Social Darwinism: Naturalist Approach or Fallacy?

Each organic being is striving to increase a geometric ratioâÂ?¦each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destructionâÂ?¦The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply. – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The emergence of evolutionary theory in the early nineteenth century quaked political and societal realms. Today, the aftershocks continue as terms such as “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” are both applied and exploited. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s Origin of Species (1859) became a seminal work in Western history, launching many biologists and social scientists on a quest to explain human behavior through natural selection. In adapting natural selection to social behavior, it is the best groups, or the most superior groups, that are more likely to survive in society than others. Herbert Spencer originated this school of thought, often coined social Darwinism, but misguided are those who believe Spencer derived his evolutionary ethics from Darwin, for Spencer published his ideas on the evolutionary origins of the inequality of classes eight years before Darwin’s Origins. (2) Hence, what we have labeled social Darwinism may more accurately be described as social Spencerism. (3)

As natural phenomena such as cooperation, competition, and survival of the fittest shape the well-adapted organisms of our world, so too held Spencer, is the social world organized in a similar way – colonialism, imperialism, laissez-faire economics, stratified class systems. Just as natural selection weeds out those destined to survive from those who are not, human society progresses through competition. If the weak receive too much protection, humanity loses; the wealthiest and the most powerful – those who ought to survive – will perish. In his First Principles, Spencer wrote, “We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time, there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong,” that “fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of the good, is an extreme cruelty.”(4) Nonetheless, while the individual may suffer, mankind as a whole proceeds doggedly towards a higher goal.(5)

History, according to American Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner, is a story of struggle: “Men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others.” (6) Evolution, therefore, not only facilitates the best-fit species to live longer and more comfortable lives, but secures the rearing of their offspring. Accordingly, the human mission is to nourish those values by cooperating with one another.(7) While predators prevent the multiplication of superior samples, society excretes those members who lack worth.(8)

For many a politician, social Darwinism was, and remains to be, a useful tool, abhorring any convenient interference with social evolution. In this view, “the regulation of business, proposals for graduated income tax, sanitation and housing regulations, and even protection against medical quacks,” all work against the natural selection process.(9) Furthermore, accumulated wealth is the best evidence of evolutionary fitness. “The accumulation and use of capital [is],” Sumner stated, “of supreme importance and those who control it [are] maters of society.” (10)) The millionaires are a product of natural selection – completing the work they need, they are elected to be wealthy.(11)

Politicians were never alone in jumping the bandwagon of evolutionary ethics; industrialists, entrepreneurs, and anyone who benefited from the free market also agreed with such views in the early twentieth century. Social Darwinists believe that because nature did not provide enough for all meant to survive, men compete for nature’s limited resources; wherever natural resources are in abundance, free societies flourish; wherever resources are lacking, societies are bogged in slavery and other forms of oppression.(12)

The question that arises, however, is how Darwinist is social Darwinism? Some, like J.Y. Peal believe Darwin’s theory is much more modest then Spencer’s: “Darwin’s theory accounted for the nuclear transformation of each species by the mechanism of natural selection, while Spencer’s attempted to explain the total configuration of nature, physical, organic and social, as well as its necessary processes.”(13) This type of naturalism is generally seen as pessimistic determinism as individuals are incapable of shaping their own destinies; biology and social forces perform that role for us. In other words, the confined and predestined idea of social Darwinism suits John Calvin exceptionally well.

The emergence of sociobiology in the 1970s once again attempted to explain social behavior through both evolutionary and genetic heritage; increasingly people began to believe they were governed by heredity. In Edward O. Wilson’s view, human cultural traits such as religion, ethics, tribalism, cooperation and competition, can all be explained in evolutionary terms, resonating an idea Spencer broached long before.(14) As more geneticists probed DNA and its heritage, many began viewing our evolutionary success, or the lack thereof, in terms of genes and their survival or disappearance. Likewise, according to present day Darwinists, many of our societal problems emerge as a conflict between our genetic heritage and our current environment, paralleling the notion that the best fit (in this case genetically) will survive and reproduce. Still it is undeniable that genetic self-interest lies at the heart of any conceivable manifestations of altruism.(15)

What social Darwinism and sociobiology have fostered in this age is social-evolutionary thought whereby all our actions are atavistic. In order to understand our behavior, modern Darwinists and social Darwinists believe we must first look at human behavior as an adaptation to a very different environment. As Helena Cronin, co-editor of the Demos Report, remarks, “The clue to understanding our behavior is to understand the rules that natural selection has laid down in our brains.”(16) For example, natural selection allowed us to have a greater propensity for salts, sugars, fats – food items that were at once scarce. Today, in an environment of abundance, those same genetic preferences give rise to chronic diet-related illnesses such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.(17)

While one may scoff at these modern social Darwinists, perspicuous it is that from criminology to education to welfare policy, the tendencies to see social issues in genetic terms is growing. Barbara Decker Pierce writes, “Much of human behavior, including social behavior, is the outcome of interplay between perceived environment cues and innate psychological mechanisms.”(18) While we may not be directly inquiring on stating that the rich should prosper and the rest see their demise, we are asking questions such as what is it about a person’s make-up that gives him a greater propensity to steal or murder? Are some people predestined to be homosexual? Is anger inherited through genes alone?

