Thursday, December 14, 2006

Charles Darwin As Social Darwinist

According to the myths of standard historiography, Darwin confined himself strictly to matters biological—even in The Descent of Man, when he finally came, late in life, to apply his theory to man's place in the evolutionary tree. So whatever damage came to the poor and downtrodden from Darwin's theory is due to others, above all Herbert Spencer. Here, in Spencer, can be found the villain of the piece: that second-rate thinker ruined a perfectly good biological theory by hijacking it for cutthroat capitalism, contempt for the poor, laissez-faire lassitude about social legislation, and so forth. Spencer, the claim goes, was the first to transpose ethics into evolutionary terms, defining as good whatever promoted the "progress" of evolution and as bad whatever hindered it.

Unfortunately for Darwin's own reputation, this thesis does not bear scrutiny. Spencer might well have been the first to coin the phrase "survival of the fittest." But Darwin enthusiastically adopted it in the 6th edition of his Origin of Species as a substitute term for "natural selection." Nor did he ever demur when other advocates of evolution's social application came pleading their case. Karl Marx asked if he might dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, which request Darwin declined only because he did not want to offend the religious sensibilities of his deeply Christian wife.

Nor were Darwin's own musings on the social implications of his theory limited to private correspondence. In one particularly chilling passage in Descent of Man he asserted, "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races." Even more ominously, this insouciantly expressed sentiment cannot be regarded as an illegitimate conclusion from the earlier and more reliable Origin of Species. In a passage historians often cite to prove that at the time of the Origin Darwin was still struggling to maintain his belief in God, Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: "Let the strongest live and the weakest die… . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows." In effect, this passage turns Christian theodicy on its head and gives St. Paul's line "Death is swallowed up in victory" a total reversal of meaning. Victory now belongs only to the fittest.


In other words, William Jennings Bryan was right all along when he said that Darwinism helped "lay the foundation for the bloodiest war in history." He was obviously speaking of World War I, having no idea how much his words would be trumped by an even bloodier war between two camps of Darwinians, the Nazis and the Communists... Imagine! That poor, maligned, "fundamentalist" lawyer, who argued for the state of Tennessee and against evolution in the Scopes trial—he was the real prophet. And what can we say of his opposite number, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer for the pro-evolution biology teacher John Thomas Scopes and the spokesman for the sneering classes so beloved of H. L. Mencken? Not much except that he would have made a marvelous figure for Nietzsche's scorn. As Peter Berger says of him in A Rumor of Angels, Darrow was "an admirable man in many ways, but one dense enough sincerely to believe that a Darwinian view of man could serve as a basis of his opposition to capital punishment."

And so it continues today. All those baffled by "what's wrong with Kansas," that is, with why a constituency that would otherwise be so drawn to progressive politics continues to eschew it, have only to look to Weikart's history—and to Bryan's foresight against Darrow's insipid progress-happiness—to find their answer. If one were to draw any one single lesson from this woeful tale for contemporary politics it would be this: the stakes in the culture wars could not be higher.
Edward T. Oakes, Darwin's Graveyards

This is a review of Richard Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler. It was originally submitted to First Things, but a poor editorial decision went to a less worthy piece.

1 comment:

Drew said...

"But Darwin enthusiastically adopted it in the 6th edition of his Origin of Species as a substitute term for "natural selection.""

I think if you actually did a small amount of research, you'd find that he was anything other than "enthusiastic" about using the term. Grudgingly would be a lot closer to the mark.

The scholarship in question here is shoddy at best. Not very promising from one purporting to be puncturing myths.