In: Nietzsche and the German tradition.
  Nietzsche's interpretation of his sources on Darwinism: Idioplasma, Micells and military troops

In this paper I will explore Nietzsche's reception of Darwin through the work of C. von Nägeli, in particular his Mechanisch-physiologische Theorie der Abstammungslehre which appeared in 1884 and which Nietzsche annotated extensively, as the copy in his library in Weimar shows. Although Nietzsche had become familiar with the theory of Darwinism in his student days in Leipzig, most notably through Friedrich Albert Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeutung, as Anni Anders and Karl Schlechta suggest1, it was only at a later stage in July 1886 that he acquired a specialist book on the theory of descent and worked through it systematically. In the draft of a letter to Franz Overbeck, dated 14 July 1886, he writes: „On hunting for good original books I once again came across something from Munich: Nägelis [Mechanical-physiological theory of] descent (a work that has been sheepishly put aside by Darwinists."2

It might be considered significant that even in 1886 Nietzsche did not acquire Bronn's translation of the second edition of Darwin's The Origin of the Species, titled Ursprung der Arten, which appeared four years after the first publication of the epochal work in 1863, or the new translation by Carus in 1883,3 but rather a book by the Anti-Darwinist botanist, Karl Wilhelm Nägeli. Nägeli was born in 1817 in Zurich where he also became an associate professor in 1848. He held professorships in Freiburg in 1852, in Zurich in 1855 and in Munich in 1858. He is credited with major contributions in all areas of botany, but especially with haven based morphology on a strict evolutionary and historical method. He made the new cell theory the starting point of morphology and investigated the cell formation and the molecular structure of the individual organs of the cells. His contributions to an understanding of algae were significant, especially the species of the 'phanerogametes', whose classification caused problems because of the existence of hybrids or of more constant intermediate forms. His last years were devoted mainly to the study of bacteria. He was the author of a long list of publications.4 This meant that Nietzsche read the work of a specialist at the cutting edge of his science whose criticism of Darwin's theory had to be taken seriously. Although Nietzsche makes it seem as though Nägeli was an outsider swimming against the tide of Darwinism, it must be kept in mind, that Anti-Darwinism was the norm in German scientific circles at the time.5 With the exception of Ernst Haeckel, who popularised Darwin in Germany, German biologists favoured Lamarck's concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over Darwin's theory of evolution, which stressed spontaneous variation coupled with adaptation to the environment. An understanding of the dominant intellectual trends of his time certainly accounts for the polemical stance of much of Nietzsche's writings on Darwin. This polemical stance, however, which more often than not is based on Nietzsche's superficial knowledge of Darwin's theory, belies a deeper understanding of and engagement with some of the key issues raised by Darwin and their philosophical ramifications.6 Nietzsche's polemics were directed mainly at the socio-political conclusions which many of Nietzsche's contemporaries drew from Darwinism. His main targets were therefore the (mainly) English Social-Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, whose works Nietzsche possessed in his library and read carefully, as his underlinings and comments suggest. Nietzsche's main problem with Social-Darwinism was the teleological view of history it proposed according to which humankind is inexorably moving towards its own perfection. This view seems to have been underpinned by a simplistic application of Darwin's principle of selection to the progress of human history.

The German Darwinians, however, such as David Strauß, also came under Nietzsche's attack in the first part of his Untimely Meditations, titled 'David Strauß der Bekenner und der Schriftsteller'. Nietzsche accused Strauß of failing to separate the questions 'How do we understand the world' and 'How do we order our lives', yet Nietzsche himself often merges the analytical and ethical levels.7 Werner Stegmaier argues that, although Nietzsche's understanding of the natural sciences never exceeded the common tenets, this was sufficient to make their results productive for his own philosophy. I think this conclusion needs to be modified somewhat on the evidence of recent articles on Nietzsche's reception of Lange, Roux, Féré and Galton.8 This trend is corroborated by his close reading of Nägeli. Although it is true Nietzsche never obtained an academic qualification in biology, although shortly before accepting the professorship in Basel he was toying with the idea of studying the natural sciences in Paris together with his friend, Erwin Rohde9, he nevertheless informed himself sufficiently about the latest scientific developments to know what he was talking about. This ongoing interest is corroborated by the scientific books in his library, as well as his borrowings from the university libraries.

When dealing with Nietzsche's utterances on Darwinism during 1886, one has to be careful to distinguish between his major source, Nägeli, who already offered an interpretation and criticism of Darwin; Nietzsche's own interpretation of Nägeli; and finally the ideological uses of Nietzsche's Darwinist legacy. This requires a genealogical reading which Nietzsche had himself proposed to reveal the layering of historical texts.

