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The strength of Richardson’s book is that it does not merely discuss the influence of Darwin’s thought on Nietzsche or catalog points of similarity and difference. Instead, Richardson opts for a more sophisticated project of reconstruction, which significantly expands the appeal of his book. Nietzsche’s New Darwinism shows how several of Nietzsche’s core ideas gain a more rigorous philosophical footing if we read him in a particular neo-Darwinian light. In other words, we better understand Nietzsche if we take seriously the conceptual resources Darwinism contributes to his thought. Moreover, Richardson argues that Nietzsche not only absorbs the basic Darwinian position on biological evolution, but also that he extends these ideas in terms of socio-cultural selection and lays out a critical project of self-selection. In the end, Richardson provides a clear, coherent, and compelling reconstruction of a central line of argument within Nietzsche’s complex and multifarious thought.

Nietzsche’s New Darwinism is broken up into four chapters—“Biology,” “Metaethics,” “Ethics-Politics,” and “Aesthetics.” Each chapter represents an effort at thinking through Nietzsche’s relation to these different arenas of value, where biological value qua natural selection becomes the ontological and explanatory foundation for all the others. The first chapter lays out the basic Darwinian position and provides the core account of evolutionary teleology grounding the remaining chapters. In the second chapter, Richardson focuses on the “meta” drive of social selection, i.e., herd instinct, which operates as a secondary constraint on biological selection by promoting those habits and drives privileging the group over the individual. In relation to this meta-drive, Richardson examines genealogy as a critical meta-practice for realizing individual freedom qua self-selection. The third chapter confronts Nietzsche’s insistence on hardness and selfishness over the herd morality of pity and altruism, as well as his socio-political revaluing of rank ordering and selective breeding over the “democratic” values of equality and domestication. In the process, Richardson carefully distinguishes Nietzsche’s brand of neo-Darwinism from the Social Darwinism of Spencer, which Nietzsche sees as uncritically committed to a herd morality of pity. In the fourth chapter, Richardson turns to Nietzsche’s aestheticism and its relationship to truth. He argues that Nietzsche’s view is best understood by looking at how aesthetic drives have already been selected vis-à-vis human sexuality and marked by the “rush of potency” (Rausch) accompanying aesthetic experience. Furthermore, Richardson argues that Nietzsche’s aesthetic commitment to creativity can never be disentangled from his epistemic commitment to truthfulness, which is ultimately anchored in bodily tastes expressing a long history of biological selection.

Chapter 1 – “Biology”

The first chapter is especially insightful. Here, Richardson explicates the central conceptual framework that is developed and applied across later chapters. In simple terms, Richardson argues that Darwinism provides a way of naturalizing the teleology of Nietzsche’s “drive theory,” which needs to be robust enough to explain the drives via the ends that they aim to realize, while side-stepping an essentialist metaphysics. For Nietzsche’s drive theory to be truly explanatory it has to be genuinely teleological, i.e., there has to be strong enough sense in which the result is historically anticipated or prefigured. Typically, however, such a teleological account is grounded in a strong theory of internal representation: one that is either straightforwardly psychological, wherein a mind represents a goal to itself and proceeds to realize it, or metaphysical, wherein some determinate ideal (eidos) is internally represented and guides a process towards that ideal as its end. The result, then, is explained in terms of the internal representation of the goal. In contrast, Nietzsche’s entire drive theory is at odds with anything like a mentalistic account of drives wherein the goals of drives are either consciously or unconsciously pre-cognized. Similarly, Nietzsche wholly rejects such essentialistic metaphysical positions. According to Richardson, however, the Darwinian view of selection can provide a non-representational account of teleology that is historical, natural, and yet sufficiently strong for Nietzsche’s purposes.

Richardson carefully considers a number of ways of thinking about teleology before settling on a final formulation, “[a drive] is a disposition to cause a certain result, i.e., power, and past such results caused (produced) this disposition” (34), which draws on work in evolutionary biology and philosophy of biology aimed at naturalizing teleology—most of which can be traced back to the etiological account of teleology in the work of Larry Wright and, more recently, Ruth Millikan. For Richardson, the key to the etiological account is that the outcome of the drive is an end (i.e., truly teleological) only when this outcome genuinely explains the drive by referring to a causal history of selection: “They [drives] are behavioral dispositions that are ‘plastic toward’ bringing about certain outcomes—and they are explained by those outcomes, which are therefore their ‘ends’ and values’” (226-227). It is precisely this explanatory criterion that distinguishes a simple dispositional account from a full-fledged teleological account, while also helping to distinguish metaphysical forms of teleology from a naturalized teleology.

