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“Survival of the Fittest”: The Flaws and Dissemination of Social Darwinism

Posted in Uncategorized by ce399 on 18/12/2009

Social Darwinism is a philosophy proposed by Herbert Spencer which sought to apply the ideas of Darwin to a social realm. Its basic tenet is that “”Society advances where its fittest members are allowed to assert their fitness with the least hindrance.”, and that the unfit should “not be prevented from dying out” (1). It suffers from severe fallacies of both its own internal logic and its misinterpreting attempts to co-opt Darwin’s theory of evolution to further its own validity by false association. While Spencer’s attempts at applying the theories of biological evolution to the social realm fail miserably on an intellectual plane, they have actually been highly successful at being transferred onto a social plane: his idea has replicated and varied itself for almost two hundred years since being proposed, shaping American economic policy, immigration law, and political thinking up to today, while its variants have influenced everything from Hitler’s eugenics to various state-sponsored incidents of ethnic cleansing. Making a meta-analysis of the method by which his idea has been propagated provides a perfect example of how Darwin’s theories can, and in fact must, be applied to the social realm in order to understand the heritability, survivability, and variance of intellectually unsound ideas over time. In order to understand this, the flaws of Social Darwinism must first be expounded in detail, starting with its internal fallacies of logical coherence.

The three major fallacies it commits are the appeal to authority, retrospective determinism, and the naturalistic fallacy. It appeals to the scientific authority of Darwinism to deceptively associate scientific clout with a decidedly pseudo-scientific theory which, as will be subsequently explained, misinterprets a majority of Darwin’s own thinking. It relies upon circular reasoning and retrospective determinism, or the notion that because something happened it was therefore bound to happen, when it infers that since it may be possible for certain individuals to possess genetic characteristics (intelligence, drive, noble bloodlines) that elevate them from others in terms of wealth and societal status, that then all individuals with such wealth possess such superior genetic characteristics. Therefore all wealthy (or Aryan as used in Nazi eugenics, or any other denotation of privilege) people are justified in their superiority because of the natural selection of genetic factors. This retrospective determinism is used most damningly on the poor and underprivileged, because it assumes that since individuals were born into environments with poor educational resources, rampant crime and urban decay, and other symptoms of poverty, that they all must therefore possess inferior genetic characteristics. The naturalistic fallacy, or the inference that simply because something may be true makes it morally right, comes into play in the subsequent accusation that these people deserve their impoverished state because their genes were unable to adapt to the environment. Indeed, just as certain species which cannot adapt die and become extinct, so the higher death rate in impoverished areas helps to purify the genetic pool of humanity as a whole; thus, such inferior individuals should be allowed to “die out” for the greater good, as Spencer argues. While such internal contradictions are damning enough, when one realizes the extent to which the theory misinterprets Darwin’s own ideas, it becomes impossible to conclude that the heritability of ideas is based upon logic alone.

At first glance, however, it is possible to comprehend how Social Darwinism could be skewed as being justified by Darwinism. According to Mayr, survival of the fittest is an accurate term, because not all individuals have equal properties of survival, and those with the higher properties are “restricted and nonrandom” portions of the population, which oftentimes include groups. Yet ironically the aspect of the group which encourages survival is not that they all possess superior genetics, because such a grouping would be a “soft group” based on coincidence; rather, in these “hard groups”, it is their ability to cooperate with each other, to alert each other of predators, pool their resources, and so on, which better insures their own survival. (Mayr 119, 131-2). Rather than breaking off into factions and allowing each other to die out, the inter-species groups that are selected for are the ones who cooperate for the greater good, something which many consider to be the underpinnings of modern ethics. An ideal state of such group adaptation would be one in which the populations cooperate for the greater good of the species, helping each other obtain the resources necessary to survive, rather than lording over them to the exclusion of others. Furthermore, selection for genetic improvement is no longer exercised in humanity, and even if it were, it would take thousands, if not millions, of years before genetically altered results would be shown (261). Thus, it is clearly impossible for Social Darwinism to produce any genetic changes, and because “intelligence”, if it is even possible to typologically classify it as a singular entity, relies both upon genetic nature and environmental nurture, the notion that those who are rich have been genetically selected for this trait is even more ludicrous. Additionally, since another misinterpretation of Darwin’s theories, the Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been proved categorically false, the teleological aspect of Social Darwinism is additionally disproved. “Society” itself is not advancing at all through the process of selection, or, as Mayr puts it, “Elimination does not have the purpose or the teleological goal of producing adaptation” (150). Even the stereotypical characteristics of America’s wealthy, like business savvy or cultural sophistication or a hardworking belief in the American Dream, are acquired ones that cannot be heritable and therefore cannot be selected for. In biological evolution, species do not move toward some sort of greater perfection by eliminating their weaker counterparts; rather, individual populations move toward a majority of adaptable characteristics as a result of elimination (150). There is nothing inherently superior about a species of bird that has many children and a young age of fertility living in a territory of dangerous storms, compared to a species of bird with the opposite characteristics living in a placid environment where advanced age is not needed to navigate the dangerous waters and adeptly avoid predators. This distinction is especially critical as Social Darwinism employs typological thinking, lumping humans into types such as “rich” and “poor” which have fixed genetic characteristics that are respectively superior and inferior, rather than in the population thinking espoused by Darwin, where species are divided into populations with fluid characteristics that do not rely upon external value judgment.

