井底之蛙

2/12/2008

Darwin the Confucian

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:38 am

As today is Darwin Day I thought I would post something on China’s reception of Darwin’s work. He tended to be confused with Spencer at first, and Elman gives some examples of how his work continued to be misunderstood for a very long time. Still, it is not surprising that Chinese tended to see Darwin through Spencer. Spencer was big in the West, and for those obsessed with the survival of nations rather than the survival of species Spencer would seem more to the point. Yan Fu‘s On Strength first appeared in 1895 and was the first serious account of Darwin published in China.

Darwin is an English biologist. Heir to his family’s scholarly traditions, he traveled around the world as a young man, amassing a rich collection of rare and curious plants and animals. After several decades’ exhaustive and subtle reflection upon them, he wrote The Origin of Species. Since the publication of this book, of which nearly every household in Europe and America now has a copy, there has been a tremendous change in the scholarship, politics, and religion of the West. The claim that the revolution in outlook and intellectual orientation occasioned by Darwin‘s book exceeds that of Newtonian astronomy is hardly an empty one.

His book says that for all their diversity, the species originated from a single source and that their differences developed slowly, for the most part in connec­tion with changes in the environment and an abiding biological tendency to­ward incremental differentiation. Eventually divergence from the remote source led to vast and irreversible differences, but these were brought about by natural processes in later ages and were not inherent in life at its origins.

Two chapters of the book are particularly noteworthy. . . . One is called “Competition” and the other, “Natural Selection.” “Competition” refers to the struggle of things to survive, and “Natural Selection” is the retention of the fit. The idea is that people and things exist in profusion, surviving on what the natural environment provides, but when they encounter others, peoples and things struggle over the means of survival. At first species struggled with species, and when they advanced somewhat, one group (jun) struggled with another.

Not bad, in my opinion, although I think he may overestimate Darwin’s sales figures a bit. At the end of this reading he is already leaving Darwin’s interest in species to look at the competition among “groups.” Here he is pretty clearly influenced by Spencer

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