In this Bicentennial year of Darwin's birth, there are many who want to drive a wedge between Darwinism as a scientific theory and Darwinism as a philosophical, social or political theory. Here in the UK, we have a Templeton Foundation-funded project called "Rescuing Darwin" which seeks to do exactly this. Darwinism, it is claimed, is essentially a scientific theory and it needs to be rescued from the atheists, the social-engineers and others who are taking it far beyond the domain of science. Here is an excerpt from the report "Rescuing Darwin".
"Social Darwinism did not have the monopoly on interpreting evolution. Indeed, in its time evolution has been used in support of every "ism" imaginable, including socialism, capitalism, racism, eugenics, feminism, theism and atheism. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, Darwin "had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind". The key point is that, from the earliest times, evolution was understood - and sometimes rejected - as a philosophical, social or political theory, rather than simply a biological one." (page 25)
This strategy of presenting Darwinism as science with no philosophical or ideological baggage deserves to be critiqued and challenged. Many of us argue that science necessarily implies a philosophical underpinning, and that metaphysical foundation inevitably affects the way science is practised. This blog, however, is concerned with the evidence from history. What was Darwin's own thinking about laissez-faire social Darwinism? Does he deserve to be rescued from those who have inappropriately applied his science to the workings of human society? Or is he being expelled from his own house?
Will the real Darwin please stand up! (Source here)
In an incisive essay, Richard Weikart contributes to the scholarly answers to these questions. There have been some who say that "social Darwinism was an essential part of Darwin's theory". Others have denied that social Darwinism ever existed, and still others who "blame Herbert Spencer for originating and popularizing social Darwinism". The essay concerns the relationship between Spencer's and Darwin's social views over time.
"That is the task I set for myself, as I explore the following questions: How much influence did Spencer exert on Darwin's social thought and vice-versa? What did Spencer and Darwin think about each others' views of social evolution, especially as it related to laissez-faire economic theory? Was Spencer a social Darwinist? Was Darwin a social Darwinist?"
Both men were influenced by Thomas Malthus's population theory. Both used and developed arguments first made by Malthus. Weikart's analysis is that the views of Spencer and Darwin provide a striking example of convergent evolution.
"Because laissez-faire economic ideals were so prominent in English intellectual and political life in the mid-nineteenth century, it should come as no surprise that Darwin and Spencer imbibed these ideas independently. Their thinking about human society was shaped heavily by mid-Victorian economic values and concepts such as competition, division of labor, and adaptation."
Spencer's thinking was developed earlier than Darwin's, although Spencer's views can be described as Lamarkian. After reading Darwin, he incorporated selection into his thinking.
"Thus long before he read Darwin, Spencer (1851, 324) embraced the position that laissez-faire was necessary to ensure biological progress, not only by stimulating some people to improve themselves (Lamarckism), but also by society "excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members" (Darwinian selection)."
Although there are hints of Darwin's thinking on these matters before 1871, it was not until the publication of "The Descent of Man" that we have something more substantial to refer to.
"But would not the evolution of morality, based on what Darwin called social instincts, ameliorate the struggle for existence among humans? Would it not temper the struggle for existence with moral sentiments that would make humans cooperate? Yes, Darwin explained, when he forthrightly broached the subject in the last half of chapter five, in a section entitled, "Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations." In this section Darwin explained his views about how his theory impinged on human society. If one wants to know whether or not Darwin was a social Darwinist, especially in relation to laissez-faire economics, this is the section to examine."
After reviewing the views of different scholars and making his own arguments, Weikart concludes that:
"Though Darwin's advocacy of laissez-faire economic competition was neither as vocal nor as radical as Spencer's, he clearly viewed economic competition as an integral part of the human struggle for existence, and he insisted that governments should foster, not reduce, competition."
So, it is concluded that both men were social Darwinists and that they had come to their views largely independently. Darwin made no attempt to distance himself from Spencer on these matters.
"Despite any differences between them, Darwin and Spencer were both laissez-faire social Darwinists. They both used biological arguments to justify economic policies designed to sharpen human competition. They warned against government involvement or legislation that would significantly reduce economic competition because they thought this would result in biological deterioration. They developed these ideas in a common intellectual and social context where laissez-faire economics was economic orthodoxy. Spencer was certainly the first of the two to publish his social Darwinist ideas, if it is appropriate to use this term before 1859. Spencer's laissez-faire views were also even more radical than Darwin's since his opposition to government intervention was far more radical than most laissez-faire proponents. Darwin's views were more in line with mainstream laissez-faire economics."
The take-home message is this: Darwinism is NOT a purely scientific theory. The science cannot be divorced from the underpinning philosophy. Projects like "Rescuing Darwin" are fundamentally flawed and philosophically naive. Educationalists have a duty to introduce students to these issues in a way that encourages critical thought and analysis.
Was Darwin or Spencer the Father of Laissez-Faire Social Darwinism?
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 71, 2009, 20-28 | doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2007.06.011
Abstract: This article explores the way that Darwin and Spencer integrated laissez-faire ideas into their evolutionary biology, and how they then extrapolated from their evolutionary theories to social and economic thought. It argues that Darwin and Spencer developed laissez-faire social Darwinism independently, making both important progenitors of it.
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