By Kamran Nayeri, Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, August 7, 2009
The intellectual roots of Deep Ecology are found in ecocentrism and social criticism of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Aldous Huxley as well as George Orwell, Theodore Roszak, and Lewis Mumford. The cultural history of primal peoples, ecocentric religions such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and writings of Saint Francis of Assisi also influenced it. However, there is a curious lack of attention to Darwin’s ecocentrism. And yet, Darwin’s evolutionary theory is truly revolutionary in that it has provided a solid materialist and scientific basis for ecocentrism.
For centuries, religious belief and philosophical reasoning had placed Earth at the center of the universe. It also took more than 150 years of controversy and confrontation spanning most of the 16th and 17th centuries, from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 to Newton’s Principia in 1687, to revolutionize cosmology. These efforts led to the present-day view of an expanding universe that may have millions of life-supporting planets in our galaxy alone.
Darwin’s evolutionary theory laid the groundwork for overcoming centuries of anthropocentric views of life on Earth preached by organized religions and influential philosophers. Naturalists had conceptualized evolution for centuries before Darwin. Greek philosopher Anaximander had suggested that all life-forms evolved from fish in the seas and went through a process of modification once they were established on land. Carl Linnaeus published the first volume of Systema Naturae (1735), which laid the foundation for taxonomy. He later suggested that plants descend from a common source.Darwin’s contemporary evolutionary thinkers believed that evolution unfolded like an ascending ladder in which each lineage of plant or animal arose by spontaneous generation from an inanimate matter and then progressed inexorably toward greater complexity and perfection.
Darwin rejected this linear progression in favor of what is now known as branching evolution, in which some species diverge from a common ancestor along separate pathways with no prior limits to how far this process can go. Darwin sketched a “tree of life” to illustrate this in his book Origin of Species (1859).But how this evolutionary change unfolded? Darwin’s great insight was the theory of natural selection.Taking a cue from Thomas Malthus, Darwin recognized that populations tend to grow quickly thereby exhausting natural resources. From the vast hereditary diversity within a given species, natural selection blindly weeds out those individuals with less favorable traits. That is a design without a designer. In fact, if two populations of one species remain isolated from each other in different environments they may evolve over a very long period into two different species.[i]
The modern version of Darwin theory benefits from the field of genetics that Gregory Mendel’s research on inheritance (published in 1865) founded, and the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.
Thus, Darwin provided us with a materialist ecocentrist view of life. The prominent evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr offers a good summary of Darwin’s contributions to modern thought:
“… [H]e established a philosophy of biology by introducing the time factor, by demonstrating the importance of chance and contingency, and by showing that theories in evolutionary biology are based on concepts rather than laws. But furthermore - and this is perhaps Darwin's greatest contribution - he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology is invalid, and we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique (vital for education and the refutation of racism); natural selection, applied to social groups, is indeed sufficient to account for the origin and maintenance of altruistic ethical systems; cosmic teleology, an intrinsic process leading life automatically to ever greater perfection, is fallacious, with all seemingly teleological phenomena explicable by purely material processes; and determinism is thus repudiated, which places our fate squarely in our own evolved hands.” (Mayr, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”, 1999).
The benefit of Darwin’s contributions to Deep Ecology and Marxian theory is immense.