The Age of American Reason, Part II: Social Darwinism

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.


Filed under Brandon

23 responses to “The Age of American Reason, Part II: Social Darwinism

  1. czf

    good post, Brandon, and one on which I have endless thoughts and arguments to make.
    Maybe I will later.
    But I am very curious to know what you mean when you say this: “As someone who thinks it likely God used evolution to create man (and also likely that He created them straight up, Genesis style)…”
    So you think humans were created ‘straight up’ like the Genesis account says, but that God did that with evolution? How can that accordance work?
    Just curious.

  2. blraatikka

    Sorry, cfz, I used a misleading conjuction– I should have used “but” instead of “and.” I think it’s likely that Genesis is merely allegorical and God used evolution to create man; but I also think it’s likely Genesis is literal.
    I really do hope you make these arguments. Basically, if we can’t base social progress on biological evolution, what do we base progress on? And the term “progress” is fraught with value judgments.

  3. czf

    I’m sorry, that doesn’t make sense to me. How can Genesis ‘likely’ be allegorical and literal?

  4. blraatikka

    Oops– more careless language. They are both likely in that either mutually exclusively thing might be true (but not at the same time). Genesis is either allegorical or literal– and each one has a decent chance in my mind. Obviously, some people would think that’s a crazy perspective, but oh well.

  5. blraatikka

    ps. I don’t know why I transpose “zf” into “fz” pretty much every time.

  6. GCC

    Saying Genesis-style creation is either allegorical or literal is an oversimplification. First, there’s more than one creation story, so one would need to clarify that part at least. Second, a detailed reading of the first 9 or so chapters of that book reveals that it’s conceivable for Genesis-style creation to be both allegorical and literal. Third, when it comes to acts of God, strict definitions of “allegory” may not work all that well, and that causes more problems for this proposed either/or.

  7. blraatikka

    You’re right, Grant– I’m oversimplifying. In fact, I’m somewhat agnostic when it comes to the creation. But I only brought it up to show that I’m not especially biased against evolution. My real concern here is to explore social Darwinsm as a possible logical conclusion of evolution without God.

  8. GCC

    For the record, I’m retracting the statement that it’s possible for Genesis-style creation to be both allegorical and literal. I think I was using to loose a definition of literal even for my taste.

  9. Holly

    Brandon, even before I got to the comments I was going to write in and applaud your stance for being agnostic about evolution/creationism. I didn’t know that you held that view, but it’s exactly the same as mine. As far as I stand, it’s not important *how* God created the world, it’s only important that He is acknowledged as its Creator.

    Atheists have a real problem regarding on what to base their morality. I’ve often thought that those who act immorally, without remorse or repentance, belie their disbelief in God.

  10. czf

    It’s a scary and dangerous proposition to allow that atheists have no foundation for morality. I think that essentially asks atheists to disregard moral code, and that is silly. There is plenty on this planet if one so chooses.
    It is difficult for me to find the necessity of God in saying that morality exists. Without God, it seems very sensible to me to believe in, and encourage, a humanistic moral code that values the other beyond oneself. Even beyond humanity, why is God a necessity for one to find value in the thing-in-itself? Be it nature or history or democracy or poetry, I think that people believe in these things, in the absence of a god, and find plenty to found a moral code upon. Saying that without God there is no good or bad denies the value of anything but God. Which believers might not disagree with.

    It’s like Sarah Vowell, an Atheist, says in Partly Cloudy Patriot (and I’m paraphrasing here): When you don’t believe in God, when you don’t have the hope that cosmic forces will change things, you feel the things of this world even deeper, because this is all we have.

  11. Holly

    I think that atheists can have moral *ideals*, but without an eternal importance (if this is all we have, you only have about 80 years in which it even matters to you), those ideals will quickly erode under the various exigencies of life. I may have the ideal of remaining faithful to my spouse, but if I believe there are no eternal consequences to my infidelity, then when I’m presented with a tempting offer without any risk of getting caught, then what will hold me back? Of course, adultery doesn’t appeal to everyone, but what about theft or abuse of power or even murder? We all have base impulses that tend to be expressed, especially when we have the mindset that “this is all there is.”

    Even if you believe in the sense of a social contract for your basis of morality, once you realize that you can get ahead in life by cheating and dishonesty, are you really going to honor the social contract (the ideal) or are you going to do whatever’s necessary for your own advantage?

    Are you going to hold to your ideals even when you see so many others cheating around you? If so, then why?

    You might find that you believe in God after all.

  12. czf

    I don’t like that line of reasoning, Holly, because it begs that we could see so much clearer if we believed in god. All the questions are resolved. As though, without an eternal life, there is no meaning to this one. From this side, that just seems absurd. What’s wrong with wanting to live well, honestly, and faithfully for my 80 years?

    It also presumes that Atheists must then find causes for everything (i.e. love is just a chemical reaction in the brain…you hear that all the time) which are ascribed to god in belief. It doesn’t matter to me what causes love. I love my wife, married her, and will be faithful to her, and I don’t believe in God. To me, there is no inconsistency in that. I don’t need the promise of eternity to want to be with her and faithful to her. There needs to be nothing but myself and her. the threat of eternal consequences, in my mind, are mostly baseless anyways. They are misrepresented fears of earthly consequences. It is enough for me to not want to hurt my wife, and face the consequences on earth. Whether that’s an evolutionary result (which it probably is) or rooted in an eternal god makes no difference, and makes it no less romantic or unique. It probably makes it more unique.

