W.T. Stead on Darwinism

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W.T. Stead on Darwinism

W. T. Stead, in Lest we Forget: a Keepsake from the Nineteenth Century (1901) pp. 33-34

If the first part of the Century was dominated by the genius of Napoleon, in its closing years the influence of Darwin was not less in the ascendant. The doctrine of Evolution, with which his name is most prominently identified, may be regarded as the Master Dogma of the Century. Its subtle influence is to be felt in every department of life. It has profoundly modified our conceptions of creation, and it is every day influencing more and more our ideas of morality. More than a generation before Darwin’s “Origin of Species” had appeared, Hegel, the crown of the series of idealistic philosophers which began with Kant, had elaborated his conception of the entire universe as one vast system of development (Entwickelung). His philosophy began in the blankest abstractions of thought; but, whatever may be said of its speculative validity, it certainly secured as a practical result that every branch of science, physical or mental, which wishes to be taken seriously must pursue the historical method. So the Transcendental idealism of Germany ended by compelling men to study facts and to trace how these facts actually came to be;it imposed on all investigators its conviction that a thing could only be trulv known as known in and through its becoming. And just as Transcendentalism in Germany issued in driving men to the tracing of the concrete processes of actual life, so Materialism in England passed into and passed away into the evolutionary view of the universe, verified in part by Darwin and systematised by Herbert Spencer, in which the universe ceases to be regarded as dead matter, but is seen to be in all its parts and in all its forces alive—one life in indefinitely various manifestations.

Professor Huxley, in his last published utterance, gave vigorous and characteristic expression to his conviction of the antagonism between the cosmic process that produces the survival of the fittest, and the ethical laws which are recognised by civilized mankind. But the confusion between the two words “fittest” and “best” leaves a legacy of evil for the coming century. That what is ethically the best may be the unfittest for survival in the struggle for existence is unfortunately too true. But it is usually assumed that that which is fittest or best adapted by its nature to its environment, and therefore most likely to survive, is necessarily the best, whereas from an ethical point of view it is often the worst. The ignoring of that distinction will lead ere long—is already leading—to a disregard of many of the best and noblest principles upon which our pious forefathers have acted. The Survival of the Fittest is closely allied to the elimination of the unfit. The scientific verification of the iron laws by which nature grinds out the weak, the defective, and the unfit, was certain to produce a tendency on the part of many men to readjust the laws and usages of society to the laws of nature. Why take such pains to preserve the sickly sufferer? Why pay such extreme regard to life as to forbid the summary extinction of all infants that cannot pass a certain standard of vital stamina? Why hesitate in consigning to a lethal chamber all idiots, lunatics, and hopeless incurables? And in the larger field of national politics, why should we show any mercy to the weak? Might becomes right. The unfit have no claim to survive. Wars of extermination seem to receive the approbation of nature. Mr. Rhodes is a Darwinian politician, although his loyal application of the dogma is checked by many considerations, some personal, others those of his environment. Nietzsche may be regarded as the first thinker to give the new tendency its full scope. We need not fear that mankind will take Nietzsche “neat.” But it seems by no means improbable that the Twentieth Century will be brought up in its earlier years on Nietsche and Water.

The Nineteenth Century was brought up on a much humaner doctrine. The French Revolution was not exactly made with rose-water. But the impulse behind it was distinctly humanitarian. Its apostle was Jean Jacques Rousseau, a sentimental idealist, to whom men of blood and iron were abhorrent, and who was by them abhorred. Among those who combated the Revolution and who ultimately succeeded in trampling it under, were men as sentimental as Rousseau, and who in their way were as devoted to a humanitarian ideal as any Revolutionist who cut notches with the guillotine to mark the progress towards Millennial blessedness. The Sun of the Century rose, as it has set, in blood. It was the Century of Napoleon and of Bismarck, nevertheless it was pre-eminently a Humanitarian Century.

Even its wars have been largely prompted by humanitarian emotion. The War for the Liberation of Greece, which brought the Russians to Adrianople and sank the Turkish fleet at Navarino, was a war prompted by sympathy for the victims of Ottoman oppression. So, emphatically, was the War waged in 1877-78, as the result of the Bulgarian atrocities, and so, to come down to a still later date, was the American War for the Liberation of Cuba. In all these cases the appeal was to the sentiment of pity and to the sentiment of justice. The waning of the force of this sentiment under the baleful shadow of the doctrine of “Might makes right, the weakest to the wall, and to hell with the unfit!” was conspicuously illustrated in the abandonment of the Armenians to the vengeance of Turk and Kurd, and cynically emphasised by the cordiality with which the Kaiser on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem tarried at Constantinople to eat bread and exchange compliments with the Great Assassin. The same doctrine was not less shamelessly invoked by many to justify the invasion of the territory of the Transvaal, and is even now brought forward to justify the attempted extermination of a nation and the extinction of a nationality which, they maintain, has not justified its fitness to survive in the struggle for existence.