Darwin’s concept of evolution was very influential in further developing both scientific and social theories. It fueled several perspectives about the future and current state of society at the time. Charlotte Gilman, for example, used Darwinian evolution to challenge the future of women’s roles in society in Women and Economics. Veblen’s The Theory of The Leisure Class used evolutionary thought to criticize society’s atavism to a barbaric past.
Freud, in his novel Civilization and its Discontents, applied evolution to his psychoanalysis of civilization to explain how a civilized environment creates an individual’s unhappiness. In this paper, I will argue that all three authors use the concept of Lamarckian inheritance to explain how the Darwinian concept of man’s lowly descent is applied in society. I will also demonstrate how all three authors emphasize the concept that “ontology recapitulates phylogeny” to prove how our lowly descent from an ancient ancestor is still within us and how those ancient and barbaric inherited characteristics affect society.
Lamarckian evolution consists of two laws. The first law states: “a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually…enlarges that organ…while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it…until it finally disappears. ” The second law then expounds on the first and states: “all the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals…are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals…. All three authors, Gilman, Veblen, and Freud, use these two laws of Lamarckian inheritance to emphasize the Darwinian concept of man’s lowly descent by demonstrating that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” as the ancient characteristics of man’s ancestors are still ingrained within current evolved individuals. Once, the authors have demonstrated that the “stamp of [man’s] lowly origin” is still very prominent within evolved individuals; they develop their own separate arguments about the effects of inherited ancestral and barbaric characteristics.
Charlotte Gilman uses Lamarckian inheritance to reveal the “sorrows and perplexities” that have forced women to be “checked, starved, [and] aborted in human growth. ” Gilman explains women’s current inferior role in society by first explaining how animals evolve and then transcending that explanation onto to societal evolution. She begins by explaining that animals evolve due to the environmental conditions in which they live in.
However, when the female animal is stripped of her freedom when the male animal realizes that it is cheaper and easier to fight a little female, and have it done with, than to fight a big male every time,” the female’s environmental conditions change and no longer depend on nature but instead on man. Moreover, “the human animal…is affected…by what he does for his living,” such as how he gets his food supply in order to survive against “the struggle of existence. ” Gilman makes it clear that males actively seek their food to survive, whereas “the female of genus homo is economically dependent on the male.
He is her food supply. ” As a result, “the female does not seek her own living in the specific activities of our race, but is fed by the male. ” Not only is the female now dependent on the male to feed her, but “when man began to feed and defend woman, she ceased proportionately to feed and defend herself” and as a response to her new environment she no longer actively fought against “the struggle of existence. Man became the “strongest modifying force in her economic condition,” thus woman now had to evolve in such a way that “it profited her to be caught by her new master. ” She was forced to sexualize herself as “a means of attracting a mate…but [also] as a means of getting her livelihood” which she then transmitted to her children. Therefore, it is evident that since woman was forced into a submissive and passive role she was forced to evolve in such a way that she over-sexualized herself and accepted her submissive role.
Through Lamarckian inheritance, these characteristics were passed down to her progeny, resulting in the consistent inferior role of women. This inheritance demonstrates how the lowly descent of humans, is ingrained within individuals just as woman’s lowly and passive descent is still ingrained in the current, evolved society. Gilman, however, from the beginning realizes that it is of importance to first determine the causes of women’s inferior role because “soon as [society] ascertains the causes, [society] can do much to remove them. Gilman proposes a solution by using Darwinian evolution: just like evolution is open to change, Gilman suggests that instead of being confined to household duties and depending on male, the woman should be given freedom to pursue male-dominated activities. She should no longer be limited to household duties or to “the first-hand industries of savage times,” the duties of her lowly descent.
