Charles Darwin, Rudolf Steiner, and a detail of the first Goetheanum building

Thinking of the Heart as an Organ for Perception of Development and Metamorphosis

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as well as the bicentennial of his birth.  In recognition of Darwin’s contributions, the theme of evolution is being discussed around the world.  From an anthroposophical perspective, we may associate Darwinism with a brutal “struggle for existence” and a materialistic worldview.  But insight into natural evolution was one of three elements Rudolf Steiner referred to as necessary for the emergence of a modern spiritual science (see notes made for Edouard Schuré, September 1907, in what is called the Barr Document [GA 262, Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner-von Sivers:  Correspondence and Documents 1901-1925]).

During his lecture of October 1, 1913, Rudolf Steiner speaks of “a deeper understanding of Christianity that can actually be found in Darwinism,” saying that “right into our own time, Darwinist impulses have been born out of the Christ impulse.” (GA 148,  From the Akashic Research: The Fifth Gospel)  Thus we would like to take this anniversary as an occasion for a deepened engagement with the theme of evolutionary development so that the different—often-controversial—thoughts on this subject living in our modern culture can be supplemented from an anthroposophical perspective.

There is probably no topic in anthroposophy that does not involve evolutionary development in one form or another—the development of the free human being; the mighty descriptions of the evolution of humanity and the earth; even Rudolf Steiner’s last great work, the establishment of the School for Spiritual Science.  Ultimately, it is always a matter of evolutionary development and self-development—one cannot be achieved without the other!

It is worth noting here that the modern idea of evolutionary development was first set forth in the late 18th century by  Johann Gottfried Herder and  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe among others.  Earlier, the word “evolution” had always been understood in its original sense as the “unfolding” of something already present and predetermined.  Its new meaning indicated a striving to change, to achieve something new, something not yet in existence.  It is this revised concept of evolutionary development that Charles Darwin took up when he sought to understand the origin of new species in the course of the earth’s history.  Understood in this way, the idea of evolution is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the Christian era.

In recent years, our annual themes have been connected with the question of heart thinking.  If we now turn our attention to the way we observe and think about evolution or metamorphosis, there is a discovery to be made.  Rudolf Steiner’s lecture of March 30, 1910 [GA 119,  Macrocosm and Microcosm] provides a description of  heart thinking that is relevant to this process: Thinking about evolution requires more than a merely logical “if-then” formula; it involves a creative, dimensional co-participation that leads to insight about context.  This can easily be experienced by observing the sequence of a plant’s leaves, for example.  It is in this sense that we want to connect the theme for this year with the larger motif of our earlier work.

Two additional issues can be identified.  Evolution, broadly considered, implies that everything is capable of change.  We know that Rudolf Steiner even writes in regard to the evolution of spiritual beings: Nothing remains as it was!  However, we can speak of the evolution of something only when an element of it remains constant, identical with itself.  How else could what has been transformed be recognized in its new evolutionary stage?  For example, how could we speak about the seeds of humanity on Old Saturn?  Rudolf Steiner addresses various aspects of the question in his lectures of June 17, 1909 [GA 107, Spiritual-Scientific Knowledge of the Human Being] and September 15, 1918 [GA 184, The Polarity of Permanence and Development in Human Life].

Another completely different aspect emerges if we ask where Darwin found his concept of the struggle for existence.   Darwin himself reports how his thinking was prompted by the economist Thomas Robert Malthus who had sketched out something similar for the capitalist British industrial society of the early 19th century.  Hence the idea of selection was not at all derived from nature but from societal and social circumstances, from human behavior!  During the 20th century this was reversed and became the social Darwinism used to justify the worst sort of human crimes; it seemed only natural that what was stronger would prevail—indeed, that it inevitably had to prevail.  We can also find a connection between social science and natural science in Rudolf Steiner’s work, but along a different route: The capacity for ideas learned and practiced in natural science can lead to fruitful ideas about social forms.  This thought, for example, is a fundamental element of  The Boundaries of Natural Science, the inaugural lecture cycle held in the First Goetheanum (GA 322).

Thus we are explicitly highlighting a motif connected to the idea of evolution found throughout all of anthroposophy.  The future of evolution depends on how human beings shape it in freedom!  This is a thought worthy of finding its way into the culture of the present time.

Translated by Marguerite and Douglas Miller


Recommended reading in addition to the lectures cited:

Rudolf Steiner:  An Outline of Esoteric Science [GA 13], especially chapters 4 and 5. { Study Companion} {PDF available in the  SteinerBooks Research Archive}

Rudolf Steiner:  Inner Experiences of Evolution [GA132]

Another possibility is to consider the characters in Rudolf Steiner’s Mystery Dramas from the standpoint of evolution.

Last but not least, the extensive body of Goethean scientific literature on this theme is recommended.