According to James Pusey, writing in Nature, "Charles Darwin's banner was first unfurled in China during the Reform Movement of 1895-98, in response to China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War." There were two groups seeking change: the reformers, who were loyal to the Manchu Qing Dynasty, and the revolutionaries, who wanted a clean break with the past.
"The watchword of the reform movement was 'bianfa', meaning 'change our institutions'. But the very word 'change' was anathema to the conservative officialdom of China. So reformers turned to Darwin as a foreign authority on change, presenting him not first and foremost as a natural scientist who had discovered an amazing fact of life, but as a political scientist who had discovered a cosmic imperative for change."
Some today see Darwin as inspiring revolution (Source here)
This led to a change in the way intellectuals approached ethics: reform meant that traditional codes of conduct were fast losing their appeal.
"Meanwhile, the Europeans waved Darwin's banner to justify imperialism. Dubbing themselves 'the fit', they declared their right to rule the 'unfit'. And some Chinese accepted this argument. Liang Qichao, one of the leading reformers, said in 1898: "If a country can strengthen itself and make itself one of the fittest, then, even if it annihilates the unfit and the weak, it can still not be said to be immoral. Why? Because it is a law of evolution.""
The reformers were very interested in democracy, but realized the people were totally unprepared to handle it. Their solution was to emphasise the step-by-step gradualism of Darwinism with direction and stability provided by an appeal to natural law. The revolutionaries also embraced Darwin, drawing inspiration from the thought that the "superior survive and the inferior are defeated". "The man who introduced Darwinian evolution to the reformers of 1895 was Yan Fu."
"Yan wanted democracy for China - even anarchic democracy, without presidential rule. In Whence Strength? his call for reform was revolutionary: "Establish a parliament at the capital and let each province and county elect its own officials." But 'Darwin' held him back from real revolution. Yan believed that step-by-step progress was a fixed natural law, so stages had to be taken in order. America had skipped constitutional monarchy and gone straight to democracy, but a resulting class war, he felt, would be their undoing. "Should we, then, now throw away all loyalty to our ruler?" he asked in his essay. "We most certainly should not! Because the time has not arrived. ... Our people are not yet ready to rule themselves.""
The reformers and the revolutionaries debated vigorously "with both sides wildly waving Darwin's banner" The leaders of these movements imbibed the message of scientific racism coming from America and Europe and presented themselves as 'fit' to rule.
"Sadly, both camps also accepted the pervasive Western view that Darwin had proven races unequal - that one race was 'fitter' and therefore better than another. The reformers had originally done so to disassociate themselves from those who had fallen prey to the imperialists, such as the Africans and Indians. But in their exile in Japan, reformers and revolutionaries alike turned angrily on the Manchus as scapegoats, labelling them evolutionary low life, whose 'unnatural' conquest of the Han Chinese was responsible for China's peril."
The tensions after the end of World War I were extreme. The traditional pacifist Chinese philosophies were perceived as weak and this led to a philosophical and political vacuum. In their place came Marxism: this "seemed to them the fittest faith on Earth to help China to survive".
"This was not, of course, all Darwin's doing, but Darwin was involved in it all. To believe in Marxism, one had to believe in inexorable forces pushing mankind, or at least the elect, to inevitable progress, through set stages (which could, however, be skipped). One had to believe that history was a violent, hereditary class struggle (almost a 'racial' struggle); that the individual must be severely subordinated to the group; that an enlightened group must lead the people for their own good; that the people must not be humane to their enemies; that the forces of history assured victory to those who were right and who struggled.
Who taught Chinese these things? Marx? Mao? No. Darwin."
Ideas have legs and ideas walk. These developments are possible because Darwinism is more than a scientific theory: it is fundamentally a philosophical stance about the nature of reality. The materialism that underpins the Darwinian worldview has spawned scientific racism + eugenics in the West, and revolutionary fervor in the East. We should help the next generation understand and recognize the significance of such matters, and encourage them to ask questions about the philosophical roots of science.
Global Darwin: Revolutionary road
Nature 462, 162-163 (12 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/462162a (Restricted access link)
In China, under the threat of Western imperialism, interpretations of Darwin's ideas paved the way for Marx, Lenin and Mao, argues James Pusey in the third in our series on reactions to evolutionary theory.
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