August 14, 2008

The Art-Drive: Evolution According to Nietzsche

Filed under: Spiritual, Genius, History, Desire, Imagination — Graham Coulter-Smith

Nietzsche took Schopenhauer’s notions of Will (artintelligence) and Kunsttrieb (art drive, art impulse) and transformed them into his own Will to Power (Moore 2002). Nietzsche effected this transformation by connecting the art-drive with the theory of evolution. This is of considerable significance because evolution is the most creative process of which we know, it created the mind that now reflects upon it.


We also know, after Darwin and scientific research since Darwin, that chance lies at the heart of this creative process. Only Deleuze (1983) has made the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy and chance but he only mentions Darwin in passing. In contrast, Keith Ansell-Pearson (1997) and Gregory Moore (2002) have established a firm connection between Nietzsche and Darwin’s theory of evolution, but their studies indicate that Nietzsche was unaware of the role of chance in Darwinian theory.

It should also be said from the beginning that there is no evidence that Nietzsche read Darwin’s writings, what he did read was the reception of Darwin by various German writers. And these particular writers were fundamentally unsympathetic to the mechanistic assumptions of Darwin’s theory. In response they modified Darwin’s ideas in a manner that reflects aspects of German romanticism and idealism and, indeed, resonates with Schopenhauer’s concept of Will as a mysterious “inner” force of nature.

Nietzsche’s philosophy began with an acceptance of Schopenhauer’s concept of Will but over time Nietzsche developed an alternative theory of will which he characterises as the “will to power”. Ansell-Pearson notes that it “has been little noted that the notion of will-to-power is, in large part, inspired by texts Nietzsche read in the early 1880s in experimental embryology (notably Wilhelm Roux) and orthogenesis (notably Carl von Nageli)” (Ansell-Pearson 1997). These texts were interpretations of Darwin’s theory of evolution. But what Ansell-Pearson does not point out, which Moore does, is the romantic inclination of such so-called scientific interpretations. Ansell-Pearson does, however, note the way in which both Roux and von Nageli steer away from Darwin’s emphasis upon natural selection by external environmental forces preferring to stress internal factors as primary, but not the internal factors posited by Darwin: namely, chance variations in the organism.

Ansell-Pearson’s analysis offers an interesting cultural explanation for why Nietzsche would be attracted to the resistance of these German scientific writers to the role of external environmental forces in the shaping of evolution. The environment in which Nietzsche lived was dominated by the bourgeoisie whose materialism and pragmatism was universally despised by avant-gardist philosopher’s, artists, musicians etc. For Nietzsche this simply could not be the environment that selected the next step in human evolution. One alternative would be avant-gardist eugenics which is absurd because the Nazi’s proved that eugenics projects need to be highly organised which necessitates that they are planned by what Nietzsche called “the herd”. In the absence of the possibility of convincing the herd to exterminate themselves Nietzsche effectively repackaged the romantic concept of genius as the next step in the evolution of homo sapiens. But in order for this to happen evolution could not be selected by the environment as Darwin proposed, instead it must come from an inner force of nature remarkably akin to Schopenhauer’s Will and the associated notion of the art-drive (Kunsttrieb).

Ansell-Pearson’s research reveals that Nietzsche garnered some support for the notion of an inner evolutionary force of nature in the theory of Wihelm Roux in particular Roux’s 1881 text Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in an Organism) which argued that natural selection was unable to account for Organbildung (the development of organs) since it relied on a purely external as opposed to internal influences (Ansell-Pearson 1997). Ansell-Pearson notes that it is from “Roux that Nietzsche borrows the notion of ‘form-shaping/building forces’” (Ansell-Pearson1997), and these “form shaping” forces are, in the best idealist-romantic tradition, internal rather than external. Ansell-Pearson notes that Nietzsche posits that “the essential phenomenon in the life process is precisely the ‘tremendous shaping, form-creating force’ (ungeheure gestaltende herformschaffende Gewalt) that works from within and then utilizes and exploits ‘external circumstances’.” (Ansell-Pearson1997).

