Theosophy and Darwin
We find two important cultural currents in the present. The one shows itself in Darwin (Charles D. 1809–1882 English naturalist and writer), which has already peaked, the other in Tolstoy, which is in its beginning.
Numerous of our contemporaries who occupy themselves with the questions which deal with the name Darwin are probably of the opinion that Darwinism signifies a sort of final truth; that on the other hand everything that the human beings thought once is overcome, and that at the same time this finally found truth is something that is valid up to the most distant future. Many people cannot imagine that the opinions of the human beings are something absolutely changeable. They have no idea of the fact that the most important concept which we find just in Darwinism, the concept of evolution, is applicable not less to the spiritual life than to the natural life, and that human opinions and human knowledge are subjected to evolution above all. Not before you want to take an overview of a bigger time of evolution of the human spirit, it becomes clear to you that truth, knowledge and views of a certain epoch developed out of the former points of view, have changed and that they change in future again.
Theosophy would fulfil its task little unless it applied this concept of evolution to the great phenomena of life, of the spiritual life above all. That is why we do not consider the narrow ken of a present human being but from a higher point of view what is connected with the name Darwin. Besides, we have to go somewhat far back in time, because nobody can understand those phenomena if he puts them only before himself if he does not consider them in connection with other, similar phenomena. Theosophy enables us to consider these phenomena in the corresponding broad context. Theosophy looks at the development of the human mind in the different forms of existence, as we have got to know them in the last talks. This human mind, this human being, as he is today and as he is since millennia, is nothing ready, nothing finished. He will no longer be the same as today in millennia and in even more distant times. In order to understand how he places himself in the world today and looks at his task in the world at first, we have to emphasise the typical peculiarities of the present human being. However, to be able to do this, we have to extend our view so that we do not overestimate certain concepts, certain ideas which we have.
It is in particular a concept which the human being today overestimates too much: this is the concept of conscious human activity, as well as today we understand our consciousness. Whenever the human being considers art, technology and the like which comes from him, then he has the concept of conscious activity, of conscious thinking in certain way in the background.
He does not notice at all that there are round him in the world activities of art and technical activities which are at least as significant as the human activities, however, differ from them by the fact that the human being carries out his activities consciously; since the human being is intellectually active in the world. In the end, everything that the human being undertakes is a realised human thought. The house lives first in the mind of the architect, and if it is ready, it is a materialised idea. But we also find such materialised thoughts, otherwise, in the world. Look only once impartially not through the glasses of the present world view at the regular movement of the stars, and you find that a universal thought forms the basis of the universe like a house is based on an idea.
How should the human being be able as astronomer to force this construction of the universe in mathematical and other laws, how should he be able to find the laws of the universe if these laws were not included in this universe itself first? Or take to resume another example the dens which an animal, the beaver, carries out. They are so artistic, of such a mathematical regularity that the engineer, who studies these matters, must say to himself: if he had the task to build the most suitable under the given circumstances, he could carry out nothing more suitable, nothing more perfect according to the gradient of the river and the requirements of the beaver's mode of life. Thus you can pursue the whole nature if you pursue it only impartially, and you see everywhere that what the human being consciously accomplishes in thoughts, transforms into reality is around us and is infiltrated with thoughts.
We are used to call an instinctive activity what the animal accomplishes. We would also call the artistic den of a beaver, the ant heap, and the beehive instinctive activities. However, thus we get around to understanding that the human activity only thereby differs from this activity round us that the human being knows about the laws of his activity that he has a knowledge of it. We just call that an instinctive activity which is performed by a being that is not aware of the laws according to which it works. If you look at two beings much differing in their development like the human being in his conscious activity and, for example, the beaver or the ant this way, you notice the big difference between the human conscious mental activity and the unaware, instinctive activity of a relatively imperfect animal. Between these both activities there are innumerable many degrees. We can also describe those which the human being has gone through in a long, but compared with the aeon, short prehistory. We are led in the course of these talks today I can only indicate it to former levels of human cultural activity, to the human ancestors in a bygone time, to the so-called Atlanteans whose culture declined long ago and whose descendants are the cultural creators of our present human race. If we pursue the mental activity, the whole way of human activity in the environment with these Atlanteans, who were our predecessors before many millennia, and see with which means the theosophical world view gets to know the mental activity of these ancestors, then we would realise that it does not stand back so far from our present mental activity like the activity of the animals that, however, our Atlantean ancestors were substantially different from our contemporaries. These Atlantean ancestors were absolutely able to erect big buildings, absolutely able to control nature; but their activity was more instinctive than the completely conscious activity of the present humanity. It was not as instinctive as that of the animals, but more instinctive than that of the present humanity.