A fragment from the Nachgelassene Fragmente between the autumn of 1885 and the autumn of 1886 already contains a revealing quote of one of Nägeli's key concepts, the idioplasma. Nietzsche writes:

The central concern of Nietzsche's philosophical reflections at this time could be summed up as 'am Leitfaden des Leibes'. Nietzsche's reception of Nägeli falls into the period of Beyond Good and Evil when Nietzsche began to radically question the metaphysical justification of moral values and judgements as exemplified by Christian religion and idealist philosophy from Plato to Kant and Schopenhauer. For this he needed a vantage point beyond metaphysics which he found in the natural sciences and especially in physiology. With its emphasis on the organism as a complex set of interactions from simple cells to multicellular structures, physiology offered Nietzsche a perspective from which to ground our psychic activity in our physical existence.

I would argue that Nietzsche was developing a materialist model of the psyche during this time. In the above fragment he questions the split between the internal and the external world, which was a fundamental assumption of the Christian and the Platonic tradition. Nietzsche stands this opposition on its head by saying that the outside world is a projection of our sensory perception. He asks whether the body is commanding our sensory perceptions to treat the external world according to its own needs. Nietzsche postulates that the same levelling and ordering force which acts on the idioplasma is also at work when we incorporate, or rather, ingest, the outside world.

Our sensory perceptions are already the result of this making similar and equating in regard to all the past in us; they do not immediately follow the impression or the sensory stimulus. This seems to imply that we are only able to perceive that which our senses have been trained to perceive, and that this training is the result of a long history, in which our responses to the external world that guaranteed our survival have become internalised.

Nägeli uses the metaphor of a loosely structured military troop on the one hand and a highly organised and disciplined army on the other to illustrate the difference between the simple idioplasma of the lower organisms and the complex idioplasma:

This implies that there is a formative drive common to all organisms, both plant and animal, from the simplest cell or idioplasma to the most complex multicellular structure. Nägeli defines the perfection of an organism as its ordered and organised complexity which he compares to an architectural plan. Nägeli stresses that under the more perfect he understood the more composite organisation and continues:

This view of perfection is at odds with Darwin's view that the organism best suited to its surroundings has the best chances of survival. This means that even the simplest organism can be considered perfect in its adaptation to its environment and therefore in no need of improvement, whereas complexity might turn out to be a disadvantage to the survival of an organism if it cannot adapt effectively to its surroundings.

Nägeli's definition of perfection as higher complexity with a greater division of labour in an organism must have appealed to Nietzsche's own preference for a hierarchical and aristocratic order. By contrast, Nietzsche interpreted Darwin's thesis of the adaptation to one's surroundings as a scientific endorsement of democracy and mediocrity in modern European society.

On another level, however, Nietzsche uses Nägeli's concept of the highly organised multicellular structure to question the notion of the unified, self-identical subject underlying Western philosophy. He analyses how each sentence implies a subject or agent who wants to impose her/his will on another object or person. Nietzsche takes the grammar of the sentence 'I want something' apart by asking what each word or part of the sentence means and reveals the various forces at play under such apparently simple words as 'I' and 'want'. Nietzsche himself uses the architectural metaphor of the building where various persons meet and interact to describe the psyche in its relation to the body. Nietzsche explains how the subject who wants only performs the role of the commanding officer of her/his various subordinate souls:

It is striking how much emphasis Nietzsche places on commanding and obedience. Seen from his perspective, the unified subject itself becomes the effect of a complex ordering, which produces pleasurable sensations in the subject. This pleasure might even prevent the subject from questioning its own unity and self-identity and makes it state categorically, 'It is I who wanted this'. The fiction of the unified subject is thus reinforced by grammar. Nietzsche's insight into the constitution of the subject leads him to place morality squarely in the field of power relations, i.e. what is good is no longer willed by a free subject, but rather depends on the subject successfully ordering its lesser souls or its drives to do its bidding. This is analogous to the power-play within wider society. Nietzsche thus adopts Nägeli's metaphor of the military troop and turns it into a key metaphor in his questioning of the Christian-Platonic concept of the soul.

