In Search of Unification Varieties of Monism in 19th Century Germany

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IV Intermediate Results

For many people Darwin’s theory was attractive because it was estimated as a serious scientific attempt of explaining all phenomena of organic nature by one principle or law. Darwin’s theory contains a unifying principle, it has explanatory power and it is consistent with other natural explanations. It provided the framework for connecting the otherwise isolated facts of the different biological disciplines to a consistent system of biological knowledge. The fact that so many thinkers of various disciplines and fields of knowledge granted Darwin’s theory this advance of credit although basic elements still had to be delivered, reflects the urgent need for a unifying principle. I would like to describe this methodological ideal of a unified science as a kind of monism in the good sense. It allowed for integrating new scientific knowledge not yet available at Darwin’s time, like modern genetics. And it was backed up by new findings and discoveries of other natural sciences, like physics, concerning the age of the earth. The philosopher of science William Whewell coined the term “consilience of inductions” for this kind of correspondence (1840).

Bronn had emphasized these aspects in his epilogue and his prospectus. Darwin himself, who was a very self-reflected scientist and philosopher, was aware of this strength of his theory compared to others, particularly to the at that time still dominant doctrine of special creation. He knew that his theory had greater explanatory power than the dominant rival approaches and that it also avoided its problems. Darwin’s posthumously published Notebooks, his correspondence and his work contain many references to his intellectual sensitivity in the field of philosophy of science and philosophy in general (Engels 2007, 2008).

We have also seen that scientists and philosophers viewed Darwin’s theory as a promising basis for a new natural philosophy, a substitute for an old one not viable any more. But there was no uniform or concrete conception of this new natural philosophy. There was rather a striving for a new view of nature and a new world view which Darwin’s recipients shared than a clear vision of its content.



V. Ernst Haeckel , the “German Darwin”, and his monist ethics

One of the most prominent acolytes of Darwin in Germany was the zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who was extraordinary professor of zoology at the University Jena and later became ordinary professor. Haeckel was named the “German Darwin”, wrongly, as I think. There are great differences between Darwin and Haeckel. Haeckel’s claims and phylogenetic reconstructions were not only much more daring than Darwin’s, his quasi religious monist world view, his monist ethics and his social Darwinism were far away from Darwin’s views of cultural development and ethics.

As early as 1862 Ernst Haeckel mentions Darwin in his monograph Radiolarien. Haeckel who had read Bronn’s translation of Darwin’s Origin immediately realized its revolutionary impact:

„The grand theories which Charles Darwin recently has set forth ‚on the origin of species in the animal and plant kingdom by means of natural selection or the preservation of the perfected races in the struggle for life‘1) and by which for systematic organic natural history a new epoch has begun, all at once have bestowed upon the question of the affinities of organisms, upon the evidence of a continuous linkage such a fundamental importance, that each, even the slightest contribution, that can contribute to a further solution of those problems, must be welcome.“24 (Haeckel 1862, 231f.; emphasis by E.-M.E.)

In a long footnote 1) Haeckel continues his laud. Inspite of his “demurs to share Darwin‘s views and hypotheses in all directions and to consider his argument as correct in its entireness” he admires Darwin’s work because it is for him “the first serious scientific attempt to explain all phenomena of organic nature from a great uniform point of view and to substitute incomprehensible wonders by the comprehensible law of nature.“ (Haeckel 1862, 232, n.) Perhaps there is more “error than truth” in this first attempt. “With the translator Bronn” Haeckel nevertheless views „in Darwin‘s direction the only possible path to approach the understanding of the great law of evolution which determines the whole organic world, its becoming and its decay no less than its appearance.“ (Haeckel 1862, 232, n). Haeckel quotes the long enthusiastic passage from Bronn mentioned above in section II. He is thrilled by the unifying character of Darwin’s theory and its explanatory power. The greatest flaw of Darwin’s theory is for him its silence about the origin of the primordial organism from which all the others have evolve gradually. He points to the inconsistency of supposing for “this first species” a special act of creation. At the same time it seems to him that Darwin did not mean this seriously.

