Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Ideology Of Darwin


Darwin’s understanding of natural selection and survival of the fittest where heavily corrupted by the emerging political ideologies of his day. This is hardly a new insight.

Scientists recognized early on the ideological influences in Darwin’s thesis. Indeed, way back in 1888 people were talking about the ideological content of “Darwinism”.  As it turns out, Darwinian notions were less science, methods, and observation, and more about his position in the elite social fabric of his time. Darwin was a member of society’s elites, plain and simple. He inherited a sizable estate from his father, and also married a prominent member of society. His wife, Emma Wedgewood, came from a family of business magnates, and she had easy connections with the elites of the day. “With the well-heeled and well-connected Wedgewoods surrounding him, Darwin moved as he wished in a glittering society of nobility, politicians, and literati….” (Wallace, 1966, p. 41). To put it bluntly, Darwin was a member of the emerging industrial elite. He moved in, and was a scientific representative of, this circle.

Illustration by Raging Cephalopod

And how did that impact his theory?

Well, people of his day were talking. Capitalism was emerging, new industrial elites were forming, and the old nobility was gradually becoming a historical footnote of Western society. In all this social change new ideologies were forming and one of these ideologies was laissez faire capitalism. To make a long story short, Darwin turned to Malthus for inspiration, and ended up an apologist for Capitalism. To put it bluntly, Darwin gave us ideology and nothing more. A.F. Wallace says it succinctly, and with force.

…the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle was a projection into biology of one of the tenets of ‘the national ethics’ – utilitarianism. Survival of the fittest was the implicit principle of the laissez-faire economics in both its internal and international aspects. Utility was the criterion of social value; to Darwin it was also the determinant of survival….Even Darwin’s recognition of the struggle for existence, which selected for survival … those variations which were most useful, did not arise from observations of plant and animal communities. As Darwin himself records it, his realization of this struggle came from reading Malthus on population. Darwin was not reading Malthus for scientific enlightenment but for spiritual edification….”  (Wallace, 1966, pp. 46-47. Italics added).

Speaking of Darwin’s “not-so-novel” theory of evolution, Schurman (1888, p. 116) states:

That theory, as already expounded, consists essentially of two moments—the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest. The former connects it historically and logically with Malthusianism, and may be considered as an application of the famous doctrine of population to the whole organic world…The issue of the struggle was conditioned by a conception borrowed from the national ethics.

As you can see, Darwin’s theories weren’t based so much on scientific/empirical investigation of the natural world as they were on the new laissez-faire economic thinking that was blossoming as part of the emergence of capitalist society.

For many reading this, this may be a remarkable, and disjunctive, thing to say. Science has pimped Darwinism as sacrosanct truth for over a century, and emotions run high when challenging the boundaries of this scientific cannon.  But could the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest be nothing more than political ideology supported by the authority of science? There are a couple of things that suggest this might be true. One comes from Darwin’s own biography.  It is not surprising that a member of elite social circles would think like an elite. Of course, being a member of the elite is not sufficient, but it certainly is suggestive. What is more damming is that the ideas that he came up with regarding the mechanisms of evolution were transparent justificatory excuses of elites economic domination.

That is, Darwin’s explication of the mechanisms of evolution function remarkably well as apology for elite economic activity. In other words, Darwin provided excuses.  Not only did this theory provide an explanation for the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (i.e. Capitalism was the better and stronger economic system, and thus should naturally and inevitably evolve from Feudalism), but it also provided justification for Imperialism, exploitation of the workers, and a whole host of other social evils that emerged as Capitalism came to the fore. According to Darwin, a member of society’s social elites, it was all simply the working out of the “natural” laws of nature. The strong are “chosen” by nature and rise to the top, the weak languish and die off. No sense in being sentimental or guilty about it. It was nature’s way, and you can’t argue with nature, can you? As Darwin himself says, it all comes down to:

…one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.’”. (Darwin, 1859, p. 244)


I mean, this is a remarkable value-laden statement and, as Wallace notes, it “show[s] the structure of his thinking in transparent clarity.” Even the title of Darwin’s magnum opus reflects support for imperialist ideology. It wasn’t just the “Origin of the Species” Darwin was explaining, it was the “preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” Darwin was explaining why some “races” (his choice of that word is significant) thrived, while others languished. At a time when Britain was going out into the world and colonizing other “races,” stealing their land, taking over their governments, and exploiting their (human and natural) resources, the whole enterprise could be justified by simple reference to the “scientific” mechanisms of evolution. The fittest races are the ones that prevailed, and the rest languished and died off.

