Darwin predicted that his views about evolution would be misrepresented but that history would defend him.
When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, he predicted that his views would be misrepresented but that history would defend his point of view. To this day, he has been correct. Although still highly controversial, Darwin’s evolutionary, and revolutionary, hypothesis is one of the main building blocks of a modern day education. It was impossible for Darwin to imagine, however, the degree to which his ideas would be perverted in his own lifetime. Social Darwinism, catalyzed by society’s unfaltering faith in science, was an outgrowth of Darwin’s theories about the survival of the fittest, and at its worst, it was merely a crutch for imperialistic Europeans to lean on, to justify their selfish, condescending behavior towards distant colonial peoples. Herbert Spencer, although not necessarily an advocate of imperialism, eloquently defends Social Darwinism. Thomas Henry Huxley, on the other hand, clarifies Darwin’s views, denounces Social Darwinism as a blatant misinterpretation of Darwin’s views, and earns for himself the title “Darwin’s Bulldog.” In this paper, I will discuss Darwin and his writings, the evolution, if you will, of Social Darwinism from his writings, and the differing viewpoints of Spencer and Huxley on Social Darwinism.
“The Origin of Species by” by Charles Darwin.
Darwin’s ideas were largely based on his study of geology and of biology all over the world. He was very arrogant about his ideas; his arrogance based on the correct assumption that his ideas would be attacked by the community at large. It is perhaps this assumption which lead Darwin to present such convincing arguments, to fine tune his writing so that ignorance could be the only reason one would dispute his findings. In fact, in Origin of Species Darwin states:
“It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the ‘plan of creation,’ ‘unity of design,’ etc…”
It is ironic that Darwin, who had prepared to study theology at Cambridge, would cause such upheaval in the religious community! Darwin, however, didn’t seem to understand the concerns of the religious community, nor did he try to hide his views in subtle implications. He seemed to believe that the scientific value of what he stated would outweigh the religious conflict it created. Again, it is worth noting what Darwin said:
“I see no good reason why the view given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”
Well, his views did shock the religious community, but this did not hinder Darwin. He thrived on the resistance he received and eventually saw his views come into wide acceptance. His arrogance, however, was exceeded only by his persuasiveness.
First in Origin of Species and later in the Descent of Man, Darwin paints a convincing picture of a world in strife, a world where the inhabitants must struggle to survive, a world where only the “fittest” ultimately and rightly do survive. Darwin coined the phrases “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” among others. Misinterpretation of the former caused oversimplification of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and misinterpretation of the latter caused the formation of Social Darwinism. Darwin describes natural selection as a control process for population growth. First, a species grows in size geometrically, then certain changes in some of the species give them a slight advantage over the other members of the species. Then this adapted species survives, other less adapted species die out, and the “new” evolved species passes on its changes to the next generation. As such, all beings are in a constant state of change. Darwin did not believe that natural selection alone caused the modification of species. He states:
“I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.”
None the less, the claim that all mutation in species is caused by natural selection was often attribute to Darwin. Without plunging too deeply into his full theory, suffice it to say that Darwin left a great deal of room for interpretation and misinterpretation. He often spoke in sweeping generalizations and made a great deal of exceptions when the facts seemed to elude his theory. For example, he claims that natural selection “naturally” leads to the extinction of lower forms of life, yet he admits that some low forms of life will continue to exist if they are “well suited for their simple conditions of life.” This contradiction leads to the following question. How can man and his supposed progenitor, the monkey, exist simultaneously? If environment demanded our evolution, how come it did not demand the same of the monkey? And why are there more evident missing links in fossils in the evolution of man than there are links? Darwin himself admits that his work is imperfect and that his claims are supported by very few examples. Having dismissed the possibility of divine creation, Darwin basically claims his theory is the only possible answer, not because it has been scientifically proven, but because there exists no counterexample. What else, he argues, could collectively explain so many observed phenomena! Darwin knew his views were imperfect, but he also knew that they were the best explanation that existed. He also predicted that his views would be misinterpreted, but he could not have foreseen the rise of Social Darwinism and its possible harmful consequences.
Social Darwinism is the application of Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest to society in general. Social Darwinists, at their extreme, use Darwinism to justify the superiority of one race over another. They believe that wars must be fought to ensure survival of the fittest. They also believe that the poor should be left alone, that in helping the poor you are actually hurting the society. Economically, they believe in laissez faire and minimal government interference. Social Darwinism arose because Darwin had not completely defined “fittest.” In a civilized world, who is fittest? And if the fittest can be identified, should they rule the less fit? If two peoples believe that they have evolved to be the fittest, what other recourse is there but war to decide who is fittest? Finally, what should be done with the poor? The basic problem with applying Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest to society is that man had become aware of his own evolutionary state, if in fact evolution was true, and therefore he was no longer following the natural course of evolution. He could, therefore, justify his actions as a need to continue to evolve, to remove the weak and the poor of the species. Darwin did not address the problem of what happens when man becomes aware of his evolutionary status. The Social Darwinists were practically fatalistic on man’s own evolution – they believed that although man could change his environment, he could do nothing to change himself.
