The traditional Western legal idea that human laws are subject to higher or natural laws began to be more deeply challenged when jurists and intellectuals perceived Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution as somehow endorsing a materialistic worldview in which law becomes a mere product of human will and/or social struggle. This is why Darwinism may be considered to be one of the major forces leading to the discrediting of natural law theory, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This article aims to analyse the wide-ranging impact of Darwinian evolution on Western conceptions of law.

How one defines law depends greatly on what one believes. The definition of law varies from culture to culture, religion to religion, and from philosophy to philosophy. It is important therefore to consider how different worldviews affect the way people think about law. Darwin’s theory of evolution is said to have generated a materialistic worldview that has had a significant impact on Western conceptions of law. Under the direct influence of Darwinism a profound transformation of legal studies took place in the nineteenth century. It is the main purpose of this article to reveal some of the philosophical implications of Darwinism and to explore how this particular worldview affected the general perception of law in Western societies. In so doing, this article focuses on legal theory and cultural conceptions of law, rather than on specific laws and rules.

Darwinism as worldview

The idea of evolution is often associated with the English biologist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), particularly his work On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859. Darwin was an English naturalist who believed that the world is not constant or recently created, but rather very old and changing steadily so that all organisms are transformed in time. Thus he assumed that every organism descends from a common ancestor and that humans are highly evolved animals.

Following the publication of On the Origin of Species, many intellectuals evolved, and free-thinkers raised the argument that evolution disproved God’s existence on the basis that, as E.O. Wilson puts it, “if humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species.”1 The consequences were twofold: the challenge to the notion of nature as a divine creation and the undermining of the confidence in the presumption of objective moral standards common to mankind as a whole. This so being, Francisco Ayala of the University of California comments that “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment was to discover that all living beings can be explained as a result of a natural process—natural selection—without resorting to a Creator.”2….

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