Nägeli confirmed Nietzsche's own suspicion of the Darwinist concept of the struggle for survival as the driving force of evolution. Nägeli wants to separate this hypothesis from Darwin's major achievement, namely the selection of the entirety of those qualities that are more advantageous to the individual or the species. Nägeli writes:

Nägeli believes that simple cell structures can develop in either direction whereas development towards higher, more complex structures is possible exclusively or preferably in composite structures. Under these preconditions, the basic organisation of the simple cell structure remains unchanged even after an infinite number of changes, because the positive steps add up to the same sum as the negative ones. Nägeli concedes that arbitrary or directionless change of individuals would be conceivable, if they were determined by external influences, such as diet, temperature, light, electricity and gravity. From this he deduces that since these causes can obviously not be brought into a definite relation to the more or less composite organisms, they would have to effect now a positive and then a negative change.13

Nägeli tries to expose the absurdity of Darwin's theory of selection of those organs best suited to their surroundings by means of the example of the tube of a flower and the proboscis of an insect. If the insect could develop a long proboscis in response to the length of the tube, why could not the flower have developed a shorter tube in the first place or no tube at all? Nägeli argues that the simultaneous transformation of both organs according to the theory of selection becomes a Münchhausen who pulls himself out of the mud by his own bootstraps.14 Nietzsche underlined this comment and wrote 'very good' in the margin.

Nägeli does not regard the effect of the external world on the organism in the Darwinian sense as mediated by competition and suppression but rather as an immediate effect.15 Clearly Nägeli is dissatisfied with Darwin's view that all organisation is an adaptation to prevailing conditions. In the margin of this critique Nietzsche wrote 'Spencer'. Nägeli reveals the blind spot of Darwin's theory, however, when he points out his inability to explain how the better adapted characteristics can be inherited from the one generation by the next:

To address this problem, Nägeli advances the theory of the chemical composition of the protein within the micell which sounds like an uncanny anticipication of the DNA structure of genes. Nägeli writes that today's scientific insight demands the assumption that the hereditary predispositions must be grounded in the physical and chemical composition of the 'albumen', i.e. in the molecular composition of the individual micell and in the integration of the complete micell resulting in the idioplasma.17

Nägeli's views on the development of a more perfect or complex cellular structure seem to coincide with Nietzsche's own views on the absolute difference in rank between the higher type of individual and the herd type. Whereas the higher individuals are marked by greater complexity and make human culture worthwhile, the herd types merely conserve the achievements of culture, without enhancing it. Nietzsche rejects any notion of the progress of history and culture through the majority. He argues that if nature were striving to achieve a goal, such as the perfection of humankind, it would have been achieved a long time ago. Since this has not happened in any planned or logical way, Nietzsche sees the creation of the higher type as purely coincidental. Nietzsche's favoured metaphor for the workings of fate is not the linear progression, but the game of dice that produces the higher types in a stroke of luck:

Yet Nietzsche does not seem content with chance throwing up the higher type. Instead, he wants to breed the higher type under the right genetic, dietary, geographical, climatic and educational conditions. In the last unpublished fragments of 1888 and 1889, however, he expresses doubts about the desirability of his own grand social experiments. He wonders, whether the higher type with his asocial nature would not destroy himself and the rest of society. In this context he reevaluates the meaning of mediocrity and democracy and seems to recognise it as the conserver of culture. In this regard his position coincides with Darwin's.

Nietzsche also found the idea that evolutionary change took place invisibly and over millenia already formulated by Nägeli. He marked this comment with a double line in the margin and a fold at the top of the page. Again, Nägeli uses a human metaphor to explain an evolutionary principle. Nägeli assumes that many thousands of years were necessary to the formation of new physiological features but ascribes an earth period to the evolution of the predispositions.18 According to Nägeli, constant but invisible causes propelled the evolutionary process:

Even if Nietzsche must have disagreed with this optimistic, teleological view of human progress, he must have found in the description of the quiet amassing of invisible work over millennia a blueprint of what he had in mind for his genealogy of morals. Nietzsche's genealogy is precisely such a historiography that delves under the surface of our actions to reveal the physio-psychological dynamics that produce them.

Nietzsche drew his own contentious conclusions from Nägeli. His search for a physiological foundation for his concept of the 'will to power' is a case in point. It seems that Nietzsche is equating the force in the idioplasma with his own concept of the will to power. In the margin of Nägeli's Anti-Darwinian account of progress as a sudden leap Nietzsche wrote 'Wille'. Nägeli disagrees with Darwin's notion that some characteristics of the developed organism are transformed slowly into a higher form and argues that they display at least an antipathy against the formation of intermediate phases. He believes without a doubt that this already applied to the predispositions in the idioplasma, in that the old predisposition is not transformed into the new one, but rather in that the new one is formed next to the old one and then, if it has become sufficiently strong, develops in its place.20 In the same way, the will to power of the higher individual displaces the weaker will to power of the herd type without any transition.