Herbert Spencer was one of its greatest advocates of Social Darwinism. Spencer, in his Illustrations of Universal Progress, describes the evolution of man as a form of progress. He describes the evolution of man and society as a gradual evolution from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the simple to the complex. Evolution is progress; progress is change. Change is necessary in order to survive. It has always happened, it is happening, and it must always continue to happen. Man can do nothing to stop it. Spencer goes on to say that man not only cannot stop this change, but he must continue to change until he is perfect. One obvious problem with this viewpoint is that it assumes a final perfect state for man. Then what? Is there then regression? If evolution is progress, and it has always happened, how can it achieve a final end? Spencer sidesteps this question by saying that human perfection must be achieved, but at a finite decreasing rate. This way, it will take an infinite amount of time for man to achieve perfection! How convenient. I do not think I want to be around when we start to regress, although sometimes I think we have already started.
“Social Statics: Abridged and Revised and The Man versus The State” by Herbert Spencer.
In Social Statics And Man Versus The State, Spencer goes on to describe his views of the individual in society. Spencer advocates individual rights, citing that individuals will work more if they receive more benefit. Clearly he believes there are classes of people, and that some are more fit than others to evolve and survive. In fact, he says:
“Various races of mankind, inhabiting bad habitats, and obliged to lead miserable lives, cannot by any amount of adaptation be molded into satisfactory types.”
In addition, he believes that the poor and the unfit cannot be helped:
“The defective nature of citizens will show themselves in the bad acting of whatever social structure the are arranged into.”
He likens the situation of the poor to an operation. Part of the body must undergo immediate suffering so that the rest of the body will survive later. Likewise, the poor must be left alone to suffer so that the community will continue to be prosperous. The poor are a stumbling block to progress, to evolution. The only acceptable aid for the poor, according to Spencer, is that which tends towards having the poor help themselves. As far as government is concerned, Spencer believes that government should maintain individual freedom and justice. Otherwise, Spencer believes that society, like people, left alone (laissez faire) will change from homogeneous to heterogeneous and that this progress will continue.
“Evolution and Ethics and Science and Morals” by Thomas H. Huxley.
Thomas Henry Huxley, on the other hand, shared very few of these views. He had warned Darwin that his ideas would be attacked, and when they inevitably were attacked, Huxley came to his defense and became “Darwin’s Bulldog.” In Evolution And Ethics, Huxley removes, one by one, the building blocks which form the foundation of Social Darwinism. His goal was to set the record straight, and he did. Huxley agrees that man is the supreme being on earth, but that his full supremacy is realized, not individually, but in an organized polity. Furthermore, Huxley does not foresee the infinite improvement of man. Rather, he envisions the world and man eventually declining. Where Darwin was ambiguous regarding what is meant by fittest, Huxley is very clear. He states that what is fittest is not what man perceives to be best – it depends on conditions. Very hot weather or very cold weather, for example, may exclude man from the class of beings called fittest! So who is fittest? Huxley challenges the Social Darwinists with his assertion that the issue is “…not so much …the survival of the fittest, as…the fitting as many as possible to survive.” This includes the proper treatment of the poor and proper treatment of people by their rulers.
“…each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantage of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it…”
With this, Huxley attacks the Social Darwinists, and resolves the problem of what man is to do with his own consciousness of evolutionary nature. The solution is that man can do something about his course of evolution, and, unlike Spencer who argued that man must not interfere with his progress, Huxley argues that man must do something to change evolution primarily because his consciousness makes him an ethical being.
“Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progressed of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process,…but in combating it. It may seem an audacious proposal thus to pit he microcosm against the macrocosm, …but…for the hope that such an enterprise may meet with a certain measure of success.”
Therefore, man is an ethical being, not doomed to primitive evolutionary behavior based on survival of the fittest, survival of the one with the most physical prowess. An ethical being, man has a responsibility to fight evolution, to ensure survival of a many as possible. Huxley sums it up best himself.
“We are grown men, and must play the man, cherishing the good…, bearing the evil,…with stout hearts set on diminishing it.”
Social Darwinism, therefore, was a result of overzealous oversimplification and improper application of a revolutionary theory. Darwin left room for interpretation, but perhaps he left too much. The liberal Social Darwinist ideas of Spencer were eloquently retorted by Huxley based on the principle that man is different from his predecessors because he is an ethical being. A naturalist at heart, it is no surprise that Darwin preferred to consider himself a descendant of a monkey rather than of humans who would attack his very controversial theory. In the end, his view that life has its origin in a divine Creator and evolved from there seems to have been lost in the never ending controversy over evolution. And his prediction that history would defend his point of view is still true.
[This article was written while Erik J. Heels was a student at MIT for the course 21.357 History of the Western World II; taught by David B. Ralston (http://web.mit.edu/history/www/ralston/ralston.htm. It was reprinted here, for no apparent reason, sometime before Erik’s 40th birthday.]