Darwin, it seems, used the rhetorical foil of science to justify the economic activity of the elites.


Now, if all this is true, then we are justified in asserting that Darwinism, like other “isms” represents  a particular, ideological, view of the world. To some this might seem strange, or even sacrilegious, but not for Sociologists!. We have been pointing out the ideology behind the media (Miller & Dinan, 2008), popular culture, and even spirituality (Butler, 2006; Carrette & King, 2008; Sosteric, 2013a)  ever since we got started.  Still, this particular “revelation” isn’t as straight forward as some of the others. It is hard to imagine a set of ideas more influential to our modern world than Darwinian notions of survival of the fittest and natural selection. That is, Darwinian theory has had massive influence on every aspect of modern society, from politics to education.

Forms of social Darwinism inform neoliberal economic agendas, neoliberal social policies, parenting practices, and almost every other aspect of our life. A single example may serve to highlight the depth of the issue. Consider poverty. Our view of poverty is conditioned by our acceptance of Darwinian ideology. In the light of Darwinian ideology we are not likely to look at a poor person, or a homeless person, sympathetically. When influenced by the dark-sun of Darwinism,  we let the “laws of nature” prevail, let the “weak” die off, and we move satisfied through our own life knowing that our privilege is the result of nothing more than the natural laws of talent and selection.

We are “chosen” by nature, they are not. It is as simple as that. Leave them alone, let them die.

Of course, this is a ridiculous view of the situation. People end up poor and on the street for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with evolutionary weakness. There may be abuse in their family, they may have been born in poverty and thus started the race at a serious disadvantage, or they may have been thrown into poverty by the greedy actions of their elite politicians (think GWB giving a trillion bucks to greedy bankers, instead of helping the poor people with their defaulted mortgages).  The point is, people end up on the street for lots of different reasons and to simply shuck it off as the working out of the “laws” of nature is an abdication of explanation of the same quality and caliber as when you say people are poor because they got bad karma, or God wants it that way. If you ask me it is an embarrassment to science of biblical proportions.


So why did something as suspect as Darwinian theory go on to become the political and pop cultural force it became?

Wallace (1966) has some ideas about that. Part of it was that discussion of evolution was a hot topic back in the day. It was part of the spirit of times and Darwin tapped into that spirit in a big way with his Origin of the Species. Part of it was also the fact, as we have already seen, that Darwinism provided an excuse for capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination.  It wasn’t that the British were stealing from others, it wasn’t that they were using their superior power and military force to bully others, they were just the vanguard of the species, the pinnacle of evolution. If other “races” should languish, even die off, it wasn’t their fault. As Darwin intimated in the title of his book, “The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” the British were simply a favored race.

Spirit of the times and justificatory excuse system weren’t the whole of it though. Another part of Darwin’s success was because of the rhetorical weight that Darwin’s ideas gave to academics.  Scholars liked Darwin’s ideas because they sounded classy, and scientific. They thus used them and propagated them far more then they deserved. As Wallace notes, lots of people began to refer to Darwin’s theories as a way to bolster their own thinking about things.

This curious delusion has been actively fostered by anthropologists who, blinded by the great light of 1859, have claimed that their theories of progress are based on Darwin work. ‘Evolution’ is a respected word, and it sounds much grander to speak of “cultural evolution” than humbly to mumble something about “cultural progress” or “utility.” And yet, the fact remains that anthropological theories of cultural evolution – including the evolutionary and functional theories of religion—are derived, not from Darwin, but from eighteen-century ideas of progress and utility.” (Wallace, 1966, p. 49).

