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Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An Interview with Trevor Pearce
Trevor Pearce
Trevor Pearce
is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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

Say the words “Social Darwinism” and most people imagine a host of harmful practices committed in Darwin’s name, from sterilization to genocide. TVOL’s series of articles titled “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” sets the record straight. It’s not as if Darwin’s theory was never used to justify harmful acts—the same can be said about Jesus—but it is not the case that Darwin’s theory unleashed a plague of toxic policies upon the world or that it is more prone than other bodies of knowledge to be misused.

One article in our series titled “Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No!” features the work of the historian of science Robert J. Richards, including a reprint of the title essay of his newest book Was Hitler a Darwinian?. Richards shows definitively that Darwin had virtually no impact on Hitler’s war policies, either directly or indirectly. In addition, Richards calls into question the very concept of holding an historical figure or a theory culpable for immoral acts. Are chemists morally culpable for the use of chemicals in Hitler’s gas chambers?

Another irony in the history of thinking about Social Darwinism is that it omits the influence that Darwin’s theory has had on social movements that almost anyone would regard as positive. Exhibit A is John Dewey (1859-1952), the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer who is beloved by progressive thinkers around the world. While there is no evidence (and much evidence to the contrary) that Hitler was influenced by Darwin, there is abundant evidence that Dewey was influenced by Darwin, along with the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism that he represented. Yet, almost no one associates Dewey or Pragmatism with the phrase “Social Darwinism”. Go figure.

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TVOL is therefore pleased to set the record straight in this interview with Trevor Pearce, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Pragmatism is one of Pearce’s academic specialties. He also received his MA in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago and was a postdoctoral associate working with Elliott Sober, my own longtime philosophical collaborator, at the University of Wisconsin. It would be hard to find a person better qualified to discuss Dewey and Pragmatism from an evolutionary perspective.

David Sloan Wilson: Welcome, Trevor, to TVOL and thanks for taking the time for this interview.

Trevor Pearce: Thanks for the invitation.

DSW: I structured my introduction around the observation that the term “Social Darwinism” seems to be confined to the negative implications of Darwin’s theory—often invented out of whole cloth—and ignores the positive implications. Do you have anything to add to this observation, before proceeding to the topics of Dewey and pragmatism?

TP: You’re right that “Social Darwinist” is almost always a negative epithet: as Robert Bannister points out in his book on the topic, “the term was a label one pinned on anyone with whom one especially disagreed.” Although it’s classically associated with laissez-faire individualism, Bannister suggests that historians should be more inclusive: anyone who uses the phrases “survival of the fittest,” “natural selection,” or “struggle for existence” in their social theory is a Social Darwinist, whatever their politics.

DSW: Thanks! Now let’s set the stage broadly by describing the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism to our readers. Most of what I know is from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. I’ll be interested to know if that book passes muster in your expert opinion. Either way, what is pragmatism, and how was it influenced by evolutionary theory?

TP: Pragmatism was an early-twentieth-century philosophical movement that emphasized the practical implications of philosophical viewpoints. William James put it this way in his book Pragmatism (1907): there is “no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.” The movement had its roots in the 1860s and ’70s, when the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer were ferociously debated. James was an early critic of Spencer, and developed an evolutionary psychology; James’s friend Charles Sanders Peirce sketched a kind of evolutionary metaphysics.

I think it’s helpful to divide the philosophers later associated with pragmatism into two generations: the first, which included James and Peirce, finished college around the time Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) appeared; the second, which included John Dewey, Jane Addams, George Herbert Mead, and W. E. B. Du Bois, were born around that same time. When this later generation got to college, evolution was already in the textbooks—so they had a very different experience. But both generations were certainly influenced by evolutionary ideas, and in particular by Spencer’s notion of organism-environment interaction.

Menand’s book is a good introduction to the historical milieu of the pragmatists. He also nicely brings out their shared commitment to experimenting with ideas. Just two caveats: first, I think he over-emphasizes the role of the Civil War as the catalyst for pragmatism; and second, I don’t think the pragmatists were enemies of objectivity, as he sometimes suggests.

DSW: I’m glad that Menand’s book gets at least a passing grade! It’s one of the most entertaining intellectual histories that I have read. Before we start focusing on Dewey, why do you associate the concept of organism-environment interaction with Spencer? Isn’t it equally emphasized in Darwin’s thought? While we’re at it, a deep dive into the subject will probably also pull up some additional evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century, who are known to scholars but not so much the general public. Who is our cast of characters?