At the first general conference of the 38th assembly of the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians in 1863 at Stettin Haeckel gave a programmatic speech “Über die Entwicklungstheorie Darwins” (On Darwin‘s Theory of Evolution) and expressed his conviction that Darwin’s history of creation “is really a knowledge that modifies our whole world view [Weltanschauung]” (Haeckel 1924a, 3). Haeckel’s speech makes clear that Darwin’s theory is much more for him than a scientific theory. It is a worldview, a “Weltanschauung”. Haeckel describes the reactions to Darwin in a martial language: Darwin‘s theory triggered a „fight“. The „army camp“ of naturalists, scientists and philosophers is devided into two gruffly opposed parties: “progressive darwinists” with their banner „evolution and progress“ and the conservative opponents with their slogan „creation and species“. This is an early text, perhaps the first one, where the term “Darwinist” is used for the representative of Darwin’s theory. According to Haeckel every day wider circles are seized by this immense movement. Haeckel‘s theory of evolution implies perfection of species by struggle for life in the course of time, he identifies evolution with progress. He also points to the elegance and greater explanatory power of Darwin‘s theory, although the effects of natural selection cannot be observed, to the unity of science as well as the unity of the worldview, made possible by Darwin’s theory. Under the influence of the linguist August Schleicher Haeckel later calls this unity of the world view “monism” (Haeckel 1866 I, 105). Haeckel finishes his speech with the long quotation by Bronn on the unifying character of Darwin’s theory. This speech is also an early exemplary document which shows a strategy of propagation by using catchwords and by appealing to the general hope of people for progress and the possibility of its objective scientific foundation. Haeckel thus goes far beyond Darwin’s own cautious and deliberative formulation of his theory and also beyond the scope of application set by Darwin in his Origin. In 1878 Haeckel makes a distinction aiming at the relevance for the Weltanschauung which Haeckel attributes to Darwinism and speaks of Darwin’s “three grand theories” meaning first the “general doctrine of evolution”, that is “evolutionism or the ‘theory of evolution’ (in the widest sense) as comprehensive philosophical worldview”, in one word “monism”, secondly the “theory of descent as comprehensive doctrine of the natural origin of organisms” and thirdly the “breeding doctrine or theory of selection” which is “proper Darwinism” (“der eigentliche Darwinismus”) (Haeckel 1924, 205f.).

In 1866 Haeckel published his two volumes evolutionary morphology, his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Allgemeine Grundzüge der organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, mechanisch begründet durch die von Charles Darwin reformirte Descendenz-Theorie (General Morphology of Organisms. General Main Features of the Science of Organic Forms, mechanically founded by the Theory of Descent reformed by Charles Darwin). Inspired by Schleicher Haeckel picks up the term „monism“ and thanks Schleicher for his booklet of 1863. As opposed to Darwin Haeckel also holds a literal view of the word „Kampf ums Dasein“ (Haeckel 1866 II, 238f.). In 1869 William Preyer (1841-1897) published „a popular lecture“ entitled Der Kampf um das Dasein. In explicit contrast to Darwin and in accordance with Ernst Haeckel Preyer does not understand the expression “Kampf ums Dasein” in the large metaphorical sense, “but it is only a competition of all living beings among themselves.” (Preyer 1869, 42). Darwin suspected that the German term “Kampf” did not give quite the same idea as the term “struggle for existence”, as he wrote in a letter to Preyer.

In 1868 Haeckel published his Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (Natural History of Creation)25. For Haeckel the anthropocentric world view, the illusion that the human being is the centre of mundane nature and everything only exists to serve man has been overthrown by Darwin’s theory of descent as geocentrism by Copernicus. If this theory is true, and Haeckel is convinced of it, the cognisance of the animal origin and genealogical tree of the human being will necessarily intervene deeper than any other progress of the human mind into the judgment of all human relations and the sciences. “Sooner or later it must lead to a complete revolution in the whole world view of humankind.” (Haeckel 1868, 487). At the end of his book Haeckel included eight tables, which are hypothetical genealogical trees of different groups of organisms. The 8th table contained the “genealogical tree of the human species or races” (“Stammbaum der Menschen=Arten oder =Rassen”). As cover picture Haeckel chooses the “family group of the Catarrhines” with a sequence of twelve drawings of apes and humans. Haeckel’s explanation and his comments show, that he has a clear vision of a hierarchy among animals as well as humans. The temporal sequence is for him also an order of increasing perfection, the most perfect species (die vollkommenste) being the Caucasian or Iranian. Haeckel also describes human races (Rassen) as human species (Arten).


“The cover picture serves to demonstrate the utterly important fact that with regard to the form of the skull and the physiognomy of the face (as well as in every other respect) the difference between the lowest humans and the highest apes are smaller than the differences between the lowest and the highest humans and the differences between the lowest and the highest apes of the same family. The lowest humans (fig. 4, 5, 6) are obviously much closer to the highest apes (fig. 7, 8, 9) than to the highest human (Fig. 1) who is fronted by the lowest Catarrhine ape (fig. 12) as utmost contrast. All 12 heads are drawn in profile and reduced to almost the same seize to allow for the clear comparison of the stepwise evolution.”26 (Haeckel 1868, 555).

