Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1
Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.
European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.
The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.
Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.
The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.
Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.
Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.