TP: I associate the idea of organism-environment interaction with Spencer because he popularized the English word ‘environment’ and built his whole philosophy around the O-E relationship. For Spencer, life is a dynamic correspondence between organism and environment, and evolution is improvement in that correspondence. Darwin didn’t use the term ‘environment’ until late in his career, preferring words like ‘conditions’ or ‘circumstances.’ Spencer and Darwin also disagreed about the extent to which evolutionarily relevant variations are directly caused by the environment. Darwin argued—against Spencer—that “the organisation or constitution of the being which is acted on, is a much more important element than the nature of the changed conditions, in determining the nature of the variation.”

Because Spencer was a philosopher rather than a natural scientist, his work was more central to philosophical discussion than Darwin’s. For instance, many of the philosophers associated with pragmatism—James, Dewey, Mead, Josiah Royce—used Spencer’s books as assigned texts in their classes. Although we remember Spencer now (if at all) for his laissez-faire approach to social policy, his broader theoretical framework was influential in biology, philosophy, and the early social sciences.

There are only two more people we may want to add to our cast of characters: Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous agnostic and defender of evolutionary theory, who wrote several late essays on the relation between evolution and ethics; and August Weismann, an embryologist who argued that adaptive variation directly caused by the environment could not be passed to offspring, and was thus publically critical of Spencer’s evolutionary views.

DSW: Very interesting. Spencer seems to have anticipated the modern concept of niche construction in some respects. Now let’s focus on Dewey. For the benefit of our readers, who was he and why was he influential?

TP: Dewey was an American philosopher who taught at the University of Michigan (1884-94), the University of Chicago (1894-1904), and Columbia University (1904-1930). In the early 1900s he embraced pragmatism, which he glossed as “the applied and experimental habit of mind.” Dewey thought that philosophers should not only be generating new ideas but also “developing and testing the ideas that, as working hypotheses, may be used to diminish the causes of evil and to buttress and expand the sources of good.” This experimental attitude was the foundation of his approach to education, where he had his greatest public influence: he founded the Laboratory School at Chicago and was a key figure in the Teachers College at Columbia; he also authored widely-read books such as How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916). He even made the cover of Time magazine in 1928!

In short, he was the most influential philosopher in America for the first half of the twentieth century (he died in 1952, at the age of 92). The historian Henry Steele Commager wrote in 1950 that Dewey ultimately “became the guide, the mentor, the conscience of the American people: it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no major issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.”

DSW: Excellent! Now, how was Dewey influenced by the evolutionary theory of his day, including but not restricted to Darwin?

TP: Dewey first encountered evolutionary ideas in college at the University of Vermont in the late 1870s—not only in his classes, but also in his personal reading, which included Spencer’s Principles of Psychology. Although he was critical of many aspects of Spencer’s philosophy, Dewey had embraced the organism-environment framework and placed it at the center of his own philosophy by the 1890s. For example, Dewey believed that both ethics and logic required an “evolutionary method,” according to which a given moral norm or mode of reasoning is “treated as an instrument of adjustment or adaptation to a particular environing situation.” As Peter Godfrey-Smith has argued, Dewey also went beyond Spencer in emphasizing that we build our social environments, which in turn modify us, and so on. Dewey hoped that the developing social sciences would eventually teach us how to experiment on and control both sides of the O-E dichotomy.

The evolutionary ideas that influenced Dewey were not specifically Darwinian: for example, the approach described above makes little use of the idea of natural selection. Dewey also rarely engaged directly with Darwin’s work. Our image of Dewey as a Darwinian stems primarily from the title essay of his book The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (1910), in which he declares that “in laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the ‘Origin of Species’ introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics and religion.” In this essay, Dewey made Darwin the sole agent of this transformation—an unsurprising move in a talk originally presented as part of a centennial celebration of Darwin’s work. But five years earlier, shortly after Spencer’s death, Dewey had claimed that “the transfer from the world of set external facts and of fixed ideal values to the world of free, mobile, self-developing, and self-organizing reality would be unthinkable and impossible were it not for the work of Spencer.” Thus Spencer also contributed to philosophy’s evolutionary makeover, and when other philosophers reviewed Dewey’s work they compared it to that of Spencer (the philosopher) rather than Darwin (the natural scientist).

DSW: I can see the influence of both from your description. What he said about Darwin anticipated Ernst Mayr’s distinction between (pre-Darwinian) typological thinking vs. (post-Darwinian) population thinking. What he said about Spencer would have to wait nearly a century to re-enter mainstream evolutionary thought. How did Dewey attempt to put these ideas into practice?

TP: It turns out that Elliott Sober once asked Mayr whether his famous 1959 distinction had been inspired by Dewey’s essay. Mayr (in a 2005 letter) did not recall having read Dewey, but pointed out that since Darwin was the originator of the distinction, it was not surprising to find other post-Darwin formulations. Carl Chung has investigated the roots of the distinction in Mayr’s zoological work.

