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8-10-2015, 21:17

The Challenge of Evolutionary Biology

Otto Seeck (1850-1921), a pupil of Mommsen, tried to offer a new explanation for the fall of Rome. His six-volume Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt, stands out in particular for its close adherence to the sources, its impressive wealth of detail, and its superior control of the subject matter. Seeck aspired to make it more than just a summary of what had happened: he aimed to introduce the reader to ‘‘the laws governing historical processes of formation and decline’’ (Seeck 1897-1920, i: preface). The thematically oriented chapters of the first few volumes were especially devoted to that objective: Seeck constructed an impressive scenario of decline that culminated in ‘‘the elimination of the best’’ (‘‘die Ausrottung der Besten’’: i. 269-307). The notion of ‘‘Ausrottung’’ referred to a series of negative choices, the beginning of which Seeck dated back to the time of the Gracchi. The ancient world, he argued, need not have come to an end. The collapse occurred only when, because of failures internal to Rome, the most industrious people had become a small minority, and when, because of the laws of heredity, ‘‘inherited cowardice’’ and ‘‘moral weakening’’ had emerged as dominant characteristics of society.

Seeck’s ideas were shaped by the evolutionary biology of the nineteenth century. Today, these theories may seem strange, occasionally even repulsive, but they are representative of the period. An entire generation of scholars tried to transfer the discoveries made by the natural sciences - more precisely, the theory of heredity - to the cultural evolution of mankind. Evolutionary biology turned into a paradigm of historical discovery. If individual humans could be seen as belonging to a more general chain of being, scholars were suddenly able to ask how important a role evolution and selection played in society. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Darwin’s theory of the descent of man was equally popular among left-wing politicians, liberal intellectuals, and conservative philosophers. The theory of the heredity of acquired characteristics brilliantly justified the middle-class ideology of achievement. A number of different, partly contradictory, theories were published, now usually classified as ‘‘social Darwinism.’’ These theories were combined with eugenic considerations, scientific reflections on population, racial deliberations, and ideas about social hygiene. Seeck’s Geschichte can be understood only if one keeps this in mind. He combined and adapted individual pieces ofresearch he came across in biology and related sciences and transferred them to the history of Late Antiquity. His account combines biological theory with a detailed event-oriented history based on a meticulous critical assessment of the sources (Rebenich 2000b).

Seeck’s Geschichte, reprinted several times in quick succession - which indicates wide appreciation by a large audience - remained, however, the work of an outsider. His main thesis, ‘‘die Ausrottung der Besten,’’ met with disapproval among scholars. They only praised his adherence to the sources in describing political history. Most historians of antiquity in Germany, and also in other European countries, continued to make use of the concept of ‘‘decline’’ when interpreting Late Antiquity; but they thought of this decline as a complex process of political, social, and religious disintegration that had already started in the time of the empire itself, or even in the time of the republic. The process was often described in terms of denationalization, proletarianization, and orientalization. Many thought that the hostility of the Christians toward the state had been one of the causes of the crisis. Not only the Germanic peoples, but also the Catholic Church were regarded as the legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire. In an essay from 1885, for example, Harnack emphasized that ‘‘it [the Church] is indeed nothing else than the universal Roman Empire itself, but in the most wonderful and beneficent metamorphosis, built upon the Gospel as a kingdom of Jesus Christ: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus triumphat’’ (Harnack 1906: 233).