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John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin: Philosophers Comparison Essay

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Updated: May 29th, 2020


John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin can be regarded as the thinkers that shaped the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. To a great extent, they profoundly influenced people’s views on the origins of life, the transformation of society and the behavior of an individual within the community. This paper is aimed at discussing Mill’s work On Liberty and Darwin’s book On the Origins of Species. In particular, it is necessary to discuss the degree to which the ideas of these scholars are consistent with cultural and intellectual trends that emerged in the nineteenth century, for instance, positivism, Marxism, and existentialism.

Furthermore, it is vital to show whether one of these thinkers proved to be more farsighted. These are the main questions that should be examined. On the whole, it is possible to say that these works reflect the principles of positivism; moreover, they profoundly changed many areas of study, for example, biology, political science, or even psychology. Mill and Darwin are equally important for the development of modern science and philosophy; however, they have often been misapplied and misinterpreted by other people. These are the main arguments that can be put forward.

The relation of Darwin’s and Mill’s works to cultural and intellectual trends

It is possible to say there is a common theme that these thinkers explore. In this case, one should focus on the process of transformation. Charles Darwin (2003) examines the changes that living organisms undergone in order to adjust to natural environment. In particular, this scientist attempts to show that species acquired certain physical or behavioral characteristics during many hereditary modifications that were necessary for adapting to the environment (Darwin, 2003, p. 97). In his turn, Mill focuses on the transformation or evolution of human societies in the course of history. In particular, he argues that some of the societies became sufficiently advanced in order to limit the authority of rulers (Mill, 2010, p. 5).

Moreover, such people believe that they are competent enough to control of their own lives. Such individuals do not have to be “protected against their own will” (Mill, 2010, p. 6). Furthermore, despite their differences various societies tend to gravitate toward the democratic form of government. However, there are several important distinctions that should be considered. In particular, Darwin describes the evolution of species as a form of adaption to various external forces. However, he does not say that this process is inherently good or bad. In contrast, Mill believes that the transformation of societies can be compared to progress or improvement. These are the main details that should be taken into consideration. So, it is important to demonstrate the relation of their works to other intellectual and cultural trends.

The nineteenth century was marked by the efforts to develop the theory of knowledge which can help philosophers and scientists to evaluate the validity of information. For example, it is possible to speak about positivism according to which empirical observation could be the only sources of knowledge (Comte, 1998, p. 28). These idea has been advocated by such thinkers as August Comte who believed that speculative claims had to be verified (Comte, 1998, p. 39).

Provided that this task is not done properly, such assumptions cannot be viewed as valid. This intellectual trend downplays the role of religion because it lies outside the realm of empirical observation and reason. To a great extent, Darwin’s book exemplifies the use of positivist principle. This author supports his arguments with various examples which demonstrate how different species evolve in the course of natural selection process. For instance, he examines physical and behavioral traits of various birds or animals (Darwin, 2003, p. 9). This is one of the main details that can be identified.

Furthermore, this author does not refer to religion as a method of explaining the hereditary transformation of species. Certainly, one should keep in mind that Darwin does make speculative claims that cannot be falsified. The author admits that in some cases, he lacks evidence that can fully demonstrate the validity of evolutionary. This is why he acknowledges that his ideas may not be true (Darwin, 2003, p. 373). So, On the Origins of Species is quite consistent with the principles of positivism which forms the basis of intellectual thought in the nineteenth century.

In contrast, John Stuart Mill does not try to substantiate his claims with the help of empirical observations. In the first two chapters of his book, he describes the confrontation between the state and an individual (Mill, 2010). He describes this process as the ‘struggle between authority and liberty’ (Mill, 2010, p. 5). Moreover, he constructs a speculative model which can minimize the risk of totalitarian oppression against individual citizens. Yet, he does not say that his arguments lack empirical evidence. This is one of the differences between these thinkers. Yet, it is critical to remember that like Darwin, Mill does not believe that religion should affect the work of government (Mill, 2010, p. 133).

In his opinion, separate individuals do not require religion in order to design a government that can efficiently protect their interests. There is another principle of positivism affects Mill’s work. For instance, this thinker is firmly convinced that separate individuals are able to take rational and impartial decisions. To some degree, these examples indicate that in the nineteenth century, various philosophers adopted the legacy of the Enlightenment, especially the belief in reason or rationality. This is one of the main details that can be distinguished.

Additionally, it is critical to examine the works from the perspective of communism which also became very influential in the nineteenth century. In particular, one should pay attention to such a book as Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (2012). These philosophers believe the history of humankind can be described as the struggle between social classes that have conflicting and irreconcilable interests (Marx & Engels 2012, p. 46). In particular, one can speak about workers and people, who owned the means of production, or bourgeoisie (Marx & Engels 2012, p. 40). It should be noted that Marx and Engels use the concept of natural selection as a scientific basis for their class theory (Harris, 2001, p. 223).

They concentrate on the notion of competition between and within species. In Communist Manifesto, this notion of competition is transformed into class struggle which shapes the course of history (Harris, 2001, p. 223). Additionally, social evolution must result in the eventual victory of proletariat. This case shows how Darwinian legacy can be misused by intellectuals. The main problem is that Darwin did not want the principles of evolutionary science to be applied to social development and politics because the actions of human beings are much more complex than the behavior of other species. Moreover, it is not permissible to use biological concepts to the questions related to social justice and ethics. This is one of the aspects that can be singled out.

