the contextual framework for his critique of Darwinism. Because Horkheimer’s views in this regard form the substance of this posting, they are reproduced here at length:
In America the problem of the revolt of nature is essentially different from that in Europe, because in this country [he is lecturing at Columbia University] the tradition of a metaphysical speculation that regards nature as a mere product of the spirit is far weaker than it is in the older continent. But the tendency to real domination of nature is equally strong, and for that reason the structure of American thinking also reveals the fatal intimate connection between domination of nature and revolt of nature. This connection is perhaps most striking in Darwinism, which has possibly influenced American thinking more than any other single intellectual force except the theological heritage. Pragmatism owed its inspiration to the theory of evolution and adaptation, as derived either directly from Darwin or through some philosophical intermediary, particularly [Herbert] Spencer.
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To have Darwinism counted among the philosophies that reflect the revolt of nature against reason may be surprising, as this revolt is usually associated with romanticism, sentimental discontent with civilization, and the desire to recall primitive stages of society or human nature. Darwin’s doctrine is certainly devoid of such sentimentality. Not at all romantic, it belongs to the main growth of Englightenment. Darwin broke with a fundamental dogma of Christianity–that God created man in his own image. At the same time he struck at metaphysical concepts of evolution, as they had prevailed from Aristotle to Hegel. He conceived of evolution as a blind sequence of events, in which survival depends upon adaptation to the conditions of life, rather than as the unfolding of organic entities in accordance with their entelechies.
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Thus his name has come to represent the idea of man’s domination of nature in terms of common sense. One may even go so far as to say that the concept of the survival of the fittest is merely the translation of the concepts of formalized reason into the vernacular of natural history. In popular Darwinism, reason is purely an organ; spirit or mind, a thing of nature. According to a current interpretation of Darwin, the struggle for life must necessarily, step by step, through natural selection, produce the reasonable out of the unreasonable. In other words, reason, while serving the function of dominating nature, is whittled down to being a part of nature; it is not an independent faculty but something organic, like tentacles or hands, developed through adaptation to natural conditions and surviving because it proves to be an adequate means of mastering them, especially in relation to acquiring food and averting danger. As a part of nature, reason is at the same time set against nature–the competitor and enemy of all life that is not its own.
The idea inherent in all idealistic metaphysics–that the world is in some sense a product of the mind–is thus turned into its opposite: the mind is a product of the world, of the processes of nature. Hence, according to popular Darwinism, nature does not need philosophy to speak for her: nature, a powerful and venerable deity, is ruler rather than ruled. Darwinism ultimately comes to the aid of rebellious nature in undermining any doctrine, theological or philosophical, that regards nature itself as expressing a truth that reason must try to recognize. The equating of reason with nature, by which reason is debased and raw nature exalted, is a typical fallacy of the era of rationalization. Instrumentalized subjective reason either eulogizes nature as pure vitality or disparages it as brute force, instead of treating it as a text to be interpreted by philosophy that, if rightly read, will unfold a tale of infinite suffering. Without committing the fallacy of equating nature and reason, mankind must try to reconcile the two.
In traditional theology and metaphysics, the natural was largely conceived as the evil, and the spiritual or supernatural as the good. In popular Darwinism, the good is the well-adapted, and the value of that to which the organism adapts itself is unquestioned or is measured only in terms of further adaptation. However, being well adapted to one’s surroundings is tantamount to being capable of coping successfully with them, of mastering the forces that beset one. Thus the theoretical denial of the spirit’s antagonism to nature–even as implied in the doctrine of interrelation between the various forms of organic life, including man–frequently amounts in practice to subscribing to the principle of man’s continuous and thoroughgoing domination of nature. Regarding reason as a natural organ does not divest it of the trend to domination or invest it with greater potentialities for reconciliation. On the contrary, the abdication of the spirit in popular Darwinism entails the rejection of any elements of the mind that transcend the function of adaptation and consequently are not instruments of self-preservation. Reason disavows its own primacy and professes to be a mere servant of natural selection. On the surface, this new empirical reason seems more humble toward nature than the reason of the metaphysical tradition. Actually, however, it is arrogant, practical mind riding roughshod over the ‘useless spiritual,’ and dismissing any view of nature in which the latter is taken to be more than a stimulus to human activity. The effects of this view are not confined to modern philosophy.11
What Horkheimer means by that last statement–that its effects are not confined to modern philosophy alone–is explained later. Indeed he sees this reduction of the mind and spirit to nature affecting the human condition itself. “Naturalism–as we have seen in the example of Darwinism–tends to a glorification of that blind power over nature which is supposed to have its model in the blind play of the natural forces themselves; it is almost always accompanied by an element of contempt for mankind–softened, it is true, by a skeptical gentleness, the attitude of the physician shaking his head–a contempt that is at bottom of so many forms of semi-enlightened thinking. When man is assured that he is nature and nothing but nature,” Horkheimer concludes, “he is at best pitied.”12
It might be pointed out that “traditional theology” need not conceive “the natural” as evil. Indeed this Gnostic heresy was dealt with at length by Paul in his letter to the Colossians and Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus all launched apologetic refutations of Gnosticism. God and nature need not war. “The cleare light is in the Gospel,” wrote John Donne, “but there is light in Nature too.” It is also hard to discern any meaningful distinction between “popular Darwinism” and plain Darwinism. Nonetheless, Horkheimer’s indictment of Darwinism’s reductionist accounts of both man and nature seem telling and true. “Materialism,” Horkheimer notes, “requires the unification of philosophy and science.”13 While this may appear to be a powerful unified synthesis, it, in fact, becomes an arrogant scientism in the hands of the positivist sweeping away everything in its path with the insidious language of an ineluctable nature.
