Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism is the name, based on flawed readings of the biology text On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, of a philosophy which came into existence in towards the end of the 19th century, though its origins can be traced all the way back to the ideas of Thomas Malthus.

Social Darwinists took the biological ideas of Herbert Spencer (and often mixed them with Lamarck and Malthus) and attempted to apply them to the social sciences. They were especially interested in applying the idea of "the survival of the fittest" in a social context, as this would excuse their existing ideas of racism, colonialism, and unfettered capitalism(for them, at least). It was also used as 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.

Contents

[edit] History

[edit] Mid-19th to early 20th centuries

The term "Social Darwinism" originated in Great Britain with the works of Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" in the mid-19th century. However his work found a 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 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 generally construed as Social Darwinism.[1] Ironically, "Social Darwinism" coincided in time with the The Eclipse of Darwinism in biology. The results of Malthus could be seen in the institution of the work houses; reforming (in actuality virtually elimination) of the Poor Laws; and a general attitude of the upper classes of contempt for the lower classes for their demands of charity. This campaign was aided by the ideas of Bentham's utilitarianism, one of the strongest ideologies of the British middle class, that stated that workers chose the poor life and that workhouses would encourage those who wanted to succeed to do so.

At the same time, the "struggle school" of Social Darwinism was being developed. In this view, nations grew and expanded as a result of conflicts with their neighbors. For many, this justified the overseas expansion of powerful nations at the expense of the weak and necessitated the creation of strong military forces.

At more-or-less the same time the movement of "Reform Darwinism" was born. This variant emphasized the need for change and adaption in human society to meet new conditions. For example, they argued that the constitution of the United States should be reinterpreted to meet changing conditions in the US. However some reformers felt they could use the principles of Darwinism to justify imperialist, classist, racist, and sexist opinions. And at the extreme of these views was eugenics, originally developed by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, certain strains of which advocated for state policy such as forced sterilization of the "unfit."

[edit] Postwar decline

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.

Finally an improved understanding of genetics and ideas about the evolutionary basis of philanthropy and compassion removed the basis of this “dog-eat-dog” philosophy.

[edit] Problems with the term

Alles Leben ist Kampf.

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.[2] 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.[3][4][5] 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.[6] Peter Singer has argued for what he calls a "Darwinian left."[7]

Indeed, evolutionary ideas have been used to support just about every ideology since (and even before) the publication of Darwin's work.[8] However, "Social Darwin-Lamarck-Malthus-Spencer-Galton-Haeckel-Kropotkin-ism" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "Social Darwinism."

[edit] 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.

[edit] Supporters

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 word "Darwin" and get so angry they ignore the rest.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. 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.
  2. Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. Barry Mehler, Review: Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Thought by Robert C. Bannister, ISAR, Ferris University
  6. Stephen Jay Gould. Kropotkin Was No Crackpot. Natural History 106 (June, 1997): 12-21
  7. Peter Singer. A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond.
  8. See Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins, eds. Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers for further detail.
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