What are the social impacts of the theory of evolution?
Social Darwinism refers to the attempts to
utilize the evolutionary theory of Darwin to give descriptions of society or
prescriptions for its best constitution. According to that theory, there is
a struggle for existence among animals and plants which results in evolutionary
change. This change is not neutral, it entails �development�, which may be regarded
as �progress�. The implied value in �progress� was the cue for some thinkers
to argue that evolutionary change should be deliberately nurtured by the more
intense prosecution of the struggle for existence which would encourage the
�best� out of individuals and societies.
Darwin himself agreed on better adaptation,
and increasing complexification, but wholly rejected the idea that the evolutionary
progress of organisms had any kind of moral implication. He understood the �improvement�
implied in �progress through evolution� in a functional rather than an ethical,
moral, or social sense.
�Darwinism � Spencerism�
By some analogy to its biological counterpart,
Social Darwinism argues that the struggle for existence among humans may be
expected to yield social progress, just as struggle among human communities
does produce evolutionary adaptive results. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English
sociologist and philosopher, was the pioneer of this approach, so much so that
Social Darwinism might, in many respects, be better called �Social Spencerism�.
Spencer was raised in the competitive atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution
and remained one of the great champions of laissez-faire economics. It was he
who coined the term �survival of the fittest� to describe natural selection,
although he was never a convinced Darwinist. He had already accepted a progressive
view of human society, and the idea of biological evolution, during the 1850s,
before Darwin�s theory became public. For Spencer, Malthus�s �law� of demographic
change was the dynamic agent of social development, constantly forcing societies
to progress economically in order to escape the pressure of limited resources.
At the same time, he was convinced by Lamarck�s arguments for evolution and
began to see the possibility of constructing a synthesis that would unite all
aspects of natural and human evolution under the same laws.
Social Darwinism and the American way
Social Darwinism received some of its widest
support in the U.S. where the laissez-faire economics developed in England and
France in the late 18th century were vigorously espoused, and where, after the
successful War of Independence, rights of the individual (especially in the
form of freedom from government interference) were enthusiastically promoted.
The leading Social Darwinist in American academic circles was William Graham
Sumner (1840-1910), Professor of political economy and social science at Yale
which, under his influence, became a kind of pulpit for Social Darwinism. His
ideas were derived chiefly from Spencer. He viewed the capitalist system with
great favor because it allowed the free play of the �competition of life�. Unlike
Spencer, he was very pessimistic and didn�t look forward to a future state of
equilibrium. The well-known industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie
(1835-1914), held the view that individualism, private property, the law of
accumulation of wealth and the law of competition promoted the highest and best
in human achievements. Other businessman liked to see (and present) themselves
as successful survivors in the struggle for existence. For example Rockefeller
said: �The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest...�.
Interestingly, many rich American industrialists and businessmen found no difficulty
in accommodating Christianity to the Darwinian idea of a competitive struggle
which �necessarily� eliminated the weaker parties in the struggle.
War of nations and races
It is not surprising that Social Darwinist
arguments were readily extended to the conclusion that evolutionary progress
of mankind is furthered by inter-racial or inter-national struggles. The theory
of evolution could be and was used in justifications of wars for national or
racial supremacy. The best known writer in this vein was the German historian
Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896). In his �Politics�, he argued that the weak
must perish, and that they perish �justly�: �The grandeur of history lies in
the perpetual conflict of nations, and it is simply foolish to desire the suppression
of their rivalry.�
Though Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) never stated
explicitly that he was drawing on Darwin�s theory of evolution, we can easily
see in the Hitlerian doctrine of racial superiority a kind of Darwinism carried
to logical extreme of madness. (Darwin himself might have had some racist tendencies.
For example, he wrote: �The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten
the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no
very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been
eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.�
Influence on political ideology
Spencerian Social Darwinism reached its peak
of influence in 1882, when Spencer visited U.S. for an extensive lecture tour.
But that tour also coincided with the beginning of questioning and reaction.
Leading the reaction was Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913), a geologist and a professor
of sociology. Ward took his stand on the side of nurture in the growing controversy
of nature vs. nurture. His thoughts can be described as reformed or liberal
Social Darwinism, repudiating the struggle doctrines of the laissez-faire school
in favor of emphasis on social improvement through attention to the conditions
of the social environment.
Australia, in the period from 1860 to 1885,
saw the most frequent advocacy of Spencerian evolutionary ideas. Many Spencerian,
Darwinian and Malthusian ideas and slogans were repeated by politicians, businessmen,
academics, and journalists, just as in the U.S.. But the succeeding period of
economic depression dampened the enthusiasm, again as in the U.S., and criticisms
began to develop and made themselves felt in the 1880s.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries,
various political and intellectual ideologies were clearly inspired to some
degree by Social Darwinism � militarism, colonialism, racism, Nazism. Even socialism
and anarchism were influenced by this doctrine. Marx and Engels were much interested
in Darwin�s work, and used his theory to underpin their notion of the historical
evolution of class struggle.
