Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

How Not to Defend Darwin on “Survival of the Fittest”

World Darwin Day representing the evolotuion theory illustration generative ai
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

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.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.



__k-reviewFilms and VideoViews