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Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism
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

Charles Darwin’s theory has revolutionized biology, impacting every aspect of the modern life sciences. However, some applications of his theory to social policy have left us with a legacy that is both shameful and chilling. Today, the term “Social Darwinism” is associated primarily with the moral justification of inequality, resulting in policies such as withholding welfare for the poor, colonialism, eugenics, and genocide.

This View of Life would like to confront this legacy directly. A thorough examination is needed for the old Social Darwinism to be laid to rest and replaced with a new set of associations so that modern evolutionary science can be used in a positive sense to understand and improve the human condition. This is similar to the truth and reconciliation commissions that enable nations such as South Africa to acknowledge and move beyond past injustices—hence the title of our theme.

To that end, we will feature articles and interviews on both the historical and contemporary applications of Darwin’s theory to human life. The story that we plan to tell is complex, as befits the actual history of the subject. The tapestry that we weave will include the following threads:

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  • In some cases, evolutionary theory has indeed been used to justify inequality, as typically associated with the term Social Darwinism. These cases need to be acknowledged and understood against the background of their times.
  • Evolutionary theory has also been used to promote cooperation and equality from the beginning, including Darwin himself. These cases also need to be acknowledged so that the impact of Darwin’s theory on human affairs is not seen as entirely negative.
  • In some cases, evolutionary theory is falsely accused of being used to justify inequality. There is little evidence that it played a role in Nazi war policy, for example. In these cases, truth and reconciliation means absolving evolutionary theory of these particular injustices.
  • The uses and misuses of evolutionary theory need to be weighted against the uses and misuses of other worldviews, such as religions, tribal and national identities, “blank slate” theories of human nature, and economic theories that justify laissez faire policies. Is evolutionary theory especially prone to misuse, or do we need to be vigilant about the justification of inequality in a more general sense?
  • The uses and misuses of any human worldview need to be weighted against the dynamics of cooperation and competition in all social species. The evolutionary distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is important in this regard. The social arrangements recognized as just or unjust in human terms are favored by ecological conditions in humans and nonhumans alike (ultimate causation). Species differ in the psychological mechanisms that cause them to behave as they do and symbolic belief systems (worldviews) operate more strongly in humans than most other species (proximate causation). To focus only on worldviews in humans is to ignore the ultimate causes of inequality in all species.
  • Major architects of the human social sciences had their own reasons to divorce their disciplines from “biology” that had little to do with misuses of evolutionary theory. These factors need to be understood and addressed for evolutionary theory to play the same role in the human-related sciences that it does in the life sciences.
  • The reason to thoroughly revisit the past is to maximize the positive use of evolutionary theory and guard against injustices in the present and future. Our theme will therefore end with ethical considerations for the modern-day application of evolutionary theory to understand and improve the human condition.

Leading historians and evolutionary thinkers will help us tell this complex but fascinating story. The interviews and articles will be substantive enough to help shape professional discourse but accessible enough to attract the interest of the general public.

It is our goal to make contemporary researchers aware of the pitfalls that history teaches at the same time that we offer a vision for how evolutionary biology can be utilized in a positive direction for our society. Darwin spoke of grandeur in this view of life and it is our mission to insure that his legacy lives up to this high standard.

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


Join the discussion


  1. Chris Kavanagh says:

    While it is an admirable goal to attempt to readdress the public inaccuracies surrounding Darwinian evolution and to highlight its potential relevance to human sociality, I think any attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ the term Social Darwinism is doomed to fail. The term is far too loaded with a long history of racism, cruelty and the pseudoscientific notion of human ‘races’ aligned on a ladder of progress.

    If the goal is to escape this legacy, then the first step should be to abandon this term. The public, and critics, will not look kindly on attempts to rebrand a racist ideology under a ‘New’ moniker. It would be the same as dubbing a political movement ‘New’ National Socialism, no-one will care about the content or the arguments that the Nazis misapplied the term, the association itself would be poisonous to any legitimate political agenda.