As mentioned, the main area where Dewey put his ideas into practice was education, but he was also in close contact with those involved in broader social reform. Dewey’s evolutionary ethics was developed in conversation with Jane Addams, founder of a Chicago settlement house that she described in 1892 as “an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city.” Both Dewey and Addams emphasized that reform involved an experimental response to a mismatch between ethics and environment. Addams, for example, wrote of “the ill-adjustment and misery arising when an ethical code is applied too rigorously and too conscientiously to conditions which are no longer the same as when the code was instituted, and for which it was never designed.”

Dewey was more important as a theorist who inspired others than as a reformer in his own right. For instance, he was not directly involved in policy-making, but he outlined an experimental, evidence-based approach to political science that was ahead of its time:

“It is not the business of political philosophy and science to determine what the state in general should or must be. What they may do is to aid in creation of methods such that experimentation may go on less blindly, less at the mercy of accident, more intelligently, so that men may learn from their errors and profit by their successes.” (Dewey, The Public and Its Problems [New York: Henry Holt, 1927], p. 34)

DSW: Did Dewey ever encounter moral and ethical objections to his pragmatic efforts to improve the world?

TP: Dewey anticipated the objection that history/evolution is merely descriptive, whereas ethics proper is normative. His response was that the evolutionary method, by describing “certain conditions under which various norms, ideals, and rules of action have originated and functioned,” could not only “furnish data and present problems,” but also “suggest working hypotheses, and supply the material through which they may be tested.” When prompted by some problem or controversy, the method simply asks of a given norm, “Why does it exist, and what is it doing for us now?” Dewey’s approach thus flies in the face of any approach to morality that accepts eternal edicts or unchanging goods.

Some of Dewey’s ethical writings seem to have had a greater impact in the social sciences than in philosophy. His most famous contribution to ethics, Human Nature and Conduct (1922), was cited in the 1930s by Gordon Allport, Ruth Benedict, and Karl Mannheim, but was not especially influential in philosophy. It has been argued that some ethicists ended up misunderstanding Dewey because his approach was so radically different from their own.

Recently, Leonard Harris has suggested that the “social engineering” approach of Dewey and Addams has a key flaw: “evaluating processes, means, ends” does not help if the engineer is racist, or biased in some other way (p. 206). More specifically, Harris questions whether their approach, applied in the early nineteenth century, would even have supported slave insurrections. Relatedly, although he was involved early on with the NAACP, Dewey did not speak out much about the systematic discrimination of and violence against African-Americans.

DSW: This is extremely informative. I’d like to return to a comment that you made earlier about pragmatists as “enemies of objectivity”. Let me begin with a preamble. In my own work, I stress that all beliefs need to be judged by two criteria: 1) Their correspondence to factual reality; and 2) What they cause people to do. I use the terms “factual realism” and “practical realism” to make this distinction and it’s interesting that words such as “realistic” are used in both senses in everyday language. If I call a painting realistic, I mean that it looks close to what it is intended to depict (factual realism). If you outline a plan of action and I call it unrealistic, I mean that the plan is unlikely to work in a practical sense (practical realism). We effortlessly toggle between the two meanings, depending upon the context.

From an evolutionary perspective, beliefs are selected on the basis of what they cause people to do. Factual realism counts for nothing, except insofar as it contributes to practical realism. We know that this is true for our basic perceptual abilities. We see only a narrow slice of the light spectrum, hear only a narrow slice of the sound spectrum, and don’t sense gravitational, electric, and magnetic forces at all. Even what we can perceive is often rendered, such as perceiving the continuous light spectrum as discrete colors. We can overcome these limitations to discover what is “really” out there, but only with the help of elaborate cultural constructions, including physical instruments and a reasoning process loosely called the scientific method.

If human belief systems are like our basic perceptual abilities, then they are well designed to cause us to behave adaptively in our environments, frequently departing from factual reality along the way. Nevertheless, we are able to apprehend factual reality, at least to a degree, with the appropriate instruments and reasoning processes.

Returning to our conversation, pragmatism seems to be centered on practical realism, while the concept of objectivity seems to be centered on factual realism. When you said that the early pragmatists were not enemies of objectivity (contra Louis Menand), is this close to saying that they could make their points about practical realism without denying the existence and possibility of apprehending factual reality?

TP: To a certain extent, although Dewey appreciated that intelligent prediction and control—central to his vision of science—involved both the factual and the practical, in your terms. In fairness to Menand, pragmatism was viewed even at the time as abandoning the possibility of objective truth (see Cheryl Misak, The American Pragmatists, chap. 6). But I think Dewey and James were more interested in methods of inquiry than in redefining the nature of truth or morality. For Dewey, moral inquiry begins with some objective problem or harm, some “demand for a changed environment”: thus “it has its source in objective conditions and it moves forward to new objective conditions.” That doesn’t sound like something an enemy of objectivity would say!

