Why Social Darwinism isn’t going anywhere
The name social Darwinism is a modern name given to the various theories of society that emerged in England and the United States in the 1870s, which, it is alleged, sought to apply biological concepts to sociology and politics. The term social Darwinism gained widespread currency when used in 1944 to oppose these earlier concepts. Today, because of the negative connotations of the theory of social Darwinism, especially after the atrocities of the Second World War (including the Holocaust), few people would describe themselves as Social Darwinists and the term is generally seen as pejorative. — Wikipedia
… no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one’s opponents. In that sense it’s clearly a more abusive term than “socialist,” a term that millions of people have proudly claimed. — David Boaz
Urban Future somehow missed the excited side-track discussion that bolted to the conclusion: America voted in November 2012 to spare itself from Social Darwinism. Yet, sadly belated as it may be, our rejoinder is unchanged: nothing ever gets spared from Darwinism. That’s what Darwinism is.
The fact that the term Social Darwinism survives only as a slur is abundantly telling, and suffices on its own to explain the ideological ‘evolution’ of recent times. In a nutshell, the dominant usage of ‘social Darwinism’ says “markets are a kind of Nazi thing.” Checkmate in one move.
Markets implement a Darwinian process by eliminating failure. Schumpeter called it ‘creative destruction’. The principle unit of selection is the business enterprise, which is able to innovate, adapt, propagate, and evolve precisely insofar as it is also exposed to the risk of perishing. None of this is especially complicated, or even controversial. In a sane world it is what ‘social Darwinism’ would mean. It is certainly what Herbert Spencer was really talking about (although he never adopted the label).
The fundamental tenet of Social Darwinism would then be compressible into a couple of words: reality rules. There’s more, of course, but nothing especially challenging. The further additions are really subtractions, or reservations – intellectual economies, negative principles, and non-commitments. That’s because Darwinism – whether ‘social’ or otherwise – is built from subtractions. Deducting all supernatural causality and transcendent agencies leaves Darwinism as the way complex structures get designed. (Not constructed, but designed, in conformity with a naturalistic theory of plans, blueprints, recipes, or assembly codes, of the kind that have naturally invited supernatural explanation. Darwinism only applies to practical information.)
Subtractions put it together. For instance, remove the extravagant hypothesis that something big and benevolent is looking after us, whether God, the State, or some alternative Super-Dad, and the realistic residue indicates that our mistakes kill us. It follows that anything still hanging around has a history of avoiding serious mistakes, which it may or may not be persisting with – and persistence will tell. If we’re forgetting important lessons, we’ll pay (in the currency of survival).
If this is mere tautology, as has not infrequently been alleged, then there’s not even any need for controversy. But of course, controversy there is, plentifully, and so deeply entrenched that the most banal expositions capture it best. Consider this, from the self-assuredly pedestrian United States History site:
Social Darwinism was the application of Charles Darwin’s scientific theories of evolution and natural selection to contemporary social development. In nature, only the fittest survived — so too in the marketplace. This form of justification was enthusiastically adopted by many American businessmen as scientific proof of their superiority.
What is this supremely typical paragraph really saying? That some American businesses survived, were thus seen as “the fittest” (= they had survived), ‘justified’ (= they had survived), and ‘proven to be superior’ (= they had survived), in other words, a string of perfectly empty identity statements that is in some way supposed to embody a radically disreputable form of ruthless social extremism. This same systematic logical error, seen with tedious insistence in all instance of commentary on ‘social Darwinism’, was baptized by Schopenhauer ‘hypostasis of the concept’. It seizes upon something, repeats it exactly but in different terms, and then pretends to have added information. Once this error is corrected for, substantial discussion of the topic is exposed in its full, dazzling vacuity.
A writhing David Boaz cites the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Social Darwinism, which describes it as:
… the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak…. The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.
It is immediately clear that this passage, too, follows the already-familiar pattern, clocking ‘hypostasis of the concept’ to the edge of spontaneous combustion. Worse still, it tries to put its hypostasized ‘information’ to work through the positive proposition — tacitly insinuated rather than firmly stated – that “persons, groups, and races” are something other than “animals in nature.” Nature, it seems, ceased to apply at some threshold of human social development, when people stopped being animals, and became something else. Man is not only doubled (as a natural being and something else), but divided between incommensurable kingdoms, whose re-integration is morally akin to “rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies” and – why not admit it? — fascist genocide.
Define nature in such a way that we’re not part of it, or you’re engaged in Nazi apologetics says Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s obviously something about social Darwinism that gets people excited — several things, actually. Plugging the spontaneous theory of laissez faire capitalism into traumatic association with the Third Reich is thrilling enough, especially because that’s the basic platform for the epoch of actually existing fascism (which we still inhabit), but there’s more.
The most obvious clue, from which the Encyclopedia Britannica passage unravels like a piece of incompetent knitting, is the magical appearance of ‘should’ – “The poor were the ‘unfit’ and should not be aided.” This is another preposterous hypostasis, naturally (and unnaturally), but equally typical. At the evolution site talkorigins, John S. Wilkins tells us: “’Social Darwinism’ … holds that social policy should allow the weak and unfit to fail and die, and that this is not only good policy but morally right.” The intellectual perversity here is truly fascinating.
Any naturalistic social theory subtracts, or at least suspends, moral evaluation. It says: this is the way things are (however we might want them to be). Yet here, through hypostatic doubling, or redundancy, such neutral realism is converted into a bizarre, morally-charged stance: nature should happen. Social Darwinism is not attempting to explain, but rather siding with reality (those Nazis!).
This is, quite simply and literally, madness. Left dissatisfied by mere denial of the modest proposition that reality rules, the denunciation of social Darwinism proceeds smoothly to the accusation that realists are aiding and abetting the enemy. The unforgivable crime is to accept that there are consequences, or results, other than those we have agreed to allow.
The reality is that practical decisions have real consequences. If those consequences are annulled by, or absorbed into, a more comprehensive social entity, then that entity inherits them. What it incentivizes it grows into. The failures it selects for become its own. When maladaptive decisions are displaced, or aggregated, they are not dispelled, but reinforced, generalized, and exacerbated. Whatever the scale of the social being under consideration, it either finds a way to work, and to reward what works, or it perishes, whether as a whole, or in pieces. That is the ‘social Darwinism’ that will return, eventually, because reality rules, and rather than joining the clamor of denunciation, Boaz would have been prescient to reclaim it.