Darwin, born free


-Here is another academic essay, comparing the thinkers Rousseau and Darwin

It is difficult to think of an equal advancement in human thought that has had such a resounding impact on humanity’s perception of its place within the world, as the moment when Darwin finally put forward his theory that imperceptible change over time could lead to radical change. At the astonishing moment when he suggested that our roots lay in a common ancestor with the apes (The Descent of Man), we realised that we are connected to our own past not just in a notional way, with our behaviour and societal structure as Rousseau argues, but by a long series of links that are, in fact, physical and observable.


Crucial to Darwin’s theory is, of course the idea that elements of the past are persistent. Certain favourable traits in a species are preserved from one generation to the next, throughout its history, and this influences the development and the changes that occur to this species. These changes cause a branching of the line the species, some of which will thrive, some of which will survive, and some of which will become extinct. Certain residual traits will remain in common even further down the branch. Thus, for Darwin, this “indelible stamp” is the evidence of a link to what came before.


This idea of Natural Selection did not come out of the blue, in competition as he was with another naturalist, Simpson, to put forward the idea, and it was also influenced by ideas from Thomas Malthus that populations adapt in a cycle to fit the environment they exist in. In this way we could also suggest that the idea itself evolved to an extent before its exposition by Darwin, with its roots in Rousseau himself.


Going further back still we can see that this idea of the past informing our present circumstances was not alien to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Second Discourse (1754) where he produces the notion that many human characteristics, and actually many problems in his contemporaneous society were a direct result of habits that had formed in earlier societies and were rooted in our own historical nature. The state of pity, for example, was an instinctive emotion, or part of our human nature, that would come before reflection in a human being. Counter-intuitively perhaps, Rousseau believes that this sense of pity has changed over the course of time to have a corruptive influence on human society.


This might differ from Darwin’s theory in some way, if we consider that Natural selection only chooses positive characteristics to prevail. However, this is not necessarily the case: rather, what survives is that which helps the group to survive, and we can easily imagine how pity would be essential to the survival of a small community of early humans.


Rousseau’s most famous soundbite, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” (The Social Contract) doesn’t refer to the literal lifetime of a man. He refers instead to the birth of mankind, and draws a line of reference from that early time to the present time, the cage he is found in. He also said:

Animals born free and abhorring captivity smash their heads against the bars of their prison.” (The Second Discourse)

The cage, or the chains, for Rousseau are, of course, modern society, and refers to the way in which the individual liberty of a person is restrained. It is also interesting in comparing these two quotes (even though they are made in separate contexts) to note that Rousseau, long before Darwin’s idea, is already conflating man and animal in a way.


So, by comparing Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s concept of pity, from its natural state to  its effect on modern society, to Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection we can see that the two figures have a great deal in common regarding the the importance they place on the persistent effects the past has upon the present. Even more than this I would argue that Rousseau’s ideas persisted to Darwin’s present and might have influenced the direction his ideas took, demonstrating quite neatly an evolution of the idea of evolution.



Darwin, C. R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray

Rousseau, J.J. 1755. A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, accessed at Project Guttenberg, date: 15/3/16

Rousseau, J.J. 1762. The Social Contract, accessed at Project Guttenberg, date: 14/3/16


About j.a.prufrock

Ex-journalist, lapsed writer, sometimes teacher, Francophile (not James Franco), candlestick-maker. After a lengthy sabbatical from all forms of writing, I've retaken to it in the form of blogging, at first. I keep two blogs, with my journalism (Assorted Bylines: http://assortedbylines.wordpress.com) separate from my creative writing (WritersWriteWords:https://writerswritewords.wordpress.com).
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