    Moreover, I think it is worth considering how opponents of evolution, such as the Discovery Institute, could further promote misleading associations between evolution and racism if they could point to modern day researchers who want to revive or reinterpret Social Darwinism…

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Thanks for commenting and we are familiar with the concerns that you voice. A thorough examination of the history of Social Darwinism is independent of the decision whether to continue using the term. My own strong preference is to use and defense face value definitions. Most evolutionists would resist the idea that the word evolution should be avoided because of past associations. For me, the same goes for words such as Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, Group Selection and Social Darwinism. TVOL’s series of articles on Evolutionary Psychology will hopefully restore the face value definition of that term and I look forward to working with Eric to restore the face value definition of Social Darwinism.

    • Eric Michael Johnson says:

      I am skeptical about reclaiming the term Social Darwinism. It was only ever used as a pejorative and is too embedded in popular culture. If we are to apply evolutionary principles to modern life, I think the term Evolutionary Sociology would be much better, since there are already evolutionary branches of Anthropology and Psychology. Social Darwinism would then be one historical offshoot of this larger category. However, as David stated, examining the history of this contested term is a separate discussion from what the scientific approach would be called moving forward.

      • Chris Kavanagh says:

        To be clear I am looking forward to the articles and I have no objection to making a “thorough examination of the history of Social Darwinism”.

        The concern I’m expressing is pragmatic and based on the notion that through such research, Social Darwinism could somehow be “restored” as a valid perspective. That seems extremely unlikely and also a bad goal for all the points I highlighted above. Labels matter when you are trying to promote ideas to a non-technical public and if this young movement starts off by creating associations with the poisonous term ‘Social Darwinism’, that can and will be exploited by critics, I think it would be a shame.

        Just my 2 cents tho!

  2. Paula Wright says:

    Contemporary Darwinism has no need to make symbolic reparations. And there are enough patient and logical explanations of is/ought and the naturalistic fallacy in the contemporary literature. Those with an open mind will see this.

    The groups who reject Darwinism do so on political, not logical, grounds. Radical feminists and social justice activists for instance, must reject evolutionary theory because it stands in opposition to social constructionist theory.

    The barriers to consilience are not logical, but ideological

    • Don Saxton says:

      Feminists are less a concern because they choose non-science, even anti-science argumentation. For scientists it is important to note that the label social darwinism is not anti-darwinism, but a reaction to a collection of amatuerish analyses. Worse it is the confusion that scares scientists and limits use of real evolutionary analysis. We need to address the confusion. Finally don’t be scared of social construction. It is misused by feminists, but can be a materialism seperate from biology, but an equal evolutionary medium.

  3. david ronfeldt says:

    while social darwinism is your focus, military darwinism is receiving some attention too. specifically in a recent blog post by “fabius maximus” that discusses what he terms the “darwinian ratchet” for analyzing how our military and insurgent foes are subject to darwinian selection and adaptation, esp. during prolonged conflicts.

    the post covers various military analyses that exhibit a darwinian viewpoint. an article by your colleague dominic johnson is quoted at length, ending with his point that “Understanding the causes and consequences of Darwinian selection offers insights for how to thwart enemy adaptation and improve our own.”

    the url is:
    link to

    the post does not really specify what is being selected and adapted. i’d say part of the answer may well be about the capacity to use various organizational forms: e.g., tribes, hierarchies, markets, networks.

  4. […] Evolution Institute: Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism […]

  5. Mark Sloan says:

    I missed this excellent article when it first came out. I did see the later related article “The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words” (link to and commented there. There, I suggest that rather than attempting to change the definition of Social Darwinism, it might be more culturally useful to add a new companion term “Darwinian Morality” to the discussion.

  6. Jeffrey says:

    I like the wording, “Social Darwinism “, before I understood what the current attitude toward it is. To me it directly meant,Darwin’s theory of Evolution as it applies to Human Societies, just a description not a qualifier!The question is ,can the mind’s of SSSM critiques be changed. I think it’s not the words that matter,but that they are terrified by the idea of genetic determinism and it’s consequences for humanity, and further.(That only through modification of the germ line can we , individually or collectively, be changed). The trick ultimately is to convince them, and the general public, that society can change even with a strong genetic influence. As an example and a simile ….THINK EYEGLASSES FOR CORRECTING EYEPROBLEMS ! DAMN IT!!! (Can change without being really fancy )….The wording , the label’s are less important. Keep up the good work.

  7. […] Wilson is on a quest to ‘rescue’ Social Darwinism and restore the term to respectability. Although this is now old news, I still think it is worth […]