Nietzsche’s “‘tremendous shaping, form-creating force’ that works from within” appear to be an elaboration of the romantic fascination with inner forces of nature, mysterious forces more subtle than those perceivable by science. What is unscientific is of course that such forces are unmeasurable, unlike the meticulous, quantifiable taxonomy of gradual ontogenetic changes and phylogenetic relationships between organisms carried out by Darwin. But such empiricism, such materialistic pragmatism, such focus on the evidence of the external world seems to be utterly unacceptable to the German mentality of the late-nineteenth century programmed by the force of German idealist philosophy and its romantic overtones in the arts.

Gregory Moore’s study of the impact of evolutionary theory on Nietzsche broadens the range of authors who influenced Nietzsche. Moore also emphasises the centrality of aesthetics to Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power and its relationship to his earlier notion of the art-drive (Kunsttrieb). And, significantly, Moore also stresses the romantic character of not only Nietzsche’s interpretation but also of the theorists who influenced him. Moore’s research makes it apparent that the centre of the cluster of revisionist evolutionary theorists who influenced Nietzsche was not Roux but rather the German biologist Ernst Haeckel who pursued “monistic philosophy, an idiosyncratic blend of [idealist-romanticist] Naturphilosophie and Darwinism” (Moore 2002). Moore explains that Haeckel:

seeks to account not only for the existence of ‘natural beauty’ — that is, the awe-inspiring symmetry and order of living structures produced by the processes of evolution — but also for the origin of human invention. Both, he concludes, are the visible manifestation of an intrinsic creative force operating throughout the universe: the Kunsttrieb. (Moore 2002).

Moore explains that the concept of the Kunsttrieb is an old one:

Coined by the natural theologian Hermann Samuel Reimarus in his Allgemeine Betrachtungen üuber die Triebe der Thiere, hauptsächlich über ihre Kunst-Triebe [General Observation on the Drives of Animals, particularly their Art-Drive] (1760), it originally explained certain spontaneously creative behaviour observable in animals, referring to those instincts, for example, which prompt the bird to build its nest or the beaver its dam — this is the sense in which Schopenhauer, for example, employs the term in the chapter entitled ‘Vom Instinkt und Kunsttrieb’ [On Instinct and Art-drive] in the second volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung [The World as Will and Representation]. Gradually, though, it also began to be applied by eighteenth-century aestheticians such as Friedrich Schiller to man’s impulse to produce fine art (schöne Kunst). (Moore 2002)

Moore also notes that Haeckel’s contribution was to give the idea of the art-drive “an evolutionary twist: human artistry is simply a more refined expression of the same primordial creative instincts which all organisms possess to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time … [Haeckel] also implies that this Kunsttrieb [art-drive] is a supra-individual vital force identical with the developmental processes of life itself.” (Moore 2002).

The notion of the art-drive was already evident in Nietzsche’s theory in the early text The Birth of Tragedy. What is significant is that Nietzsche’s contact with evolutionary theory shifted his concept of art-drive from a fundamentally Schopenhauerian orientation to a revisionist evolutionary version inspired by Haeckel and associated writers Bölsche, and Roux. Finally, Moore argues, this revised notion of art-drive developed into Nietzsche’s core notion of “the will to power”. Moore notes that in Nietzsche’s early work The Birth of Tragedy the twin principles of the Apollonian and Dionysian are “explicitly and repeatedly described as ‘Kunsttriebe’ [art-drive]” (Moore 2002).

Examining Nietzsche’s notes for The Birth of Tragedy Moore finds a passage where Nietzsche contends that “the ‘unconscious form-creating force’ which manifests itself ‘in procreation’ is the same ‘Kunsttrieb … which compels the artist to idealise nature and which compels each and every human being to create a pictorial representation of himself and of nature’” (Moore 2002) Moore then cites an extraordinary passage from The Birth of Tragedy in which Nietzsche states:

The more I become aware of those all-powerful artistic drives in nature [Kunsttriebe], and of a fervent longing in them for semblance, for their redemption and release in semblance, the more I feel myself driven to the metaphysical assumption that that which truly exists, the eternally suffering and contradictory, primordial unity, simultaneously needs, for its constant release and redemption, the ecstatic vision, intensely pleasurable semblance (Moore 2002)

