Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jacques Barzun on the relation of Darwinism and "woe in our day"

There are some people who seem to think the charge that Darwinism has some ideological connection with totalitarian regimes of the 20th century is an invention of Ben Stein. Here is Jacques Barzun, the legendary cultural historian, writing while these regimes were still in power:
[T]he evil world we live in is not a world which has been denied access to the science of Darwin and Marx and the theories and art of Wagner. Had their answers truly solved the riddle of the Sphinx, no obscurantism could subsist, for we are animated by--I will not say, the precise ideas of the three materialists--but surely by their deeper spirit, their faith in matter, their love of system, their abstract scientism, and their one-sided interpretation of Nature:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life ...
This is not Mussolini speaking, but Darwin, and his voice re-echoes in our ears:
War is not in contrast to peace, but simply another form of expression of the uninterrupted battle of nations and men. It is an expression of the highest and best in manhood.
This is the comment of Dr. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labor Front, on the war of 1940.

I am not saying that Darwin would have accepted the results of his "philosophy of nature," nor am I seeking three individual scapegoats in the past to bear the burden of our present ills, but I do say that the ideas, the methods, the triumph of materialistic mechanism over the flexible and humane pragmatism of the Romantics has been a source of real woe in our day.
Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, 1941, pp. 15-16


Anonymous said...

1) Just because a statement was made over 50 years ago does not make it true.

2) I don't recall anyone claiming that Stein originated the Darwin-totalitarian regime claim.
Why change topics yet again?

3) Are you claiming that Darwin supported wars between nations of humans?

4) Barzun wrote "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present" so with Mr Cothran and his proposed curriculum (why do AP studies students do better on the combined SAT if Latin is the best course to take?), this is someone else who prefers the 1500's to today (except for modern conveniences).

5) I am sure someone else has already written this more eloquently than I, but with moderation I won't know until tomorrow. It kind of takes the joy out of posting.


Martin Cothran said...


Responses to your comments:

1. Where did I say that?
2. Where did I say that?
3. Where did I say that?
4. Where did Barzun say that?
5. With all due respect, my blog is for my joy, not yours. If you enjoy it, great. If you don't, you don't need to read it. But, just so you know, the spam should pipe down here shortly (it usually does), and I'll take the moderation off.

Anonymous said...

The fact that Jacques Barzun thinks that Darwinism refers to "higher" animals in respect to superiority shows he doesn't know what he's talking about. Darwin simply refers to complexity. Evolution doesn't proceed towards any goal intentionally, even complexity, for its own sake. Darwin was actually quite compassionate in his political views, saying that even if eugenics would improve the stock of men, it shouldn't be done out of basic human decency.

There is a big distinction between social darwinism and darwinism: darwinism does not necessarily lead to social darwinism. In fact, social darwinism is really the misunderstanding that I accused Barzun of above: they think that evolution chooses the "better" species.

Martin Cothran said...

I would recommend reading Barzun before accusing him of not knowing what he is talking about. But in any case, why would Darwin object to controlled breeding of humans unless he thought they were "higher" than animals, the controlled breeding of which he did not object to?

Anonymous said...

"But in any case, why would Darwin object to controlled breeding of humans unless he thought they were "higher" than animals, the controlled breeding of which he did not object to?"

You're assuming he would mean the same thing by "higher" in both cases. Obviously, "higher" can be used in a moral sense or in the sense of complexity.

The passage Barzun is quoting of Darwin is notoriously misquoted, the full passage reads quite differently.

Martin Cothran said...


First of all, Barzun was not assuming anything with regard to what Darwin meant by "higher", he was just quoting Darwin himself saying that there is something grand about the idea of survival of the fittest, and that this idea has similar features to what was being said by Nazi spokesmen.

Tell me what you think Darwin is saying here.