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Was Darwin a Social Darwinist?

Like many supporters of Darwin’s theory, political theorist Larry Arnhart attempts to disassociate Charles Darwin and his scientific theory from the utopian crusades of “Social Darwinism” such as eugenics. In Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart claims that Darwin is unfairly blamed for eugenics and that “much of what has been identified as social Darwinism… is a distortion of Darwinian science” (p. 112). However, in my book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, I show how Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

In his response to me, Arnhart continues to insist that eugenists and other Social Darwinists “were not really acting out of a clear and accurate understanding of Darwinian science” and contends that blaming Darwinism for Social Darwinism is tantamount to claiming that “Christianity was responsible for Hitler’s anti-Semitism because Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism was often cited by the Nazis.”

The Luther comparison is inapt. Martin Luther was not the founder of Christianity, and so any claims he may have made are not necessarily authoritative interpretations of the Christian tradition. But Charles Darwin was most certainly the founder of his own theory. So if Darwin himself provided a logical rationale for eugenics in his writings, it is hard to see how others can be accused of “distorting” his teachings in their embrace of negative eugenics. Moreover, the fact that virtually all leading evolutionary biologists in the first part of the twentieth century embraced eugenics on Darwinian grounds should make one think twice about claiming that eugenics was simply a distortion of Darwin’s theory.

Arnhart insists that Darwin himself would have supported only such sensible measures as “prohibiting incestuous marriages” or voluntary efforts to discourage marriage and reproduction among the carriers of Tay Sachs disease. But in order to make this argument Arnhart must radically downplay the centrality of the struggle for survival in Darwin’s account of human progress.

As I describe in my book, Darwin continued to believe that natural selection was the engine of human progress, and he feared that efforts such as small-pox vaccinations and welfare programs for the poor were counteracting natural selection and leading to the destruction of the human race: “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man… hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” In such a situation where natural selection has been undermined, it would be perfectly logical to argue for instituting “artificial selection” in order to allow human progress to continue.

True, Darwin does goes on to indicate that we can’t follow the dictates of “hard reason” in such cases without undermining our “sympathy… the noblest part of our nature.” But such misgivings represented a lame objection at best. If Darwin truly believed that society’s efforts to help the impoverished and sickly “must be highly injurious to the race of man” (note the word “must”), then the price of preserving compassion in his view appeared to be the destruction of the human race. Framed in that manner, how many people could be expected to reject the teachings of “hard reason” and sacrifice the human race? This point takes on added significance when one recognizes that for Darwin, sympathy was only “moral” because in the past it promoted physical survival. That’s why it was preserved by natural selection. But if sympathy undercuts survival rather than promoting it, sympathy will lose its status as a moral dictate.

Arnhart also neglects to point out that well after Darwin’s throwaway line about the nobility of sympathy, he continued to make clear that in his view the survival of the fittest was still central to human progress. Indeed, at the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin declared: “Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle.” (emphasis added)

Darwin most definitely was a Social Darwinist, no matter how little Darwinists today may want to acknowledge that fact.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.