When writing The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche was still influenced by the Schopenhauerian conception of Will, and Moore comments that “The fundamental characteristic of the Will, then, is sensation, and the organic world is an ‘artistic projection’ of this sensate Will” (ibid).
What is interesting here is that the fundamental striving of the Schopenhauerian will is for self-representation. This has some resonance with Hegel’s notion that consciousness is constantly evolving towards a final goal which is absolute knowledge, or perfect consciousness of consciousness. According to interpretations of Nietzsche such as that offered by Gilles Deleuze, the difference between Hegel and Nietzsche is that the latter’s will to power, like Darwinian evolution, does not have a goal.

The first manifestation of the endless striving of the will for representation is the world of perception—the Matrix-like virtual reality we call reality and Schopenhaur called “the world as representation”—we might call this “primary representation”. But the representation of the world in consciousness is not sufficient for the eternally striving force of will; it needs to create secondary (or in Derridean terms “supplementary”) representations of the primary representation, for example in art and language. According to Moore this is why Nietzsche places so much emphasis upon art.

The notion of a constant striving to represent representation and implicitly, due to constant goal-less striving, to represent the representation of representation ad infinitum, is an especially interesting idea because it links very neatly into Jean Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality and simulation. The difference is that Baudrillard dispenses with the idealist-romantic notion of a sensate Will behind such evolution. Significantly, in so doing his theory takes on an exceedingly pessimistic and nihilistic, tone; which at a poetic and literary level appears to portray the underlying psychic condition of the postmodern techno-capitalist lifeworld.

Moore examines Nietzsche’s focus on visual representation, and his observaitons on the evolution of the eye, but this is somewhat limiting when it is considered that the virtual reality of primary representation — the world that we live in — is multisensory and includes our awareness of our own body via touch, proprioception and nociception (pain). One could suggest that it is physicality rather than visuality that is the most extraordinary aspect of the virtual reality produced by our nervous system and brain (the body-brain). It will be a long time before we will be able to represent that.

To represent our bodily sensations we would have to plug into the brain or spinal column in the manner of William Gibson’s cyberspace novels or their filmic equivalent in the Matrix movies or Cronenberg’s Existenz. And Moore touches on this aspect to some extent when he insists that “sensation” is at the core of Nietzsche’s conception of will. Moore cites Nietzsche “Sensation is not the result of the cell; rather, the cell is the result of sensation … That which is real [Das Substantielle] is sensation” (in Moore 2002). Which is to say Will is sensate but, paradoxically, it is fundamentally unconscious; being, in Schopenhauer’s terms, the thing-in-itself: the reality behind the veil of illusion that is perception and cognition.

According to Moore, Nietzsche’s essentially Schopenhauerian notion of the art-drive in Birth of Tragedy became elaborated via the influence not only of Haeckel but also Haeckel’s friend Wilhelm Bölsche “a novelist and best-selling author of popular works on the theory of evolution” (Moore 2002). Moore notes that for Bölsche:

art is a ceaseless, pulsating impulse in nature towards harmony that is manifested in all structures, both organic and inorganic, from snowflakes to the skeletons of animals. What is more, this rhythmic principle, which Bölsche misleadingly equates with Darwinian evolution, also expresses itself ‘in the artistic sensibility of human beings and in our active attempt to produce aesthetic forms’. Human art thus conforms to the same innate aesthetic principles that guide the creative processes of nature as a whole. (Moore 2002)

Like Ansell-Pearson, Moore also cites the influence of Wilhelm Roux who had been a student of Haeckel noting, like Ansell-Pearson, that Roux was unconvinced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection by external environmental forces and “located the primary process of evolution in the internal activity of organisms.” (Moore 2002). It should be noted that Roux’s problems with Darwin appear to be based upon the watchmaker hypothesis which during the twentieth century has been consistently overturned by scientific evidence (Dawkins 1986). The most recent manifestation of Roux’s objection is evident in the intelligent design movement in America which is more related to Christianity than science. All of which underscores the profundity of the impact of Darwinian evolution upon an already declining Christian tradition. Darwin, in a sense, provided the coup de grace.

