The concept of time plays a fundamental role in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as presented in his book On the Origin of Species because it answers one fundamental question raised by his theory. One critique Darwin anticipated when elaborating his theory of evolution was the the missing biological link; that is, the “absence or rarity of transitional varieties” If two species descended from common ancestors, then one should expect to find transitional varieties at the present time and in each region: “But in the intermediate region, having intermediate conditions of life, why do we not now find closely-linking intermediate varieties? This difficulty for a long time quite confounded me”. According to Darwin, this phenomenon can be explained only by taking into consideration both the imperfection of the fossil records and the enormous time period that has passed since the first occurrence of life on Earth. This second point leads Darwin to widen the focus on human time. By comparing natural selection with human-made selection (domestication), Darwin exclaims: “How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods”. For Darwin, this insight implicates the necessity to widen the focus on the human time concept. When comparing “domestic” and natural instincts, Darwin remarks that the former are “far less fixed or invariable than natural instincts” because they have been transmitted in a much shorter period of time. Referring to Charles Lyell’s geological research, Darwin claims that the denudation of certain areas of the earth’s crust has required such a long and almost inconceivable period of time that the sheer attempt to envision this geological period of limited time is comparable to the vain attempt to envision eternity.
The other revolution of the time inspired by Darwin’s reading of Lyell and other geologists is the rejection of rhythmic concepts of time. Darwin stated that the old notion of a recurring catastrophe sweeping away all inhabitants of the earth is generally given up by geologists. Instead, Darwin has shown that every new variety can become extinct because it is less favored than a competing one.
The question of how deeply the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was influenced by Darwin, mainly by his conception of time, is hard to determine. On the one hand, Nietzsche polemized against Darwin’s alleged “materialistic” and externalistic conception of evolution; on the other hand, he acknowledged Darwin for being one of the main exponents of a philosophy of becoming (Philosophie des Werdens). It is exactly in this regard that Darwin is seen as one of Nietzsche’s antecedents. But at the same time, Nietzsche tries to downplay the actual meaning of Darwin by contrasting him with Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In a posthumously published fragment written in 1885, Nietzsche remarked: “We are historical through and through. That is the great turnaround. Lamarck and Hegel—Darwin is only an aftereffect”.
This short remark is characteristic of Nietzsche’s ambivalent mind-set toward Darwin. Nietzsche honors the fact that Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially his acceptance of the transformation of species, has proven that there is no eternal validity, neither of the concept of species nor of the logical categories. Nietzsche goes so far as to parallelize Darwin’s transformationism with his own disbelief in eternal logical structures: Just as time transforms the species, it changes the logical categories, too. Hence, the main purpose of Nietzsche’s reference to Darwin is to show that everything, even and especially the logical categories, is affected by transience. However, much unlike the medieval vanitas thinking, this is not meant as a statement of the vanity of the fugacious earthly beings. On the contrary, Nietzsche points out that his insight—that everything, even the logical structures, is transitory— results in a deep affirmation of transience.
This motive pervades his entire thinking. It is already in his early work Untimely Considerations (Unzeitgemaesse Betrachtungen) that Nietzsche criticizes “antiquarian history” and pleads the art of oblivion. Thus, the early Nietzsche favors the unhistorical over the historical because the former refers to the “art and power to forget and to surround oneself in a limited horizon”. In this early writing, Nietzsche still talks about the “hyper- historic” manifested in art and religion that “bestows the character of the eternal and the continuous”.
The connection between Nietzsche’s theory of oblivion and remembrance on the one hand and his theory of becoming on the other hand is the chief motive for his concept of time. In his Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), Nietzsche points out this extraordinary importance of the concept of becoming: “We Germans are Hegelians [ . . . ] in so far as we instinctively attach a deeper value to becoming, to evolution than to that, what ‘is’—we hardly believe in the authority of the concept of ‘being’”. At the same time, oblivion and remembrance are seen as organic functions. As Nietzsche points out in one posthumously published fragment from 1884, the process of life is made possible only by the embodiment of experiences: “the actual problem of the organic is: how is experience possible?”
At this point, Nietzsche refers not to Darwin but to Lamarck and this alleged theory of the “hereditary transmission of acquired characters” in order to support his own position. The notion that every action, every experience is transmitted to the following generations causes, in Nietzsche’s view, the extraordinary relevance of physiology understood as an ethical doctrine.
The radical affirmation of transience is finally expressed in Zarathustra’s “Yes-and-Amen-song” where each aphorism ends with the sentence “Because I love you, eternity!” However, this eternity is not made up of the everlasting and the immortal but by the affirmation of human transience and mortality. It is not by the belief in immortality or resurrection but by the affirmation of sexuality and siring first brought to mind by ancient mysteries that eternity is achieved.
This notion seems to be the inner meaning of Nietzsche’s cryptic doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same (Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen). The core of this doctrine (which was repeatedly modified by Nietzsche) is that every little thing, every moment repeatedly recurs in a long period of time—not similarly but in the very same way it was experienced the first time. The underlying time concept is clearly a rhythmic one. Nietzsche (who tried to prove this doctrine by referring to physical theories) often stated that the affirmation of the thought of eternal recurrence is the greatest challenge for every thinking being because the unreserved affirmation of a recurring eternity means to completely accept one’s own transitory human existence. Thus, the affirmation of eternal recurrence is possible only for those who have first accepted the transience of human existence. Consequently, the doctrine of eternal recurrence can be considered as a touchstone for true salvation.
See also Darwin, Charles; Eternal Recurrence; Evolution, Organic; Lyell, Charles; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Time, Cyclical
Darwin, C. (1991). The origin of species. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. (Original work published 1859) Nietzsche, F. (1967). The will to power (W. Kaufmann & R. J. HollingDalíe, Eds. & Trans.). New York: Vintage. (Original work published 1901)
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The gay science (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Vintage. (Original work published 1882)