The main place amongst Russian antagonists to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and especially his conception of descent of man, belonged to Nikolaj Jakovlevich Danilevsky (1822-1885), the prominent Russian naturalist, economist, historian, philosopher, a head of the late Slavophils, and the author of the original conception of exclusive types of mankind cultures and natural laws of their development. His two-volume work Anti-Darwinism (1885,1889) directly split the biological community by giving rise to heated controversy between advocates of the evolutionary theory and its antagonists. Twenty years earlier, his book West and East (1869) predetermined, to a great extent, further development of the theory of “cultural-historical types” that had been, for the first time, formulated by the German historian Henrich Rukkert.
The work of Danilevsky, in the environment of pre-revolutionary Russia, supported the official religion and monarchy as the most suitable for the existing cultural-historical type of Russian ethnos, taking into consideration all forms of religious, political, social, economic, and cultural activities.
From Socialism to Rational Use of Natural Resources and Preservation of the Environment
Nikolaj Jakovlevich Danilevsky was born in November 28,1822, in his father’s village, Oberets, in Orlovskaya province. The beginning of his life was traditional for noble families of his time. In 1842, Danilevsky graduated from the privileged Tsarskoselsky Lyceum and was appointed to the Military Ministry Office. He could not be satisfied with a military career, though, and, at the same time, without having the formal status of student, he began to attend university, natural department of the physics and mathematics (1843-1847). Having achieved the status of candidate, Danilevsky successfully passed master exams in 1849, and prepared to defend his dissertation on flora of the Black Sea zone of the European part of Russia.
While studying at the university, Danilevsky began to visit Mikhail V. Petrashevsky, who organized Friday gatherings at his home, where participants were making close study of the works of French socialists and exploring the possibilities of revolution in Russia. Danilevsky was considered an expert on the works of Charles Furrier. In 1849, all the participants, including the well-known writer Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, were arrested, and the most active of them were sentenced to death, replaced at the last minute by imprisonment for life.
Danilevsky was arrested, too, and, after 100 days of imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress, sent to Vologda, where he had to live under surveillance of police, and where from May 1850 he worked for province administration. In 1852, he was sent to Samara and appointed to take part in the expedition to explore the conditions of fishery on Volga and Caspian Sea (1853-1857). The supervisor of the expedition was Karl E. Baer, the prominent zoologist, embryologist, geographer, and anthropologist.
Acquaintance with Baer was crucial for Danilevsky, who was assigned in 1857 to the Agricultural Department of the State Property Ministry. After that, for more than 20 years, Danilevsky supervised expeditions exploring fishery and seal trade on the White Sea, Black Sea, Azov, and Caspian Seas, and Arctic Ocean.
Thus, he examined almost all the waters of the European part of Russia and became the biggest expert on rational use of natural resources. Accumulated by Danilevsky, materials were published in the book Examination of Fishery Conditions in Russia (1872), later underlying Russian fishery law. Danilevsky headed the commission for working out the rules for use of running water in Crimea (1872-1879), Nikitsky Botanical gardens (1879-1880), and in 1880s was a member of the commission for combating grape plant louse (philloxera). As a member of Geographical Society, Danilevsky published in its papers quite a few articles devoted to climatology, geology, geography, and ethnography of Russia. He was awarded with a Big Golden Medal. However, in due course, his positivism was slowly growing into objective idealism and providentialism.
Anti-Darwinism and Divine Origin of Man
Danilevsky’s views on evolution were strongly influenced by his collaboration with Baer, who had already formulated, in the 1820s, a teleological conception of evolution under the influence of some inherent factor Zielstrebigkeit, and in 1873 criticized the theory of Darwin. In the1880s, Danilevsky himself joined the critics of Darwinism. He called his views “natural theology.” In his monumental work Darwinism: Critical Research (1885), more than 1,200 pages length, Danilevsky made an attempt to summarize all the arguments against Darwinism collected during 25 years of its existence. Unfortunately, he did not manage to redeem his promise to present his own arguments in the second volume of this work. His death in 1885 prevented Danilevsky from fulfilling his plan and giving the picture of evolution a unity of substance and spirit. The second volume, published after the death of the author (1889), presented only some preparatory work on the problem of the descent of man, which he explained as an act of supreme reason.
The criticism of Darwinism by Danilevsky was not essentially new; he merely summarized the points that already existed in literature: (a) the analogy between variability of wild and domestic animals is not correct, because the variability among domestic animals is much higher; (b) varieties could not be considered as new species, because varieties have quantitative and not qualitative distinctions; (c) variability among domestic animals never oversteps the limits of species; (d) Darwin exaggerates the role of artificial selection in the origin of new breeds; (e) struggle for existence is not so violent in the natural world and cannot produce new forms; (f) natural selection cannot accumulate useful changes, because of “blended inheritance”; (g) Darwin’s theory does not explain the appearance of useless or even harmful traits; and (h) there are no transition forms in pale-ontological chronicles.
