Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory

Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory

Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory

Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory

Synopsis

• What is the value of evolutionary thought to social theory - and vice-versa?

• How has human nature evolved and is it realized or constrained by modern society?

• Are there parallels between social evolution and evolution in the natural world?

Social Darwinism is the extension of Darwin's evolutionary ideas to human society. Over the past two centuries it has been argued that the 'fittest' in terms of physical and mental prowess are most likely to survive and reproduce. It has also been suggested that the increasingly complex structure of human society mirrors the increasing complexity of nature. This highly original text examines whether these extensions from nature to society are justified, and considers how dangerous they may be in implying the systematic neglect - or even destruction - of the least 'fit'. It asks what, in any case, is 'fitness' as applied to human beings? It also questions whether human nature is constrained by modern society and whether people evolved as essentially competitive or collaborative. Written in a clear and accessible style, with text boxes to explain key ideas and little or no biological knowledge required of the reader, this book suggests a new way in which evolutionary thought and social theory can be combined. Dickens argues that the difficulties and prejudices associated with the field can be avoided by combining historical materialism with aspects of contemporary biology to create a 'Social Darwinism' for the twenty-first century.

Excerpt

The notion of 'social Darwinism' refers to a complex range of ideas. It is important to be clear about these. Which are likely to be useful in understanding the relations between sociological and evolutionary ideas and which are not?

First, let us consider Darwinian biology. As is well known, Darwin asserted that biological laws affect all living beings, human beings included. Population growth in the context of limited resources leads to a struggle for survival, again amongst all living organisms. Certain physical and mental characteristics confer advantages and disadvantages to individuals in the struggle for survival. The selection of these traits and their inheritance over time will in due course lead to the emergence of new species and the elimination of others.

The application of these ideas to human societies, however, has taken a number of forms – and it is at this point that the difficulties begin. Perhaps the least contentious extension to human beings is the suggestion that we are not only animals but cultural animals; that our social and political institutions, our ethics and religion, are linked to our evolutionary development. So human nature may be special in all sorts of ways but it can, this position asserts, still be linked back to evolutionary thought and its extension to human beings. Precisely how this link is to be made is still open to debate. There are some extremely difficult analytical and political questions about how social relations and social systems either impede . . .

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