Now that it is clear Social Darwinism suffers from both insurmountable internal logical flaws and is founded upon flimsy pillars of misinterpreted Darwinism, a major question arises: Why is it still relevant? To understand this, the three major tenets of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which are heritability, random variance, and differential reproductive selection, must be applied to the idea of Social Darwinism. The idea has been heritable, most recently showing up in numerous explanations of republican political policies. It has also experienced a type of random variation, since it has spawned numerous more extreme versions of its misinterpreted brand of Darwinism, most infamously the eugenics of Hitler’s Germany, and also of American immigration policy up until 1917. The only puzzling question is differential reproductive selection: since Spencer’s Social Darwinism is a misinterpretation that lacks the logical coherence of Darwin’s theory, in Darwin’s terms, it is not as adaptable as Darwinism, and in Spencer’s terms, it should ultimately become extinct due to survival of the fittest.

However, this is not the case. One is forced to re-examine the criteria by which a rational person would judge to be the most important one for an idea’s survival, which is logical coherence. While it is easy to attribute the spread of largely irrational ideas merely to the ignorance and uneducated nature of the masses, this is a cynical oversimplification which misses a more profound point. Even a cursory glance at the history of human ideas shows that the longest standing ones (religious beliefs, glorification of the in-group and demonization of the out-group, division of labor and social status between men and women, etc.) have not even relied primarily upon logical coherence. Rather, they possess a psychological coherence, in that they provide for needs of the human psyche rather than the logical intellect; religion satisfies our desire to find a purpose in this world and a place in the next, political demonification solidifies group ties and encourages cooperation in the war over resources, and so on. Perhaps a similar parallel to the seemingly contradictory but actually complementary processes of biological selection, which are physical survival and sexual reproduction, exists in the selection of ideas. It seems logical coherence is more necessary for an idea’s survival amongst its contemporary competitors, while psychological coherence is more necessary for its heritability, analogous to sexual reproduction, onto subsequent generations. Perhaps, following the form of the law of entropy, there is a tendency to lose of logical coherence at the gain of psychological coherence as these ideas are inherited over time, as is the case with the following examples. Even with the most insane or horrific ideologies, history has shown that they require at least some shred of logical coherence for them to even be considered. Or, more precisely, they require the heritability of ideas which in their time were considered to have logical coherence. Hitler’s eugenics relied on Spencer’s illogical bastardization of Darwin’s evolution, just as all religious terrorism relies on skewed interpretations of Judeo-Christian and Muslim thought which in turn stems from the metaphysics of Plato. While perhaps an initially shocking assertion, it has a very clear logical justification, which is that, in any given population, the majority of individuals are not mentally insane or intellectually stunted to the extent that they do not have the rational capacity to function productively and peacefully in their society. Before World War 2, Germany was not made up of a majority of racist psychotic killers who raped and pillaged as they pleased under the justification of some vague mandate. Whenever the sort of mass hysteria takes over a population as it did during Hitler’s Third Reich, it relies mostly upon environmental factors, such as the depressed economy and low national pride Germany experienced after their defeat in World War 1, and on certain charismatic individuals who are able to disseminate ideas and orders onto a majority of otherwise rational, peaceful citizens, creating what Hannah Arendt has termed “The banality of evil”. This is the case in most ethnic cleansing that occurs in seemingly civilized societies, and also, except in an initially non-violent manner, the creation of major world religions.

Though the logical idea of Social Darwinism is an example of an erroneous and destructive attempt to interpose biological evolution onto a social template, the propagation of the idea among generations in our society is a vivid example of how such interpretations can succeed. It has been shown that the idea is heritable, experiences random variance, and differential reproduction; thus, the term “idea” is no longer an adequate description. Rather, a more accurate term would be what Richard Dawkins termed “meme” . He writes, “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.” (2)

Rather than the survivability of its logic, it is the reproductive offer of its psychological coherence that has made it heritable for so long. While what this coherence entails is debatable and of course entirely un-provable, it is safe to suggest that Social Darwinism offers a typological justification for the oppression of an out-group by an in-group. For generations in America, it has helped everyone from factory owners to justify their ruthless exploitation of workers without health benefits or adequate pay to Republican presidents to cut welfare and privatize healthcare. The notion that the poor deserve their poverty because they have been evolutionarily selected to be weak and ultimately to die off in destitution relieves the privileged of any pesky responsibility towards charity or un-exploitative business practices. It also provides an artificial confidence boost and confidence cut to the respective groups, leading to a further disparity in performance which cyclically justifies the very philosophy which creates it. The fact that such a blatantly aristocratic philosophy could not only survive but flourish in America, a country supposedly founded in revolt against those very principles, for so long is a testament to the power of memes to overwhelm logical, and consequently moral, reasoning through their meretricious offer of psychological coherence veiled inside the remnants of a once a respectable idea.

Primary Sources: Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Secondary Sources: (1) http://www.crf-usa.org/bria/bria19_2b.htm (2) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. First published 1976; 1989 edition: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-286092-5 (paperback)

“Survival of the Fittest”: The Flaws and Dissemination of Social Darwinism
Michael Heeney



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