Whatever Horkheimer’s shortcomings, his analysis still has value for today. Kenneth Miller in his Only a Theory engages in considerable hand-wringing over the state of science education in the U.S. Americans, he opines, simply don’t get it. Overwhelmingly opposed to Darwinian evolution, Miller paints an apocalyptic picture of this country sinking into a Dark Age of ignorance while the rest of the world marches confidently and scientifically forward. Apparently for Miller only Darwinism can come to the rescue of America. “Are we willing to allow science to work?,” he asks. “Do we have the strength and the wisdom to allow science to discard the ideas that don’t work,” he continues, “and to search for genuine truth about the natural world?”14 Horkheimer would no doubt answer the first question in the affirmative: yes, we surely should permit science to work but not positivism masquerading as science. Such an imposture suggests the answer to Miller’s second question. If Darwinian “science” is left to determine which ideas “work” and which do not, we will not get scientific answers but positivistic answers to what “works,” and as Horkheimer has noted, a “truth” that imposes itself as Truth governing a humanity stripped of spirit and locked in a struggle that ultimately defines morality in terms of adaptive success. This not from the religious right of America but from the intellectual left of Europe.
Thus there is a second lesson to be drawn here. It is that the characterizations that opened this post are abjectly false. Opposition to Darwinism, in fact, knows no ideology. It has over the past 150 years found an array of skeptics on nearly all points of the political and intellectual spectrum. The problems with Darwinism aren’t found in external assaults along ideological lines; the problems with Darwinism come from within itself–a worldview constructed of subjectivist realities to which naturalistic explanations are applied. They are, as David Stove called them, Darwinian Fairytales. For Horkheimer they are fairytales with nightmarish consequences. We need not sleep in Horkheimer’s philosophical bed to share his horror at the Darwinian incubus.
1Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 131.
2Brian J. Shaw, “Reason, Nostalgia, and Eschatology in the Critical Theory of Max Horkheimer,” The Journal of Politics 47.1 (Feb., 1985): 160-181, 180.
4Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1947; new edition New York: Continuum, 1974), p. vii.
5Ibid., p. 125.
6See, for example, Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Silvan S. Schweber, “The Young Darwin,” Journal of the History of Biology 12.1 (Spring 1979): 175-192; Frank Burch Brown, “The Evolution of Darwin’s Theism,” Journal of the History of Biology 19.1 (Spring 1986): 1-45.
7Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell et al. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), p. 42.
8Ibid., p. 40.
9Quoted in Henk W. de Regt, review of The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, vol. II: 1862-1873, by P. M. Harman, in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 47.4 (Dec. 1996): 654-657, 655-656.
10Ibid., p. 14.
11Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, pp. 123-127.
12Ibid., p. 170.
13Horkheimer, Critical Theory, p. 34.
14Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 217. A laughable example of Miller’s fractured logic can be found in his figure 8.1 (p. 214), a chart that shows “Public acceptance of evolution.” The point, it would seem, that Miller is attempting to make here is that the U.S. is second only to Turkey in Darwinian disbelief, suggesting that America is eating the dust of the world in its scientific achievement. But the only real lesson to be drawn from Miller’s chart is that there is absolutely no relationship between public stands on Darwinian evolution and scientific achievement. But even assuming that Miller’s chart serves to make his intended point, one would be left to conclude that the world center of scientific achievement is Iceland, and that America lags behind such countries as Malta, Slovenia, Estonia, and Croatia in science. If this is an example of Miller’s science, then perhaps the best answer to both of his questions posed above is a resounding “NO.”