Home » Modern and Post Modern » The Modern and Post Modern – Darwin

The Modern and Post Modern – Darwin

The readings for this week were from Darwin’s “The Origin of the species” and “The descent of man”.

The lectures from Michael Roth for this week didn’t get  to Darwin until half way though the third video (of four). They included a lot of interesting background stuff and set the scene for Darwin and his theories.


John Locke Source -Wikipedia

Mr Roth first talked about how enlightenment in England was less confrontational in England and more empirical. It was associated with tradition, empiricism and toleration. One of the most influential thinkers of the time was John Lock (1632 -1704). He influenced other important thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire

Lock believed that ‘consent’ was a major category of the enlightenment  The social contract was based on the consent of the governed. The governed voluntarily gave up a part of their freedom in exchange for security. There also needed to be toleration for people to live together in that people could agree to disagree without fighting. For example there should be coexistence of  different religious beliefs.

For the French of that time French custom and the status-quo was the enemy. The Germans viewed nature with suspicion. In England there was confidence in both. The English thought they were  important building blocks for government and reasonable philosophy.


Jeremy Bentham Source – Wikimedia

It was Jermey Bentham  – (1748 -1832) who developed the idea of utilitarianism. He believed that you should discard all beliefs (science)  for which you don’t have measurable results. This would include thins like human nature and customs. He is quoted as saying that “antiquity is no reason”.   He developed ‘the greatest happiness principle’ meaning the greatest pleasure  for the greatest number.  For him it didn’t matter if the pleasure was morally bad he determined no ranks of pleasure.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think …

The Romantics

Wordsworth (1770 1850) and Coleridge (1772-1834)  opposed the utilitarianism ideal. In the 1790’s they described how people don’t just receive impressions from the world. We are not passive receptors  but  make the world as we live in it. Their views were similar to those of Kant in that you only know what you make but the romantics went further. They were very excited  by the French Revolution. They saw this as evidence that people can act on and effect the world not just absorb it.

Wordsworth in 1798, about the time he began The Prelude.

Wordsworth went to France and although he was very enthusiastic about people seizing initiative he saw it as being very violent and became disillusioned. By 1793 during the reign of terror he included the notion of loss in his writings. He felt that humanity had been wounded whilst trying to make the world a better place.

Coleridge  wrote political essays. He developed the concept of the organic community. He went to Germany being influenced by German idealists like Kant and critics like Lessing. He determined that the enemy of authentic thought  was the egocentric. Coleridge believed that religion is the path to community and that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Soon after returning to England he was beset by marital problems, illnesses, increased opium dependency, tensions with Wordsworth, and a lack of confidence in his poetic powers, all of which fuelled the composition of Dejection: An Ode and an intensification of his philosophical studies.

The Theory of Liberty

John Stuart Mill Vanity Fare

John Stewart Mill (1806 -1873) was a child prodigy he spoke Greek at 3 and could do complex mathematics at 4. He wanted to show the world that our education systems wasted a lot of time. But at the age of twenty the pressure of his intense studying caused a nervous breakdown. Being brought up in a utilitarian family he looked to utilitarianism for answers to his depression. There answer was to seek more pleasure. He realised that even if he had all the pleasure he wanted he wouldn’t be satisfied.Utilitarianism didn’t have the answers.  The

Romantics explore their sadness as a way of exploring life and creating art. What saved him was Romanticism. He found solace in their stories of love and depression.  His political philosophy became – you can do what you what as long as you don’t hurt someone else. His view was different to that of Bentham as he saw that some pleasures were deeper than others. He gave more value to the ‘higher’ pleasures of intellect and morality.


At last we come to Charles Darwin. (1809-1882)

Darwin’s problem or rather the question he asked himself was Why were there so many animals? What did god have in mind? or how did the many variations come about? To answer this question he went to explore. From 1831 to 1836 he sailed on the Beagle to explore and try to answer his questions to try to understand why. He collected and studied thousands of species. In order to find his answers he used :-

Biogeogaphy -the study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time

Palaeontology –  the study of fossils to determine organisms’ evolution and interactions with each other and their environments.

Thomas Huxley’s comparison of skeletons. Wikimedia.

Embryology -the science of the development of an embryo from the fertilization of the ovum to the fetus stage.

Morphology -the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features.

He reached the radical notion that species are not permanent and that Genealogy – the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history should replace metaphysics. Darwin said that there was no natural essence of species.The human race, he said, was one of the products of evolution and not the goal.

Darwin learned a lot from breeders about control of variation through the  breeding process. He spent a lot of time with pigeon breeders and was fascinated by how they selectively bred individual birds to produce offspring with neck ruffles or other distinctive traits. It was one more piece of evidence for his theory of evolution through natural selection: the notion that nature preferentially selects those organisms best suited to a given environment and ensures that the fittest reproduce. Variety is cause through reproduction of  incipient species


Geology showed Darwin  that change can be very gradual but massive over thousands of years. His knowledge of geology and ability to extend the time zone of change was key to his success. In chapter IX Darwin explains that geology did not support his theory of natural section. No fossils had been found to fill in certain parts of the jigsaw. He theorised that this was because of land changes and that some fossils hadn’t survived.

…the present is the key to the past. (Charles Lyell)

Charles Darwin,  The Origin of Species 1859

The Struggle for existence

In discussing the struggle for existence Darwin drew upon the work of Thomas Malthus and his theory that populations grow until they grow beyond the resources necessary to sustain them.  Darwin used Malthus in his understanding of survival. He explained that species needed this struggle of competition for resources and the need to fight to survive and to evolve.

Natural selection

Vanity Fair Source-Wikipedia

This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection/ Variations neither useful not injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic

How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?

Darwin believed that if breeders could choose characteristics favourable for future generations then so could nature. He believed that nature produces great workman ship, she has thousands of yeas to do so.

Sexual Selection

One part of the theory of natural selection that Darwin developed was that of sexual selection.  This form of selection ;-

… depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring

This arises as a result of sexual competitiveness for reproduction. Females  choose the males that are the most attractive  He cited peacocks and their wonderful plumage as an example of this. The feather have no adaptive advantage, the males evolve to be chosen by females

I fully admit that it is astonishing that the females of many birds and some mammals should be endowed with sufficient taste to appreciate ornaments, which we have reason to attribute to sexual selection; and this is even more astonishing in the case of reptiles, fish and insects (The descent of Man)

Darwin only avoided  traditional antagonism by the use of apologetic language as shown in the examples quoted above. He  managed to write in such a way that people couldn’t take offence.  His logical explanations and including the superiority of man over other species made his work more acceptable. He didn’t talk very much about the evolution of man and there is no mention of this in ‘The Origin of the Species’.

I have enjoyed this exploration of the work of Darwin. In reading about his life and work you release just what a huge task he took on and he was very brave to publish his work at that time. He was criticised and tormented because of his views. He also had some ardent friends and supporters.


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