Shaw and Creative Evolution
To my knowledge, the term “Creative Evolution” was first used by the British dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw as the name for his own philosophy. His definitive statement of that philosophy appears in the preface to his five-play work Back to Methuselah, first published in 1921 (see The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw Collected Plays with their Prefaces, 1972 edition, volume 5). The sequence of five plays then shows his Creative Evolution in action, first visiting Adam and Eve, then 1920s England, then taking off into Shaw’s future by leaps of a hundred, three thousand and thirty thousand years.
I believe that Shaw was broadly on the right track. He understood that civilisation could not continue to take its inspiration from traditional religion. He saw that a more enlightened philosophy had something to do with evolution and would in some way be creative. He realised that evolution solved the religious dilemma of evil (when progress is a matter of trial and error, the world must be full of its failures).
Everything else he got completely wrong.
Shaw’s criticism of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species was that it was “a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape” – “What damns Darwinian Natural Selection as a creed is that it takes hope out of evolution, and substitutes a paralysing fatalism which is utterly discouraging. As Butler put it, it banishes Mind from the universe.”
He was wrong on two counts. Firstly, Darwinism cannot be criticised as a creed because it is not a creed and was never intended as such; rather it is a scientific theory of the origin of species. But that was an easy mistake to make because everyone at the time did in fact take it as a creed with immediate application to religion and politics. Secondly, Darwinism does not in fact banish mind from the universe, nor does it remove hope, though again one can understand why Shaw thought it did. At the time few people could have imagined a third way between thorough-going Newtonian reductionism and thorough-going vitalism.
Shaw much preferred Lamarck’s version of evolution (published between 1809 and 1822). That theory proposed that offspring inherit characteristics acquired by their parents during their lifetimes, but Shaw lays stress on another part of the theory: the idea that living organisms change because they want to. He relates this to Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea (1819), which, according to Shaw, demonstrates that the driving force behind evolution was a will to live.
His specific interest is in prolonging the human lifespan to 300 years. This is portrayed in the third play of the five, The Thing Happens, when two characters – the Archbishop and Mrs Lutestring – turn out to be long-lifers. The problem here is that neither of them willed an extension to their lifespan, and neither of them knew anything about it until they grew old (as they thought) and found themselves still looking young and feeling healthy.
Shaw’s fundamental concept of a will to live is therefore not the same as the will of an individual. In fact it is totally nebulous.
His attitude to science and technology is consistent with this mystical inclination. His view is expressed by the character Ecrasia, who says: “The artist divines by inspiration all the truths that the so-called scientist grubs up in his laboratory slowly and stupidly long afterwards.” When Shaw mentions technology it is not to praise sanitation or penicillin, but to condemn the diabolical efficiency of the weapons used in the First World War. Material progress finds its advocate in the Elderly Gentleman of the fourth play in the series, but is opposed to Shaw’s concept of evolution, expressed through the character of Zoo, a long-lifer: progress occurs when some members of humanity make an evolutionary jump to longevity and an enhancement of the life-force. This splits humanity into two species – a superior and an inferior. The latter may try to progress, but in cultivating democracy they only subordinate wise men to the votes of fools, and in cultivating technology they only create more destructive weapons to use on each other. The superior humans are apparently immune to mere technology, for they can kill through looks alone. Real progress in Shaw’s philosophy is vitalistic, not materialistic. The superior branch of a divided humanity is destined to replace the inferior one, and Zoo puts this into practice at the end of the play with a mercy-killing of the Elderly Gentleman – “Poor short-lived thing!” she says, “What else could I do for you?”
The relationship of Shaw’s philosophy to fascism is obvious, and it is not surprising that he admired the totalitarian states of 1930s Germany, Italy and Russia and their strong, would-be superhuman leaders.
In a recent newspaper article, journalist Benedict Nightingale concluded that there was only one word for Shaw: “evil” (The Times, 29 August 2000, section 2, p. 6-7). This is naive. Calling people “evil” suggests that there is no explanation for their beliefs, that they are a product of the devil and that is all one can say. People are not evil. Rather they are a product of the influences which surround them and the choices they make.
Reacting against the apparent hopelessness of Darwinism and the uselessness of traditional religion, Shaw embraced a faith in a mystical will which would lead humanity where it needed to go. The terrible disaster of the First World War followed by the illusion of hope which the strong men of Europe offered must have powerfully reinforced this faith. But a compromise was required: those judged unfit to live would have to be executed by the state.
Shaw made this compromise when it was easy for him to make: he personally did not hold anyone’s life in his hands. The social ruthlessness he advocated was purely theoretical. Later on he turned a blind eye to the cruelties of Nazi and Soviet tyranny. What else could he have done? admit he had been wrong all along? what then of the mystical will which would save mankind? could anyone endure the shame of confessing that the views they had vigorously promoted for years were mistaken, and at the same time the despair of admitting that there was no hope of salvation?
There is one word for Shaw, and that is: “human”. Or, in the title of his fourth play of the series, six words: “the tragedy of an elderly gentleman”.
I think I am justified in claiming that Shaw did not understand evolution, and he did not understand creativity. In any case, 80 years on his philosophy is mostly forgotten. For these reasons I am happy to adopt his term “Creative Evolution” for the set of ideas which I am offering now and which I believe make sense of the world. Among those ideas are included the following:
Shaw concludes Back to Methuselah by claiming that it is a world classic or it is nothing. Again, he is wrong: it is an interesting failure.