Basically Darwin gave a tool to others. He gave scientists like anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists a scientific sounding word that they could use to make their theories sound better. It is not too far a stretch. Social scientists have a long history of “natural science envy”. We think we have to be like our natural science brothers and sisters in order to be legitimate. As Wallace points out, using terms “evolution” and natural selection makes us sound more authoritative. Darwin thus gave us rhetorical weaponry that we could use in our struggle to be “scientific.” Sadly, however, the joke is on us since in our scramble to be like our brothers and sisters in the natural scientists, we have failed, like they have, to recognize the ideological import of one of the most holy of holy canons of scientific theory.

At the time Darwin wrote his books, everybody and their dog believed in evolution! As Schurman points out, evolutionary theory was accepted long  before Darwin came along. Indeed evolutionary theory, in pretty much the same way we understand it today, was accepted for thousands of years, all the way back to the Greeks and beyond.

Thus the cardinal point of modern evolutionism—that nothing is, but everything is in a state of becoming, that nothing is fixed and immutable, but everything may be transformed into something else—you may read alike in the early speculations of a philosophical people, like the Greeks or Hindoos, and in those weird legends of our Algonquin Indians,” (Schurman, 1888, p. 45).

I say this here to point out that questioning Darwin is -not equivalent- to questioning evolutionary theory. Evolution occurs, that much is true. How and why it occurs, maybe we’re not so sure about that.

So, having said that, let us pause for a moment and question Darwinism. Let us step back and think about what the theory of evolution could have become if Darwin hadn’t inserted elite ideology into the scientific brew. Interestingly enough, we don’t have to do the thinking here. Way back in the day people were suggesting alternative mechanisms, and alternative outcomes. One such suggestion came from Schurman who, using Darwin’s own line of thinking, suggested that the evolution of humanity was an evolution towards high levels of morality, and cooperation. Even if, he said, Darwin was right about natural selection and struggle, even if it was true that the natural world mirrored laissez faire capitalism, humans would inevitably lift themselves above the fray by developing sociality and cooperation. It was an evolutionary necessity. Being social, being co-operative, gave you an evolutionary advantage! His comments in this regard are worth quoting at length.

Simultaneous with this revolution was another, scarcely less significant, due to the appearance and operation of the moral sentiments. The moral being lives for others as well as for himself. But the lower animals are at best gregarious, not social; they lead a life of individual isolation and self-dependence. Each is alone, in the battle for life, exposed to the whole force of the combat. The sick and the feeble fall victims to beasts of prey or die of starvation. There is no division of labor to relieve the one from directly procuring its own food, no mutual assistance to succor the other till health and vigor are restored. Accordingly, any group of animals endowed with the least tincture of sociality and sympathy would, through the internal union and strength which these qualities evoke, have a decided advantage over other groups not thus endowed. A tribe animated by these instincts contains in itself a principle of survival of scarcely less efficacy than the mental faculties themselves. If these check the action of natural selection on the body, and transfer it to the sphere of intelligence, the social and sympathetic feelings screen the individual and oppose to the play of natural selection the solid framework of a united and strengthened society. But sympathy and sociality imply fidelity, trustworthiness, truthfulness, obedience, and the like. And as these are useful in the struggle for life—being, in fact, means of social survival—not less useful are the other virtues which form the complex tissue of our morality. Hence it follows that the moral sentiments, as motors tending to the preservation of the tribe, must, like the mental faculties, be self-preserving and self-accumulating under the utilitarian sway of natural selection. (Schurman, 1888, pp. 121-122) (121-122)




And Schurman doesn’t even reject Darwinian mechanisms of evolution! He suggests an entirely different evolutionary pathway, one that does not lead to laissez faire economics, but that leads to socialism pure and simple. Writing when he did, just thirty years after Darwin’s publication, gives an indication of just how different our understanding of natural selection could be, if the theory hadn’t been corrupted by “national ethics.”

It’s not survival of the fittest, but survival of the most cooperative.


Author / [Full Text] Source: Michael Sosteric at The SocJournal


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