Arthur Schopenhauer, Forerunner of Darwin?



Schopenhauer (1788-1860) did not conduct original scientific investigations (except some experiments on colour vision), but was well familiar with the scientific literature of his day. His importance lies in the interpretation of scientific findings largely in the light of his philosophy. In this knol we discuss Schopenhauer’s views on evolution. He repeatedly and in a detailed way refers to Saint-Hilaire, Lamarck and Cuvier, and others. His books were published before Darwin, but contain many ideas which anticipate Darwin and later evolutionary biologists. The following is a brief summary of his ideas, supported by quotes from his books Welt als Wille und VorstellungParerga und Paralipomena, and Über den Willen in der Natur in the German version of the knol

Schopenhauer’s views on evolution

According to Schopenhauer:

Life is an endless and uncompromising battle of all against all; the lowest animals have originated from rotting organic matter or cellular tissue of living plants; primeval forms of animals have developed one from the other and this has been repeated several times after earth revolutions, in which all life was wiped out; Lamarck’s explanation of evolution by inheritance of acquired character is rejected; the fetuses of species successively repeat forms of lower predecessors; new species can originate by change of a fetus beyond the form of the mother; development of species is not in one line, but in several lines arising beside each other; man has originated several times from apes (in Asia and Africa) and was first black or brown, higher civilization in northern countries (except for Egypt in India) is due to the more demanding climate there; increase in mortality leads to an increase in birth rates and not vice versa; life must originate on other planets as well.

The fact that evolution has occurred was recognized by several biologists before Darwin. Darwin’s great merit is 1) to have secured the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution by providing numerous examples and proposing a convincing mechanism for it, that of natural selection (although he acknowledged a certain role of the mechanism of inheritance of acquired characteristics, proposed by Lamarck, as well). Natural selection is based on the belief that there is a universal struggle of all against all, which – as we have seen – is a phenomenon already recognized by Schopenhauer, as a direct consequence of his philosophy. Also, Schopenhauer published his ideas about the origin of man from other primates before Darwin, although such a view may have had a certain acceptance among zoologists of his day. His view of the recapitulation of older forms during embryonic development, the addition of new characters at the end of embryonic development (well documented since, see Rensch [4] pages 270-284) and the origin of new species in the uterus of the “mother” species may also have been developed by others. Interesting is Schopenhauer’s argument against Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characters. He says that the will of animals, as the Thing in itself (Ding an sich) lies outside time (see my knol Arthur Schopenhauer, Grundlagen seiner Philosophie) whereas Lamarck assumes adaptations over time. “He (Lamarck) therefore understands the animal as possessing no definite organs and no definite aims, but only perception (Wahrnehmung), which teaches it to learn to know the circumstances under which it lives, and from this originate its aims, i.e. its will, and from this finally its organs…”. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, however, the will is primary as the Thing in itself, which lies outside time. The will, in its many phenomena, expresses itself as Platonic ideas (animal species, etc.). I interpret Schopenhauer’s argumentation as follows: evolution in time does not lead to new species by the inheritance of acquired characters, but species are already predetermined in the framework of the universe as Platonic ideas. Schopenhauer might have used the same argument which he used against Lamarck, against natural selection, if it had been known to him. Schopenhauer’s view agrees to an extent with that of the rational (idealist) morphologists Cuvier, St.Hilaire, and Goethe, and with that for example of Stuart Kauffman [5], that spontaneous order in evolution is important, as a consequence of self-organization in complex systems, although Kauffman attributes a role to natural selection as well.

Important also is Schopenhauer’s statement that “for this reason we must assume that nowhere, on no planet or satellite (Trabant), will matter get into a state of endless calm, but that the forces inherent in it (i.e. the will, whose expression as phenomena we are) will always terminate such a calm …. in order to begin their game again as mechanical, physical, chemical and organic forces, since they always just wait for an occasion (Anlass)”. In other words, life must almost automatically arise, as soon as the necessary conditions are there. This closely corresponds to the views of Stuart Kauffman [5], that self-organization is important and that life again and again arises, as soon as certain conditions are met. We are not alone in the Universe!

Also interesting is Schopenhauer’s view that overpopulation will be prevented, because a high mortality leads to an increase in the birthrate and not vice versa, as assumed by others in his time. Present experiences seem to support this view.



In summary we can say that Schopenhauer indeed anticipated important ideas of Darwin, especially that of the struggle of all against all. In some points he even goes beyond Darwin, thus in the idea that order (in the sense of Platonic ideas) is predetermined.


Quotations in support of this text

Quotations in support of the views attributed to Schopenhauer can be found in the German version of this knol.



[1] Schopenhauer’s Sämmtliche Werke in Fünf Bänden. Grossherzog Wilhelm Ernst Ausgabe, Insel Verlag Leipzig.
I. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung I. Teil.
II. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung II. Teil.
III. Kleinere Schriften.
IV. Parerga und Paralipomena. I. Teil.
V. Parerga und Paralipomena. II. Teil.

[2] Bernhard Rensch: Neuere Probleme der Abstammungslehre. Ferdinand Enke Verlag Stuttgart (1954). (English translation: Evolution above the Species Level, Columbia University Press New York 1959).

[3] Stuart A. Kauffman: The Origin of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York Oxford (1993).

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