Susan Jacoby dedicates a prominent but disappointing chapter to social Darwinism in her survey of American (anti)intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason. Around the turn of the 20th century, as Darwin’s ideas began to take hold of the national consciousness, social Darwinism– though not explicitly known by that name– justified all kinds of social and economic inequities. After all, if natural selection through “survival of the fittest” were what advanced a species (whatever that means), it was easy to conflate biological evolution with social progress. As social conditions reflected a state of evolution, the concerns of the poor and undesirables were easy to dismiss– what is beneficial for survival and progress would survive on its own, and whatever wasn’t, well… Some probably went so far as to say that artificially propping up the weak was counterproductive for evolution, since it preserved deficiencies in the species. (How often do you hear someone half-seriously say that another should be removed from the gene pool?) It appears that many of the great capitalists of the time preached this new gospel; it was “good news” because nature, as it takes its course, advances our species as a whole. Andrew Carnegie, the American steel baron and philanthropist, summed it up: “All is well since all grows better… [Humankind] is an organism, inherently rejecting all that is deleterious, that is wrong, and absorbing after trial what is beneficial, that is, right.”
Jacoby extensively disparages this intellectual movement, branding it “pseudoscience” in the very title of the chapter. Unfortunately, for all of her dismissive language, she fails to make an explicit case for its dismissal– save for briefly saying that Darwin would have subscribed to no such thing, because biological evolution doesn’t always translate into social progress. The only supporting evidence she cites is a quotation from The Descent of Man:
“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy,” he observed, “which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts… Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the in the noblest part of our nature… [I]f we were intentionally neglect the weak and the helpless, it could only be a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”
First: how could Darwin observe any such thing (Jacoby’s word)? Doesn’t the psychology he describes involve a degree of conjecture that experimental science shuns? Don’t get me wrong; I think he might be right– but this isn’t the stuff of science, and Darwin isn’t authoritative on it.
Second: Doesn’t the above quotation arguably connect social progress to biological evolution?
Third: As someone who thinks it likely God used evolution to create man (and also likely that He created them straight up, Genesis style), I’ve always wondered what evolution without a divine origin would entail. While I find social Darwinism as disgusting as apparently William Jennings Bryan did, I’ve specifically wondered that without God, how could the creative force of evolution provide any basis for morality– why would we help the weak? Darwin talks about the “noblest part of our nature” and “evil.” Don’t these reflect his presuppositions about morality’s existence, and are not based in science? Where does an atheist like Jacoby get her morality? Is it just something that exists outside of science? If so, this would seem to be as supernatural as God. Is it something that exists as chemical impulses in our brains? If so, I don’t see why we necessarily need to obey them, especially because of all our countervailing impulses for violence and mayhem. But does certain impulses preserve human life better on a macro-level than others? This is probably true–but why should life itself be important/preferable? To ascribe higher value to the condition of life than the condition of non-life is a no-brainer to me, but only because I believe that life derives from God and that He declared it to be good. Without God, there’s no reason to think anything is inherently good or bad.
Ultimately, I’m asking why social Darwinism is such an illegimate reading of Darwin, given that I don’t see a basis for morality if evolution is all there is. Unfortunatley, Jacoby helps me little in this question.