Although the church was in decline in nineteenth century Europe it was still woven into the fabric of culture to the extent that it could hardly be replaced by its total antithesis in the form of a completely mechanistic account of creation. It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that German reception of Darwin in the form of the writings of Haeckel, Bölsche, and Roux would attempt to ameliorate the harshness of Darwinian theory via an essentially idealist-romanticist revisionism.

Whereas Moore principally treats the impact of Haeckel, Bölsche, and Roux on Nietzsche’s theory of the art-drive, Ansell-Pearsoninvestigates the influence of evolutionary theory on Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power. Ansell-Pearson notes that the “extent … to which Nietzsche formulated his conception of life as will-to-power in terms of an alternative to the depiction of life offered by ‘English Darwinism’ has been overlooked.” (Ansell-Pearson 1997: 97). Fundamentally Nietzsche concurred with Haeckel, Bölsche, and Roux’s aversion to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, translating this aversion into his own peculiar brand of elitism:

Natural selection is conceived by Nietzsche as a largely negative feedback mechanism that encourages the physiologically weak and ill-constituted to gather together in herds in order to maximize their opportunities for self-preservation. (Ansell-Pearson 1997)

Obviously there are right-wing, even fascistic undertones to this passage, but these are mitigated in Ansell-Pearsons analysis when we realise that the Übermensch, the “overman” or “higher type” that Nietzsche desires from evolution is not necessarily a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan warrior.  Ansell-Pearson’s analysis of the will to power intersects with Moore’s examination of Nietzsche’s concern with the art-drive when we realise that Nietzsche’s “higher type” is an elaboration of the romantic notion of the outsider genius. This is evident when Ansell-Pearson explains:
The future of evolution for Nietzsche belongs not to species but to individuals who embody ever greater levels of complexity, by which Nietzsche means ‘a greater sum of co-ordinated elements’. He appreciates that greater complexity means that such a higher type renders itself more vulnerable to disintegration ‘The genius is the most sublime machine (die sublimste Maschine) there is—consequently the most fragile’ (Ansell-Pearson 1997).

Ansell-Pearson notes: “Natural selection, in which the emphasis is placed on preservation … is, in Nietzsche’s eyes, a highly conservative, if not ‘bourgeois’, measure of evolution.” (Ansell-Pearson 1997). The bourgeoisie were at the turn of the nineteenth century the familiar whipping boy of the romantic/post-romantic avant-gardist intelligentsia. The alternative to the mass-produced bourgeois is the Übermensch, the “higher type”; essentially, the avant-gardist genius-individual.

Another aspect of Nietzsche’s encounter with revisionist evolutionary theory is evident in his connection of the art-drive and the will to power with the sex-drive, a connection that Moore notes is made in Bölsche’s revisionist popularisations of evolutionary theory (Moore 2002). And, as an aside, it is a little chilling to consider that such idealist-romantic popularisations, or bowdlerisations, of evolutionary theory may have contributed to the perversion of Darwinism espoused by the Nazis. Returning to the sex-drive, Moore cites Nietzsche stating:  ‘The energy which one expends in the conception of art and in the sexual act is one and the same: there is only one kind of energy’ (Moore 2002).

Nietzsche’s focus on sexual energy is significant because it appears to transform what was previously couched in Schopenhauerian terms as the fundamentally unknowable “thing-in-itself” into something much more concrete. At last we have a force of nature we can all understand–although, on consideration, one might add that we really do not understand it that well at all. Moore explains that:

Where the [early] Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy believed that this process is set in motion by a mysterious Kunsttrieb [art-drive], the well-spring of the creative and procreative impulse in both man and nature, the later Nietzsche calls the ‘primordial artistic force’ … common to both the aesthetic state and animal life, the will to power. (Moore 2002)