Haeckel’s approach is in many ways highly problematic. He pretends not only scientific objectivity for the reconstruction of human evolution but also stipulates objectivity for his value judgments. His ideal type of human perfection seems to be the one represented in ancient Greek paintings and sculptures. Moreover Haeckel questions the unity of mankind and the equal value of all human races. This is overt racism. 27 And he defends an anthropocentrism that he claims to have been overcome by the theory of descent, by assuming that humans are higher than animals. This book reflects that Darwinism was for Haeckel a worldview by which the threshold of science is transgressed towards ideology.

Haeckel sent Darwin a presentation copy. In his letter of 19 November 1868 to Haeckel Darwin packs up his criticism in hinting to his margin of age compared to Haeckel and writes in his habitually polite manner:

„I have not yet read the first part but began with the chapter on Lyell & myself, which you will easily believe pleased me very much. […] Your chapters on the affinities & genealogy of the animal kingdom strike me as admirable & full of original thought. Your boldness however sometimes makes me tremble, but as Huxley remarks some one must be bold enough to make a beginning in drawing up tables of descent.[n.7] Although you fully admit the imperfection of the Geological record, yet Huxley agreed with me in thinking that you are sometimes rather rash in venturing to say at what periods the several groups first appeared. I have this advantage over you that I remember how wonderfully different any statement on this subject made 20 years ago wd have been to what wd now be the case; and I expect the next 20 years will make quite as great a difference.“ (CCD 16 II [1868], 2008, 850).

It is also interesting that Darwin did not use in his Descent of Man the embryo plates printed in Haeckel’s book, which he knew, but that he preferred to take the figures of a human and a dog embryo from Ecker and Bischoff.

At the 50th assembly of the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians in Munich in 1877 Haeckel gives a speech “Über die heutige Entwicklungslehre im Verhältnisse zur Gesamtwissenschaft” (“On today’s Theory of Evolution in Relation to the whole of Science”) (Haeckel 1924b) and formulates his monist creed. For Haeckel only the new doctrine of evolution (“Entwicklungslehre”) which leads to a “monist philosophy” can resolve the “question of all questions”, the “fundamental question of the position of man in nature” (Haeckel 1924b, 143f.). For Haeckel the “unity of the worldview (or ‘monism’) […] resolves the antagonism between the dualistic systems of the world and “unites the natural sciences and the humanities to an all encompassing, unitary total system of knowledge.” (155). The most important and most difficult task is the conception of a new ethics which has to orient towards a “true natural religion in accordance with reason” instead of a “dogmatic, mythological church religion”. Like Spencer Haeckel is convinced that there is moral and intellectual progress in evolution and he pleads for a foundation of ethics on the “unshakable basis of firm natural laws”. The “ethics of the doctrine of evolution” thus does not have to search for new principles, but it has to trace back the “age-old commandments of duty to its scientific basis”. Thus for Haeckel science becomes a substitute for religion. In his chapter “Our Monist Ethics” of his Welträtsel (Riddle of the Universe) Haeckel claims that by his monist world view he can overcome the dualism between the physical, material and the mental, immaterial world. Man is only part of one great whole universe. Haeckel criticizes Kant’s metaphysical foundation of ethics and claims to substitute Kant’s ethics and the categorical imperative by the “new edifice of ethical monism”. Our feeling of duty is rooted in social instincts which we find everywhere in the animal kingdom. The highest goal of morals is a “healthy harmony between egoism and altruism”. As a “social vertebrate” man has “holy duties” towards himself as well as towards the community. We have to strive for our personal happiness as well as for that of our community. This norm is expressed in the Golden rule, which is a common principle of monist and Christian ethics.

Haeckel’s monist ethics is questionable in many ways. It implies an oversimplification of human morality as well as of the philosophical systems of ethics which Haeckel attacks. And Haeckel commits a fallacy by simply deriving norms and values from what he takes to be biological truths. In the chapter “Death” of his Lebenswunder (Wonder of Life) (1904) some practical consequences of Haeckel’s monist ethics become clear. He frankly advocates the killing of incurably sick “who are neither for themselves nor for the community of any use”, but who cause moreover an economic loss for private means as well as for the state. (1924e, 135f). The Wonder of Life also contains eugenic ideas. Haeckel’s points to the “advantages of the Spartan selection and its use for the improvement of the race” (136).

