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Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism refers to a set of now generally discredited theories that attempt to legitimize social inequality, and explain social classes and processes, by appealing to popular misunderstandings of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

The term is credited to Herbert Spencer. In 1857 he discussed similar concepts in his work Progress: Its Law and Cause. He argued that

"this law of organic progress is the law of all progress. Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, the development of Society, of Government, ..., this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through a process of continuous differentiation, holds throughout."

Spencer's work talked openly about race and class, and even went so far as to rank various societies on a linear scale of progress. English culture, of course, was placed at the top; Irish were classed as "barbarians", and all the other races and cultures of the world similarly ranked. While such notions of unidirectional "progress" are not really supported by ideas of evolution, the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin of Species gave his work more popular acclaim, as did the fact that his work served to justify many of the hard-to-justify political causes of the day, especially British imperialism. At the time, it was popular to speak of the "white man's burden" to take over more "primitive" cultures and help them progress to a more "evolved" (that is, British) state.

Spencer's work also served to revive the ideas of Hobbes and Malthus. Malthus's 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, for example, argued that as increasing population must outgrow its food supply, it was "natural", and inevitable, to allow the weakest to starve. Some historians have suggested that the Malthusian theory and similar concepts were used by the British to justify the continued export of agricultural produce from Ireland, even as the Irish were suffering from famine, in particular the Great Famine of 1845-1849.

Jonathan Swift savagely satirized this sort of "scientific" reasoning in his essay A Modest Proposal, pointing out that advocating cannibalism would have similar "beneficial" effects in controlling overpopulation.

These ideas have been discredited on many grounds: first, they bear little or no relation to the real science of evolution, other than by borrowing and misinterpreting a few of its ideas. "Survival of the fittest", for example, was used by Darwin and other biologists in a very narrow sense to explain why certain traits of animals evolved, while the popular misconception was that "fitness" was associated with "progress" or "advancement" or "superiority", and that the inferior were simply abandoned. In fact, those who are best adapted to pass on their genes often do so through some sort of cooperative arrangement or even an equivalent of self-sacrifice for the next generation. See, for example, Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation. Likewise, Darwin's work never committed the naturalistic fallacy of assuming that the existence of such natural processes implied that it was morally right to encourage them, nor did he ever attempt to extend his theories from biological systems to social systems, which is a leap far beyond what is supported by the science.

Because Social Darwinism came to be associated with racism, imperialism, eugenics, and pseudoscience, those criticisms are sometimes applied (and misapplied) to any other political or scientific theory that brings them to mind. Such criticisms are often leveled, for example, on evolutionary psychology, even though its scientific basis is stronger and it makes no political or moral claims. Similarly, capitalism, especially laissez-faire capitalism, are often equated with social darwinism because they adopt a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity. Capitalists argue that since there is plenty of work to be done, their economics have nothing to do with "letting the weak starve". Likewise, other individualist political movements are often attacked by calling their views "Social Darwinism" whether they actually espouse such theories or not.

See also Evolution of societies, Sociobiology, Evolutionary psychology.

Contrast with Peter Kropotkin Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution[?], social ecology

References and External links



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