Utopian Evolution: The Sentimental Critique of Social Darwinism in Bellamy and Peirce(*)

By Hartman, Matthew | Utopian Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Utopian Evolution: The Sentimental Critique of Social Darwinism in Bellamy and Peirce(*)


Hartman, Matthew, Utopian Studies


WRITING IN 1893, the American pragmatist Charles S. Peirce characterized the nineteenth century as "the Economical Century," because of the way capitalist economic theory dominated all branches of thought. The effects of this dominance, in Peirce's view, were disastrous: "What I say, then, is that the great attention paid to economical questions during our century has induced an exaggeration of the beneficial effects of greed and of the unfortunate results of sentiment, until there has resulted a philosophy which comes unwittingly to this, that greed is the great agent in the elevation of the human race and in the evolution of the universe" (Collected Papers 6.290).(1) Economic theory even influenced Charles Darwin, whose Origin of the Species, according to Peirce, "merely extends politico-economical views of progress to the entire realm of animal and vegetable life" (6.293). In the essay "Evolutionary Love" (CP 6.287-317) from which the above passages are taken, Peirce critiques the greed philosophy and defends sentimentalism, which he defines as "the doctrine that great respect should be paid to the natural judgments of the sensible heart" (6.292). In this essay, Peirce seeks to construct an alternative theory of cosmic evolution, one unmarred by "economical theory." In Peirce's theory, which he calls agapasm, the positive agent of change is not greed but creative love.

Peirce's elevation of sentiment over greed recalls the utopian thought of Edward Bellamy. Like Peirce, Bellamy critiqued the Darwinist social ethics of industrial capitalism and substituted his own agapistic ethics, which he outlined in his essay "The Religion of Solidarity" (1874). Here he describes the human impulse to embrace the universe as an inclusive whole, an impulse which requires that unselfishness and self-sacrifice become "the essence of morality" (22). Bellamy envisions the realization of solidarity in his utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), in which social equality and cooperation replace the stark inequality and struggle for survival that characterized America's Gilded Age. Under Bellamy's Nationalist system, in which the entire economy is placed under the control of the nation, greed has lost its central, motivating role. Instead, workers are motivated by "patriotism, passion for humanity" (Looking Backward 89). Bellamy and Peirce both reject the primacy of narrow self interest in social relationships, arguing that love and cooperation, not greed and competition, are the engines that drive social evolution.

In late nineteenth-century America, ideas about social evolution were often conflated with theories of biological evolution. For instance, conservatives such as William Graham Sumner and Andrew Carnegie used Darwin's theory of natural selection as an ideological prop for unrestrained capitalism. The conservative social Darwinists argued that competition was natural and beneficial, and that any attempts at social reform were counterproductive since they only aided the "unfit" at the expense of the "fit." Today, we would accuse the social Darwinists of misusing a scientific theory to answer nonscientific questions of politics and morality. However, at the time, social Darwinists and their liberal critics both made the error of interpreting natural selection as a theory of social progress. Thus, liberal reformers who took natural selection seriously could not simply dismiss social Darwinism as nonsense. As Howard Kaye notes in The Social Meaning of Modern Biology, many of those who opposed this brutal ideology found themselves forced to alter Darwin's central thesis. Kaye argues that "the chaos, brutality, and indifference to human concerns seemingly implied by natural selection had somehow to be denied" (22). Bellamy and Peirce, as critics of social Darwinism, deny this chaos by proposing models of evolution that place love at its center. Their reconstructed theories of evolution lead to utopias of equality and cooperation.

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