Human Morality in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild
From the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of morality began to change and evolve. Prior to this time, the Bible and its teachings had been the primary influence of morality. Divine authority had decided the separation between what is right and what is wrong. Actions that betrayed God or others were labeled as sinful and evil, while actions that demonstrated altruism and sympathy were labeled as good. But the relationship between morality and heaven had begun to fade with the new philosophies and theories of the nineteenth century. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species divorced human morality from the metaphysical world and instead linked morality to the physical world of evolution. Thus, the theory of natural morality was created. Morality was not considered acquired from religion or societal norms, but rather inherited from natural selection. To concur and expand, in 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals strayed away from the religious definition of morality and instead related morality to the history of man. These two ideas are brought together in Jack London’s novel The Call of Wild, which further discusses Darwin’s ideas on the morality in civilization versus the morality in the wild and Nietzsche’s ideas on master versus slave morality.
Throughout his book, Charles Darwin rejects the idea of morality stemming from religion. Instead, he focuses on the theory of natural selection, which is defined as “the struggle for existence”. This theory entails that animals that have adapted to their environment have a better chance of surviving and thriving by producing similarly well-adapted offspring. For instance, Darwin writes, “The most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave the most progeny”. Through this process, the animal’s main goal is to survive. In order to do this, they must be able to fight or hide from other animals. For example, female peacocks choose to mate with male peacocks that have big, strong, and colorful tails. These tails represent their ability to fight off weaker peacocks and survive. This survival of the fittest mentality serves to better the species. As Darwin states, “What natural selection cannot do is to modify the structure of one species, without giving it any advantage”. In the case of the peacocks, since only the peacocks with strong and colorful tails survive and have the chance to mate, their offspring will also have strong and colorful tails. In this way, hardly any weaker peacocks will be left in the species. The theory of passing physical attributes through natural selection can be expanded to passing emotional and moral attributes as well. Darwin explains, “Man is a social being” and interacts with a family or community.
Therefore, “he would inherit a tendency to be faithful to his comrades”. Darwin suggests that sympathy is the key to survival between social animals. This sympathy is evident when animals can sense that another animal is in danger. In this way, when animals hunt or travel together, they defend one another from harm or distress. This theory explains why individual animals would put their own life at risk for the safety of the community. Darwin claims that the demonstrative character of sympathy is inherited through natural selection. Since sympathetic animals thrived by living in communities, this sympathy must be passed down for their offspring to continue to thrive. With this logic, those animals that were not sympathetic lived in isolation and ultimately did not survive, making them unable to produce not sympathetic offspring. In this way, the idea of natural morality reins true: morality is inherited. This idea rejects the traditional view of morality. Darwin suggests that morality is not taught or defined by what religion condones as good or evil. Instead, Darwin claims that morality stems from evolution and is inherently passed down. Through this, human morality has changed and evolved as humans have evolved, but it remains a part of us nonetheless. Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea stem from Darwin’s. Similarly, Nietzsche separates the ideas of morality and religion. Nietzsche distances himself from studying the origins of morality, or “behind the word,” and instead emphasizes the value of studying the history of morality through humans. If one understands how humans developed the concepts of good and evil, and then questions these values, one can attempt to determine if our values of good and evil assisted or obstructed our growth as humans. Nietzsche states, “We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question—and for that is needed the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed morality as a consequence”.
