Socialist Darwinism is the idea that natural selection promotes societies that cooperate as moral communities. This concept actually predates Social Darwinism, which later emphasized competition and individualism. Socialists throughout the 1860s-70s praised Darwin’s theory as promoting progressive social change.

As Eric Michael Johnson has documented in The Struggle for Coexistence (pdf here), the earliest consistent application of Darwin’s ideas for human society can be classified as Socialist Darwinism. For these authors, evolution demonstrated that the inequality maintained by institutions of God and State were not facts of nature but were imposed by power and privilege. It was therefore necessary for society to be redesigned from the bottom-up following scientific principles.

“I am a Socialist because I am a believer in Evolution,” wrote the women’s rights activist Annie Besant. She saw in Darwin’s work the clearest evidence yet that the status quo was not divinely ordained. Social species had evolved traits for cooperative behavior and humans, the most social of all animals, displayed the most elaborate moral instincts. Because evolution had shaped human physiology, behavior, and mind, Besant concluded, “it was not possible that Evolution should leave Sociology untouched.” Like Besant, many nineteenth-century socialist scholars, scientists, and activists quickly deployed Darwin to challenge the status quo.

The most prominent advocate for Socialist Darwinism was the Russian prince and naturalist Peter Kropotkin. His 1890 papers on “Mutual Aid Among Animals” (later published as the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902) synthesized the argument promoted by the “Darwinian Left” over the previous thirty years. In the process, Kropotkin closely hewed to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and demonstrated how the feeling of sympathy could evolve to form the basis of human morality.

The one factor that united diverse Socialist Darwinists across England, Europe, and Russia was a commitment to building on Darwin’s “moral sense.” For group-living species, natural selection had promoted traits that emphasized sympathy and cooperation. They believed it was wrong to ignore what Darwin called “the noblest part of our nature” in our efforts to improve human society.

In contrast, those who would later be called Social Darwinists (the term did not become widely used until the 1940s) claimed that the state of nature was nothing but brutal competition. Thomas Henry Huxley called nature a “gladiator’s show” and denied that morality had evolved in humans. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Francis Galton differed in their views in important ways, but all believed that natural selection was purely competitive and that society should be organized to ensure that the best rose to the top so the privileged could be protected against the supposed “unfit.”

Modern evolutionary science shows that cooperation is just as important in nature as competition. In group-living species, those traits promoting mutual aid often succeeded over traits promoting individualism. The first advocates of Socialist Darwinism were correct about this aspect of Darwin’s science. Solidarity is a fact of life—even between species. We could not live without our microbiomes, for example.

The first Socialist Darwinists didn’t get everything right. Today we know much more about how cooperation and competition can be blended in the right way. However, the origin of Socialist Darwinism reveals that seeing society through a Darwinian lens does not mean an endorsement of brutal competition. By taking Darwin seriously about “the noblest part of our nature,” we can complete the Darwinian revolution and build upon that which is best in ourselves. 

Read the full series “Darwinizing the Federalist Papers” below:

  1. Preamble
  2. On the Origin of Socialist Darwinism
  3. More Perfect UNIONS Must Regulate Their Parts
  4. The Human Social Organism and a Parliament of Genes 

Image: “AOC Reads Mutual Aid” by Julia Suits

Published On: July 10, 2019

Publius

Publius

In the spirit of the Federalist Papers, Publius is a collective pseudonym for the group of people organizing this collection of essays.

5 Comments

  • Lorenz Kraus says:

    “Socialist Darwinism is the idea that natural selection promotes societies that cooperate as moral communities.”

    I always heard that it promotes the survival of the fittest, whether it results in a community or not, moral or not. The end game is to be king of the hill/world, like WASP Cecil Rhodes, who used secret society activity to scam his way into world power and influence using deception and crypsis. Your characterization doesn’t seem to fit what is, typically, meant by Social Darwinism. Rarely, is it presented as a moral activity, honest, direct, cooperative.

