The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a time of progress, of looking forward to new ways of thinking. Philosophy was divided between empiricists and rationalists until Immanuel Kant combined the ideas of both to form a new philosophy and determine new ways of human thought and advancement. Charles Darwin created a scandal with his idea that humans evolved from monkeys and, initially, even lower life forms. Henry David Thoreau called for individualism and rebellion against establishment. While Darwin popularized the term “evolution,” all three of the men used the principles of evolution to explain the sustained advancement of man.
Darwin presented biological evolution as a concrete example of survival of the fittest that also applied to individuals, society, and religion. Darwin’s statement, “The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a group of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the thought at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors” portrays an integral idea of humanity- self advancement. The fact that Darwin can recognize himself in the Fuegians shows his willingness to believe in his own development. It parallels Thoreau’s philosophy that “we must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake… by an infinite expectation of the dawn”. Thoreau’s dawn is analogous to the continued advancement of nature according to Darwin. Of course, Darwin believes that evolution occurs by the ability to reproduce efficiently, thus maximizing the number of that species and shutting out the members of others, much like Kant’s idea of the advancement of society: “The means nature uses to bring about the development of all man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society, as far as in the end this antagonism is the cause of law-governed order in society”. The antagonism is the clash among individuals in which only the strong, or most adept at breeding, survive- in other words, evolution. The “capacities” mentioned by Kant are similar to the ability to breed perpetuated by Darwin that both lead to the development of the species.
For evolution to occur, one must start with an individual, which the three philosophers all recognize as an obvious and fundamental part of a society. What, each asks, causes an individual to push its society to evolve? Darwin focuses on the question, of course, from a scientific viewpoint. “On the principle of successive variations not always appearing at an early age, and being inherited at a corresponding not early period of life, we clearly see why the embryos of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes should be so closely similar, and so unlike the adult forms”. Darwin recognizes that the embryo of an animal is similar to the early form of life from which the animal evolved from. The individual animal reenacts the evolution of its species as it advances to adulthood. Similarly, the savage Fuegians that Darwin observes are incapable of advancing past the stage equal to adolescence in Darwin’s more advanced society. The other side of Darwin’s belief is that, ultimately, a race of humans will exist that makes Darwin’s exalted society appear as primitive as the Fuegians.
To make the situation parallel to Kant, one must think of Darwin’s evolving species as advancing capacities. Kant is interested in the progress of the capacities of humanity as individuals and as a species. He writes of humans, “As a class of rational beings- each member of which dies, while the species is immortal- it is destined to develop its capacities to perfection”. Therefore, each individual is merely a holder of inherited “capacities” designed to pass them on to the next generation without much improvement. Though an arduous process, many transactions will gradually result in great improvement and, according to Kant, perfection. The process is an evolution of ideas that we might call intellectual Darwinism. Each idea is like one of Darwin’s species that will change gradually to suit the conditions of its present epoch until it reaches its pinnacle. Like Darwin, Kant sees individual men constantly striving for perfection. Unlike Darwin, Kant sees the society of man, not man himself, as reaching perfection through evolution. Kant believes the eventual perfection of the species will be a side effect of the individual quest for perfection.
Thoreau, like Kant, sees men as the instruments that will improve society; he also believes that the elevation of society as a whole over man himself is not a good thing; that, alternately, men should strive for individual enlightenment without a thought to advancing the species. Individuals need not care for the society as a whole, but merely watch for their own interests: “Men think that it is essential that the nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not”. He is dismayed by people who put the species above the individual, and believes, like Kant, that each man must strive for individual accomplishment. Men should not follow the crowd but should take the road less traveled, for people accomplish nothing by mindlessly following the beaten path: he writes, “How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity”. Men, as a species, must be awakened individually. Enlightenment is for the individual, without consequence to the greater good. “Sapere Aude!”.
Darwin believes that humans, as natural creatures, cannot help but conform: “nature is prodigal in variety, though stingy in innovation”. Evolution results in variations of species that all stem from a few basic elements. Because they all derive from the same things, nothing new is capable of developing. Instead, slight disparities over time create creatures that are unique from their cousins and distant relatives. Nothing can come from nothing, so all creatures must come from something which forms the foundation of their existence. Therefore, individuality or enlightenment in humans is impossible. Everything, even individual thoughts, must come from something.
Kant sees individual enlightenment as the catalyst that will “transform a pathologically enforced agreement into a society and, finally, into a moral whole”. In other words, society can only advance through individual development. The original agreement is merely the ultimate minimal relationship between two men. As they advance that relationship, they form a bond which multiplies into bonds over time. These bonds are the foundation for our current society and, Kant reasons, just as the original agreement has flourished into something as great as international relation, the current society will continue to improve with time into a perfect society, or “moral whole”. In this way, society evolves. Perhaps the original bond was between two men similar to Darwin’s Fuegians and that bond evolved, as man did, into its current state.
The evolution over time of relationships would fit Darwin’s canon of “natura non facit saltum” or, “nature makes no leap”. Darwin recognizes that evolution is a natural event that proceeds little by little and, although evolution will continue, man is currently “the very summit of the organic scale” because of his skills and culture. Without rational thought, mankind would be just another species of beasts like the Fuegians. Kant observes that, through mankind’s continued advancement, “a universal cosmopolitan state, the womb in which all of the human species’ original capacities will be developed” will occur. The cosmopolitan state is the peak on which future man will sit, above current and past man. Kant believes that the evolution of man is a means to an end, whereas Darwin sees evolution as inexorable throughout eternity.
Darwin’s theory of evolution contradicts the accepted Christian belief of Creationism. Darwin, a religious man himself, struggled with this disagreement but ultimately decided that his scientific proof was infallible. He credits evolution for humanity’s rise from its “lowly origins” to its current state of “god-like intellect”. It is interesting to note that he does not capitalize the “g” in god-like, as one would when referring to the Christian God. He does not want his theory to interfere with his own religious beliefs, nor with those of others. Instead, man’s push toward improvement has resulted in astounding abilities and capacities that don’t necessarily have to compromise Christianity.
When Kant talks about nature, he is talking about Providence. The nature that pushes man forward is a divine being. Kant acknowledges this when he states that “philosophy also has its chiliastic vision”. The definition of chiliastic is the return of Jesus to earth for a millennium of peace and happiness. However, Kant believes that ultimate moral perfection through intellectual Darwinism will cause such a millennium without needing a flesh and blood savior. Alternately, in a perfect society, “restrictions on personal activities will be increasingly abolished and general freedom of religion will be granted”. Ironically, the chiliastic vision of philosophy has less to do with restrictive Christianity and more to do with freedom. A fully evolved mind will be able to make up its own mind without needing an accepted religious doctrine to tell it what to think. Only when people are secure in this freedom will Kant’s universal cosmopolitan state be able to exist. The security comes from the gradual evolution of international relations until the earth is a total, all encompassing society.
Thoreau shares Kant’s disdain for a single religious state: men “have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’”. He judges that man must transcend his simple way of thinking about God and, instead, work to glorify himself individually. Through the self exaltation, man will recognize the need to improve himself for himself and become truly enlightened, able to see the proverbial dawn. Only by breaking down the weak current beliefs can man advance.
While the three authors differ in their beliefs on the methodology used to evolve, all three see it as necessary in most aspects of human life, from the self, to the larger culture, reaching even to religion. Solely by challenging and recognizing the weakest parts of the status quo can man hope to evolve.