What was Nietzsche's Position on Darwin and his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection?



I will preface this question by saying I have not read Nietzsche extensively. The one exception is his 'Genealogy of Morals', a recent read of mine, twice actually.

I always assumed Nietzsche's ideas of "the will to power" and the "Ubermensch" were inspired by Darwin's earlier writings, but I've since heard others say that Nietzsche was actually very critical of Darwinian Natural Selection (e.g. "Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism" by Dirk Johnson). Can anyone save me reading books such as Jonhson's and explain: is there a clear consensus on whether Nietzsche actually understood Darwinian natural selection, and furthermore if he saw his own philosophy as supportive or rather as doing battle with it?


Posted 2017-11-03T21:00:14.400

Reputation: 201


Here is from Notre Dame's review of Nietzsche's New Darwinism:"As even casual readers of Nietzsche will observe, the bulk of what Nietzsche has to say about Darwin and Darwinism is hostile... Nietzsche's attacks appear to get wrong both Darwin's position and the biological facts of the matter. The central motif in Nietzsche's criticism of Darwin seems to be that Darwin lays too much stress on survival, and too little on power". It seems Lamarck's evolutionism would have suited Nietzsche more.

– Conifold – 2017-11-03T22:03:42.870

@Conifold Thanks very much for the reference. Essentially, it seems to me that Nietzsche misunderstood Darwin's theory, that it promoted mere survival as life's main driving force, and was horrified by that idea. Instead Nietzsche simply preferred the idea of power as the dominant social virtue and shaping force, and so he promoted it by dreaming up his "will to power". Does that seem accurate? Unfair to Nietzsche? – Waterman – 2017-11-03T23:48:57.380

It is always hard to peg Nietzsche. His primary focus was social and cultural, and popular in the late 19th century glosses of those with the biological evolution are prone to lead to misconstruing both. Social Darwinism was one way of doing it, Lamarckian anthropomorphic wills (to power or Schopenhauer's will to life or Bergson's élan vital) were another. Human cultural evolution may be driven by non-biological forces to which Nietzsche's insights are more applicable, but if we take it on bio-Darwinian terms the will to power becomes epiphenomenal at best. Hence Nietzsche's hostility. – Conifold – 2017-11-04T00:31:07.657

@Conifold Nietzsche is indeed hard to peg, and judging by his writing style it's as if he wanted it that way. Nowhere in the G of M does he offer any evidence for his ideas. Instead he tells a metaphorical tale of 3 social classes: the nobles, priests, and plebians. While I found it interesting from a literary perspective, not for one second did I find it the least bit convincing. To my eyes it lacks any explanatory power on the true "genealogy of morality". And all the while he poo poos a man as meticulously precise as Darwin? It just seems incredibly lazy to me. Your thoughts? – Waterman – 2017-11-04T01:36:19.043

Maybe useful: Dirk Johnson, Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism, Cambridge UP (2010).

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-11-04T09:10:29.910

@MauroALLEGRANZA Thank you. I also found a useful book: Dan Dennett's 1995 "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". Chapter 16 has a section entitled "FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE'S JUST SO STORIES". – Waterman – 2017-11-04T12:31:33.527

@MauroALLEGRANZA In that section one finds the following quote: "...whereas Darwin was ultra-cautious in his expression, Nietzsche indulged in prose so over-heated that it no doubt serves him right that his legion of devotees has included a disreputable gaggle of unspeakable and uncomprehending Nazis and other such fans..." – Waterman – 2017-11-04T12:33:30.627


Also relevant: G.Moore, Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor (2002), page 3: "Nietzsche’s own writings bear witness to the extraordinary cultural impact of the biological sciences in the late nineteenth century. His work demonstrates not only a life-long fascination with the mechanisms of progress and decline, but also, his attacks on Darwin notwithstanding, a profound interest in the far-reaching implications of the modern evolutionary world-view for the traditional areas of philosophical inquiry."

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-11-04T14:22:27.520

I wonder what you think of the recent argument made on here, that Nietzsche was being ironic in the GM (!) https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/52417/30474

– CriglCragl – 2018-05-26T21:16:54.733

In Nietzsche's defence, 'evolution' is currently favouring the biomass of rats and cockroaches, and the almost complete wipeout of megafauna. 'evolutionarily favoured' would not meet with his favour, he wants the unlikely. And the unlikely happens in actual evolution too.. – CriglCragl – 2018-05-26T21:21:05.573



Nietzsche was well aware of the epoch-making achievement of Darwin but considered it as too one-sided because he misunderstood natural selection as a poor necessity and not as a plentiful supply. In the “Fröhlichen Wissenschaft” he calls Darwinism the last great scientific movement in Europe and remarks that he thinks Darwinism is true although he also mentions the horrible consequences of Darwinism. (Kritische Gesamtausgabe Band III, 4 – 19,132).

In general Nietzsche had a rather negative attitude toward Darwinism: Darwin has forgotten the mind or spirit. The influence of the external constraints is strongly overestimated by Darwin. Contrary to the quote above he also claimed that the Darwin's school has erred everywhere.

So we get an ambivalent picture of Nietzsche's understanding of Darwinism. More original quotes (in German) can be found here.


Posted 2017-11-03T21:00:14.400

Reputation: 1

1Darwinian evolution effectively laid the foundation for a new mainstream belief system to replace the dangerously dated theism with something more modern and convincing. And Nietzsche was the exact opposite of a conformist, he could not possibly go with that flow, even if it contained a few good bits common sense agrees with. It is way to often that I hear people say "I believe in Darwinian evolution" and it never sounds right. – dtech – 2018-04-27T20:47:25.190