The history of the ancient Babylon and Assyria tells about skilfully erected buildings, and our architects who study them assure us that they were created so extraordinarily that the conscious activity of modern architects is not yet so far to accomplish what in those days the human being was able to accomplish on relatively unaware levels. You must not take offence to the word “instinctive.” It is only a small difference between the mind of the modern human being and that of the former one. If we traced back the activities, which in order to express myself a little bit popularly people perform more mechanically, more in a feeling way, more intuitively than consciously, then we would come to our Atlantean ancestors who worked much more instinctively than the human beings of historic times. Thus we can say that we can pursue the human mental activity historically up to a time in which the mental activity did not yet exist to the present-day degree, even did not exist in the beginning of the Atlantean age. We have also to admit on the other side that the human being develops in the future again to quite different mental abilities than his mind has today. So, our present-day reason which is the typical of the present human being is not something that is everlasting or even is invariable, but it is something that is developing. It originated and develops to other, higher forms.
In what does the activity of this mind consist? We have already indicated this. It consists in the fact that the human being more and more overcomes the merely instinctive of his activity and clearly knows about the laws which he applies in the outer life, clearly also knows about the laws which have come into being in nature. If, however, this mind itself is developing, it has gone through apparently different levels of development; it is advanced from relatively imperfect levels to a higher level in the present, and it still ascends to others. If we look back to the Atlantean ancestors, we see the mind arising first in its daybreak, and then it develops up to a culmination to be replaced in future by a higher mental activity. This mind cannot develop at one go. It must realise, so to speak, gradually what is its task. From stage to stage it must walk if it wants to know about the laws which are in our nature and which it itself realises. This can only happen successively. What should this mind do? It should understand the things round itself, know about them. It has to recreate them in his inside, has to recreate as concepts what is outside in reality. It has to gain this knowledge bit by bit. However, this knowledge must correspond to the outer things. But the outer things are manifold. The things which we can pursue in the world are spirit, soul and external physical reality.
Reason did not come into being in the soul in one go to understand this external nature in her whole variety. The human being had to acquire the different kinds of reality gradually, the spiritual, the psychic and the physical. It is very interesting to pursue how it acquires them. The human being is not able to understand the things outside in the world, before he has not acquired them in the loneliness of his reflection. The human being would never be able to understand an ellipse as an orbit of a planet unless he had acquired the laws of the ellipse, the forms of it in loneliness before.
After he has found the concept in himself, he sees it realised also in the outside world. Not until the human being has created the knowledge in him, he can find it in the outside world materialised. We have to get clear about the fact that this has happened on the most different levels of the development of reason during the evolution of our human race. The human reason had at first to make a concept of the picture he can see in the outside world to itself to understand it. As a rule, the human being recognises his inner life first. This is the mind, the soul. Only bit by bit he gets to the concepts of his surroundings. You can observe this with every child. It does not have a concept of the lifeless nature at first but that of the soul. It hits the table against which it has stumbled because it regards it as of the same kind. It is also in the cultural development that way. We have to observe an epoch of the cultural development which the researchers have called animism. In the whole nature the human being saw animated beings, in every stone, in every rock, in every spring he saw something living because he himself was alive and can form the concept of life from his inside. Thus the former human races also have the concept of the mind at first, then that of soul and life, and last of all they acquired the concept of the external mechanical, lifeless.
If we look back in historic times, at the time of ancient India with its Vedas and the Vedic philosophy, and study these ancient world views, we find that the human beings had a concept of the spiritual in the most comprehensive sense. The concept of the spirit lives in these old, marvellous documents. However, the ancient peoples were not able to understand the individual spirit, the special mind. They had a great idea of the all-embracing world spirit and its different transformations in the world, but they were not yet able to look into the individual human soul, to grasp the spirit of the human soul. They had no concept of psychology in our sense, of that which one calls spiritual science or humanities which will only be a real spiritual science once. They thought the spirit, but did not understand the individual mind. If we pursue the rudiments of cultural development up to the beginning of Hellenism, we find that in that time even those who call themselves philosophers apply the concept of the soul to the whole world. Everything is ensouled with them. If they have to understand the individual soul, their understanding fails.
At first the human being forms the general concept of the spirit and the general concept of the soul. But only later he approaches these concepts mentally to understand them in the single being. In the whole Middle Ages we can pursue that the human being does not yet penetrate into the individual mind. I would like to mention Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) here only. Who studies the philosophy of this predominant spirit finds that he has an all-embracing concept of a world life, a concept of life in its highest significance. The whole world is life to him, in every stone, in every star he sees life. Every single part of the universe is to him a member, an organ of the universe. He looks up to the stars as enlivened beings. He also considers the individual human being strictly in this sense. In the living human being he sees only a stage of the general psychic human life. He calls the human being, who stands physically before us, spirit spread out in space, life spread out in space. He understands death as nothing else than contracting life in one single point. Expansion and contraction are the phenomena of life and death for him. Life is eternal. That life which appears to us in the physical is life spread out in space, life that does not appear in the physical is contracted life. Thus life changes perpetually extending and contracting. Except these both qualities of Giordano Bruno's comprehensive concept of life I may still quote the concept of the sky, a concept which science has not got by a long stretch which one would have to study, in which one would have to become engrossed to return to the comprehensive idea of the sky. However, also Giordano Bruno was not yet able to understand the individual living being, the special being.
