Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Darwin to Mao?--Pusey on Chinese Darwinism

In 1898, Yan Fu published a Chinese translation of Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics. This introduced Darwin's theory of evolution into China, which became one of the most influential Western ideas among Chinese intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century.

The history of Darwinism in China has been told by James Reeve Pusey in two books--China and Charles Darwin (Harvard University Press, 1983) and Lu Xun and Evolution (SUNY Press, 1998). In the first book, Pusey studies the history of Chinese Darwinism from 1895 to the Republican Revolution of 1911, and he shows the influence of Darwinian ideas on Yan Fu, Kang Yuwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yatsen, and the young Mao Zedong. In the second book, he studies the influence of evolutionary thinking on Lu Xun (1881-1936), who is often regarded as China's greatest modern writer, and who was hailed by Mao in 1937 as "the sage of the New China."

Two main ideas run through Pusey's books. The first idea is that Social Darwinian thinking in China prepared the way for the triumph of Chinese Marxism and the rule of Mao Zedong, and thus Darwinism bears the blame for Mao's brutal rule. Just as Richard Weikart and other proponents of intelligent design theory and creationism have tried to show the line of influence "from Darwin to Hitler," as an example of the immoral consequences of Darwinian science, so Pusey tries to show the historical connection "from Darwin to Mao."

Pusey's second main idea is that evolutionary science cannot explain human beings and human social life because it cannot explain morality as based on a transcendent intuition of right and wrong that is beyond nature and thus beyond natural science. This second idea is related to the first: because Darwinian science cannot properly understand morality, it cannot support the human moral sense of good and evil that could have resisted the evils of Maoist rule. This second idea rests upon a Kantian transcendental idealism that Pusey assumes, but without any elaboration or argumentation. He thus takes the side of Frances Cobbe, who warned in her early review of Darwin's Descent of Man that Darwin's rejection of the Kantian view of morality as transcending natural human experience would destroy all morality.

To the first idea--that Darwinism led to Maoism--I have two responses. My first response is to point out that Chinese Darwinism was a crude distortion of Darwin and Darwinian science. In fact, Pusey himself admits this in some passages where he notices that the Chinese Darwinians used popular slogans like "survival of the fittest" and "struggle for survival" without any understanding of Darwinian science.

My second response is that the big mistake in Chinese thinking that led to Mao's rule was the utopian perfectionism of state socialism as the solution for all human problems, which included the failure to see how moral order arises best in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society rather than through state coercion. Darwinian liberals like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner saw that state socialism was inherently despotic, because it ignored the natural disposition for omnipotent rulers strive for exploitative dominance. A Darwinian view of human beings as naturally limited in their knowledge and their virtue supports the need for a liberal state that limits the power of political rulers and secures the freedom of civil society.

To Pusey's second idea--that human morality cannot be explained by natural science--my response is that he has failed to adequately support this conclusion. To do that, he would have to work through Darwin's account of morality--particularly, in The Descent of Man--and the elaboration of Darwinian ethics by people like Edward Westermarck, and then he would have to show how this Darwinian account of morality fails. He would then have to offer his alternative explanation of morality, and show its superiority to the Darwinian explanation. He implies that he accepts a Kantian view of morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of "noumenal" experience that is beyond natural experience and scientific explanation. But he never lays out his case for Kantian transcendentalism, and so he never faces up to the serious difficulties in such a position.

Pusey indicates that the primary idea that Chinese intellectuals derived from Darwin was the "law" of "survival of the fittest," understood as "the weaker go down before the stronger, the weaker nation, the weaker race" (CCD, 3-4).

This idea resonated with the Chinese because at the end of the 19th century, China was humiliated by the power of the Western imperialism and then by the power of the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War. Considering the grand history of Chinese civilization stretching back for over two millennia, this weakness before foreign threats caused an anxious desire to explain what was wrong. Darwin seemed to explain this--that history is a struggle for power, and that China's survival would require a struggle to become strong enough to avoid extinction.

From his travels around the world on the Beagle, Darwin had directly observed the imperial expansion and enslavement by which the strong conquered the weak, and he inferred that such group-against-group conflict was a factor of human evolution. But his realistic understanding of the rule of force in human history was compatible with his understanding of how the evolved "moral sense" of human beings allowed them to condemn the unjustified rule of the strong over the weak. His life-long hatred of slavery was one manifestation of the moral emotions of evolved human nature.

