When Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, he couldn’t have predicted the Pandora’s box that his research would open. Suddenly, the knowledge that populations have come to evolve through the process of natural selection was finding supporters of various stripes, each eager to further their own interests and confirm their deeply entrenched biases.
Social Darwinism, which had no connection whatsoever to Darwin himself, promoted the idea of survival of the fittest, a dark and disheartening view of humanity, as trapped in constant competition for scarce resources, always fending for itself. A century later, this eat or be eaten mentality is what still justifies and emboldens unchecked greed, violence and self-gratification, above all else.
And there’s an even darker consequence to Darwin’s theory. Supporters of biological determinism, eugenics and Nazism embraced the assumption that certain races/genes were superior and took it upon themselves to make sure humanity reached its full potential, by annihilating the weak, the unfit and those who they deemed as inferior. As much as we’d like to think of it as a folly of the past, this idea continues to find fans today, even in some of the most educated minds.
Almost two decades after having fought in World War I and lived through its horrors, Austrian artist Leo Katz revisited the catastrophic event in a lithograph that abounds with violence and sheds light on the consequences of adopting a social Darwinist view. In Is This the Meaning of Life?, men, animals and beasts are interlocked in a gruesome battle, each fighting for survival.
As Katz describes it: “This was the result of many years of studies of animals, some prehistoric, some real and some monsters created by imagination. Each one is trying to destroy another one. The chaos of destruction is somewhat held together by the light streak that goes in a diagonal direction.”
Various body parts – heads, tails, paws – fill the space like a puzzle, allowing no place for order or reason. To the left, an ape has picked up its full, torn leg and threatens to hit a man with it, similarly to how one might use a club. The same man is thrusting a spear through the ape’s shoulder, revealing violence as a zero sum game. There is biting, tearing, stabbing and choking, an overwhelming brutality that shows the absurdity of war.
By then, Katz had been living in the United States for 16 years, and perhaps he was hopeful that the calamity of World War I wouldn’t repeat itself. However, with the surge in populism across Europe, there were already signs for an encore. The artist urged for a change in mentality, a plea that rings as compellingly today, as it did in 1937:
“A new era has come only if enough people will stop calling such a chaos of destruction natural and when enough people will refuse to accept the primitive jungle codes of ‘eat or be eaten’ as the will of God, or the passion for a savage fighting, as human nature. There the question: ‘Is this the Meaning of Life?’”