The key here is that understanding morality must transpire beyond simply accepting these definitions as ultimate truths and instead understand how these definitions came to be. Nietzsche, similarly to Darwin, argues that morality and its definition is developed and changed by humans and not religious teachings. To further flourish his definition of morality, Nietzsche introduces the idea of master morality versus slave morality. Nietzsche traces the origins of the word “good” as “the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good”. Therefore, the core of this master morality is the nobility. In this sense, it is the masters that “established themselves and their actions as good” because they have the social standing to do so. This master tags “good” as strong and noble and sees “bad” as weak, common man. Nietzsche praises this master because he is a sovereign individual. The master is described as autonomous because “this emancipated individual, with the actual right to make promises, this master of a free will with this mastery over himself gives him mastery over circumstances”. In this way, only the master has the ability to make promises because he has control over himself and his future. The master, as Nietzsche would say, has the will to power. This will to power is the master’s main driving force and allows him to strive for greatness. With this theory, Nietzsche determines masters as the creators of morality because they have completely control over themselves and the circumstances of their society. Slave morality, on the other hand, is simply a reaction to the master morality. Slave morality is synonymous to ressentiment. Nietzsche writes, “In order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external word; its needs, physiological speaking, external stimuli to reaction at all—its action is fundamentally reaction”.
Therefore, since slave morality is a reaction to oppression, these slaves begin to resent their oppressors. Through this mindset, the slaves tag themselves as “good” and their masters as “bad.” This slave morality can be seen in priests, who highly believe and worship religion. Priests fall to this slave morality because their religion denies them of pleasure and the ability to gain control over these pleasures. In this way, religion oppresses the priests and their will to power. Nietzsche, similar to Darwin, dislikes the idea of morality and its relation to religion. Nietzsche praises the master because he has control of himself, which in turn allows him to be the master of his own morality and define the relation between good and bad. However, the slave, or in this case the priest, must resign all control over to religion; thus, forfeiting the will to power. Jack London intertwines both Darwin’s and Nietzsche’s ideas on morality in his novel. Call of the Wild centers around a dog named Buck who lived in the civilized Santa Clara Valley of California. But Buck’s life is completely altered when he is sold as a sled dog to assist humans search for gold in the North. As Buck is exposed to the harsh reality of the wild, London calls upon Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Following Darwin’s theory, Buck begins to steal extra food from his masters in order to survive. To reflect on this, London writes, “This first theft marked his adaptably, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions”. However, Buck does not truly realize that the morality of civilization does not exist in the wild until “Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw” and she was ultimately killed by a dog named Spitz. Here, Buck understands that the survival of the fittest entails to kill or be killed. London describes Buck’s ability to catch on to Darwin’s ideas of survival as “instincts long dead became alive again”. In this way, London suggests that Buck’s primitive instincts were not dead in civilization, but rather hidden. This reawakening of primal instincts demonstrates that these instincts have been passed down to Buck by previous dogs in his species. Similar to Darwin’s theory of natural morality, emotional and moral attributes are passed down and not taught. London continues to explain Buck’s journey in the wild through Nietzsche’s theories.
For instance, Curly’s death inspires a conflict between Buck and Spitz. This rivalry alludes to Nietzsche’s theory of the master-slave morality. Between Buck and Spitz there was a constant struggle to rule or be ruled. Buck originally accepts the slave morality, or the civilized morality, and allows Spitz to be his master. But after constant taunting from Spitz, Buck adopts the master morality and kills Spitz. Here, Buck is seen exercising his will to power and as a master, “Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness”. In this instance, Buck takes control of his circumstances and “the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had mad his kill and found it good”. This shows that Buck distances himself from the slave morality of abiding to rules of civilization and instead finds pride and satisfaction from his new master morality. Therefore, all three authors depart from religious influences on morality. Darwin claims that sympathy and natural morality is passed down from animals in one species by natural selection. In this way, morality develops through evolution. Nietzsche expands on this theory by claiming that morality has evolved and changed by humans throughout history. Nietzsche praises the master morality and the master’s will to power and rule over himself. On the other hand, Nietzsche criticizes slave morality because slaves are not autonomous being and fall under the control of forces such as religion. London reflects both these theories through Buck’s journey in the North. Buck’s survival instincts in the wild allude to Darwin’s idea of natural morality, while Buck’s ability to thrive in the wild and fight for himself mimics Nietzsche’s master morality. In both cases, the traditional idea of morality and its relation to the Bible gets left behind for a new sense of morality that develops through humans themselves.