On May 4, 1860, in a letter to Charles Lyell, Darwin wrote: "I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved 'might is right,' & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right" (Correspondence, Cambridge University Press, 1993, vol. 8, p. 189).

But while Darwin was amused by such a crude misreading of his Origin of Species, Pusey suggests there is some truth to it, when he says that Yan Fu "would have been hard-pressed to prove Darwin had not proved what the squib said he had" (CCD, 67). And yet, in many passages, Pusey says that Chinese Social Darwinism was clearly not Darwinian at all. He writes that "much of what was called Darwinism was not really Darwinian" (CCD, 456). And he identifies Lu Xun's "unDarwinian Darwinian argument" as actually "pseudoscience" (LXE, 137).

Actually, the Chinese Darwinians resisted the teaching of "might makes right" by seeing in Darwinism a scientific proof for a utopian belief in perfectionist progress. Pusey rightly criticizes them for not recognizing that any view of the universe as progressing toward some state of perfection assumes a cosmic teleology that is denied by Darwinian science.

In a few passages in Darwin's writing, Darwin does seem to endorse the idea of evolution as progressive and perfectionist. Pusey likes to quote from the end of the Origin: "As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (489).

Pusey rightly criticizes this passage from Darwin for failing to explain the meaning of "progress" and "perfection," and for failing to show how progression towards perfection could be compatible with his evolutionary thinking (CCD, 14; LXE, 51-55). But Pusey does not notice that this passage contradicts others in the Origin. In one, Darwin says: "Natural selection will not produce perfection" (202). In another, he indicates that species are never perfectly adapted to their circumstances, because circumstances change (82-83). And yet, Darwin recognized that it is hard to ignore the appearance of trends in evolution towards complexity of organization and intelligence. Many evolutionary biologists today would say that we can recognize such trends without speaking of "progress," which carries an implicit judgment of worth or value.

With respect to morality, Darwin does indicate in the Descent that he sees moral progress, particularly as people have learned to extend their moral sympathy to ever wider groups of human beings. But he attributes this moral progress largely to cultural evolution rather than organic evolution, and he never sees a historically determined plan of progress such as was adopted by Marx and Mao.

Pusey writes: "'Perfectionism,' the idea that a perfect human being or even society is in the making, is another 'Darwinian' idea with no Darwinian evidence" (CCD, 454). But it was exactly this utopian idea of cosmic perfectionism that led to Mao's tyranny. If one believes that one is advancing the perfect end towards which history is moving, that cosmic end justifies any means. Mao and the Marxists were moved by a cosmic Machiavellian idealism that is contrary to the realist naturalism of Darwinian science.

Pusey indicates that for the Chinese Darwinists, freedom of thought was unsatisfying if there was no unity of thought enforced by the state--"one faith that was good for all China," a "new unifying faith" (CCD, 234-35). This longing for a "new unifying faith" enforced by the state under one leader is blind to the possibility of moral order arising from an open civil society. There is nothing between the individual and the state. By contrast, Darwin's account in the Descent of Man of how morality evolves shows the emergence of moral order through the natural and voluntary associations of social life, without any need for state coercion or moral leadership of a ruler.

The failure to see how moral order can arise in civil society goes back deep into ancient Chinese thought. Pusey quotes the ancient philosopher Mozi as an example of this (CCD, 235). Mozi wrote that "in ancient times, when people first came into being and before there were governments or laws, each person followed their own norm for deciding what was right or wrong" (chapter 11). This brought chaos. So they established a state with one ruler--"the best person among the most worthy" to be the "Son of Heaven." Mozi explained: "If we look into how good order was maintained in the world, what do we find? Was it not simply because the Son of Heaven was able to unify the norms followed within the world that he was able to maintain good order in it?"

Mozi went on to argue that the "Son of Heaven" must be seen as enforcing the cosmic moral law of "Heaven" (chapter 26). "Heaven desires what is right and dislikes what is not right." "There is the Son of Heaven to govern them. The Son of Heaven does not make up his own standard. There is Heaven to govern him."