But what appears to be at first sight a turn towards a more rational and materialistic approach grounded, in a drive we can all relate to, becomes revealed as simply a new twist; and, indeed, an amplification of the romantic notion of a creative inner force of nature. Moore reveals that Nietzsche claims that sexual energy has the capacity to physically restructure the human organism. This is obviously closer to Lamarckism than Darwinism, even German revisionist Darwinism. Moore notes that Nietzsche believed that when the state of erotic intoxication is at its height “the organism is able to bring forth ‘new organs, new faculties, colours, forms’” (Moore 2002) and he also cites Nietzsche declaring that “Here it makes no difference if one is man or animal” (Moore 2002). And, importantly, according to Moore, it is from this conception that the notion of the Übermensch (overman) the superior creative genius, emerges:

The highest aesthetic achievement is to shape and form life itself, to ‘become master of the chaos that one is; to compel one’s chaos to become form’ (Colli 1967: VIII 3, 14[61]). … and it is in the artist — at least at this stage of Nietzsche’s thinking — that we apprehend … the mysterious figure of the Übermensch. (Moore 2002)

The Übermensch becomes the artist on a grand scale in the sense of being able to transform life totally—an idealist-romantic, avant-gardist dream:

The sensations of space and time are altered: enormous distances are surveyed and can, as it were, be perceived for the first time the extension of vision over greater masses and expanses the refinement of the organ for the apprehension of much that is small and fleeting divination, the power of understanding with only the least assistance, at every suggestion: ‘intelligent’ sensuality (Moore 2002).

In the Übermensch, mind becomes entwined in matter much more deeply giving more immediate and expansive insights. Nietzsche’s characterisation of the capacity of the Übermensch is clearly a description of the genius. But this is genius taken to the next stage of evolution, or perhaps several stages further in evolution. Nietzsche’s description of the Übermensch resonates quite loudly with hyperbolic statements evident in avant-gardist art manifestoes of the early 20th-century one thinks of futurism, suprematism, constructivism, and surrealism. And it is not entirely surprising that such science fiction-like claims might be made considering the pace of social, technological and scientific revolution in late nineteenth century Europe. Increasingly, anything seemed possible.

Nietzsche’s development from a Schopenhauerian notion of will as an unknowable force to the more biologically inspired idea of the sex-drive is revealed as idealist-romantic dreaming, or futurology. It is not akin to the more empirical account of the sex drive theorised by Freud from the evidence of his patients. Instead the absurdity of Nietzsche’s claims for the sexual force as “form-shaping” transforms that force into something divine, thereby returning us to the idealist-romanticist position which consists fundamentally of constructing metaphysical alternatives for a dying Judaeo-Christian God.

Nietzsche’s science fiction-like Übermensch is fascinating as a vision of a cyborg future, but as soon as we link Übermensch to the notion of the cyborg we realise that external factors are important. The cyborg will not emerge out of an inner impulse alone, it requires technology. The twentieth century has shown that the next stage in evolution will most likely be the result of genetic engineering and prosthetic robotics. This is a mode of evolution different, not only from that imagined by Nietzsche, but also by Darwin. But the concept of Will formulated by Schopenhauer and elaborated by Nietzsche is a seductive one, implying that the enormous acceleration in cultural evolution experienced in the nineteenth and twentieth century might be driven by some mysterious inner force of which we are not yet aware. This is a totally unscientific notion because the only evidence for it stems from our imagination, and because there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. But like the notion of God, Schopenhauer’s Will and Nietzsche’s will to power cannot be disproved: underlining the thesis that the idealist-romanticist notions developed from the late eighteenth century onwards are fundamentally attempts to fill the void left by the decline of Christianity.


  1. Kramer auto Pingback[…] The Art-Drive: Evolution According to Nietzsche 0 View Edit Comment/Tag […]

    Pingback by Reblog: Unread items (items 1 to 50) — August 14, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

  2. “Attempts to fill the void left by the decline of Christianity” … But the meaning of human subjectivity goes far beyond historical contingencies such as Christianity. This fact is what drives the relevance of “some mysterious inner force of which we are not yet aware.” If philosophy were faced with no greater question than the choice between scientific rationality and Judeo-Christianity, this post would make perfect sense. But the “hard question” of the apparent paradox of subjectivity ensures that Nietzschean “romantic” speculations will allure us long after Christianity is only a distant memory.

    Comment by you — January 25, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

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