Thus Haeckel’s programme of applied evolutionary doctrine included from the beginning the idea of a Kampf ums Dasein in the narrow sense, of evolutionary progress by Kampf, of race struggle, eugenics and euthanasia at the service of the community and state. For Haeckel human culture, morals and ethics had no quality of their own but were only an extended nature submitted to the same laws. Haeckel did not grant any regulatory legitimacy to culture beyond and opposed to nature but reduced it to its executive organ.28

As a contrasts programme I will shortly present the German Society for Ethical Culture (Gesellschaft für ethische Kultur) which was founded in 1892 at Berlin, at the same time when Haeckel propagated his monist philosophy. Among the founders were the astronomer Wilhelm Foerster and the philosopher Georg von Gizycki. Also the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies was an important member of the society. The model was the Society for Ethical Culture which had been already founded in New York by Felix Adler in the year of the American Independence, in 1876. Other ethical societies followed in England, Austria and Switzerland. These societies were part of an ethical movement whose goal was to establish a state of justice, truthfulness, humanity and mutual respect. Georg von Gizycki was also the editor of the journal Ethical Culture. A Weekly for spreading Ethical Endeavours (Ethische Kultur, Wochenschrift zur Verbreitung ethischer Bestrebungen). At a time of staggering dogmatic and historical authority the society wanted to reveal human morals common to all human beings. Although the society took up a critical stance on the Church and dogmatic authority, which it shared with monism, it did not reject every form of commitment to the church as long as one recognized that there was a common bond among humans, based in the nature of the human being and independent of any religious confession. This was a society of freethinkers who granted “any freedom in religious, social and political convictions”. As theoretical philosophical predecessors John Locke and Immanuel Kant are mentioned. In Wilhelm Foerster’s inaugural speech it becomes clear that his attitude towards the “Kampf ums Dasein” is very different from Haeckel’s monism. Harsh competition and Kampf ums Dasein are the “dark side” of our cultural state. Inspite of Christianity and philosophy we have remained “savages” (Foerster 1892, 14). Ethical culture with its ideals of justice, truthfulness, humanity and mutual respect has to be cultivated as a weapon against this cruel struggle for life in industrial society with its division of labour, specialisation and loss of community. Wilhelm Foerster complaints about the “pernicious obfuscations” and the “obfuscation which the generalization of certain biological hypotheses about the Kampf ums Dasein in the present social and national movements have brought about.” (Foerster 1903, 22) Foerster correctly points out that the “Kampf ums Dasein” has become a “passionate catchword” in the fight of the different races and tribes far beyond what Darwin himself meant by this term. Foerster also rejects “racial arrogance” (“Rassendünkel”) spread by its “apostle” who recently emigrated from England to Germany.29 Haeckel’s monism and ethical culture did not fit together as both sides were aware of.



VI. The Human Being, an Animal capable of Morals – Charles Darwin’s Ethics

Charles Darwin’s understanding of human morals and ethics as unfolded in his Descent of Man (1871, 21874) is very different from Haeckel’s. Darwin, who was influenced by the ethical tradition of the moral sense, of benevolence and sympathy (David Hume, Adam Smith) and who also incorporated Kantian elements into his ethics emphasized the importance of the social virtues as “the noblest part of our nature”.30

Following Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin sees the particular advantage of man’s intellectual and linguistic capacities in his ability to remain in a harmonious relationship to the changing universe without undergoing bodily change. The variability of man’s intellectual faculties and his linguistic flexibility enable man to devise diverse techniques for adapting to changing life conditions, Darwin argues. This is how he succeeded in becoming the most dominant animal that has ever appeared on this earth. Applying this formulation of the idea of “free intelligence”, Darwin distinguishes the flexibility of man’s cognitive performance from the automatism of instincts. In the course of evolution, he says, the achievements of free intelligence and the role which experience plays as opposed to that played by the instincts become increasingly significant factors. And they are also the necessary precondition for the development of a moral sense, as will be elucidated in the following.

The point of departure for Darwin’s reflections on the morality of mankind is his assumption that primitive man, the early, human progenitors of civilized man, possessed well-developed social instincts like those already to be found in many animals, including the “apelike progenitors” of primitive and modern man. Because man descended from non-human beings who were already invested with social instincts, we do not come into this world as tabula rasa, he argues, but rather with an evolutionary heritage of social instinctive impulses. An important element of social instincts is sympathy for members of the same community or tribe. Darwin explains the emergence of these instincts in terms of this theory of natural selection, ascribing to them a function necessary for preserving the community. In his view, such social instincts include parental love, love of one’s offspring, sociability, faithfulness, willingness to help etc..