    It is also not Volk-teleology.
    Teleology is action for a purpose.
    Volk-teleology is action for the Volk
    The volk is an actual biological unit. A race is an inbreeding group due to geographic (or political) isolation. And its expression is nationalism.

    The social darwinism you suggest is another form of globalism.

    Nature demands that a species take species-serving action to avert extinction. The merit of Volk-teleology is that it aims to serve and sustain the species (race/nation/ethnos/Volk), while alternative value systems elevate factions above the species (bankers, rich, MORAL elitists, religiously elect, the ruling scum), or the whole wide world (the “human” race or poor of the world) above the native people as a whole, leading to extinction.

    National Socialism expressed Volk-teleology.

    British imperialism reflected Social Darwinism, which legitimized mass murder across Europe and allied itself with Stalin and communism, to achieve money and power and market share for Britain, but failed in every respect to advance its long-term interests, and resulted in unparalleled post-war WASP degeneracy…EXTINCTION.

    Social Darwinism can mean anything, at this point, but volk-teleology is a clear concept that can explain the origin of religion and duties (morality) in a lean clean way.

    Duty is the glue of Germanic society. Duty is Volk-serving action. It doesn’t work beyond the Volk because of the exhaustion of social capital.

    “Universal Social Darwinism” (UBI) has to break down in a multi-racial society exactly for the same reason that all universal systems fail to account for the uniqueness (and complex and opposing interests) of different peoples, which flair up in crisis. Free-riders or free-riding groups ruin it all for everyone. So, duty culture breaks down into hyper-individualism or reversion to group solidarity to repudiate and renegotiate the social order, which may or may not be resolved by species-serving violence.

    “We’ll provide examples of multi-level moral systems that can —in principle—be extended planet-wide.”

    Yap.

    Natural selection results in “whatever” happens and is a meaningless truism. Natural selection is another way of saying, the poor are poor because of natural selection (rather than god’s will) or some other more concrete, identifiable, and useful reason, such as, fraud, usury, subversion by social engineering, or lack of productivity.

    kraus2020.com

    • Frank says:

      Kraous2020: You state:
      “’Socialist Darwinism is the idea that natural selection promotes societies that cooperate as moral communities.’
      I always heard that _ IT_ promotes the survival of the fittest, whether it results in a community or not, moral or not. … Your characterization doesn’t seem to fit what is, typically, meant by Social Darwinism.” [emphasis mine]

      You’ve misunderstood the point of the article. It was trying to differentiate a modern view of the evolution of human politics from Spencer’s 19th century “Social Darwinism”. In the context of the article, “Socialist Darwinism” ≠ “Social Darwinism”. See [1] for a different explanation that avoids the loaded terminology.

      I think “Socialist Darwinism” is the wrong term as it results in the misunderstanding exemplified by your comment.

      Can anybody come up with a better term that avoids loaded words like Social/Socialist/Socialism and Darwin?

      [1] Evolution of zoon politikon the political animal: https://evolution-institute.org/the-evolution-of-zoon-politikon-the-political-animal/

  • Steve Davis says:

    Thank you for an interesting article.
    It was good to see Kropotkin’s work appreciated.

    Kropotkin was a great admirer of Darwin, and used Darwin’s work on morality extensively in his final work, “ETHICS – Origin and Development”

    Unfortunately, you will rarely see Kropotkin mentioned in the history of Western philosophy.

    And to Peter Singer’s eternal shame, in discussing Kropotkin Singer showed that he misunderstood the substance of “Mutual Aid” because he failed to read the introduction in which the context of that great work was explained.

  • clinton fuller says:

    I agree that the term “Pro-Social Darwinism” clearly describes the phenomenon while sidestepping unhelpful associations and derivations of the term “Socialist.”

    If you want to try to rehab that word, be my guest… but if the goal is to, say, change the world for the better using a natural science approach to human behavior…. I think “pro-social” would be a great way to put it.

    Obviously “Prosocial” (Evo-Sci + ACT + Ostrom’s Design Principles) is already making use of that “brand,” but I think their work is a case in point for what pro-social darwinism can do in contemporary culture.

    -Clint

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