This book makes an important intervention in contemporary Nietzsche studies in the English-speaking world. The author has especially fresh insights to offer into On the Genealogy of Morality, and in my view his reading is superior in some key respects to recent readings of this text, of which of late there has been a veritable overkill. The fundamental claim of this book is that we will not properly understand Nietzsche until we understand the main polemical target of his philosophizing. This target, the author wants to demonstrate, is the evolutionary naturalism of Darwin: "Nietzsche's philosophy in his final years was premised on a fundamental anti-Darwinism" (203). To a large extent the book seeks to substantiate an insight that, to the best of my knowledge, was first highlighted by Deleuze in his classic study of 1962, Nietzsche et la philosophie. This is the extent to which Nietzsche exposes the reactive character of a great deal of modern science, be it in physics or biology.1
According to Paul S. Loeb, who provides the puff on the back cover, the balanced and careful examination the book offers of this crucial test case "results in a powerful critique of the prevalent [End Page 130] naturalistic approach to Nietzsche." In short, instead of trying to co-opt Nietzsche for fashionable projects, we need to respect the independence of his philosophical thinking. There is, however, an ambiguity at the heart of Johnson's book that is never satisfactorily resolved: Is the suggestion that Nietzsche is not at all a naturalist, or is it that he needs to be liberated from his entanglement with a fashionable Darwinism? Note that Loeb is careful to speak of the "prevalent naturalistic approach" to Nietzsche, not naturalistic approaches per se. I personally would want to insist on Nietzsche's naturalist credentials simply because it is one of the great traditions in emancipatory philosophy with a noble ancient lineage that was important to Nietzsche (Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, for example). To free ourselves from the fears of the mind and prejudices of morality we need this naturalism, and I would argue that Nietzsche draws heavily on naturalist resources throughout his writings for this end.
Johnson's book is divided into two main parts: In the first part he seeks to trace Nietzsche's move toward an anti-Darwin stance; provides a reading of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, especially the figure of the Übermensch; and tackles Nietzsche's "agonists." In the second part he offers a reading in three chapters of the three essays of GM. Johnson's main aim in this study is to show how a "full-blown critique" of Darwin emerges at the end of Nietzsche's intellectual career, especially after he had initially revealed close affinities with his ideas. He even goes so far as to claim that perhaps more than any other modern thinker it was Darwin that made Nietzsche's mature period (1886-88) possible, so allowing him to become who he was.
There are three main premises guiding the study. First, there is the claim that Nietzsche's engagement with Darwin was a constant one and "framed his philosophy from beginning to end" (3). The author readily acknowledges that Darwin barely appears in the published writings. Moreover, what of the fact that Nietzsche appears not to have read Darwin at all, neither The Origin of Species nor The Descent of Man (with its explicit genealogy of man's descent)? Johnson regards these objections as misguided for various reasons. He maintains that given the Zeitgeist it is not surprising that Nietzsche's thinking, from first (think of the early essay on Strauss) to last, should gravitate within a Darwinian orbit. Somewhat controversially, then, he maintains that Nietzsche understood Darwin and the implications of his theory—for example, the break with conventional understandings of morality and the complete secularization of the world—both early and well. Nietzsche, as we know, was well versed in the scientific concepts and developments of his day, largely gleaned from epic...