For Darwin, sympathy forms the basis, “the foundation-stone”, of all social instincts. As he contends, the “instinct of sympathy” is the root of our “moral sense or conscience” because our moral sense, like the instinct of sympathy, is directed towards the good of the community, not towards egoistic striving for our own happiness. As he posits, the radius of social instincts originally only extended to the members of the same community or tribe, not to all members of the species. Initially, man was not interested in preserving the species as in preserving his own community and tribe. Cooperation among members of the same community and tribe ensured survival in confrontation with nature and foreign groups, thus becoming a strategy for the struggle for existence.

Compared to our early apelike and human progenitors, our instincts are however reduced in several ways, concerning the quantity, the specialization and the strength of instincts. The condition for the development of genuine morality is this reduction of instincts along with the evolution of reason, judgment and language. Nevertheless the social instincts still give the impulse to our social and moral actions. They however have to be oriented by reason according to ethical principles. Thus although the “first foundation or origin” of morality lies in social instincts and these constitute the roots of our “moral sense”, they alone do not suffice to explain the phenomenon of morality. As Darwin argues, genuine morality consists in the “moral sense or conscience”, in a “sense of right and wrong”, this being something only man possesses. Darwin begins the fourth chapter of his Descent of Man by expressing his “complete” agreement with those who view the moral sense or conscience as by far the most significance difference between man and animal. In doing so he cites James Mackintosh’s survey and discussion of the issue entitled Dissertation on Ethical Philosophy (1837) as well as Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, quoting a passage on duty.

Thus Darwin does not reduce man’s moral sense to social instincts. On the contrary, for him, man’s moral sense constitutes a qualitatively new capacity not found in the social instincts, - one which had so far been found to exist exclusively in man. As he argues, genuine morality does not mean blindly following instincts; it involves consciously made judgments and actions in accordance with principles like Kant’s law of morality and the Golden Rule. This presupposes that an organism’s intellectual faculties such as memory, anticipation, imagination etc. have reached a certain level of development which, according to scientific insights gained so far, man alone possessed.

In his concluding remarks he points to one aspect of the emergence of social virtues for which, as he sees it, natural selection played a marginal role in comparison to certain other factors. He writes:

“Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man’s nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, etc., than through Natural Selection; though to this latter agency may be safely attributed the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense.”

Whereas Darwin holds an ambivalent position towards progress in evolution, he goes on the assumption that there is moral progress in cultural development, evaluating this possibility optimistically. For him, moral progress consists in overcoming the instinctive dispositions of primitive man and savages”,– which limit benevolence and social action to members of one’s own social community – and extending social behavior to members of other nations, races as well as to helpless, diseased and weak human beings and ultimately also to animals. Darwin sees social action which limits sympathy to members of one’s own community as characteristic of the lowest stage of moral development. For Darwin, “disinterested love for all living creatures” is “the most noble attribute of man”, and in his optimistic vision of a far-off future, he assumes that “virtue will be triumphant.” Time and again he emphasizes the anticipated triumph of altruistic sympathy over instincts exclusively directed towards the individual’s own community.31

If we have finally succeeded in reaching a cultural or civilized state we cannot, Darwin says, neglect the weak and the helpless without it leading to a deterioration of the most noble part of human nature. Although in Darwin’s view moral progress, as it manifests itself under the conditions of civilization, involving, among other things, support of the diseased and the weak, can have negative consequences for the human race, ethical considerations prevent us from withdrawing our support for the needy. According to Darwin, intentional neglect of the diseased and the weak for the benefit of the human race would be accompanied by a bestialization of mankind and a deterioration of our moral sense.

In arguing in this way, Darwin plays off ethical arguments against the notion that the evolutionary mechanism of the survival of the fittest should be made the gauge for human action. Darwin’s moral and ethical value judgments are grounded in his faithfulness towards certain traditions and his orientation towards concepts of philosophical ethics. According to Darwin, moral and cultural progress has detached itself to a considerable degree from the mechanism of natural selection under the conditions of civilization, now being effected in other ways. Thus “great lawgivers, the founders of beneficent religions, great philosophers and discoverers in science, aid the progress of mankind in a far higher degree by their works than by leaving a numerous progeny.” In taking this view, Darwin touches upon the issue of how culturally relevant information is passed on to future generations on the basis of linguistically mediated experience, which occurs independent of heredity.

Thus we come to the conclusion that Darwin himself was no monist. He understood ethical culture as a mighty antidote against inhumanity and as a strong force in itself which has its own rules and laws, ethical principles.




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