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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Sunday, November 16, 2003

Charles Darwin, social evolutionist

Despite all concerted and feverish attempts by modern followers of Darwin to do so, it is impossible to neatly and clearly differentiate “Darwinism” from “Social Darwinism”, just as it is impossible to neatly separate science from ideology. The extension of Darwinian ideas from biology to sociology was not lost on either Darwin himself or his first followers. Those who are appalled by this implication and thus seek to distance themselves from Social Darwinism and Eugenics, or even those who merely seek to rescue Darwin from the charge of being tainted with such apparently reprehensible notions as racism and European supremacy have to contend with Darwin’s own words in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin was a man of his time for whom it was impossible, as is still the case for us moderns, to completely separate the scientific from the social and the philosophical.

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.... (Descent, 1874, pp. 133-134)

We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action; namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound, and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected. (Descent, 1874, p. 134)

But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. (Descent, 1874, p. 135)

The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labour for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be overestimated. As all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work, material progress of all kinds mainly depends, not to mention other and higher advantages. (Descent, 1874. p. 135)

There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and have there succeeded best. (Descent, 1874, p. 142)

Obscure as is the problem of the advance of civilisation, we can at least see that a nation which produced during a lengthened period the greatest number of highly intellectual, energetic, brave, patriotic, and benevolent men, would generally prevail over less favored nations. (Descent, 1874, p. 142)

Nevertheless the more intelligent members within the same community will succeed better in the long run than the inferior, and leave a more numerous progeny, and this is a form of natural selection. The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men, embodied in the laws, customs and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion. (Descent, 1874, p. 143)

The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. (from the summary of Descent, 1874, p. 618)

On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent upon his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not-be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring. Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man's nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c, than through natural selection; though to this latter agency may be safely attributed the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense. (Descent, 1874, p. 618)

Such ideas find support in Darwin's masterwork The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life where he writes:
Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, — ants making slaves, — the larvae of lchneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, — not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. (Origin, 6th ed. 1872 pp. 243-244)

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Origin, 6th ed. 1872 p. 490)

Of course, some - more honest - Darwinian defenders will accept that Darwin later in life held ideas that could fit under the rubric of "Social Darwinism" but will seek to exculpate him by claiming that such notions are not part of his earlier work. But as Darwin scholar, Silvan Schweber, notes:
"To the best of my knowledge the M and N notebooks contain the first presentation of an evolutionary view of society based on an evolutionary view of nature" ("The Origin of the Origin Revisited." J. Hist. Biol. 1977 10: p. 232).

10:10:00 pm