The Mechanism of Cultural Evolution in Nietzsche's Genealogical Writings

By Gellens, Sven; Biebuyck, Benjamin | Philosophy Today, August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Mechanism of Cultural Evolution in Nietzsche's Genealogical Writings


Gellens, Sven, Biebuyck, Benjamin, Philosophy Today


In recent scholarship on Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), substantial efforts have been made to better understand the peculiar interaction between his philosophical genealogy of culture and his persistent use of biological discourse.1 Conspicuous in this respect is the fact that the philosopher repeatedly connected cultural and even cognitive processes to biological constraints in the works he published from the late 1 870s onwards. Contemporary researchers are deeply divided on the question of how Nietzsche relates to the evolutionary paradigms of his time, particularly to Darwinism - a relationship often characterized as ambiguous and inconsistent.2 We agree with the claim that much is to be said for a Darwinian reading of Nietzsche's writings.3 But too little attention has been paid to the particular way in which the cultural and the biological actually intertwine in Nietzsche's analysis. It is our contention that Nietzsche developed in his major genealogical writings - Human, All too Human, Daybreak, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals - a systematic outline of a mechanism of cultural evolution, with a prominent function attributed to the "spirit," the intellect.4 We will show that this mechanism of cultural evolution explains how culture (thoughts, ideas, . . .) becomes heritable, elucidating the operation of the process of Einverleibung, as the assimilation of thoughts into the body.

The Mechanism of Cultural Evolution: A Componential Analysis

As its title suggests, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister wants to demonstrate that many concepts, experiences, values, and truths that have been considered fundamental, universal, and eternal are in fact exponents of particular and historical human interests. It is indeed "a schooling in suspicion" ("eine Schule des Verdachts," MA Vorrede I). In order to substantiate this claim, Nietzsche not only advocates the necessity of historical thinking - and thus outlines what will later become the method of genealogy - he also delineates what we may call a mechanism of history, a mechanism of evolution. An important aphorism in this respect is entitled "Veredelung durch Entartung" ("Ennoblement through degeneration," MA I 224). Here, Nietzsche argues that evolution does not merely occur by the accumulation of strength and health (fitness), but also - and necessarily - relies on the contribution of the weak and degenerate. In spite of the medical ("Infection") and botanical ("Inoculation") phrasing, he does not explain how this process of ennoblement turns into a momentum of evolution. He posits that the free spirit (Freigeist), even though he possesses the critical power to keep distant from his own affects, has to be considered weak on a practical level (im Handeln, in actions), whereas the "fettered spirit" (der gebundene Geist) keeps society stable. The fettered spirit does so because he acts out of habituation (Gewöhnung or Angewöhnung, MA 1 226). Since he accepts society's customary opinions without probing them, he believes in society,5 which renders him a steady character and turns him into a reliable and strong member, who carries out orders and safeguards the durability of social hierarchies: "Narrowness of views, through habit become instinct, conducts to what is called strength of character" ("Die Gebundenheit der Ansichten, durch Gewöhnung zum Instinct geworden, führt zu dem, was man Charakterstärke nennt," ?? I 228). Hence, he is conceived of as having a good character.6

The free spirit in his turn does not necessarily accept traditional values and explanations and is thus incessantly confronted with the problem of choice and decision-making. This makes him weak: "for he is too aware of too many motives and points of view and therefore possesses an uncertain and unpracticed hand" ("denn er kennt zu viele Motive und Gesichtspuncte und hat desshalb eine unsichere, ungeübte Hand," ?? I 230). But why does a weak individual such as the free spirit not succumb? …

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