At the height of the banking crisis in 2009, the CEO of Mellon Bank, one of the beneficiaries of the massive taxpayer-funded bank bailout, had the gall to tell a PBS interviewer "Capitalism works; Darwinism works." His chutzpa in the middle of an economic disaster was a particularly flagrant example of how Darwin's name, and his theory, have been exploited as propaganda for a laissez faire, "survival of the fittest" model of capitalism.
The roots of what has come to be known as "Social Darwinism" can be traced back to the robber baron era in the latter nineteenth century. The idea that the economy of a successful capitalist society amounts to a cut-throat competitive struggle, much like what was supposed to be the case in the natural world, was inspired by the British social theorist Herbert Spencer. In fact, it was Spencer who coined the term "survival of the fittest," not Darwin.
Fairly typical of the Social Darwinist rhetoric of that era was this pronouncement by the American sociologist E.B. Tylor: "The institutions which can best hold their own in the world gradually supersede the less fit ones, and...this incessant conflict determines the general resultant course of culture." Business magnate John D. Rockefeller, in a Sunday school address, told his audience that "The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest.... It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God." Likewise, the steel baron Andrew Carnegie, in an 1889 essay entitled "The Gospel of Wealth" assured us that: "While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore...great inequality...as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race."
Today, we refer to wealthy capitalists as the "job creators." We are told that the rich deserve their wealth, because they have earned it in the competitive "free market." The unemployed and the poor, on the other hand, have failed to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to them. Their hardship is their own fault. Thus, Newt Gingrich tells us: "I'm opposed to giving people money for doing nothing." (Evidently, searching for a job, the only way to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, doesn't count.) President Obama, in his recent Osawatomie speech, characterized it as "'you're on your own' economics ....We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."
With Social Darwinist rhetoric, and policy proposals, being much in evidence these days in the Republican Presidential debates and in Congress, we should try to set the record straight about Darwin. In fact, Darwin's Darwinism was radically opposed to an individualistic, "nature, red in tooth and claw" political ideology (as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described it), especially in social species like honeybees and humankind. In his treatise on human evolution, The Descent of Man, published twelve years after The Origin of Species, Darwin recognized that humans evolved in interdependent cooperative groups, not as isolated individuals, and that cooperation was the key to our success.
Indeed, Darwin attributed our dominant position in nature and our remarkable cultural attainments to our evolved social, moral, and mental faculties, in combination with our language abilities. Following a discussion in The Descent devoted to the role of social behavior in various species, Darwin dealt at length with the subject of "Man as a Social Animal." He concluded that our morality is a product of the evolutionary process, and he believed that our "social instincts," including even our capacity for "sympathy," "kindness," and the desire for social "approbation," are rooted in human nature. The rudiments of these behaviors, he pointed out, can be found in other social species as well:
"In the first place, as the reasoning powers and foresight of the members became improved, each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows. And the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feelings of sympathy which gives first impulse to benevolent actions" (p. 146).
Darwin also believed that "group selection" between various competing "tribes" played a major role in shaping the course of human evolution. "Natural selection, arising from the competition of tribe with tribe...would, under favourable conditions, have sufficed to raise man to his high position." The tribes that were the most highly endowed with intelligence, courage, discipline, sympathy and "fidelity" would have had a competitive advantage, he argued.
"Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would slowly tend to advance and be diffused throughout the world" (p.148).
President Obama, in his Osawatomie speech, picked up on this theme: "Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It's about building a nation where we're all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part." The President also quoted from President Teddy Roosevelt's 1910 "New Nationalism" speech, also delivered in Osawatomie: "The fundamental rule of our national life, the rule which underlies all others, is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."
Darwin's Darwinism was grounded in a more accurate understanding of human nature, and of the cirumscribed role of competition in any society. Social Darwinism represents a perversion of Darwin's views. It is time to consign it to the museum of antiquated ideologies.