As an aside, but connected with your distinction, there’s an ongoing debate in metaethics about whether our moral judgments have evolved to track the truth.

DSW: What is the current status of pragmatism? Is it still an active area of philosophical inquiry? Is it still being applied to the real world, Dewey style?

TP: Pragmatism is still an active area of philosophical inquiry, although it is often marginalized, in part because of the classical pragmatists’ undeserved reputation for being against truth and objectivity (for more analysis, see this book by Douglas McDermid). Their evolutionary outlook is not discussed as much these days, although Philip Kitcher has recently attempted to resurrect Deweyan evolutionary ethics.

I’m happy to say that pragmatism is also still being applied to the real world. To take just one example, Elizabeth Anderson’s book The Imperative of Integration, which draws extensively on social scientific evidence in mounting a philosophical argument in favor of racial integration, adopts a Deweyan approach:

“Normative inquiry begins with the identification of a problem. We then seek a causal explanation of the problem to determine what can and ought to be done about it, and who should be charged with correcting it. This requires an evaluation of the mechanisms causing the problem, as well as the responsibility of different agents to alter these mechanisms. If they are unjust, we then consider how these mechanisms can be dismantled.” (p. 22)

Although she does not use the term ‘pragmatism’ in her book, Anderson footnotes Dewey’s ethical writings in support of her methodology (p. 194). She has also written a nice overview of Dewey’s moral philosophy.

DSW: Have you heard the terms “Functional Contextualism” or “Contextual Behavioral Science”? Scientists who operate in the behaviorist tradition of B.F. Skinner use these terms and associate them with Pragmatism. Do you know if Skinner was influenced by Pragmatism?

TP:I don’t know those specific terms, but there were certainly historical connections between behaviorism and pragmatism. John Broadus Watson, the founder of behaviorism, studied at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s, taking courses with Dewey and George Herbert Mead, among others. Mead in particular was an important interlocutor for Watson, and developed his own variety of behaviorism (see Daniel Huebner, Becoming Mead, pp. 107-110). Skinner’s later work was also influenced by pragmatism, as Roy Moxley has shown. In a 1979 interview, Skinner pointed to pragmatism as his closest philosophical precursor.

DSW: With Steven C. Hayes, I am co-editing a book and organizing a Webinar series titled “Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science: A Reunification.” Our conversation will provide extremely useful background for that project. More generally, I think we have made a strong case for the influence of Darwin on progressive change efforts, even if they weren’t associated with the term “Social Darwinism.” Thanks for your great scholarship and clarity of thought!

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. j. baldwin says:

    I just wanted to say that I’m finding this series of interview-styled posts extremely informative and enjoyable to read. I especially want to note that the extra work you’re doing, DSW, on providing links to source material is very much appreciated. Good stuff. Thank you.

  2. Bernd Ehlert says:

    If one recognizes the special of the human being in evolution, then Social Darwinism is a “plague of toxic behaviors” by definition. From this perspective Social Darwinism means to apply genetic regularities to the mind and culture of man. It is the same as if one applies material regularities to an organic beeing or the regularities of plants to an animal. That is in every case harmful by definition.
    According to Edward O. Wilson the evolution of human societies into civilization during the last 45,000 years is a cultural and not a genetic process (Chapter “The sprint to Civilization” in his book “The Social Conquest of Earth”). Along with a knowledge of Konrad Lorenz means that our neuronal coding information system of our language that only our conscious thinking and general culture allows in this way accomplishes evolutionary performances. This new system on the neuronal level is able just like the genetic system to acquire, store, modify and apply information for evolution – but in several orders of magnitude more quickly and more efficiently as the genetic system.
    So we have a divided nature. On the one hand we have still as animalistic heritage genetically anchored instinctual behaviors of genetic evolution yet, on the other hand we are developing the learned behaviors for at least 45,000 years as the intellectual and cultural evolution on the neural level.
    In this way Social Darwinism is defined as an application of the old, since at least 45,000 years outmoded genetic evolution to modern man according to our instincts, which date from the time of the genetic and animal evolution. Therefore politicians like Hitler and Trump are so dangerous for the further cultural evolution because they appeal to the instincts in man. Although they trigger enthusiasm which is associated with these old instincts, it is a disaster and a step backwards for the current cultural evolution.
    In former archaic times the Nazi behavior was a good behavior for the own tribe to survive. It was so important that one can find this behavior and this racism even in the bible in religious terms: “16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.” (5. Mose 20).