Culture & Ethics
Faith & Science
How Not to Defend Darwin on “Survival of the Fittest”
Evolutionary biologists make poor historians, especially when it comes to Charles Darwin. So intent on preserving the reputation of St. Charles, evolutionists typically do their best to paper-over Darwin’s less-than-savory views on issues like race or the application of natural selection to society. British biochemist and theistic evolutionist Denis Alexander runs true to form in a newly posted interview at BioLogos. In the interview, Alexander does his best to disassociate Darwin from the idea of “survival of the fittest,” noting that the phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer rather than Charles Darwin, and that it was then picked up by nasty politicians like Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler, who used it to promote their noxious views.
Alexander is correct that Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and that the idea was adopted by the Kaiser and by Hitler. But he neglects to mention one other important figure from history who embraced the term: Charles Darwin himself. As I point out in my book Darwin Day in America, Darwin eventually described “survival of the fittest” as “more accurate” than his own term of “natural selection,” and he employed the phrase repeatedly in the fifth and sixth editions of On the Origin of Species as well as in other works.
Alexander also tries to distance Darwin from the misuse of science to promote racism. Again, he provides a highly redacted version of the historical record. Darwin opposed slavery (to his credit), but he also was a thoroughgoing racist who thought natural selection provided a scientific rationale for why we should expect to see races with different intellectual capacities.
In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin disparaged blacks and observed that the break in evolutionary history between apes and humans fell “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla,” indicating that he considered blacks the humans that were the most ape-like. [Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin also predicted that “[a]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” [Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin’s contribution to scientific racism is hard to deny, no matter how much contemporary Darwinists try to rewrite history.
Those who are interested in a more frank exploration of the controversial relationship between Darwin, Darwinian theory, and social Darwinism might want to check out the new documentary What Hath Darwin Wrought, which has just been released on DVD and will be airing on cable television this fall. The documentary’s website can be accessed here.