Similarly, the ideas of John Stuart Mill are also not consistent with communist ideology because this philosopher does not believe that social transformation is driven only by conflicts (Mill, 2010). In his view, struggle is primarily related to the confrontation between an individual and the state. In addition to that, he believes that different groups can reach a compromise and find a solution that can benefit both sides. Thus, one can argue the works of Mills and Darwin are not fully compatible with Marxism. Nevertheless, Marxists often use the idea of these thinkers in order to justify their arguments.

Apart from that, in the nineteenth century, many thinkers, scientists, and writers focused on the experiences of an individual and his attempts to adjust to the community. For example, such advocates of existentialist philosophy as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Dostoevsky believed that the unhappiness of an individual could be explained primarily by his/her inability to fit into society (Tannenbaum 2011). From this perspective, a person is bound to feel frustration, if he/she does not experience the sense of belonging to a larger group. From Mill’s viewpoint, this phenomenon can be attributed to the failure of the community to secure the liberty of individual citizens.

In turn, in his work, Darwin’s work does not account for the differences in individual behavior. On the Origins of Species is only suitable to describing the qualities of the entire species, but not separate representatives of this species. Overall, it is possible to say that in some cases, Darwin’s and Mill’s works reflect some of intellectual and cultural trends that emerged in the nineteenth century, especially positivism. However, they cannot be used to elaborate communist or existentialist rhetoric because such use can significantly distort the ideas that Mills and Darwin express in their books. This is one of the key points that can be made.


It is rather difficult to argue that one of these thinkers proved to be more or less farsighted. Such a comparison can lead to the misinterpretation of the works discussed in this paper. Overall, each of these thinkers made a significant contribution to contemporary science and philosophy. The most important issue is that their ideas can sometimes be misused or misinterpreted. For example, Charles Darwin’s views play an important role in biology, physiology and psychology. For example, his ideas can be used for explaining the behavior of males and females. Moreover, many aspects of his theory were verified only with the help of DNA tests. To a great extent, they transformed the way in which scientists explain the origins of life.

Moreover, he was far ahead of his time. When On the Origins of Species was published, this book was perceived with outrage and skepticism. Yet, nowadays, modern natural scientists regard it as a classical work. Certainly, this book is evaluated more critically by modern researchers, but Darwinian concept of evolution still retains its validity. However, it is vital to remember that Darwin’s ideas could often be misused. In particular, one can mention such an ideology as Social Darwinism according to which the principles of natural selection are applicable to the interaction human beings and nations (Radick, 2009, p. 219).

For example, this ideology implies that people must compete with one another as biological species (Radick, 2009, p. 2190). Later, this theory was used to justify the belief that some races could be superior to others. This case shows how Darwin’s work could be misinterpreted because Darwin did not apply such notions as superiority and inferiority. This is one of the details that should be considered by the readers of Darwin’s books.

Similarly, one can say that John Stuart Mill shaped such areas of philosophy as ethics and political science. There are several examples that can be used to elaborate this argument. First, this philosopher was able to predict such a risk as “the tyranny of the majority” (Mill, 2010, p. 7). This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about the discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, sexuality, or ethnic origin. In many cases, this discrimination takes its origins in populist ideology according to which the will of the majority should be the main priority for policy-makers.

It should be noted that in the course of history, many people were persecuted or marginalized only because they were not a part of the majority. This is one of the main pitfalls that should be avoided. Therefore, Mill could foresee the risks that fully manifested themselves only in the twentieth century. Moreover, in his treatise, this author identifies the necessity to protect the rights of minorities. In particular, he speaks about the main freedoms which must be guaranteed to every individual. For example, one can mention the freedom to unite or the right to express one’s opinion (Mill, 2010, p. 11).

To a great extent, these ideas shaped the legislation of many countries, especially after World War II, when it became apparent that the authority of the state had to be limited; otherwise it could turn into a dangerous machine of oppression. So, Mill’s legacies should not be disregarded. On the whole, one can argue that the contributions of these thinkers are related to different areas, but they are equally significant. These thinkers changed people’s conceptions of society, individual, and living organisms, in general. These are the major contributions of Darwin and Mill.


This discussion shows that the works of John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin have profound implications for many areas of study. To a great extent, they reflect the principles of positivism, according to which scientists and philosophers should search for empirical confirmation of their claims. Overall, these books can be helpful for explaining the behavior of various biological species, including human beings. For example, Darwin’s ideas can be applied to biology or evolutionary psychology. On the Origins of Species significantly contributed to the development of natural science. In turn, Mill’s views shape the work of legislators and policy-makers. The treatise On Liberty is useful for creating a system of checks and balances that limit the authority of the state. These works can be viewed as important landmarks in the history of ideas. More importantly, they continue to affect the work of contemporary intellectuals who may represent different areas of study.

Reference List

Comte, A. (1998). Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings. Boston, MA: Transaction Publishers.

Darwin, C. (2003). On the Origin of Species. New York, NY: Broadview Press.

Harris, M. (2001). The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Bostom, MA: Rowman Altamira.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2012). The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. New York, NY: Verso Books.

Mill, J. (2010). On Liberty and Other Essays. New York, NY: Digireads.com Publishing.

Radick, G. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tannenbaum, D. (2011). Inventors of Ideas: Introduction to Western Political Philosophy, 3rd ed.: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

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