Social Darwinism vrs. Real Darwinism

My typical reaction to people criticizing Darwin as being connected to Social Darwinism is to become extremely irritated with them. “The two are totally unrelated!” I scream in my head, as I become frustrated at yet another anti-science beachhead being formed. It was with this framework in mind that I listened to the 18 min. RadioLab podcase linked below which is an interview with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who defends Darwinism and attack social Darwinism.

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After listening to the podcast I actually started to wonder if the theories are not more connected than I had thought. I had thought that there are many holes in the general notion of social darwinism–which I would explain as the proposition that if you practice charity, you are assisting an organism that has characterists adversely adapted to our environment survive and propogate, and thereby allowing adverse “mutation” in society to persist. One of the core problems with it is that it focuses on society and not individuals. I value individual humans.

But then this thought came to me: Does the purposeless world that evolution via natural selection suggests, make it less rational to value individual humans? Is this another way real Darwinism is connected to Social Darwinism?

4 replies on “Social Darwinism vrs. Real Darwinism”

First I think that Dawkins makes the great point that Darwinian evolution has endowed us with the ability to reject some of its implications.

There's nothing mysterious about evolution and natural selection, and there's also nothing mysterious about individual decisions running counter to, in-line with, or orthogonal to the whole enterprise.

*Might* charity in social/colonial species serve as a selective advantage for a population, which might in some cases override the selection pressure for that individual's genes over successive generations? Sure, I guess. It's nice to have a framework in which to have that conversation, but the complexity involved in extrapolating transactions between individuals into entire gene frequency alteration amongst entire populations over time is necessarily too great to be super-meaningful. I think most sophisticated thinkers involved in such conversations understand that complexity as a baseline, so it becomes a discussion of plausibility, not of definitive, scientific model-building.


Matt, I take your point to be that careful review of the theory of evolution and the operation of natural selection does not necessarily lead to social Darwinism.

I agree.

You also seem to be making the Loving Rockets argument–you can't go against nature, 'cuz when you do, that's a part of nature too–in noting that there is nothing mysterious about individuals acting in a way counter to evolution. Sort of like, the fact that isolated systems become more ordered over some discrete span of time does not disprove the Third Law of Thermodynamics.

Again, totally agree.

My response to Dawkins was based on his ardent support of the notion that human existence is purposeless. And, I am wondering whether that conclusion–which isn't required by evolution I suppose, but is certainly supported by evolution–supports social darwinism.

Now, that is not to say proper Darwinism is to blame for social darwinism, or even the allegedly inevitable conclusion that human existance is purposeless. I just wondered if there was more of a connection between the two than I had previously reocognized. To put it directly: Do you think our knowledge of how our species came into being inevitably leads to the conclusion that human existance is purposeless? Do you think that bolsters the position of social darwinists?

To put it directly: Do you think our knowledge of how our species came into being inevitably leads to the conclusion that human existance is purposeless? Do you think that bolsters the position of social darwinists?

Yes and no.

I think that Darwinism does support (not prove, certainly) the notion that we are purposeless. In the sense of a grand purpose… a hand is made to grip things, but that's not giving in to a grand plan of "what does an objective god believe a hand is for?"

I'm a pretty strict materialist in the most general case, so I generally operate under the framework that I think we are purposeless, humans, life, Earth, the universe. In fact, the more I read, the more I learn and the more I understand the science, the more I am a determinist, not just a materialist.

It sounds bleak, but if it's all just determined, at least it was determined to include good whiskey.


Oh, I missed the second half of your question:

Do you think that bolsters the position of social darwinists?

No, not really. I think they have a theory, and it's not a bad line of reasoning, but it only goes so far.

But social darwinism is not strictly about purposelessness, but it does put forth a plausible naturalistic explanation for superficially strong challenges to naturalism.

When a reasonably strong theory is challenged, the "just-so" story is presented as a usefully plausible rejoinder… it's not strictly a part of the model, but it serves the purpose of providing a plausible mechanism.


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