Posts Tagged ‘‘Evolution as a Religion’’

Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain

October 13, 2014

Very many bloggers and political commenters, such as Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman and myself, have made the point that the Tories are Social Darwinists. This is the ideology, founded in the 19th century by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, that demanded total laissez-faire capitalism and promoted the ‘survival of the economic fittest’. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection was held to prove that in nature, evolution proceeded through the survival of the fittest in a state of competition and conflict between individuals and species, so Social Darwinists believed that human social and biological evolution should be promoted through unrestrained economic competition, which should allow people of superior talents to rise to the top of society and keep the less talented masses in their place. Millionaire industrialists were thus celebrated, and attempts to improve the conditions of the poor through legislation, such as regulating working conditions, housing and medicine decried as detrimental to the proper, beneficial working of capitalism.

The philosopher Mary Midgley includes examples of the statement of Social Darwinist attitudes from Spencer’s closest followers themselves in her book, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Midgley herself isn’t an opponent of evolution. The book was written against the way Darwin’s theory had, in her view, been distorted into a quasi-religious form to support malign and dehumanising ideologies like Social Darwinism, or the belief that human culture and action are somehow ultimately the product of our genes.

The first quote comes from George Sumner’s The Challenge of Facts of 1887:

The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done … It is because they are thus selected that wealth – both their own and that entrusted to them – aggregates under their hands … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assure us that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.
(P. 118).

This could well come from a Tory in Britain, or Republican spokesman in America today. There’s the same idealisation of the rich, and the demands that they are the socially and biologically superior ‘creators of wealth’, who should be allowed to enjoy their riches unconstrained by the state. Hence the demands by the Right, including UKIP, that the rich should have their tax burden reduced.

She then quotes the American historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the way Social Darwinism was invoked to prevent any legislation that would improve the lot of the poor by placing constraints on the power of the wealthy:

Acceptance of the Spencerian philosophy brought about a paralysis of the will to reform … Youmans (Spencer’s chief American Spokesman) in Henry George’s presence denounced with great fervour the political corruption of New York and the selfishness of the rich in ignoring or promoting it when they found it profitable to do so. ‘What do you propose to do about it?’ George asked. Youmans replied ‘Nothing! You and I can do nothing at all. It’s a matter of evolution. Perhaps in four of five thousand years evolution may have carried men beyond this state of things’. (p. 119).

The role of Social Darwinism and its malign conception of evolution are too well-known, and too connected to Nazism, for politicians to openly make comments like this in today’s society. Nevertheless, the idea that intense, unrestrained competition somehow conforms more to human nature than Socialism, regardless of the form it is in, nevertheless forms a strong component of Conservative ideology on both sides of the Atlantic even today.