Catastrophe: Spengler’s Ideas on Evolution
The New Modern Man | Spengler’s Decline of the West Series
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is one of the most important works in Western history. It convincingly shows how one species evolves into another through entirely natural processes. However, the way these processes work was challenged three-quarters of a century ago by Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West. In reviewing Darwin’s work, Spengler thought the process by which evolution works showed a cultural bias and proposed another idea.
Spengler wrote the biggest problem with theory of evolution is it does not correspond with how nature actually works. He thought it represented a British temperament projected onto evolution. In his book Man and Technics, Spengler offered this criticism:
Here again we have to emancipate ourselves from the nineteenth-century idea of an “evolutionary” process. A slow, [sluggish] alteration is truly appropriate to the English nature, but it does not represent Nature.
Spengler’s take was a slow adaptation and change over time is not the way evolution occurs. Instead, the existence of an organism reaches balance with nature and the organism only evolves or goes extinct when its existence is punctuated by different catastrophes.
As one example of this idea, the Coelacanth has remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It has achieved what Spengler called a perfection of the form, it is in balance with nature, and its form is conserved. It will only evolve when a catastrophe threatens its existence. Other species have also changed very little since they evolved, strengthening this idea.
When a catastrophe happens, a mutation spreads spontaneously through the genome of the organism. Spengler said it comes as a single passage happening all at once instead of the slow, steady refinement proposed by Darwin. Indeed, mutations are one of the most important concepts in biology. If this idea is correct, it presents a number of implications for the future of the human race.
Spengler details the idea of catastrophe driving evolution in his book Man and Technics.
Since when have there been men? What is man? And how did he come to be man? … [His] origin must have been sudden; in terms of the tempo of cosmic currents it must have happened, like everything else that is decisive in world history (epoch-making, in the highest sense) as abruptly as a flash of lightning or an earthquake.
Indeed, following mass extinctions on earth, one group of organisms who may have thrived for hundreds of millions of years like the dinosaurs are wiped out and another group undergoes a set of mutations which leads it to become the next dominant Class on earth. The Class that came to dominance after the dinosaurs was of course, the mammals.
Spengler wrote to this sudden appearance and disappearance of species in the fossil record:
In truth we cannot distinguish geological strata unless catastrophes of unknown kinds and causes have separated them for us, not yet special of fossil creature unless they appear suddenly and hold on unaltered until their extinction. Of the ancestors of Man we know nothing, in spite of all our research and comparative anatomy. The human skeleton has been, ever since it appeared, just what it is now.
While the fossil record shows a number of species that were very similar to us, we are the only surviving members at our end of the Primate branch. This adds credence to the catastrophe hypothesis since the other human-like species have gone extinct.
We also see evidence of the idea of catastrophes punctuating our evolution with our own “population bottleneck” which occurred in the human species following the eruption of Toba. The human species was nearly reduced to extinction. A catastrophe like the Toba event makes the spread of genetic mutation through a population easier following the catastrophe. Spengler goes on:
The whole thing is suddenly there its entirety. World history strides on from catastrophe to catastrophe, whether we can comprehend and prove the fact or not.
In the modern age, Spengler’s ideas of catastrophe driving evolution were substantiated 40 years after he published his claims:
In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper developing a theory called punctuated equilibria. Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species. Their paper built upon Ernst Mayr’s model of geographic speciation, Michael Lerner’s theories of developmental and genetic homeostasis, as well as their own empirical research.
In other words, Spengler’s catastrophe theory has been bolstered by modern scientific evidence. He was a man 100 years ahead of his time in predicting the Decline of the West, and 40 years ahead of his time predicting a biological process proven to exist. Given these chilling facts, when will a catastrophe once again challenge our collective survival?
With many signs pointing toward impending collapse in Western Civilization, one must at least entertain the fact that maybe a manmade catastrophe is just around the corner for our species. Certainly, feminism and materialism (especially the two combined) are posing grave risks to the survival of the Caucasian race which has had fertility rates below replacement level for two generations. This is, of course not even considering the natural catastrophes that are possible such as an asteroid impact, supervolcano eruption, or pandemic.
Believing man is immune to catastrophe is a product of our short term memory and recent successes as a species. It is stroke of luck that a disaster has not yet challenged our survival, and it is a statistical certainty this luck will eventually run out. Spengler had this to say about those whose thinking represented what he called “cowardly optimism” that our survival will not be threatened, instead of “brave pessimism” about what the future holds:
Man was, and is, too shallow and cowardly to endure the fact of the mortality of everything living. He wraps it up in the rose-colored optimism of Progress, he masks it with literature, he crawls behind the shelter of ideals so as not to see anything. But impermanence, birth, and passing is the form of all that is actual – from the stars… right down to the fleeting concourses on this planet.
He also saw evidence of catastrophe in everything from the birth and death of suns to his study of the rise and fall of high cultures. The Mayan/Aztec culture came to an end after being conquered by the Spanish. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and later collapsed. The other cultures in Spengler’s epic study of civilization also came to an end, usually after a catastrophe or series of catastrophes.
The life of the individual – whether animal or plant or man – is as perishable as that of peoples of cultures. Every creation succumbs to decay; every thought, every discovery, every deed to oblivion. All around us we sense traces of lost courses of history that ended in some great doom. All around us the ruins of the past works of dead cultures lie before our eyes. What, then, is our prating about the everlasting achievements of mankind supposed to mean?
Summarizing his thoughts in Man and Technics, which is in many ways the Cliff’s Notes of his much larger work Decline of the West, summarized below:
The principle idea is that many of the Western world’s great achievements may soon become spectacles for our descendants to marvel at, as we do with the pyramids of Egypt or the baths of Rome. Spengler especially pointed to the tendency of Western technology to spread to hostile societies which would then it as a weapon against the West. In Spengler’s mind, Western culture will be destroyed from within by materialism, and destroyed from without through economic competition and warfare.
How incredibly prophetic Spengler was, for this scenario is playing out before our eyes a century after he predicted it. What makes it more impressive is that it is not based on mysticism, but a study of history and historical cycles our species repeats.
A fatalistic model predicting the future can be discouraging to some, but the truth does not take our feelings into consideration. The universe does not act in favor of nor against our desires, it is only indifferent to them. However, rather than throwing our hands up, Spengler actually encouraged people to make the best of the situation fate has handed them. He encouraged us to exploit the creative possibilities still available, to value every moment of our short lives, and to live as passionately and fully as possible. Spengler thought that by fully understanding the tragic historical process and what it implies for our future, we can strive to make our short lives into a self-creating masterpiece.
Perhaps brave pessimism is not such a terrible philosophy after all.
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