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Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality
Paul Crook
Paul Crook
is a widely published author on Anglo-American history and Darwinian themes

When I first encountered Social Darwinism as a student, my first reaction, I’m afraid, was something like this: Oh, Social Darwinism, wasn’t that used to justify ruthless capitalism, militarism, imperialism and racism, using Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”? something that ended up in Nazi eugenics and the elimination of the Jews in the death camps?

One would have hoped that these simplistic stereotypes would have been supplanted by more nuanced views in this day and age, at least in academic circles. Sadly, it seems not. I have heard such clichés hurled around almost as knee-jerk reactions at history conferences, whenever Darwinism is evoked in debate. Hopefully symposia such as this one will help to rectify the situation. One can always hope. But I am struck by the resilience, the sheer survival power, of such stereotypes, even when contradicted by overwhelming scholarly evidence. The question that needs to be asked, it follows, is what social and cultural conditions reinforce and serve to preserve such misconceptions. I know that there are young scholars attempting to plumb such depths at the moment.

Darwin’s concept of struggle was fascinatingly complex, full of ambivalences. He recognised that it was multi-layered. I am using it, he said, not in a rigorous scientific sense (which he regretted) but “in a large metaphorical sense”. He distinguished many types of struggle, ranging from violent predation and savage killing of prey, to struggle for resources, to ecological dependence: “I shall use the word struggle…including in this term several ideas primarily distinct, but graduating into each other, as the dependency of one organic being on another…the agency whether organic or inorganic of what may be called chance… and lastly what may be more strictly a struggle, whether voluntarily as in animals or involuntary as in plants”. Thus in the Origin we are given many possibilities: conflict, dependence, chance; not only brutal victory or dominance, but also coadaptation and coexistence. He used vivid metaphors such as the web of nature, the tree of life, the tangled bank to represent a grand and integrated biological system that was life, holistic and interdependent as well as undeniably “red in tooth and claw”. His struggle metaphor, as that luminous thinker Gillian Beer put it, ”expresses his unwillingness to give dominance to a militant or combative order of nature”.

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If there was grandeur in this view of life, as he famously said, there were also myriad usages, validations, interrogations, illuminations, subversions that filtered from it into politics, religion, social thought and philosophy, to name a few discourses. Because of its ambivalences, Darwinism was infinitely adaptable for use in an amazing galaxy of ideas, agendas, and ideologies. They ranged from the epistemically pure and supposedly “hard science” to pseudo-science and outright propaganda. Darwinian science was undeniably culturally conditioned to start with – Darwin took many metaphors and terms from industrial and imperial Britain – and the Social Darwinisms that followed were also culturally conditioned, varying from nation to nation, culture to culture. This can be been found in debates on such topics as the nature of capitalism, Man and God, race, war and human violence. Just as people had raided the Bible to sustain their particular world-view, so they raided the Origin to the same end. And the spectrum of people and parties was dizzying: Robber Baron capitalists, laissez faire theorists, militarists arguing the survival of the fittest to utopian (sometimes even revolutionary) socialists, mutual aid Kropotkinites, technocratic Fabians, and pacifists appealing to the cooperationist side of Darwin, his unwillingness to give dominance to a combative or militant order of nature.

Yet it is that dark one-sided perspective of Darwinism that has come to prevail in the public imagination. The mental association is of a Godless, amoral, ruthlessly self-interested, unequal world based on greed, force and survival at all costs. If we dig deep enough we find that this dark Darwinian image was frequently the creation of its numerous critics. (Paradoxically they were willing enough to use Darwinism themselves when it suited their purposes). The historical reality is that buccaneering dog-eat-dog capitalist apologetics and stark force-based imperialist and militarist rhetorics gained surprisingly little traction in the nineteenth century Anglo-American world. If we take war theory (something I have looked at in some detail), of course there were those who argued that humans were biologically-programmed fighting animals, and saw war as an adaptive response to long-term evolutionary pressures. But historians have underestimated an alternative discourse of “peace biology”. It derived from Darwin’s cooperationist ideas and his predictions that humanity was likely to evolve into a higher, more ethical and peaceful stage of its history. This discourse was more amenable to traditional moral culture, and conventions of order and legitimacy, than was unpleasantly ruthless militarism. Even in one of the more blatant militaristic national systems of the pre-1914 period, Wilhelmine Germany, it seems to me that war doctrine was less dependent upon biological justifications (despite General Friedrich von Bernhardi’s “war is a biological necessity”) than upon nationalistic and realpolitik factors. It was Allied propaganda during and after World War I that magnified out of all proportion the demonic role of Prussianised Social Darwinism in causing the war.

