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Toward A New Social Darwinism
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

In the introduction to this series, we promised a complicated story about the application of Darwinian thinking to public policy. Truth and reconciliation for Social Darwinism involves acknowledging the misuse of evolutionary theory, but it also involves acknowledging false accusations and the omission of benign uses of evolutionary theory. In our concluding article, we will summarize some of the take-home points.

The strong taking from the weak is an ever-present danger in both human and non-human societies. In human societies, the strong taking from the weak is often accompanied by moral justifications. These moral justifications are constructed from the elements of the culture that are at hand, which could be tribal, religious, nationalistic, or scientific. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Darwin’s theory was pressed into this kind of service. However, it is clear from the historical record that at most, it was merely an arrow added to a quiver already full of other arrows. Darwin’s theory did not lead to an epidemic of social policies that enabled the strong to take from the weak. At most, a perverted form of the theory was used to justify policies that were already in place.

Symmetrically, efforts to restrain the strong from taking from the weak are accompanied by moral justifications constructed from the elements of the culture at hand. Darwin’s theory has been used to argue for cooperation in addition to competition. The fact that the term “Social Darwinism” is restricted to negative applications of Darwinism is one of the pathologies that needs to be addressed as part of a truth and reconciliation process.

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We should be suspicious of all narratives that attempt to incorporate Darwin’s theory for one purpose or another, past and present. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we are permanently trapped in a hall of mirrors. The articles by Paul Crook and Adriana Novoa show that it is possible to understand how a scientific theory is refracted through the lens of a particular person or culture. Admittedly, this is easier to do for the past than for the present. In any case, avoiding cultural bias is a problem for all theories, not just evolutionary theory.

Invented histories exist inside the Ivory Tower. From a cultural evolutionary perspective, it is expected that human societies will be highly biased and even downright fictitious in what they remember as their histories. A volume titled The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger provides eye-opening examples for modern nations. The only thing preventing a permanent loss of memory is the scholarly study of history, with strong norms for determining the facts of the matter. Good scholarship is much like good science in this regard, the main difference being the greater use of quantification in science. For example, it is clear from the historical evidence that Darwin had little influence on Hitler (as shown by Robert Richards) and a strong influence on Dewey (as shown by Trevor Pearce). If there is room for disagreement among scholars, then it will be settled on the basis of evidence, just like disagreements among scientists. However, Paul Crook’s article reveals a disturbing truth: Scholars and Scientists can have their own invented histories. Biased and downright fictitious views about Social Darwinism exist inside the Ivory Tower, side by side with careful scholarship. If occupants of the Ivory Tower don’t keep their own house in order, no one else will do it for them.

Every academic discipline has its own history. The received view that the human-related disciplines recoiled in horror from the misuses of Darwin’s theory is far too simple, as Russell Schutt shows for the field of Sociology. Every branch of academic knowledge has its own history in relation to evolutionary theory, which needs to be understood in detail to accomplish a modern integration. Even biological branches of knowledge such as ecology, behavior, genetics, molecular biology, development, and neurobiology have their separate histories. In these cases, integration began earlier than for the human-related disciplines, but even they are works in progress.

On the basic need for cooperation. From Herbert Spencer to Ayn Rand to Jeff Bezos, a dominant assumption has been that creating the best society is a matter of selecting the “best” individuals. This assumption is profoundly false from a modern evolutionary perspective, as David’s interview with animal breeder William Muir shows. Selecting the “best” individuals within a social group is a recipe for disaster, insofar as they achieved their “best” status at the expense of other members of the same group. For natural selection and artificial selection experiments, groups must be selected as groups to become functionally organized and group-level selection must be strong enough to oppose countervailing within-group selection. The fact that human evolution can be understood within this framework, first for genetic evolution at the scale of small-scale society and then for cultural evolution leading to the mega-societies of today, is one of most important developments of modern evolutionary thought.

Nothing about policy makes sense except in the light of evolution. A public policy can be regarded as a form of managed cultural evolution; a recommended social practice that is intended to benefit the common good. Few readers of these words will contest the claim that wise policy must be based on the best scientific knowledge. Yet, from there it is only a small step to conclude that scientific knowledge for every important policy topic must minimally be compatible with evolutionary theory and often will be informed by an explicit analysis from a modern evolutionary perspective. How can it be otherwise, when every important policy topic involves human beings interacting in societies that are products of cultural evolution, within an environment inhabited by thousands of other products of evolution, with genetic and cultural evolution an ongoing process?

A seat at the table. Our previous point might sound grandiose, but it can be given a more humble formulation. For complex reasons that we have touched upon with our series of articles, modern evolutionary science is the new kid on the block with respect to public policy formulation. Restoring the face value definition of Social Darwinism as “the formulation of public policy from an evolutionary perspective” means that the new kid deserves a seat at the table for any discussion of public policy, subject to the same ethical and evidential standards as any other perspective. Will the evolutionary perspective pull its weight, adding value to other perspectives? Time will tell—in fact, it has already told to a degree. The Evolution Institute—the first think tank that explicitly formulates public policy from a modern evolutionary perspective—has proven its worth on topics as diverse as education, risky adolescent behavior, social responsible businesses, economics, and the cultural evolution of large-scale societies. This View of Life and other communication outlets supported by the EI, such as the Social Evolution Forum,, and PROSOCIAL Magazine show that understanding and improving the human condition from an evolutionary perspective go hand in hand. The biggest victim of the stigmatized view of Social Darwinism has been all of us, by preventing the application of evolutionary theory to public policy until very recently. We don’t know if a de-stigmatized use of the term “Social Darwinism” will gain wide currency or if the term will fade into disuse. Either way, we hope that our “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” series will pave the way for the widespread application of evolutionary science to solve the problems of our age.