However, the possibility to understand these individual living beings develops just in this time. There one only starts understanding the processes in the human body; there one starts understanding how the blood flows in the body how the activities of the body take place. What we call physiology today started taking shape at that time. If you look at the naturalists of the past, like Paracelsus (1493–1541), then you see that these have no concept; at that time the human cultural development had not yet created the concept which has the mastery over our world view: the concept of mechanism. The concept of mechanism was grasped at last. The human being understood at last what a machine is. Not until after Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus the scientific thinking starts developing the concept of the machine, the concept of the mechanical.
We have seen how in the course of time the development of human mind has successively grasped the concepts: spirit, soul, life, and mechanism. Now the reverse follows in our development. After the human evolution had grasped the concepts, it applied them to the outer things, and the first epoch is in this regard the application of the concept of the machine to the surrounding reality. One wants to understand not only the machine, but one applies the concept of the machine also to the single being. The application of the concept of mechanism is the characteristic of the epoch of which only few centuries have elapsed. The 17th century belongs to this epoch. If we go back to it, we find the philosopher Descartes (René D., 1596–1650). He applies the concept of mechanism to the animal world. He does not differentiate between the animal and lifeless things, but he considers the animals and plants as beings which are on par with automata, as beings completely merging in purely mechanical activity. For humanity had advanced so far that it could grasp the concept of mechanism and apply it to nature but could not apply the concept of soul and spirit to the individual being. Thus the human being saw as it were through the plant, animal and human souls. There he could grasp nothing; he was not able to consider the plant, the animal and the human being as something higher. Indeed, the external shape of any being is mechanical. Any being on the physical plane is mechanical. Reason conceives this lowest level first. It understands the physical body of the different world things, and it understands it quite naturally as a purely physical, mechanical activity at first. This was the epoch of the mechanical understanding of the world and the epoch of the non-cognition of any higher reality of the world at the same time. This epoch extends till our time. We see how today the human being tries hard to apply the concept of the mechanical to the outside world; we see how Descartes understands plant, animal and human being mechanically, because the physical human body is also mechanical. Hence, also the assertion that the human being is only a machine.
Then the great discoverers and the big technical activity of the mechanical world, the industry, come. We see reason and the mechanical concept celebrating their biggest triumphs. It penetrates up to the single living beings, and it understands them in their physical-technical interrelation. While in the 18th century one could not yet understand the living together of the animals and plants mechanically, the 19th century was able to do this. Development is not the essential part, but that a relationship exists between the beings. Evolution is not the typical of Darwinism; for a theory of evolution existed always. You can go back to Aristotle, to the Vedic philosophy, also with Goethe, you find everywhere that a theory of evolution existed at all times. Also in the modern scientific sense there is already in the beginning of the 19th century a theory of evolution, the Lamarckism. Lamarck's theory considers the animal world in such a way that it ascends from the imperfect to the perfect up to the physical human being. But in those days Lamarckism could not yet become popular. Lamarck was not understood. Only the middle of 19th century was mature to understand the theory of evolution mechanically. The experience of the external physical life had advanced so far that this marvellous building could be collated which Darwin has put up. Darwin did nothing else than to put up and grasp in thoughts mechanically what surrounds us.
The next was that the human being grasped the idea of the physical relationship of the material human being with the other material organisms. This was the last, the keystone in the building. We get to know the significance of the keystone if we speak about the philosophy of Ernst Haeckel.
If we apply the concept of development to the human beings themselves, we find that it is comprehensible that a level of development of the spiritual human being must be the conquest of the spiritual thought. Darwinism has occupied this field by means of purely external causes, by the law of the struggle for existence. Hence, it signifies a necessary developmental phase of the human culture, and we understand from the necessity of its origin the necessity of its overcoming. Thereby we extend our look understanding Darwinism as a phase of the scientific development. Only prejudiced people argue that Darwinism considers the world, the facts as they are real. One knows the facts; they were there always; only the way of thinking is different. If you read Goethe's essays Story of My Botanical Studies, you find almost literally what Darwin describes in his way. Also in Goethe's Metamorphosis of Plants you find a lot. Goethe supports a by far higher, much more comprehensive theory of life on the same facts. It is a theory from which modern science will get something higher than Darwinism is. This is the Goethean theory of the interrelation of the organisms. But like any phase of development must be gone through, the study of Darwinism also had to be gone through. The whole situation in the middle of the 19th century enabled humanity to become ripe to introduce mechanical thoughts into the animal and plant realms. This powerful thought has expressed itself in the mechanical struggle for existence of the living beings. It has its origin in a particular kind of the human life itself.