Social Darwinism has routinely been linked with the rise of imperialism. I tested this supposed linkage in the instance of British imperialism during its massive expansionist phase, examining books, periodicals and political speeches from the 1880s to 1914, the age of the “New Empire”. To my surprise, the textbook orthodoxy proved almost totally fallible. Very few people used sustained or serious “Darwinian” reasoning to justify empire, that is using central biological concepts such as natural selection or differential reproduction. (One exception was the biometrician and eugenist Karl Pearson). “Darwinian” themes were used, when used at all, primarily as slogans and catchcries (“survival of the fittest” being the most popular), or as simplistic propaganda, crude theatre and cultural extravaganza. By far the most common and sustained defences of empire were couched in traditional geo-political, economic, nationalistic and – hard for us to imagine today – moralistic terms: Britain’s moral mission to confer the benefits of its western and Christian civilization upon less fortunate colonial peoples. Again, it was the critics who largely created the myth of a Darwinised imperial discourse; critics such as the “New Liberal” J. A. Hobson who feared the authoritarian implications of biological determinism and biology-based social science, fears writ large in his classic Imperialism: A Study (1902).

As for Charles Darwin himself, he was no redneck reactionary or heartless neo-con. He best fits the category of liberal progressive. Through his grandfather Erasmus, his roots were in the Enlightenment. He wanted to improve the human condition by means of education and gradualist reform. I see him as essentially an optimist. Unlike some of those who came to evoke his name, he did not take a “pitiably low view of human nature”. He admitted the possibility of human decline and extinction, because evolutionary history was full of extinctions, failures to adapt to crises. He could be bafflingly vague and ambivalent at times, swinging for example between physical and cultural evolution as motors of human evolution. Ultimately his emphasis came down on cultural evolution as the prevalent mode of human change. On race – although he was not uninfluenced by current Victorian stereotypes – he saw Homo sapiens as one species, probably descended from a common ancestor. Differences in group traits, such as skin colour, were minor, best explained in terms of adaptation, divergence and geo-political isolation. The dominant “races” of any era had got there largely by dint of superior social organisation. There were no guarantees that (say) the Anglo-Saxon races would stay top-dog forever. It was quite possible that (say) Asian peoples would supplant them, if they became more socially efficient.

True, Darwin did flirt with the eugenical ideas of his cousin Francis Galton towards the end of his life. He shared some of the anxieties of the period about a swarming population of the less intelligent lower classes, and about the danger of lowering selective pressures because of welfarist reforms. One possible solution was to improve the human stock by selective breeding. But Darwin remained an ethical and humane man. He did not approve of cruel exploitation of workers for profit, and he welcomed improved living conditions as a sign of advancing civilisation. Ultimately he had faith that humanity possessed the capacity to evolve to higher levels of civilisation, becoming more peaceful, altruistic and just. Both biology and culture could contribute towards this. The Origin exhorted its readers to extend their “social instincts and sympathies”, firstly “to all the members of the same nation”, then, having reached this point, there were only artificial barriers to prevent their sympathies extending to the people of “all nations and races”. The virtue of sympathy, “one of the noblest with which man is endowed”, would eventually be extended “to all sentient things”.

Articles in this series:

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson

The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words. David Sloan Wilson

Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality. Paul Crook

Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism. Adriana Novoa

When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir. David Sloan Wilson

Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson

Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce. David Sloan Wilson

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (And Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt. David Sloan Wilson

Toward a New Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson


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  1. […] View of Life: The Evolution Institute ‘Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality’. Here is the link if you are interested in historical type […]

  2. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Wonderful piece! I’m proud to have it published in This View of Life as part of our series “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism”.

