Nietzsche’s Great Blunder on Human Inheritance

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively about his interpretation of human development (as well as human degradation), and in his beautifully articulated fervor he often fell into the habit of overextending his narrow understanding of evolutionary theory.

One cannot erase from the soul of human being what his ancestors like most to do and did most constantly / It is simply not possible that a human being should not have the qualities and preferences of his parents and ancestors in his body, whatever appearances may suggest to the contrary (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Noble,” Section 264).

The detrimental part of Nietzsche’s error above is his apparent endorsement of Lamarckian inheritance (an early evolutionary hypothesis that states how organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetimes to their offspring; considered to have been largely displaced as a scientifically viable theory in favor of Darwinian natural selection).  In the same section, Nietzsche goes on to say that if one knows about the character traits and likes of the parents, an accurate inference about the child’s personality traits and likes also becomes possible; emphasizing that it is only, “with the aid of the best education that one will at best deceive with regard to such a heredity.”  Nevertheless, Nietzsche ignores the impact that environmental pressure plays on the development of a child’s psychology, i.e. the fact that people (in particular children) seem to readily adopt the characteristics and traits that are prevalent in their surroundings (this is not an absolute rule, but a general statement).

For example, I have always lived in working-class urban areas in the United States, where there reside quite a few immigrant households (my own included).  And where there are immigrant households in the U.S., there are also first-generation Americans.  By Nietzsche’s assessment these first-generationers should retain the “qualities and preferences” of their parents and ancestors, yet in reality, more often than not, they simply don’t.

If they were born here–or arrived here at a young age–went to American schools, associated with American peers, and indulged in American pop culture to any extend, their qualities and preferences will be inseparable from that of anyone else whose ancestry goes back several generations in this country.  This will be true in regard to their most basic characteristics, such as their accents, their mannerisms, their values, their ideals, their politics, and their interaction with societal phenomena.  What remains of the traditional ties to the parent’s mindset becomes solely a sentimental practice for the sake of the still unassimilated elders, rather than a reflection of sincere attachment to ancestral values.

Nietzsche might have countered by saying that this is just part of the deceptive education he warned about.  But if we accept that people can be deceived about their likes and preferences by their surroundings, does it not also warrant the notion that people are deceived about their likes and preferences by their parents (i.e. childhood indoctrination), rather than having inherited them by Lamarckian means?  In fact, under close scrutiny Nietzsche’s two opposing premises seem to be virtually identical, as long as one does away with the Lamarckian inheritance component in the first.

Nietzsche rejected free will as a viable factor in human psychology.  Thus he may have been motivated to accept acquired inheritance as a necessity to explain human behavioral traits in a completely deterministic universe.  But, if so, this is a needless exercise on his part, since the fact that people’s behaviors are determined by a combination of genetic (in a purely biological sense, not the abstract personal interests discussed above) and environmental factors, is sufficient enough in offering a thorough explanation of the matter.  However, I doubt that free will held any real motivation in Nietzsche’s reasoning on the subject.

More likely, Nietzsche saw Lamarckian inheritance as a more fitting addition to his greater philosophical aims.  Charles Darwin had adamantly proposed that in the grand scheme of things, the only coherent way to speak of evolution is on the level of populations, not individuals.  To Nietzsche–who by all accounts had no trouble accepting either Darwin’s theory by natural selection, or the common descent of living organism–this view would have been too naive to satisfy his want for a more inwardly self-reflection (he was after all more a philosopher, than a scientist), not to mention I suspect he probably saw it as antithetical to his own promotion of individual development and preservation, in favor to the preservation of the population as a whole.

Thus, it might be safe to say, that in this case at least, Nietzsche had fallen into the same trap he had warned others of with so much rational eloquence.  He overlooked the fact that the veracity of a conclusion cannot be determined by its conformity to our preferences, but must stand on its own merits.

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