Essentialism and relativism
The influence of Darwinism on philosophical
ideas was considerable and many-sided, but the precise way this influence worked
is by no means easy to state in simple terms. Generally, Darwinian theory promoted
or assisted the decline of Essentialism and the concomitant rise of relativism
in many branches of philosophy. The doctrine of essences, all allegedly �ultimate
explanations�, was driven out of philosophy. The American school of philosophy
called �Pragmatism�, developed in the 1870s, was self-consciously influenced
by Darwinism, some of its proponents being firm believers. Notably, Chauncy
Wright (1830-1875), who, to Darwin�s considerable pleasure, defended the Darwinian
theory against the perceptive attacks of some Catholic scholars. Charles Pierce
(1839-1914), after his careful study of Darwin�s work, envisaged a kind of natural
selection process acting on ideas.
Darwin himself was one of the first to consider
the relationship between ethical theory and evolutionary doctrines, as when
he argued that altruism might have had an evolutionary origin. He tried to show
how ethical behavior would have survival value, and thus might become established
in human societies. But Darwin didn�t take the further step and say that one
might distinguish between right and wrong by considering what had happened during
the course of evolution, or where it was going in future. Evolution in itself
did not provide an ethical code. Herbert Spencer, however, went beyond Darwin
and hinted that this would be a possibility, as he wrote, �The conduct to which
we apply the name good, is the relatively more evolved conduct, and ... bad
is the name we apply to conduct which is relatively less evolved.�
Such opinions were countered by T. H. Huxley
in his 1893 essay, �Evolution and ethics�. saying that one cannot possibly draw
any moral or ethical conclusions from a consideration of the course of evolution,
evolution and ethics are quite distinct. Although his arguments were quite persuasive,
others went on attempting to derive ethical norms from the evolutionary process.
Exclusion of the supernatural
Darwinian theory was purely naturalistic; it
made no appeal to entities such as God, divine spirits, hypothetical intellects,
final causes, souls or Platonic ideas. By providing an alternative naturalistic
explanation of design, Darwin made it seem less necessary to construct a view
of the world that invoked some kind of supernatural being. Darwin�s theories
therefore gave considerable support to materialist interpretations of the world.
The old mind/body dualism of Descartes and his followers would be replaced by
a monistic materialism. This attitude proved particularly attractive in Germany,
in the writings of the members of so-called �Monist League�, the work of the
philosopher/biologist, Ernst Haeckel ( 1834-1919) being particularly prominent.
Haeckel, once regarded as a progressive liberal opposed to the excesses of arbitrary
state power, has (in the light of more recent studies) come to be considered
as one of formative influences on German Nazism., The three main strands in
his thought were German Romantic Idealism, scientific positivism and materialism,
and Darwinism. But Haeckel�s materialism was interestingly different; for him,
atoms were endowed with souls.
Also drawing on biological evolution, although
less directly, was the philologist and nihilist professor, Friedrich Nietzsche
(1844-1900), particularly in his poetic-philosophic discourse work Thus Spoke
Zarathustra. He believed that by a proper exercise of will, certain men might
evolve into a world-elite of �Ubermenschen� or Supermen. Superman would be his
own master and might succeed to the rank and authority traditionally associated
Henri Bergson (French philosopher, (1859-1941),
accorded primacy to spirit and intuition, rather than matter and analysis. Metaphysics
was concerned with spirit and intuition, and he sided with the metaphysicians.
Bergson�s evolutionism, though all-pervasive in his system, was very different
from Darwin�s naturalistic, mechanistic or materialistic doctrine of evolution
by natural selection. It is clear that Bergson far transcended the hard ground
of Darwinian science and moved on to the lusher fields of speculative metaphysics.
In its time, his work Creative Evolution aroused considerable excitement and
On the subject of metaphysics
Darwin himself was somewhat skeptical: �To study metaphysics as it has always
been studied appears to me to be like puzzling at astronomy without mechanics.�
He felt that one who had explained the (biological) origin of man, who knew
what a baboon was, had done more to explain man than Locke.
Darwinism�s impact on religion
can be summarized by saying that it undermined religious beliefs, and was one
of the major influences in encouraging agnosticism. Its naturalistic structure
opposed the theological basis of Divine religions. Between 1830
and 1875, we observe an evolution in British society and particularly British
scientific society. In 1830s, science as a profession was just beginning, and
because of the peculiarities of British higher education there were strong links
between science and organized religion. The next forty to fifty years saw those
links weaken and break; and evolutionism, particularly Darwinian evolutionism
gained the opportunity to be used. Darwin succeeded where Chambers (who proposed
a designed evolution) failed, because Darwin had earned respect as a scientist.
So for this change in Victorian Britain, the Darwinian Revolution was part cause
and part effect.
Because of its social implications,
evolution is a subject highly charged with emotion, and
much of the literature on it suffers from unspoken and often untested assumptions.
It is very difficult to discuss the theory with objectivity. Discussion of it
tends to spill over to virtually every area of discourse in the humanities and
social sciences: Sociology, Economics, Politics, Theology, Philosophy, Psychology,
Anthropology, Literature, and Music.