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. David G. says:

    I am unconvinced of the application of evolutionary science to solve social problems. I do not see the evidence and I suspect it could rather easily turn into the ‘bad’ kind of Darwinism, in the wrong hands. Mostly, I just doubt its effectiveness. That makes me a person that needs convincing. I’m also from socio-cultural anthropology, which means I’m going to be a dick about it. But I also love Darwin, so maybe…

    Though I am not exactly sure why (or if) I care about this particular campaign, it seems like an unusual – and unnecessary – burden to simultaneously sell people on the idea of a ‘new’ Social Darwinism while retaining the same, poisoned name. If we imagine this as a brief dialogue, the rule of parsimony will demonstrate what I mean:

    Scenario One —

    SCIENTIST: I am establishing new applications of evolutionary theory to study and solve the problems of our daily lives. I call it ‘Social Darwinism’

    LAY PERSON: … [long silence]… Uh…‘Social Darwinism’?… Really?

    SCIENTIST: Now wait, wait… I know what you’re thinking… You’re thinking ‘Hey… isn’t that the doctrine that social inequality and dominance are natural law?’

    LAY PERSON: That’s what I’m thinking, yes…

    SCIENTIST: Well… this is different and not the ‘bad’ kind of Social Darwinism… (and so on)

    Scenario Two —

    SCIENTIST: I am establishing new applications of evolutionary theory to study and solve the problems of our daily lives. I call it ‘Darwinian Activism’ (or literally anything else).

    LAY PERSON: … [thinks for a second]… What kinds of problems would you study?

    SCIENTIST: Well… for starters… we could address inequality and dominance of society as a kind of ecological system, seeing ourselves as environmental policy makers…

    My point here is that few other words in English are as symbolically loaded as ‘Social Darwinism’. The authors of these essays have provided a lot of good scholarship in this project for ‘truth and reconciliation’ (a term that, by the way, is roundly loaded with a history of injustice, broken promises, and erasure of violence, torture, disappearances, etc).

    But, at the end of the day, Darwinism is contextually understood in wildly different ways, and many of those have been nightmarish. They were scientifically wrong, but are historically impossible to dispel or erase. They are tied to other refuted, rightly despised pseudo-sciences – eugenics, phrenology, lobotomies, intelligence testing, the Bell Curve – that were also contextually seen as legitimate, defensible, and beneficial for humanity.

    Given all these factors that are stacked against this campaign, why bring up the issue at the forefront? If this manifestation is so different, then show me what it can do before explaining to me how In the United States (and many other places), the resistance to evolutionary solutions to social problems will be religious. Others will be political – imagine trying to offer Darwinian solutions in (for example) Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and (arguably) even China or Mexico. These are places where regimes, shifting power structures, and economic turmoil might be explained through cultural evolutionary theory, but any kind of meaningful application of the science will be impossible. This is shame, perhaps, but I think we have a good example of a place where such a project was attempted, but confronted such socio-economic challenges that the entire enterprise and its high-minded goals were largely scrapped: Binghamton, New York.

    This might sound antagonist or pessimistic, and I suppose it is. But the campaign to ‘salvage’ this term is not what I need. Demonstrate that the science has actual, real world applications – that it can help people who actually need help. I am not convinced by conferences in Norway, and I am not persuaded by the existence of the think tank. Show me by doing it.

    • Steve Davis says:

      David G., I agree with both you and the authors. They have given a good summary of the issues, but this is a huge subject, and in a short article they have not had the space to address your valid concerns; they have not highlighted sufficiently some of the modern evolutionary outlooks that are distinctly unhelpful.
      Kin selection/inclusive fitness for example has become an ideology and therefore a negative. And let’s be frank, in its basic form kin selection is a mere truism – healthy happy supportive families thrive, so what? Did we really need Bill Hamilton and a dodgy equation based on an invalid assumption to tell us that?
      Before a Darwinian approach can be helpful in the social sphere, the existing dodgy Darwinism must be exposed for what it is.
      Here’s a positive example of the application of evolutionary theory – Robert Ardrey’s “The Territorial Imperative” gives an insight into the PTSD suffered by so many returning military personnel. Ardrey had a tendency to take his truly excellent work a step too far on occasion, but compared to gene-centrics he was exemplary in his rigor.

  2. David Ronfeldt says:

    Instead of trying to resurrect “social Darwinism” and keep having to explain it, how about trying out a slight but substantial modification to the term: namely, “pro-social Darwinism” (or prosocial Darwinism)? That would retain the focus on Darwin, and move the focus to what concerns many here, i.e., pro-social (or prosocial) dynamics. Or has someone already fielded this suggestion? I’d still prefer “the new evolutionism”, but I gather that religious creationists have preempted that coinage.