  3. Justin E. Lane says:

    It seems like this article starts off by just sweeping the dirty little facts under the rug since it is true that the historical use of Social Darwinism to justify ” ruthless capitalism, militarism, imperialism and racism, using Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”” and that it was “something that ended up in Nazi eugenics and the elimination of the Jews in the death camps”.
    Without first admiting the historical contexts in which this term has been used, the idea that one can (much less should) appropriate it under the same guise in a new context is basically a non-starter don’t you think?
    If one is going to discuss the idea that it isn’t, testing it is a good way to go about it. I however would like to see both the dataset that was used and what sort of statistical measures were employed in order to test the claims.
    As a brief counterpoint, google’s database of texts shows that social dawrinism, as a term, appears in books leading up to the second world war and then after the war peaks with tensions in the Cold War. The fact also is that this new “social Darwinism” is a theory. How does this theory not lead to any one of a myriad of imperialist forms? Until such questions are answered, I don’t think that Social Darwinism has shed its negative connotation and people are rightly wary of utilizing it in any application.
    I look forward to the future posts.

    link to

  4. Helga Vieirch says:

    There are two ways to approach “cultural evolution”.

    a) One focus is on adaptive changes within various
    human cultures. This explores variation within humanity.
    Focus on events from 200,000 to present.

    b) The other focus is on the way the human capacity
    for culture evolved. This explores the co-evolutionary
    interaction between the 1st and the 2nd replicator. Focus is on
    events leading to the emergence of genus Homo (8-2 MA)

    It is, essentially, the difference between 1) history – evolution of cultural diversity – and 2) speciation – evolution of genus Homo and then toward anatomically modern humans. Evolution, biological and cultural, is not “over”, of course, it is not ancient history, it is on-going. However, significant changes in selective pressures, leading to whole new species or adaptive behavioral niches, can only be recognized as an outcome of cumulative changes over time.

    In general, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, and even most archaeologists have been focused on option (a) history. Often we even focus on the minutia of how history happened, and of the development of divergent economies and technologies since the end of the Pleistocene.[i]

    Similarly, many genomic studies are essentially historical. The development of lactose digestion extending into adult life, modifications of other digestive enzymes and tolerance to certain toxins, and skin color adaptations to ultraviolet light intensities at different latitudes, all represent small scale adaptive change in genome frequency.

    These essentially are on a par with other historical patterns of localized genetic and plastic responses characteristic within most species. With regard to behavioral/cognitive traits, there has been a focus, especially common in evolutionary biology and psychology, on the possible consequences of differential reproductive success. A recent example of this is the finding that there was a bottleneck and a subsequent serial founder effect during adaptive radiation out of Africa, lowering variability as distance from the source population increased. This could essentially be viewed as part of the micro-evolutionary history of our species, not necessarily explaining much about its initial evolution, but tremendously interesting in sorting out the origins of present day genetic variation and cultural diversity.

    [i] See for example the following discussions…
    link to
    and for something completely different… link to

  5. Andrew says:

    I think the term “Social Darwinism” used by Richard Hofstadter to refer to a system of ideas that really belonged to Herbert Spencer and that pre-dated The origin of species by some years was unfortunate. It not only denigrated Scientific Darwinism but dignified Spencer’s politically motivated speculations with a credibility it did not deserve. Yet even to a layman it seems clear that Human evolution cannot have been a simple competitive selection of simple traits between agonistic individuals as it is in primitive organisms. The energy investment in developing complex language and abstract reasoning would have no credible selective advantage in such a model. Did we really evolve speech just to lie to and deceive each other more effectively or to selectively help our closest genetic relatives? Why should sociopaths only be a small and deviant group in the population if their traits are ideally adaptive. Why would evolving empathy in the majority of the “normal” population be a selective advantage? Yet if selective advantage through co-operation rather than competition is supported by some biological evidence the atomistic model of biological evolution through competition is greatly complicated. Is it possible that the methodological temptation of being able to retain and work with manageable scientific models does tempt modern biologists towards a “Social Darwinist” mindset that favours the role of agonistic competition over a more credible view of what drives evolution.