Insights from Nietzsche and Darwin

In “The Gay Science”1, Friedrich Nietzsche delivers a narrative of the origin of knowledge. In this short essay, we show that Nietzsche’s account is evolutionary2 in the Darwinian sense.

In the “Origin of species”3, Darwin proposed a true cause4 for the origin and evolution of species. The three main ingredients of this theory consist of a pressure of selection, a source of variation among individuals of the same species, and a mechanism for inheritance of traits. The pressure of selection was influenced by the work of Malthus on demographic stress, suggesting that individuals have to fight for survival5. The variations among a particular species and the capacity to inherit traits across generations were drawn from Darwin’s extensive observation of the natural world6. The true cause of evolution as proposed by Darwin is then the natural selection: submitted to an external stress (survival in the natural world), individuals are selected by their fitness to their environment. The survivors subsequently reproduce and pass on their advantageous traits to their descendance. Over the course of multiple generations, this leads to an evolution of the species where advantageous traits become more dominant and disadvantageous ones less so, potentially to extinction.

In his “Origins of knowledge”7, Nietzsche clearly refers to the principle of natural selection. The products of the intellect can be identified as the individual’s traits, with the thinker being the organism expressing those traits. As for the ingredients of natural selection, the diversity and the inheritance of products of the intellect are recognized by Nieztche the same way as Darwin. Namely, he posits, without explaining, the existence of such mechanisms by observing that a diversity of ideas exist and that those are inherited through generations in human society8. Nietzsche also directly refers to a force of selection, an environmental stress, which is survival (life): “some of them [products of the intellect] turned out to be useful and species-preserving”9. Nieztsche therefore lays out all the components of a natural selection mechanism at the level of products of the intellect.

Now, let’s examine the evolution of the products of the intellect in the framework of Nietzsche. Initially only errors10 were produced. The ones that were giving a competitive advantage survived to eventually consolidate into the “basic endowment”11 of the species. Through the diversity of the generation of ideas, but “very late”12, truth eventually emerged. However, these instances of truths were not providing a direct competitive advantage and were thus not naturally selected. Similarly as genes have to work together to produce a well functioning organism, ideas also need to be coherently organized. For this reason, truths initially set up where cohabitation with previous errors was possible and gradually took hold in more territory of the mind13, to eventually become a life-preserving power14. Two serious competing powers are thus now competing on the battlefield of ideas. But as our own future biological evolution as a species is uncertain, the way this balance of powers will be settled is an experiment whose outcome only time will tell15.


  • Ruse, Michael. “Charles Darwin.” In Philosophy of Biology, North-Holland, 2007.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species, ed. John Murray, London, 1859.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, (Cambridge University Press, 2001). ↩︎

  2. We stress here that “evolution” is not necessarily a Darwinian term. Evolution as a phenomenon was observed and recognized before Darwin and other theories were proposed to account for it (e.g. Lamarckism). Therefore, in this essay we focus on the natural selection explanation of evolution. ↩︎

  3. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species. ed. John Murray, 1859. ↩︎

  4. “Newton somewhat mysteriously labeled ‘true causes’ or verae causae. Now came the question of what constitutes a vera causa — what is the mark that one has one? Here Herschel and Whewell parted company. Herschel [1830] took a more empiricist approach, arguing that one must have experience of such causes or analogous phenomena like them. That was a major reason why he liked Lyell’s theory of climate. We may not have experienced the past, but we have experienced the Gulf Stream. Whewell [1840] took a more rationalist position. Rather than arguing from experience, he wanted to argue to experience. We may never have encountered a catastrophe or anything like it, but if today’s aftereffects point to one, then so be it. He argued that true causes are located at the heart of what he called “consilience of inductions.” Unification. Many areas point to a hypothesis; the hypothesis explains many areas.” in Michael Ruse, “Charles Darwin.” in Philosophy of Biology. North-Holland, 2007, 11. ↩︎

  5. “A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.” in Ruse, “Charles Darwin”, 13. from Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 63. ↩︎

  6. The discovery of the mechanism at play behind those phenomena, genetics, was posterior to Darwin. ↩︎

  7. Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  8. “Such erroneous articles of faith, which were passed on by inheritance further and further, and finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species […].” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  9. Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  10. “Through immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors […].” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  11. “Such erroneous articles of faith […] finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  12. “Only very late did the deniers and doubters of such propositions emerge” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 110. ↩︎

  13. “Gradually the human brain filled itself with such judgements and convictions; and ferment, struggle, and lust for power developed in this tangle.” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 111. ↩︎

  14. “[…] truth has proven itself to be a life-preserving power, too.” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 112. ↩︎

  15. “To what extent can truth stand to be incorporated? - that is the question; that is the experiment” in Nietzche, The Gay Science, 112. ↩︎