To explain evolution, Danilevsky adopted Baer’s concept, Zielstrebigkeit; also, he attached religious meaning to this concept. He contended that there was intellectual reason behind the creation of the world; evolution is predetermined and conforming to the will of the Creator—while Darwinism is based on the belief in “blind chance.” Having replaced static expediency with dynamic expediency, Danilevsky proposed ontogenesis as a model of phylogenesis, using Baer’s research of ontogenesis, which implied that in processes outside of organisms and also inside an egg or womb, some forms develop into other forms and both supplement and substitute for each other.
The Theory of Historical-Cultural Types
In 1869, Danilevsky published in the journal Zarja his treatise of “Russia and Europe: A Look at the Cultural and Political Relations of the Slavic World to the Romano-German World,” which was republished many times as a separate book, making him a world-famed thinker, historian-philosopher, and culturologist. In this book, he disproved of the idea of existence of the commonality of all mankind/civilizations. He developed a conception of exclusive “cultural-historical types” of mankind, that is tribes and nations united by common language and culture, with their own civilization that could not be passed to another “type,” or borrowed from it. For Danilevsky, mankind was abstraction, and the nation was reality.
Danilevsky determined 4 categories of cultural-historical activities (religious, political, sociopolitical, and cultural) and 10 cultural-historical types (Egyptian, Chinese, Assiro-Babilonian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Slavic, Romano-German). He applied the biological idea of predetermined evolution of each type going through certain stages to his theory, assuming that each civilization had periods of youth, adultness, and old age; the last period would once and for all exhaust the cultural-historical type.
Danilevsky believed that the Slavic type was in youth period, in the making. In connection to this thinking, he considered the reforms of the Emperor Peter the Great as attempts to impose alien, European values on Russian culture; he stood for liberation from “paralyzing and inimical European influence.” For Danilevsky, supremacy of the common cultural type (Romano-German) meant degradation. That is why, he thought, unification of the Slavic world was more important than freedom, science, and education. To fulfill this plan, it was necessary to create a pan-Slavic union, with the capital in Constantinople, a historical center of Eastern Christianity, headed by an Orthodox Emperor who would guarantee the cultural balance and secure against Western aggression. Here pan-Slavism by Danilevsky develops into an apology for monarchism.
Although this theory was politically engaged, it was based on Karl Baer’s theory of four main types of animals and predetermined evolution within these types. It is not accidental that Danilevsky limited the terms of existence of these types and that their development looked like ontogenesis.
Danilevsky died on November 7,1889 in Caucasus, Tiflis (modern Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia), and was buried in his own estate, Mshanka, on the south coast of Crimea, directly opposite Constantinople.
The works of Danilevsky gave rise to lively discussions in Russian literature. Those philosophers who adhered to the position of teleology and idealism took the part of Danilevsky, one of them being Nikolaj N. Strakhov (1886, 1889). At the same time, he was criticized by Alexander S. Famintsin (1889) and Kliment A. Timirjazev (1887, 1889). The articles of these two leading biologists among supporters of evolutionary theory produced a strong impression on the scientific community and even convinced it that objections to Darwinism were, using the words of Nikolaj A. Kholodkovsky (1889), “absolutely groundless.” Later, however, one could find the ideas of Danilevsky in the theory of nomogenesis by Lev S. Berg (1922), historical biogenetics by Dmitrij N. Sobolev (1924), typostrophism by Otto Schindewolf (1936, 1950), works by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1965), and some other contemporary supporters of orthogenetic and saltationistic conceptions of evolution.
The book Russia and Europe also provoked heated controversy. It was spoken about enthusiastically by world-famed writer Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, who considered himself a student of Danilevsky, and philosophers-Slavophils Konstantin S. Aksakov and Konstantin N. Leontjev. The famous writer Leo N. Tolstoy was also sympathetic with this work. On the other hand, representatives of the “western wing,” historians and sociologists Nikolaj I. Kareev, Piotr N. Miljukov, and Nikolaj M. Mikhailovsky, criticized the book using sharp words. Nevertheless, the book became a prototype for subsequent conceptions of exclusive, cyclically developing cultural types: the two-volume edition of The Decline of Europe, by Oswald Spengler (1918-1922), and the 12-volume edition of A Study of History, by Arnold J. Toynbee (1934-1961). Nowadays, the influence of the book can be traced in the theory of the multipolar world and antiglobalism.
It is worth emphasizing that biological ideas about the existence of certain stages in the development of civilizations were later used to give proof to different philogerontical theories and explain that any taxon passes the same stages of youth, adultness, old age, and death, as an individual. Interestingly, there was a visible correlation between the increasing popularity of these theories in biology and philosophy and the crises of the 20th century, such as wars, revolutions, and economic disaster.
- Danilevsky, N. (1995). Russia and Europe. St. Petersburg, Russia: Glagol.
- Toynbee, A. J. (1935-1961). A study of history (12 vols.). London: Oxford University Press.