Given that the “will to power” is generally taken by Nietzsche as explaining more specific drives, Richardson treats Nietzsche’s drive theory and his notion of the will to power separately. The key issue, as he sees it, is whether the will to power explains selection or whether natural selection explains the will to power. While he recognizes that the former is the dominant view within Nietzsche, Richardson holds that the latter view is not only more coherent, but that there is also good textual evidence for supporting it. Richardson argues that Nietzsche “can try to ground even the universality of power in selection, in a way that preserves both power’s aspects of control and the doctrine’s empirical status” (60). He entertains two possibilities for reconciling the will to power with naturalism. The first tack is to understand power as the fittest strategy: “the drives that have best served reproductive success and that dominate the drive economy of most organisms are drives whose goals involve some kind of control, either over other organisms, or over other drives in the same organism” (55). In other words, power operates as the most successful competitive strategy for reproductive success, while reproductive success remains the ultimate end of selection. The second tack takes power even more strongly and considers it as the structural end of selection. On this view, Richardson suggests that Nietzsche moves away from the Darwinian emphasis on survival and reproduction to new norms aiming at growth and evolution for their own sake. Rather than directed at merely replicating the species, selection can be more dynamically construed as towards the continual growth and expansion of the lineage. In this case, power (qua lineage growth) is the ultimate end of natural selection. Amidst a context of changing competition, it could be the case that all drives are designed for continual adaptation towards increased potency of the lineage. The weakness of this second approach, according to Richardson, is that it is too deeply invested in Nietzsche’s Lamarckian tendencies, wherein the self-overcoming of the individual organism is genetically transferred to its lineage. While it seems to me that this is precisely what Nietzsche takes to be the case, Richardson rightly points out that such Lamarckism is biologically untenable. In the end, Richardson holds that the first tact adequately substitutes a naturalized “power biology” for a metaphysically suspect “power ontology,” while simultaneously providing Nietzsche with a position that is “most consistent with his other main claims” (64) and consistent with contemporary biological theory.

In general terms, such an etiological analysis works so nicely for thinking about Nietzsche’s drive theory because it closely connects the identity of the drive (as that which it is “toward”) with the history of the drive’s emergence via selective pressures. Nietzsche’s genealogical method, then, is a mode of analysis that seeks to understand this relationship between contemporary drives or values and the specific historical context of their development. Genealogy strives to unearth the “meanings of our practices,” which “stretch back through their design history” (42). Genealogy seeks to track the deep formation of drives qua biological selection, as well as the latest transformation of drives qua socio-cultural selection. Nietzsche’s genealogies, therefore, can be read as a process of tracking exaptation, namely the way in which the herd appropriates and redirects biological drives towards socio-cultural ends selected by the herd: “He looks to the past, because this is where the ends are assigned or constituted. This is why genealogy tells us not only what, e.g., slave morality was, but what it is for is what it is selected for, which genealogy bares” (43).

Chapter 2 – “Metaethics”

Ehe second chapter examines the way in which Nietzsche’s thinking moves beyond classical Darwinism by considering the selective pressures exerted by sociality and the role that these second-order pressures play in establishing values. In general terms, Richardson contends that Nietzsche absorbs the basic view of biological selection, but supplements the notion of biological selection (classical Darwinism) with an analysis of social selection (herd instinct) and the task of self-selection (freedom). Richardson first examines how “human values” emerge within the context of social selection as goals of responsive behavior designed to promote the integrity of the herd over the integrity of the individual. He then turns to the ways in which Nietzsche establishes the project of self-selection and the creation of “superhuman valuing,” i.e., a disposition towards responsive behaviors designed to promote the integrity of the self.

On Richardson’s view, social selection, which selects for conformity and the capacity for future conformity, represents a secondary constraint on biological selection. Thus, social selection becomes expressed as a “meta-habit,” which Nietzsche calls the “herd instinct.” This meta-habit represents a drive to copy others and incorporate the habits of the social group: “Social selection favors habits that not only preserve this social medium in which they replicate, but that also shape or adapt this medium to suit their own replication” (86).

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