The idea of limits to human activity has led people to question how far we can “engineer” social solutions through altering genes. The Human Genome Project has become another subject of media hyperbole, public censure, and paradoxically, even enthusiasm. The real question, though, is weather this radical thinking will lead to greater change in our environment and more specifically, how we live our lives. Could the future bring Moore’s Utopia or Orwell’s 1984? Are we to interfere with what is supposedly the natural selection process? Or perhaps, if traits such as aggressiveness and theft and murder are passed on genetically, those people should survive? Could they indeed be the fittest? And is t then the rest of us, those who lack such traits, who are unfit? Is technology causing us to scrutinize a process that is merely natural or has our brain evolved to delve into such matters?

Social Darwinism, no mater which century, does not go unchallenged. Civil servant Lester Frank exposed a part of evolution Spencer and others neglected – the human brain. Humans, unlike animals, have a mind that could plan for and shape the future; they are not helpless to puissant evolutionary forces, for our humanity, a concept null and void in animals, can actively shape the process of evolution.(19) Thomas Henry Huxley, a strong advocate of Darwin, also responded to Spencer’s ideas with animadversion, believing the struggle in nature held no ethical implications in the struggle for competition among humans; there was a vast difference between the “cosmic process” of evolution and the social process of ethical development.(20)

As for modern pundits, John Cartwright contends the social Darwinist confuses the consequence of selection with the value of natural processes, saying “If fierce unbridled competition got us to our present state, there is no obvious reason why it should still serve our ends.”(21) In the end, it seems social Darwinists have been accused of everything from “smuggling teleology through the back door” and creating “naturalistic fallacy” to annihilating free will and engendering eugenics.(22)

Additionally, Robert Wright thinks that if Spencer’s theory viewed evolution’s direction as a “source of guidance,” modeling how humans should behave, evolution’s exact end should be determined first.(23)

The greater question is whether evolution can really lead anywhere and whether control over it is within our grasp. If we are to apply natural selection to our society, we must remember that natural selection does not make an individual better in an absolute way; it merely rewards reproductive success. We must remember that natural selection is exactly that – natural – and perhaps its actions should be neither questioned nor mutated, only observed and accepted. Conversely, if the social Darwinist is right, if our society and its composition is in a constant state of competition, are we able to accept that the “drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, [that] nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets off her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line”?(24) Are we comfortable simply stepping over the bum in the street because his place facilitates our survival? And if we are, does that mean there is no evolution for our humanity?

Notes and Works Cited

1) Darwin, Charles, quoted in John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1992), 444.
2) Malik, Kenan, “The Beagle Sails Back into Fashion: Renewed Interest in Social Darwinism,” The New Statesman, December 6, 1996, 1.
3) Cartwright, John, Evolution and Human Behavior (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 391.
4) Leatherdale William, “The InfluenceÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½of Darwin on English Literature and Literary Ideas,” The Wilder Domain of Evolutionary Thought, eds. David Oldroyd and Ian Langham (Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1993) 1-26.
5) Spencer, Herbert, quoated in Barlett, 492.
6) Sumner, William Graham, Social Darwinism (Englewood Cligfs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 114.
7) Wright, The Moral Animal (New York: Random House, 1994), 330.
8) Malik, 1.
9) Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi, America (New York, Norton: 1993), 544.
10) Sumner, 4.
11) Sumner, 157.
12) Sumner, 3.
13) Humes, Walter, “Evolution and Educational Theory in the Nineteenth Century,” The Wider Domain of Evolutionary Thoughts, eds. David Oldroyd and Ian Langham (Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983), 30.
14) Malik, 1.
15) Cartwright, 328.
16) Malik, 1.
17) Malik, 1.
18) Pierce, Barbara Decker, “The Evolution of Social Structure: Why Biology Matters,” The Academy of Management Review, 1.
19) Kagan, Donald, The Western Heritage: Volume II, Since 1648 (New York: MacMillion Publishing Company, 1991), 890-892.
20) TIndall, 545.
21) Wright, 329-330.
22) Cartwright, 328.
23) Writght, 330.
24) Wright, 22.
25) Cartwright, 328.
26) Sumner, 122.

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