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Some Additional Comments on Social Darwinism

Michael Flannery
Photo: Charles Darwin, by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A new book, Social Darwinism, by Jeffrey O’Connell and his mentor Michael Ruse, has received notice from my esteemed colleague, Richard Weikart. This careful scholar of the social and intellectual history of evolutionary thought has pointed out many of the significant errors contained therein, first in its efforts to distance Darwin from Herbert Spencer (here), and second in its misguided echoing of Robert Richards’s flawed thesis that Hitler was not an evolutionist, much less a Darwinian evolutionist (here). Weikart’s analysis of this book could hardly be improved upon; I simply invite the readers of this post to examine his extensive writings on the subject for themselves. 

For my part, however, I’d like to delve a little more into O’Connell and Ruse’s insistence that Darwin and Spencer shared little in common. In fact, they claim that Spencer “was never a Darwinian, proto or otherwise” (13). Everything hinges principally upon this bold declaration. How much of a social Darwinist Darwin really was and how much this might have been associated with Spencerian evolution and vice versa is hardly a new question. This has been hashed out repeatedly for years. 

Passionate Proclamations

In fact, one could easily ignore this present publication by reading “The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer” published in Current Anthropology nearly fifty years ago. When one does, two of the scholars most prominently featured in that collective commentary on Derek Freeman (1916-2001), himself a controversial anthropologist from New Zealand who insisted that Spencer and Darwin were miles apart on the subject of evolution, are the American anthropologist Marvin Harris (1927-2001) and intellectual historian John C. Greene (1917-2008). Despite Freeman’s passionate proclamations aimed at distancing the two historic figures, Harris insists that Freeman’s denial that Darwinian principles had applications for the social sciences is “very weak.” Harris pulls no punches, saying, “I am at a loss to comprehend why any scholar with an interest in the history of ideas should attempt to separate these tenets from their historical precedents. The evidence against Freeman’s view is overwhelming.” 

A Pathbreaking Essay

Similarly John C. Greene argues that “Freeman tends to underestimate the common elements in their [Spencer’s and Darwin’s] views concerning nature, human nature, and social evolution.” Noting that Darwin’s Descent of Man included some specifically Spencerian elements, Greene elaborated upon this argument in a pathbreaking 44-year-old essay, “Darwin as a Social Evolutionist.” There he noted two ends of the spectrum: Harris’s charge that Darwin really developed a theory of “biological Spencerism” and Freeman’s complete disclaimer as to Darwin’s role in the social applications that bear his name. After a thorough examination of the issues involved, Greene states that “it seems fair to conclude that what we call ‘social Darwinism’ — the belief that competition between individuals, tribes, nations, and races has been an important, if not the chief, engine of progress in human history — was endemic in much of British thought in the mid-nineteenth century, that Darwin’s Origin of Species gave a powerful boost to this kind of thinking, and that Darwin himself was deeply influenced by this current of thought.” In effect, Greene falls somewhere in the middle (though leaning towards Harris), admitting to the clear fact that Darwin was a social Darwinist. 

While it seems obvious that Darwin drew from many sources in his social views, it goes too far to say that Spencer played no role just as it is equally wrong to say Spencer held no connection with Darwinism. As Darwin’s biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore state plainly:

“Social Darwinism” is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start — “Darwinism” was always intended to explain human society.

(Darwin, xxi)

Nothing New to the Table

Oddly enough O’Connell and Ruse admit as much but without any engagement with their predecessors, pro or con. Even Freeman, with whom they would be most comfortable, isn’t referenced. The upshot is Social Darwinism brings nothing new to the table, except perhaps for its quirky foray into Nietzsche, already mentioned by Dr. Weikart. But even if Spencer and Darwin did have different views on morals and ethics (Spencer’s being the more insidious), those differences had little real practical effect. When leading American eugenicists Paul Popenoe (1888-1979) and Roswell Hill Johnson (1877-1967) thought of applying their twisted principles of “proper” marriage and forced sterilization, it was Darwin not Spencer who came to mind:

The science of eugenics is the natural result of the spread and acceptance of organic evolution, following the publication of Darwin’s work The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859. It took a generation for his ideas to win the day; but then they revolutionized the intellectual life of the civilized world. Man came to realize that the course of nature is regular; that the observed sequence of events can be described in formulas which are called natural laws; he learned that he could achieve great results in plant and animal breeding by working in harmony with these laws. Then the question logically arose, “Is not man himself subject to those same laws? Can he not use his knowledge of them to improve his own species, as he has been more or less consciously improving the plants and animals that were of most value to him, for many centuries?”

(Applied Eugenics, 1918)

O’Connell and Ruse’s failure to engage deeply and fully with the historiography of this question makes it hard to take their effort seriously. Such historical amnesia renders Social Darwinism hardly more than just another sorry production of the Darwin industry. 

I am leaving O’Connell and Ruse with one piece of unfinished business, namely, their portrayal of the co-founder of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), mentioned in their book 35 times. I will turn my attention to that in my next post.