| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
“”The inappropriately named 'social Darwinism' is more accurately a 'social competitivism', which establishes competition as the general norm of individual and collective existence, of national and international life alike. [...] This ideology of competition renewed the dogmatism of laissez-faire, with significant political consequences in the United States, which challenged a number of laws protecting wage-earners.
|— Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval|
Social Darwinism is a philosophy[note 1] based on flawed readings of Charles Darwin's biology text On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). The philosophy came into existence towards the end of the 19th century, though one can trace its origins all the way back to the ideas of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).
Social Darwinists took the biological ideas of Charles Darwin (often mixing them with the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and of Malthus) and attempted to apply them to the social sciences. They became especially interested in applying the idea of "the survival of the fittest" (their words, not Darwin's) in a social context, as this would excuse existing applications of racism, colonialism, and unfettered capitalism (for them, at least). Social Darwinism also became a tool to argue that governments should not interfere in human competition (as it existed at the time) in any way; and that the government should take no interest in, for example, regulating the economy, reducing poverty or introducing socialized medicine. In other words, have a laissez-faire policy.
Mid-19th to early 20th centuries
The term "Social Darwinism" originated in Great Britain with the work of Herbert Spencer, who used the phrase "survival of the fittest" in 1864. However his work found more fertile ground in the US where it was taken up by William Graham Sumner who was accused of advocating a "dog-eat-dog" philosophy. This set of ideas was also influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus, who had argued that war was a check on population growth and that welfare promoted population growth among the poor and thus drove down wages. Indeed, what is often called "Social Darwinism" might be more accurately called "Social Malthusianism", since Malthus explicitly promoted policies which one can construe as social Darwinism. The influence of Malthus could be seen in Victorian-era workhouses; reforming (in actuality virtually eliminating) the Poor Laws; and in a general upper-class contempt for the lower classes for their demands of charity. This trend also built on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, one of the strongest ideologies of the British middle-class, which promoted the view that workers chose the poor life and that workhouses would encourage those who wanted to succeed to do so. Darwin himself feared his theory would be used for this purpose.
At the same time, the "struggle school" of Social Darwinism was developing. In this view, nations grew and expanded as a result of conflicts with their neighbors. For many, this justified overseas expansion by powerful nations at the expense of the weak and necessitated the development of strong military forces.
At more or less the same time, the movement of "Reform Darwinism" originated. This variant emphasized the need for change and adaption in human society to meet new conditions. For example, Reform Darwinists argued that the Constitution of the United States should be reinterpreted to meet changing conditions in the US. However some reformers felt that they could use the principles of (Social) Darwinism to justify imperialist, classist, racist, and sexist opinions (because this was the 19th century, after all). And at the extreme of these views was eugenics, originally developed by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. Certain eugenicists advocated state policies such as forced sterilization of the "unfit" (by their standards, of course).
Fortunately, most of Social Darwinism’s appeal left it in the early-to-middle part of the 20th century. There were a number of reasons for this including:
- It was seen as contributing to German militarism and Nazism.
- Humanity came to be seen as socially more aware than other animals.
- Revulsion at Hitler’s attempt to build a "master race" removed support for eugenics.
Problems with the term
The term "Social Darwinism" itself has been largely used as an epithet, especially after World War II, and was popularized greatly by the historian Richard Hofstadter, namely by his Social Darwinism in American Thought. Revisionists have argued that Hofstadter's work has caused the term "Social Darwinism" to become wrongly associated with only laissez-faire ideology and wrongly invoked as a synonym for eugenics. Hofstadter himself delineated two forms of "Social Darwinism" — "laissez-faire Darwinism" and "collectivist Darwinism." The former might be represented by the likes of Spencer and Galton while the latter by Nazi biologists influenced by figures such as Ernst Haeckel. However, even this delineation still lumps opposing strains of thought together in some ways. For example, Spencer was also heavily influenced by Lamarckian conceptions of evolution while Galton was staunchly opposed to Lamarck.
The left has also embraced views that may be called forms of "Social Darwinism". Eugenics, for example, found wide support among Progressive Era figures and presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Pyotr Kropotkin, a founding thinker of anarcho-communism, was heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution but argued it supported altruism and cooperation rather than competition in his Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Peter Singer has argued for what he calls a "Darwinian left."
