Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Was Darwin a Social Darwinist? What Is a Proper Evolutionary View of Human Culture and Morality?

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Was Darwin a Social Darwinist? What Is a Proper Evolutionary View of Human Culture and Morality?

Article excerpt

Are humans inherently selfish brutes? Skeptics and critics of evolution routinely denounce the ghastly specter of society "red in tooth and claw" as an unacceptable consequence of Darwin's concept of natural selection. They equate Darwinism with so called "Social Darwinism," a belief in ruthless social competition and unmitigated individualism. Many evolutionists, too--even staunch defenders of Darwinism, from Thomas Henry Huxley (1894/1989) to Michael Ruse (1986)--seem to concur that the natural history of humans leaves an ethical void. Darwin himself, by contrast, had a well developed interpretation of the evolution of morality (Richards, 1987). Others since have deepened our biological understanding of human and cultural origins. Perhaps, then, we are ready to challenge this entrenched assumption, this sacred bovine: that belief in evolution entails forsaking any foundation for morality.

Many scientists disavow any role for biology in addressing ethics. They retreat behind the shield of the fact/value distinction or invoke the threat of the naturalistic fallacy. Yet morality is an observable behavior, a biological phenomenon (Stent, 1978). We might well document it in other species. For example, a group led by Jeffrey Mogil recently reported on empathy in mice. When mice observe cagemates (but not strangers) in pain, they exhibit heightened responses to pain themselves (Langford et al., 2006; Ganguli, 2006). Morality deserves a biological explanation, especially for students who wonder about the status of humans in an evolutionary context.

There are important limits, of course. One does well to heed philosophers who warn that we cannot justifiably derive particular values or moral principles from mere description. Many have tried, and all have failed (Bradie, 1994; Father, 1994). "Oughts" do not arise from "Is." Values and facts really are different. Yet why or how we can express values at all, or have moral impulses, or engage in an ethical argument, are all psychological or sociological realities, susceptible to analysis and interpretation. Indeed, a lesson on human evolution may well be incomplete without addressing these very important human traits.

Darwin as a Social Organism

One may begin, of course, as one often does in topics evolutionary, by returning to the source: Charles Darwin. How did Darwin regard culture? Did he apply Natural Selection to society? Was he a "Social Darwinist," as many take his theory to imply?

Well, Darwin had ten children. Fecund, indeed! Was he self-consciously exhibiting reproductive fitness? If he was (albeit doubtful), it seems peripheral for those who fret about "survival of the fittest" structuring society. They seem to worry about cutthroat competition for wealth and power and other social resources. Thus, journalist Robert Wright (1994) endeavors to portray Darwin as extremely ambitious, his career replete with "relentless ascent, deftly cloaked in scruples and humility" (p. 310). "He did superbly what human beings are designed to do [sic]: manipulate social information to personal advantage" (p. 287). Darwin, he contends, was a savvy political animal: a triumphant "alpha-male" among humans (p. 287).

Historian and biographer Janet Browne (1996, 2003), however, offers a quite different portrait. Darwin was a gentle man, as much as a gentleman. He was a loving, even doting father and faithful husband. He advocated for the rights of slaves and defended humane treatment [or domesticated animals. He wrote explicitly: "... if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil" (1871, p. 169). In his personal life, Darwin hardly displayed the callousness alleged as inherent in his theories.

Darwin was also concerned about interpreting human morality scientifically. In July of 1838 he began a private notebook filled with thoughts on metaphysics and naturalistic approaches to mind and morality (Barrett et al. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.