Mozi also argued that the people must believe in ghosts and spirits who reward the good and punish the bad (chapter 31). Without such beliefs in supernaturally enforced morality, the people would collapse into disorder.

Mozi's reference to the "ancient times" before government in which "each person followed their own norm for deciding what was right and wrong" seems to indicate the primitive, foraging life before the establishment of the agrarian state. But with the emergence of that state, moral order would be enforced by the "Son of Heaven." (There is a remarkable similarity to what Plato says in the Republic and the Laws about state order requiring central enforcement of moral unity of thought backed by a political religion.)

This traditional Chinese belief in the need for a state-imposed morality from the Son of Heaven prepared the way for Mao. One can see this in Pusey's comments about how the "new morality" sought by Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century was understood to be a "public morality" rather than a "private morality." It had to be "a morality to be followed by citizens for the good of the nation, a morality of the people for the People" (CCD, 238). It's a short step from this to the slogan of the Gang of Four--"politics in command" (LXE, 149). To look to the moral order of the "national group" ignores groups in civil society. The whole moral order of society must be centrally controlled by the political rulers, who must leave no room for moral freedom in a civil society. This is totalitarianism.

According to Pusey, Darwin's scientific naturalism subverts morality by teaching that we live in an "amoral universe" that provides no cosmic support for moral norms. Against this, Pusey sees "Confucius's bedrock belief in a moral universe," because Confucius (like Mencius) thought that "morality was of Heaven" (CCD, 255-56, 411).

Although the Chinese Darwinians professed to be materialists, Pusey observes, they were actually idealists, insofar as they assumed the universe was moral and thus agreed with Confucius. From this point of view, Lu Xin and Mao Zedong were Confucian idealists, because they believed that the cosmic history of the universe was moving towards moral perfection. They were transcendental idealists without realizing it. In the moral rhetoric of people like Lu Xun and Mao, Pusey believes, we see that our "sense of justice" shows an "intuition" of a "transcendent truth," which expresses a Confucian idealism that denies Darwinian naturalism (CCD, 257; LXE, 69-76, 104-107).

It should be noted, however, that Pusey never substantiates his claim that Confucius and Mencius believed that "morality is of Heaven." As many readers of the Confucian classics have noticed, Confucius and Mencius are vague about "Heaven." They certainly don't lay out any clear conceptions of a moral cosmology governed by supernatural powers.

Confucius and Mencius show the same ambiguity about moral cosmology that one sees in Plato's dialogues. On the one hand, Plato seems to clearly lay out a moral cosmology--the Idea of the Good in the Republic, a divine cosmology of eternal rewards and punishments in the Laws, and the moral cosmos of the Demiurge in the Timaeus. On the other hand, many readers have noticed that the skeptical questioning of Socrates often seems to undercut any dogmatic faith in moral cosmology.

Even if we accept Pusey's assumption that Confucianism is an idealism based on moral cosmology, we have to notice that in identifying Mao and the Chinese Marxists as Confucian idealists, he contradicts his claim that Darwinian naturalism was the true basis of Mao's triumph.

We must wonder whether the true ground of modern totalitarianism is cosmic idealism. Pusey shows the influence of Ernst Haeckel on Lu Xun, and he shows that Haeckel manifested a pantheistic idealism, despite his professed materialism. Some historians have shown the deep influence of Haeckel on Nazi thought. When one notices also that most of the German philosophers who supported the Nazi party were moral idealists who looked to the tradition of Plato, Kant, and Fichte, then one must be even more skeptical of Pusey's claim that Darwin's moral naturalism was somehow responsible for Mao's totalitarian rule.

In the end, we are back with the debate between Cobbe and Darwin. Can we explain morality as arising from human experience--human nature, human culture, and human judgment--as Darwin believed? Or must we appeal to some trans-human order--cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason--as Cobbe believed? Which position is likely to be most supportive of human virtue and freedom?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

With Cosmic Idealism, you have The Truth and The Morality. And if you don't fit into that Morality, you have to go. If there is The Way, and you are not following The Way, then you have to go. Cancer cannot abide by the existence of anything not exactly like itself. Thus, it kills the body made, as it is, of different cells doing different things.