Social Darwinism Revisited

By Jones, Leslie | History Today, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Social Darwinism Revisited


Jones, Leslie, History Today


Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, was ever mindful of the fate of the ancient Greeks (in particular, the Athenians), in his judgement the most gifted people in history. In Hereditary Genius (1869), he attributed their unique qualities to a `system of partly unconscious selection'. For the unrivalled opportunities offered by Athens had attracted foreigners of calibre, while slavery (Galton implied) protected the racial purity of the `high Athenian breed'. He maintained that the Athenians declined when morality deteriorated and marriage became unfashionable, the balance of the population being kept up by immigrants `of a heterogeneous class'. Galton's idiosyncratic reading of ancient history persuaded him that man has the power both to improve and to damage the qualities of his own species.

For Galton feared that his own fine country was threatened with decline brought on by social class differentials in fertility. In Inquiries into Human Faculty (1883), he complained that those who possessed sufficient foresight and self-control to delay marriage, as advised by Malthus, were exactly the people whose reproduction it was vital to encourage. Galton assumed that social distinctions reflect differences in innate endowment and that the middle and upper classes tended to possess more `civic worth'. Ability, he believed, is determined by heredity and runs in families, revealing itself by success in competitive careers. The early marriage and reproduction of members of such `thriving families' therefore ought to be encouraged, in his view. Only by raising the average intellectual standard of the nation by one grade could its survival and expansion be assured, since that standard was not keeping pace with the fast-changing requirements of modern civilisation. Eugenics, then, was nothing less than a programme for national survival.

On May 16th, 1904, Galton read his paper `Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims' to a meeting of the Sociological Society (founded the previous year) held at the London School of Economics. Galton urged its members to disseminate eugenics as a national religion. Some were prepared to, notably George Bernard Shaw, who decried a civilisation in which men and women `... select their wives and husbands less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks'.

But the discussion of Galton's essay indicated the disagreements among those whom the chairman, Karl Pearson -- who went on to become Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College, London -- described as `... the heterogeneous elements classed together as sociologists'. Reservations were expressed by J.M. Robertson and L.T. Hobhouse about Galton's reduction of the laws of history to selection. The Society, `a herd without a leader' in Pearson's view, proved quite unsuited to the role envisaged for it by Galton. His reception at this meeting helps explain the founding of the Eugenics Education Society, in 1907.

Yet Galton's assertion of the significance of selection continues to resonate. Was he present in spirit on February 12th, 1998, (again at the LSE), when W.G. Runciman of Trinity College, Cambridge, proposed the construction of evolutionary sociology to the Darwin Seminar? The latter is a forum for discussing neo-Darwinism, that dynamic school of biology which includes Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith. The evolutionary biologists now have allies in psychology, and the neo-Darwinians now claim that all the social sciences should adopt an evolutionary perspective.

However, some members of Runciman's audience were perplexed by his neologism, `evolutionary sociology'. Would it resemble social Darwinism, they wondered? If it did, might it be tarred with the brush of eugenics, that earlier extension of Darwin's theory?

Deftly defining evolutionary sociology by negations, Runciman insisted that he was advocating something quite different from social Darwinism, which, he maintained, was individualist, racist, a justification for imperialism, and reactionary. …

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