Women, instead, should redefine their future roles in society by challenging their lowly descent and developing new characteristics that are innovative and transmitting those characteristics o their progeny. Thus, Gilman uses Lamarckian theory to explain how woman’s inferior role developed and how it is being kept in order to reveal how the lowly descent of woman is still ingrained in society and how it must be removed in order to redefine women’s future. In a similar way, Veblen uses Lamarckian theory to demonstrate society’s atavism to barbaric times. Veblen emphasizes society’s praise towards the leisure class in order to challenge it for a more innovative and efficient plan for society.
He begins by distinguishing the leisure class from the inferior classes by describing the leisure class as a class in which “the occupations…are correspondingly diversified; but…non-industrial…[and] roughly compromised under government, warfare, religious observances, and sports” whereas the inferior classes consisted of “manual labor, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood. Veblen’s descriptions of these classes demonstrates his criticism of society’s current praise for the leisure class because in reality the leisure class does not do anything worthy of praise whereas the “inferior” classes are the ones that are actually helping improve the society. Moreover, in Veblen’s description of the leisure class, he emulates the Darwinian thought of man’s lowly origin because society’s praise for the leisure class reveals how it is still plagued with barbarism from the past.
Furthermore, Veblen also specifies how the leisure class’ conspicuous leisure leads to conspicuous consumption of both human beings and material things in order to prove their wealth and power. For example, “the ownership of women began in the lower barbarian stages of culture…[for] their usefulness as trophies” thus demonstrating how the leisure class evolved from a barbaric descent that used aggression to gain wealth and power.
Moreover, the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class goes on to further protrude into the lower classes as they try to emulate the leisure class’ wealth and power. In fact, “to a great extent this, emulation [shaped] the methods and [selected] the objects of expenditure for personal comfort and decent livelihood,” thus demonstrating how social behaviors and preferences are inherited through a Lamarckian point of view.
The desire to emulate the leisure class were created through Lamarckian concepts because the dominance of conspicuous consumption dominated society and as a result became a major modifying factor and individuals evolved to want to acquire a similar prestige and honor in order to succeed and survive the “struggle of existence” of society, similar to the argument Gilman makes for women in Women and Economics.
Veblen, however, challenges this and states that in order for society to improve and be more efficient it must be planned by engineers and must exercise innovative thinking, instead of leisure idleness. Freud, like Gilman and Veblen, also uses Lamarckian inheritance and Darwinian concept of a lowly descent to explain why civilization creates unhappiness for individuals. However, where Gilman and Veblen challenged society for adopting the barbaric characteristics of man’s ancestral descent, Freud criticizes society for trying to detach individuals from that crude descent.
In fact, Freud states, “the mode of life in common which is phylogenetically the older, and which is the only one that exists in childhood, will not let itself be superseded. ” This statement emphasizes man’s lowly descent and the idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” in order to propose the fact that since individuals come from a lowly descent that mainly focused on two struggles: survival and reproduction, then those two characteristics, the love of life and the love of death, are forever ingrained within individuals.
As a result, individuals are always unhappy because society represses those traits. In fact, Freud states that the “price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt. ” In order to ease this unhappiness Freud suggests three temporary solutions: substitutions, distractions and intoxicants. In fact, all three solutions allow individuals to temporarily resort back to a barbaric instinct and represent Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, which only briefly provides a superficial happiness.
Thus, Freud’s solution to the “struggle between…the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction” might be to find a balance, allowing individuals to both to fulfill their aggressiveness but also engage in innovative thought, but never truly achieving happiness. All in all, Gilman, Veblen, and Freud use Lamarckian theory to explain how the characteristics of man’s lowly ancestors are inherited into the next generations and how those characteristics affect society.
The inheritance of the female ancestor’s submissiveness resulted in an inferior role for women which Gilman challenges, the inheritance of barbaric and superficial consumption resulted in an inefficient society that Veblen also challenges, and the inheritance of the ancestral love of life and love of death resulted in individuals’ unhappiness as society tries to repress those ancestral traits. The different results that each other achieves reveals the need to find a balance between indulging in ancestral barbarism and separating away from it as well to achieve a more evolved society.