It is a sorry state of affairs, but the topic of evolution seldom fails to cause a stir whenever it is publicly brought up. Much of the fuss about it invariably results from a complex interaction of factual ignorance and emotional investment. One particular claim - accusation, if you like - commonly made during debates concerning the validity of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is of particular importance if we are trying to get to the bottom of many people's refusal to acknowledge reality for what it is. The claim usually goes something like:
"Evolution leads to Social Darwinism."
This fails on so many levels that it's really surprising to still see it being used. I hope this article will help clear this misconception up. The deal with Social Darwinism is at least three-fold:
- It predates Darwin's theories by several millennia.
- It has actually no foundation in the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.
- It is routinely enforced by those who reject the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.
The entire construct of Social Darwinism in its present guise is the handiwork of one Herbert Spencer, 19th-century philosopher and political theorist (among other things.). Now, there are two things Mr Spencer is usually credited for: writing about evolution before Darwin did and coining the expression "survival of the fittest." While the first needs to be qualified by saying that Spencer's idea of evolution was radically different from Darwin's, as it relied on a Lamarckian mechanism of inheritance of acquired traits, the second is correct. He did, indeed, come up with "survival of the fittest" as a definition for the mechanism of natural selection outlined in Darwin's work. This is probably the reason why Spencer is often thought to have simply applied Darwin's theory to social mechanics. That is, however, not true. Despite borrowing the notion of natural selection from Darwin, Spencer remained true to his own, incorrect theory of evolution, which differed from Darwin's in two key aspects. Lamarckian inheritance and, more importantly, directionality.
In essence, Spencer believed evolution to be a process with a direction - simple to complex - and, crucially, an end point at which equilibrium is achieved. This contrasts strongly with the Darwinian theory, according to which there are no more or less evolved organisms, only organisms more or less adapted relative to their environments. It is by applying his own theory to societies that Spencer created a framework, and an allegedly scientific justification, for behaviours and policies that have existed throughout human history but that have only since the 19th century been called "Social Darwinism." In Spencer's sociological theory, the end point of evolution was the ultimate societal model. Said ultimate society was, in Spencer's mind, made up of individuals perfectly shaped by evolution to live life socially with other people, a society in which no one would cause anyone any pain and in which individuals would derive pleasure from behaving altruistically. An admirable goal in itself, but Spencer believed that the only way to achieve it would be to allow interpersonal relationships to develop to their natural consequences without any interference from institutions, legal and ethical codes. Only that way, Spencer thought, would humans learn the consequences of their actions and learn how to cooperate for the benefit of everyone. His plan included minimising the power of the government to create an efficient welfare state, prohibiting public education, free health care and state efforts to reduce poverty. Remind you of anyone?
OK, it was Spencer's fault, but Darwin's natural selection is still key to Social Darwinism and eugenics!
Hmmmnope, it isn't. In fact, a correct understanding of evolution makes an evolutionary justification for Social Darwinism and eugenics impossible, and for several reasons. First of all, it's called natural selection for a reason. Applying entirely arbitrary selective constraints to a human population for the sake of "weeding out the unfit" is just that, arbitrary. What Social Spencerists do is apply artificial pressure on society - much the same way breeders of certain animals do - so as to satisfy the requirements of their own political, religious or personal ideology. Eugenics is but an extreme form of that, and is just as arbitrary. Natural selection, on the other hand, is never arbitrary.
Secondly, what is truly central to the idea of Social Darwinism is the incorrect assumption that cut-throat competition is the main force driving evolution, whether biological or social. That's completely wrong. On the contrary, altruism and cooperation tend to significantly increase fitness. Darwin himself understood this to an extent when, in his The Descent of Man (1871, p.89), he wrote about the evolution and evolutionary benefit of altruistic and social behaviour:
In the first place, as the reasoning powers and foresight of the members became improved, each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows; and the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feeling of sympathy which gives the first impulse to benevolent actions. Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.
Modern research has but supported Darwin's hunch by observing cooperation and altruistic behaviour in countless species other than our own. Therefore, as we've seen, the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection offers no support for extreme policies aimed at artificially increasing pressure on the weaker elements of our society. On the contrary, a true understanding of how evolution works would prompt us to adopt altruism as a central feature of our social life. After all, the one inevitable conclusion of accepting evolution is that every organism on this planet - past, present and future - is part of the same, big family. That would explain why those who reject the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection are also often supporters of ignoble, immoral economic and social policies that do our nature of social animals no justice. Our fellow primates would be appalled.