Beside his observations, Darwin referred everything that was of importance for his theory to the doctrine of Malthus. It is this doctrine of the growth of population and food which induced him to establish the external struggle for existence as the principle of perfection. Malthus represents the principle that humanity reproduces faster than the supply of food. The availability of food increases slowly in arithmetic progression, like 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - and so on, the population grows exponentially, like 1 - 2 - 4 - 8 - 1 6 - and so on. If this is the case, it is natural that with the unequal growth of food in proportion to the growth of population a struggle for existence originates. This is the hopeless so-called Malthusian principle. Whereas Malthus only wanted to draw logical conclusions from this principle in the first half of the 19th century which meant the way of living together, a possibility to further civilisation, to improve the conditions of human life, Darwin said to himself: if this principle holds sway in human life, it is the more sure that the struggle for existence is everywhere. Hence, concerning Darwinism you recognise the clearest that the human being starts from himself. He transfers what he observes in himself to the external nature. The purely mechanical principle of the war of all against all which has become the principle of the way of life in the 19th century faces us in Darwin's theory again. I do not want to speak of the fact that the scientific investigations do no longer allow us to adhere to the principle of the struggle for existence, but I want only to emphasise that the application of the principle is not necessary.
However, we have also to understand that anything comprehensive, anything ultimate was not given with the fact that the human being understands the whole environment mechanically. In the beings something else than the mere mechanism exists. We have seen that the mechanism, the external physical guise, is only one part, only one of the elements of which the world is composed. Because we understand the external appearance we even understand the lowest part of the beings existing around us. Any phase of the human cultural development also has its negative aspect; any phase shows its extremes. Somebody who would have seen clearly in the time of the blossoming Darwinism would have said to himself: indeed, the development of the mechanical thought must happen; but this thought is not yet suitable to understand life, soul, and mind in the special being. First we must learn to apply Bruno's ideas of the all-embracing world life to the individual special being which stands before us then we are able to gradually understand the world round ourselves in transparency up to the spirit. Today we can only apply the concept of the mechanical to the single beings. In future one must succeed in finding the concepts of life, soul and mind again in the single beings. We must become able to look at the plant not only with the eyes of the mechanically thinking physiologist, but with the eyes of the scientist rising to higher stages of life. We must ascend to the concepts of soul and spirit. These concepts were already grasped in preceding epochs; modern humanity has to learn to apply them. This would have been the idea of anybody who surveys the matters completely.
Still another idea, another cause was obstructive there. This was to consider oneself satisfied with the mechanical concepts of the world and to believe that with it, with the mechanical point of view, everything is achieved that the mechanism explains everything. These spirits existed also. This was in the time when one defined the purely material the be-all and end-all, the time of Büchner (Ludwig B., 1824–1899, materialistic philosopher), Vogt (Karl V., 1817–1895, materialistic philosopher) and also concerning his concepts, not his research Haeckel. This is the other extreme. In between were the careful spirits who could not rise to a higher understanding of the world matters, who had, however, a dark feeling that they had only understood a part, own a part only. These are the careful researchers who understood the right thing; they said to themselves that they are on a level where they could not yet investigate everything, and who revered what they could not investigate as the unfathomable in humility. For those researchers the feeling had to join that behind that which they found something unknown is hidden toward which they do not have a vocation to intervene with their mechanical thinking.
Now we want to ask once which researchers have thought in such a way, and there we meet one who belongs to this epoch who writes: “I take the view that all organic beings which have lived on this earth are descendant of a prototype which was animated by the creator.” This is a careful researcher, a researcher who understands the external world mechanically, but cannot get to the recognition of life and spirit; he keeps to the idea of a creator and reveres him in humility. The same researcher may also be quoted against the radicals who appeared in the wake of Darwinism. One also wanted to explain the language mechanically.
What this researcher spoke out of his feeling is the point of view which the theosophist must take up toward the Darwinist theory of evolution. He shows us a great overview of the evolution of our race; he shows us that Darwinism is only a phase which leads to the concept of life, to the application of the concept of soul and spirit. As we have a mechanical science today, we have a science of life, a soul science and spiritual science in future. This is the viewpoint of theosophy; and it wants nothing else than to anticipate what the future has to bring to humanity. It wants to point whereto we go, and one has to emphasise that this theosophical view just agrees with the careful researchers who have found the right viewpoint by themselves. For these words did not come from an obscure Darwinist who could not get rid of his traditional prejudices who wanted to connect religious prejudices with Darwinism, but from one whose competence you do not doubt: they issue from Charles Darwin himself!