View Full Version : Mencken on Nietzsche

James Brody
March 19th, 2007, 12:07 PM
Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) wrote for the Baltimore Sun about politics, founded a literary journal, The American Mercury, and at age 27 wrote a scholarly, respected introduction to a Polish kid's work, a kid similar in handicaps, assets, and temperament to William James and to Mencken himself and known as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. (1844-1900).

Mencken wrote his introduction in approximately 1907. His thoughts and their era reminded me of the pervasive acceptance that Darwinism achieved before WWI. The following captures not only natural selection but hints broadly of the flips and flops of K-selection and r-selection! (And not incidentally, K and r interlock neatly with Wilson's recent thoughts on eusociality: "...group selection is the strong binding force in eusocial evolution; individual selection, the strong dissolutive force; and kin selection (narrowly defined), either a weak binding or weak dissolutive force, according to circumstance." Swarms emerge but they also scatter...

p 97 "Darwin proved, in The Origin of Species, that a great many more individuals of any given species of living being are born into the world each year than can possibly survive. Those that are best fitted to meet the conditions of existence live on; those that are worst fitted die. The result is that, by the influence of heredity, the survivors beget a new generation in which there is a larger percentage of the fit. One might think that this would cause a greater number to survive, but inasmuch as the food and room on earth are limited, a large number must always die. But all the while the half or third, or whatever the percentage may be, which actually to survive become more and more fit. In consequence, a species, generation after generation, tends to become more and more adapted to meet life's vicissitudes, or, as the biologists say, more and more adapted to its environment.

"Darwin proved that this law was true of all the lower animals and showed that it was responsible for the evolution of the lower apes into anthropoid apes, and that it could account, theoretically, for a possible evolution of anthropoid apes into man. But in The Descent of Man he argued that the law of natural selection ceased when man became an intelligent being. Thereafter, he said, man's own efforts worked against those of nature. Instead of letting the unfit of his race die, civilization began to protect and preserve them. The result was that nature's tendency to make all living beings more and more sturdy was set aside by man's own conviction that mere sturdiness was not the thing most to be desired. From this Darwin argued that if two tribes of human being lived side by side, and if, in one of them, the unfit were permitted to perish, while in the other there were many 'courageous, (p 98) sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, and to aid and defend one another'?that in such a case, the latter tribe would make the most progress, despite its concerted effort to defy a law of nature."


Mencken HL (1908/2006) The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. NY: Barnes & Noble.
Wilson, E.O. & Hölldobler, B. (2005) Eusociality: Origin and consequences. Proceedings National Academy of Science, September 20, 102(38), 13367-13371. Published online before print September 12, 2005, 10.1073/pnas.0505858102.