Indeed, evolutionary ideas have been used to support just about every ideology since (and even before) the publication of Darwin's work. However, "Social Darwin-Lamarck-Malthus-Spencer-Galton-Haeckel-Kropotkin-ism" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "Social Darwinism."
What's the point anyway?
Social Darwinism rests on two premises: there exists a constant struggle for survival in nature, and nature is a proper guide for the structuring of society. This is not a scientific idea at all, as it is not a statement about what is but rather a statement about what some people think "should" be.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection describes the propagation of hereditary traits due to the varying "success" of organisms in reproducing. Basing a moral philosophy on natural selection makes about as much sense as basing morality on the theory of gravitational success: rocks rolling down the furthest are the best rocks.
Social Darwinism is basically a circular argument. A group that gains power can claim to be the "best fit" because it is in power, but then the group claims to be in power because it is the "best fit". Any group in power can use Social Darwinist arguments to justify itself, not just right-wing groups such as fascists. Communists can claim that Communists are the best fit wherever Communists are in power. Ironically, many eugenicists and other racists will insist that DA JEWWS! are secretly in power, yet will never use this logic to insist that Jews are the "best fit".
Given some of the goals of Social Darwinism — no universal health care, unfettered capitalism, laissez-faire government policies, strong military forces, and racial separation — it is perhaps strange that the Religious Right use the philosophy as a snarl word. It would seem to fit their ideals nicely. Then again, it may be an example of psychological projection, or just because they see the name "Darwin" and get so angry that they ignore the rest. The big irony here is that the Religious Right rejects biological Darwinism while supporting Social Darwinism by another name.
De facto Social Darwinian arguments, such as those made by the authors of The Bell Curve, can also be used as a sort of pseudoscientific socio-economic justification for why rich people are rich ('cause they're, like, smarter) and poor people are poor (too dumb to earn more money). Such notions effectively become a sort of "biological karma" argument in favor of the status quo when used as a hand wave "explanation" for growing economic inequality, typically based on the claim that this rise in inequality reflects dumb poor people outbreeding smart rich people.
Neoreactionaries and "alt-right" types, particularly atheist ones, often openly identify as social Darwinists or as "evolutionary conservatives" (Steve Sailer being one example). These people argue that evolution implies "race realism", since different races evolved under different conditions, and therefore that racial egalitarianism is anti-scientific. On average, they tend to be much younger and more tech-savvy than Religious Right supporters, so it's possible the Republican Party and/or the conservative movement will eventually shift in their direction. These ideas are not new (Thomas Carlyle and Ragnar Redbeard had a lot of the same views), but seem to be undergoing a resurgence.
- Evolutionary ethics
- Fitness: For a treatment of what "survival of the fittest" actually means.
- Free market
- Just world hypothesis
- Protestant work ethic
- Rugged individualism
- The Übermensch concept by Friedrich Nietzsche
- In the Name of Darwin, PBS
- Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Primate Diaries
- Social Darwinism, Talk Origins
- J. Wes Ulm. Cachet of the Cutthroat. Democracy, no. 16, Spring 2010
- Or at least an idea, or a position; Social Darwinism's simplistic interpretation and limited scope may make the term philosophy a bit more grandiose than the concept warrants. Many have argued it doesn't really even describe one coherent view.
- translated by Gregory Elliott, The New Way of the World: on Neoliberal Society (London, 2017) pp.28-34; quotation from p.35
- Thomas F. Glick also mentions that more accurate terms for social Darwinism would be "Social Malthusianism" or "Social Spencerianism" in The Comparative Reception of Darwinism, p. 268.
- Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter
- Thomas C. Leonard. Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (2009) 37–51.
- Thomas C. Leonard. (2005) Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism: Why Eugenics is Missing from the History of American Economics. History of Political Economy, Vol. 37 supplement: 200-233
- Barry Mehler, Review: Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Thought by Robert C. Bannister, ISAR, Ferris University
- Kropotkin Was No Crackpot by Stephen Jay Gould. Natural History 106 (June, 1997): 12-21
- A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond by Peter Singer (extracted from A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation by Peter Singer (2000). Yale University Press. ISBN 0300083238.
- The entanglement between biology and ideology by Massimo Pigliucci (2011). In: Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins,Denis R. Alexander & Ronald L. Numbers, eds. (2010). University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226608417.
- Deconstructing Social Darwinism by Eric Michael Johnson
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