[Paleopsych] What's coming our way

Steve Hovland shovland at mindspring.com
Thu Nov 4 14:56:11 UTC 2004

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a quasi-philosophical, quasi-religious, 
quasi-sociological view that came from the mind of Herbert Spencer, an 
English philosopher in the 19th century. It did not achieve wide acceptance 
in England or Europe, but flourished in this country, as is true of many 
ideologies, religions, and philosophies. A good summary of Social Darwinism 
is by Johnson:
In these years, when Darwin's Origin of Species, popularized by Herbert 
Spencer as "the survival of the fittest, " and applied to races as well as 
species in a vulgarized form, Social Darwinism, the coming Christian 
triumph was presented as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant one.
Social Darwinism is by no means dead, for vestiges of it can be found in 
the present.
What Is "Darwinism?"
Charles Darwin was an English biologist who, along with a few others, 
developed a biological concept that has been vulgarized and attacked from 
the moment his major work, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859. An 
accurate and brief picture of his contribution to biology is probably his 
own: Evolution is transmission with adaptation. Darwin saw in his epochal 
trip aboard the ship The Beagle in the 1830s what many others had seen but 
did not draw the proper conclusions. In the Galapagos Islands, off South 
America, Darwin noted that very large tortoises differed slightly from one 
island to the next. He noted also that finches also differed from one 
geographical location to the next. Some had shorter beaks, useful for 
cracking seeds. Some had long, sharp beaks, useful for prying insects out 
of their hiding places. Some had long tail feathers, others short ones.
Darwin took copious notes, captured insects and animals and selected 
plants. These he preserved in jars and took them back to England where he 
thought about the implications of what he had seen. for almost three 
decades. What occurred to him was a simple notion: animals, plants, 
insects, fishes, etc., which were obviously related differed slightly and 
these differences seemed to be tied in with their ability to survive. 
Differences, which he called "adaptations," were often related to 
geographical factors. He also saw something similar in fossils: certainly 
some fish, sea shells, etc., that died and were covered up by sand, 
gradually turned to stone, and were caught forever in fossil form. There 
seemed to be an interesting, complex relationship: extinct animals, fish, 
insects, plants, etc., looked somewhat like contemporary ones but were not 
in the same phyla. (That is, they were not of the same kind, type or 
What this seemed to mean to Darwin was biological evolution. Organisms 
better suited to their environment gained some survival advantage and 
passed their genetically transmitted advantages to their offsprings. Darwin 
thought that this process was extremely slow and even. In fact, we became 
aware that it is neither slow nor even: there are examples of a good deal 
of change in a short period of time; and there are examples of very little 
change over a long period of time. Nor did Darwin understand the mechanism 
by which the transmission took place. This was to be figured out by Gregor 
Mendel, Thomas Hunt Morgan, DeVries and in our own time, Watson and Crick 
who deduced the spiral shape of the DNA molecule.
Darwin's discoveries struck his native England, as well as Europe, and this 
country with an enormous impact. They ran into total conflict with the idea 
of special creation, which one can find in the Book of Genesis, especially 
Chapter I and II. The emotional impact of Darwin's discoveries have not 
The Misapplication of a Biological Theory
But, for our purposes, it is the use to which some people made of 
biological evolution which concerns us. Some simplified the idea to 
"survival of the fittest." Others believed that an identical process took 
place among human beings. They believed that white Protestant Europeans had 
evolved much further and faster than other "races." And some, especially 
the followers of Herbert Spencer, took it one step further. Human society 
is always in a kind of evolutionary process in which the fittest- which 
happened to be those who can make lots of money--were chosen to dominate. 
There were armies of unfit, the poor, who simply could not compete. And 
just as nature weeds out the unfit, an enlightened society ought to weed 
out its unfit and permit them to die off so as not to weaken the racial 
This idea eventually led to a variety of practices and beliefs, e.g., 
Nordic Racism, used by German anthropologists and later Nazi theoreticians. 
It also led to eugenics in which, it was believed, the unfit transmit their 
undesirable characteristics. A breeding program for human beings would see 
to it that the unfit did not transmit their undesirable characteristics.
Another application of a biological concept to human behavior was the 
notion that any attempt to provide welfare for the poor was a tragically 
misguided mistake. Feeding or housing the poor simply permitted them to 
survive and to transmit their unfitness to their children, who in turn 
would pass it on to their children. A spurious piece of sociology about two 
families known as the Jukes and the Kallikaks purported to trace a race of 
criminals and prostitutes to two persons in the Revolutionary War. This 
study was used for many years to demonstrate that "inferiority" was 
Many in our culture did not bother to read Spencer, Darwin nor did they 
realize the oversimplification of eugenics. But that is not the point. The 
point is that a piece of ideology got into American life and assumed 
considerable importance. What is also significant is that some, e.g., 
wealthy industrialists, believed that what they were doing was supported by 
science. Yes, they said, the caucasian, European-derived male industrialist 
was at the apex of evolution. And yes, they said, it is undesirable to 
provide, as public policy, governmental support for any plan that would 
perpetuate racial weakness.
Other social theories competed with Social Darwinism. By the 1930s, the New 
Deal created a climate in which the government was responsible for a "net" 
that would not allow any individual to lapse into abject poverty, 
homelessness on a wide scale, hunger or destitution. However, in the 1980s, 
Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform which declared that New Deal 
policies were responsible for poverty, crime, and all other social 
problems. Government, Reagan kept on repeating, was not any part of a 
solution to the problem. Government was the problem. Therefore, a good many 
policies based upon the "net" concept were weakened or simply eliminated.
As we approach the millennium, it is not accurate to say that 19th century 
Social Darwinism, "Reaganomics," New Deal philosophy or its manifestation 
in the economic policies of President Clinton is now dominant. A fair 
assessment is that all of these ideologies can be found within our 
society--as public policy and as belief structure. The ability of 
conflicting, incompatible social philosophies to live side by side, even 
within the same person, (cite) explains why there is so much unresolved 
conflict, why it is difficult for a given bit of social policy to achieve 
permanence. why, as many have pointed out, there is considerable poverty in 
the wealthiest society in the world.

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