Social Un-Darwinism: How Does Society Relate to Nature in an Evolutionary Perspective?

By Allchin, Douglas | The American Biology Teacher, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Un-Darwinism: How Does Society Relate to Nature in an Evolutionary Perspective?


Allchin, Douglas, The American Biology Teacher


It is time to rescue Darwinism from the dismal shadow of Social Darwinism. According to this now widely-discredited doctrine, human society is governed by "the survival of the fittest." Competition reigns unchecked. Individualism erodes any effort to cooperate. Ethics and morality become irrelevant. Some contend that social competition is the very engine of human "progress," and hence any effort to regulate it cannot be justified. Others accept competition as inevitable, even though they don't like it or do not endorse it ideologically. They seem persuaded that we cannot escape its "reality." Natural selection, many reason, is ... well, "natural." "Natural," hence inviolable: What recourse could humans possibly have against the laws of nature? Thus even people from divergent backgrounds seem to agree that this view of society unavoidably follows from evolution. Creationists, not surprisingly, parade it as reason to reject Darwinism outright (Bergman 2006). By contrast, as resolute an evolutionist as Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," invoked similar implications even while he urged his audience to transcend them morally (1894/1989). Yet the core assumptions of so called "Social Darwinism" are unwarranted. Why does it continue to haunt us? The time has come to dislodge this entrenched belief, this sacred bovine: that nature somehow dictates a fundamentally individualistic and competitive society.

Unraveling the flawed argument behind Social Darwinism also yields a more general-and much more important-lesson about the nature of science. Here, the historical argument seemed to enlist science to portray certain cultural perspectives as "facts" of nature. Naturalizing cultural ideas in this way is all too easy. Cultural contexts seem to remain invisible to those within the culture itself, sometimes scientists, too. The case of Social Darwinism--not Darwinism at all--illustrates vividly how appeals to science can go awry. We might thus learn how to notice, and to remedy or guard against such errors in other cases.

"Social Darwinism" Without Darwin

Ironically, the basic doctrine now labeled Social Darwinism did not originate with Darwin himself. Darwin was no Social Darwinist. Quite the contrary: Darwin opened the way for understanding how a moral society can evolve (last month's Sacred Bovines). Indeed, by Darwin's era, the notion of unregulated selfishness as a "natural" condition that threatened social order was centuries-old.

In the mid-1600s, for example, Thomas Hobbes described the primitive state of nature as "bellum omnium contra omnes": a war of each against all. For him, supreme individualism (if left unchecked) would eclipse sociality. Even genuine benevolence seemed impossible. In Hobbes's cynical "spin," generosity was really disguised self-interest:

   For no man giveth but with intention of good to
   himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary
   acts the object is to every man his own good.
   (1651/1962, p. 118)

Hobbes's proposed solution was to imagine a social contract. If everyone agreed mutually to limit self-serving behavior, all would benefit. "If." As in a legal system, who enforced the contract? One would need a moral authority outside or above the system (for Hobbes, it was the King). The dilemma of cheaters and the warrant for authority--the lack of moral grounding--was the same that critics of evolution now fault in Social Darwinism. And it resulted from the same basic assumptions: individualism and the "war of nature"--all posited without (and well before) Darwin.

Social Darwinist perspectives were also expressed by Thomas Malthus in his 1798 "Essay on the Principle of Population" and in its many subsequent editions. For Malthus, population would forever increase ahead of the ability to feed it. The "natural inequality" of population and production, he claimed, confuted romantic ideals (then prevalent) of social improvement:

   Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature,
   restrains them [the seeds of life] within the prescribed
   bounds. … 

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