I think that Nietzsche was looking for an underlying principle in nature that could neither be verified nor falsified by the empirical sciences of his day because it operated on a meta-scientific level.21 He imposed his theory of the 'will to power' on nature as a counterbalance to Darwin's teleological and moral interpretation of nature in his Descent of Man (1871), in which Darwin attempted to draw the conclusions of his theory of evolution for human culture.22 Whereas the Darwinians saw mankind as the pinnacle of evolution which could only perhaps still be improved upon morally to achieve an ideal harmonious and peaceful society, Nietzsche offered an alternative interpretation of nature based on chance, mastery and aristocratic values. In this venture he was looking for scientific allies, whom he found amongst the Anti-Darwinists, and especially in Nägeli. However Nietzsche did not simply copy Nägeli's views, but transformed them through his own philosophical project into an ongoing critical engagement not only with Darwin and the Social-Darwinists, but also with the Christian and Platonic metaphysical tradition.


1 Karl Schlechta und Anni Anders, Friedrich Nietzsche. Von den verborgenen Anfängen seines Philosophierens. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Frommann Verlag 1962, p. 63.

2 Sämtliche Briefe, Vol. 6, p. 204. Translations of Nietzsche and Nägeli are my own. Apart from Nägeli Nietzsche knew: Eugen Dreher, Der Darwinismus und seine Konsequenzen in wissenschaftlicher und sozialer Beziehung. Halle 1882; W.H. Rolph, Biologische Probleme zugleich als ein Versuch zur Entwicklung einer rationellen Ethik. 2. Auflage. Leipzig 1884; Wilhelm Roux, Der Kampf der Teile im Organismus. Ein Beitrag zur Vervollständigung der mechanischen Zweckmäßigkeislehre. Leipzig 1881; J.H. Thomassen, Bibel und Natur. Allgemein verständliche Studien über die Lehren der Bibel vom Standpunkte der heutigen Naturwissenschaft und Geschichte. 4. Auflage. Köln und Leipzig 1881.

3 Meyers großes Konversationslexikon. Leipzig und Wien: Bibliographisches Institut 1906, p. 530.

4 Meyers großes Konversationslexikon, p. 376.

5 See Lucille Ritvo, Darwin's Influence on Freud. A Tale of Two Sciences. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990. Also see Curt Paul Janz, Friedrich Nietzsche. Biographie. München: Carl Hanser 1978, Vol. 1, p. 320, on the influence of the prominent Anti- Darwinist, L. Rütimeyer, on Nietzsche during his years in Basel.

6 See Dieter Henke, 'Nietzsches Darwinismuskritik aus der Sicht gegenwärtiger Evolutionsforschung.' In: Nietzsche-Studien 13, 1984: p. 189: „Erst in der Spannung der Aphorismen zueinander spiegelt sich Nietzsches erregende, meist ungenannte Nähe zu Darwin."

7 See Werner Stegmaier, 'Darwin, Darwinismus, Nietzsche. Zum Problem der Evolution'. In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 16, 1987, p. 265.

8 Jörg Salaquarda, 'Nietzsche und Lange'. In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 7, 1978, p. 236-253; Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, 'Der Organismus als Innerer Kampf. Der Einfluß von Wilhelm Roux auf Friedrich Nietzsche.' In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 7, 1978, p. 189-223; Hans Erich Lampl, 'Ex oblivione: Das Féré-Palimpsest'. In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 15, 1986, p. 225-264; Bettina Wahrig-Schmidt, ''Irgendwie, jedenfalls physiologisch'. Friedrich Nietzsche, Alexandre Herzen (fils) und Charles Féré 1888'. In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 17, 1988, p. 434-464; Marie-Luise Haase, 'Friedrich Nietzsche liest Francis Galton'. In: Nietzsche Studien, Bd. 18, 1989.

9 See Curt Paul Janz, Friedrich Nietzsche. Biographie, Bd. I. München: dtv 1981, p. 319.

10 Nägeli, C. v., Mechanisch-physiologische Theorie der Abstammungslehre. Mit einem Anhang: 1. Die Schranken der naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis. 2. Kräfte und Gestaltungen im molekularen Gebiet. München und Leipzig 1884, p. 25.

11 Nägeli, p. 12-13.

12 Nägeli, pp. 7-8.

13 Nägeli, p. 12.

14 Nägeli, p. 150.

15 Nägeli, p. 139.

16 Nägeli, pp. 139-140.

17 Nägeli, p. 68.

18 Nägeli, p. 135.

19 Nägeli, p. 135.

20 Nägeli, p. 185.

21 For a detailed account of this interpretation of Nietzsche's 'will to power', see Walther Ch. Zimmerli, „Friedrich Nietzsche's Criticism of Science" (unpublished paper), p. 18, where Zimmerli states that there is „no way of experiencing truth. What could be experienced is nothing but the failure of presuppositions or hypotheses. That which we falsely call 'experienced truth' is nothing but the lack of experienced failure, and, as we all know, this, for very simple logical reasons, does not allow for any inferences as to the truth of the respective presupposition or hypothesis."

22 Werner Stegmaier, p. 276.

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