  13. FR

    morality is proof that god does not exist

  14. FR

    or where there is morality there is no god

  15. FR

    or who needs god when there’s morality?

  16. blraatikka

    Czf– no doubt Vowell’s thought is profound, and I happen to think that atheists are often more “moral” than some religious people.
    I just don’t see how anything you come up with apart from God or the supernatural is objective. Either there’s no God and morality exists outside of science (unprovable and supernatural– and subject to all the same criticisms as belief in God), or it doesn’t exist and we all have our subjective moralities, which is really no morality at all– how can one be better or worse than another? If matter is all there is, nothing is inherently good or bad; it just “is.”
    For it to be meaningfully called “moral,” it must be somewhat objective. Jacoby may choose to do what I’d call moral actions, but I still ask– why? It’s not because of anything more weighty than what she prefers, which really isn’t that important at all. If someone else prefers the social Darwinist paradigm, how are they “wrong?” They couldn’t be.

  17. blraatikka

    FR– I don’t know if I get it: are you alluding to Kierkegaard’s ideas of the ethical and religious spheres? If not, what do you mean?

  18. FR

    Kierkegaard’s hovering around all right, not that I invited him or anything. Blaming our morality on eternal importance or objectivity is a bad idea and dare I say it not even biblical. (I can’t believe I just said that!) the tree of life is not moral. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is moral. Morality is and always has been subjective, if not in an individual way then certainly in a very cultural way. Morality has power and is ‘meaningful’ because it works (see Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). The social contract works. Sure there are cheaters but there are also a lot of people who do not cheat or lie or murder and who are actually kind and courageous and charitable and it’s not because of eternal importance, or ‘objective godly’ morality. It is because of these people that social darwinism fails.

  19. FR

    or for more clarity: cultural morality is in some sense objective; eg: most agree that bernie madoff is evil and deserves justice. But the objectivity is sublated by the mastering subjectivity of the historical/cultural flux. And furthermore because this given morel code may well be subjective, does not mean that it is arbitrary or vis a vis meaningless.

  20. Holly

    czf, I’ve been thinking about your comment for a few days now because I’m trying to grasp the idea of an atheist NOT being a Nietzschean. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and agree that even though you don’t believe in God, you still want to be a good person. (You’re a better person than I am, however; if I know myself at all, I don’t think I would be a good person for long if I didn’t believe in God… There are just too many temptations for greed and for power. But I digress…)

    Having thought about your posting, I have come to the conclusion that it’s a very logical thing indeed for an atheist to embrace a system of traditional morality. This is because there’s a universal system of moral laws that, when followed, makes people happy and, when transgressed, makes them sad … or dead.

    Now *I* believe that these universal laws exist because God put them there; the atheist doesn’t believe that God put them there, of course, but he can still believe they exist because they can be demonstrated empirically.

    Ben Franklin was one who believed in these empirically demonstrable moral laws; in fact, he kept a table of virtues to record how well he lived up to them in hopes of training himself to become more virtuous. (I suppose that explains his illegitimate offspring — okay, to be fair, he probably only had one and not 80, as is rumored. He was said to be a big flirt, though.)

    Here’s the question: if there is no God, then what is one’s purpose in life — to be as happy as possible? One may logically know that following the empirically demonstrable universal moral laws should create the environment most conducive to happiness.

    But what if it doesn’t? What if one is good but miserable? What if a guy is nice and generous, but other people throw his generosity back in his face? How long is he going to put up with that?

    And if there’s no eternal reason to be moral, wouldn’t this guy at least start to experiment with being non-moral? He could always go back to being good if things didn’t work out.

    I guess I should clarify what I mean by some of these universal moral laws because a lot of people in today’s society agree with them, even if they can be empirically demonstrated as making people the happiest:

    — Thou shalt not commit adultery. No sex outside of marriage. Ever. Not even oral sex. No pornography either. That stuff can put a damper on marriages. Divorce is wrong too because marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman, and divorce rips them apart and joins them to someone else while their original partner is still alive.

    — Thou shalt not kill. “Kill” means abortion too.

    — Thou shalt not covet. Do not buy things you can’t afford to keep up with the Joneses. Spending recklessly, declaring bankruptcy, and having someone bail you out is akin to stealing.

    I could go on, but I won’t.

    I’m not perfect; no one is. At times, I’ve transgressed some of these universal moral laws. The difference is that I’m actively trying to live in accordance with these laws because I believe in God.

  21. Holly

    I meant to say that a lot of people in today’s society DON’T agree with them…

  22. blraatikka

    FR– I’m trying to understand– morality only exists because it works? It’s only definition derives from utility?

  23. czf

    I’m glad you made that clarification, Holly, because I was quite confused for a moment.
    I agree with your moral laws (though I don’t entirely love the phrase moral law), with the exception of divorce. I think divorce can be very positive, pragmatic, and spiritually and emotionally salvific. To many marriages shouldn’t happen in the first place, and “sticking them out” can be the worst idea possible. I think we’d greatly benefit as a society if we could purge the Victorianism from our concept of marriage.

    As to the purpose of life without God, well, I don’t see that it changes much, at least for me. I want to live well, be loved by those I love, try not to harm others, pretty straightforward stuff. And not much different than the purpose of life with God, once the catechetical notion of the purpose of life is to glorify god… is passed on. I don’t need a God to glorify. I’d rather focus on the people here.

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