Darwinism versus Social Darwinism

June 22, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I recently watched the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins interview the creationist Wendy Wright [1] . Dawkins was attempting to persuade Wright of the evidence proving the veracity of the theory of evolution, which was formulated by Charles Darwin, and the less remembered Alfred Russel Wallace, in the mid nineteenth century. Within the interview, Dawkins informed Wright that the ”world of nature is a Darwinian world” but that he would not wish to live in a human society ”based upon Darwinian principles” as ”it would be a terrible society”. According to Dawkins, a society that was based on Darwinian principles would be a ”ruthless free market economy in which the rich trample the poor”. Instead, Dawkins believes that we should seek to understand the Darwinian world of nature ”so that we can construct the kind of society in which we wish to live”. The view of Darwinism promulgated by Dawkins within the interview strikes me as being derived from social Darwinism rather than the works of Charles Darwin himself.

Social Darwinism is a school of thought which used Darwin’s ideas to justify bourgeois ideology. For example, the philosopher Herbert Spencer was a prominent social Darwinist in the late nineteenth century who used Darwin’s theory of ”evolution to justify extreme laissez-faire capitalism as natural and right in the sense that free competition ensured the survival of the fittest” [2] . A different interpretation of Darwin’s work can be found in the writings of the Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. Within his book ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution‘, which was first published in 1902, Kropotkin argued that ”competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind”, rather it is the exception [3] . Kropotkin found in his observation of animals ”an innate feeling of sympathy with their own species expressed in mutual association in time of need or danger’ [4] .

He concluded that ”life in societies ensures survival” [5] and that humans ”must be social because animals are social and humans are animals” [6] . Kropotkin provides a number of examples of co-operation between animals (such as crabs [7] , ants [8] and eagles [9] ) and humans living in tribal societies (such as the Inuits [10] and Khoikhoi [11] ) within his book. He believed that history books unduly focus on war neglecting the mutual aid and co-operation which is evident from our own experiences [12] .

The ”unbridled individualism” seen in contemporary capitalist societies was, Kropotkin averred, a ”modern growth” [13] .

Kropotkin found support for his view of man in Darwin’s book ‘The Descent of Man’, which ”outlined instances of sociability rather than struggle amongst animal species and suggested that man’s social qualities were the chief factor in his evolution” [14] .

For example, Darwin highlighted that primitive men ”would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and given mutual aid in attack or defence” [15] .

Darwin also highlighted that such sociability had been beneficial to tribes. He argued that ”when two tribes of primitive man, living in the same country came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other” [16] .

It is my view that human nature, and history, is characterised by both co-operation and competition, but that the former has been downplayed and that the latter has been overemphasised. As Kropotkin argued, it is clear that Darwin thought that co-operation was important in the evolution of our species. As a consequence, Dawkins’ view of what a society based on Darwinian principles would be like seems to me to be incorrect. The ruthless society described by Dawkins in his interview with Wendy Wright is a society based on social-Darwinist principles, such as those espoused by Herbert Spencer. A society based on Darwinian principles would be more co-operative than Dawkins believes.

[1] The full interview is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AS6rQtiEh8

[2] Adams, I. (1993) Political Theory Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp159-160.

[3] Kropotkin, P. (2006) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

New York: Dover, p60.

[4] Zenker, E. (1898) Anarchism: A Criticism and History of the Anarchist Theory.

London: Methuen, p147.

[5] Morland, D. (1997) Demanding the Impossible. London: Cassell, p135.

[6] Stack, D. (2000) ‘The First Darwinian Left: Radical and Socialist Responses to Anarchism 1859-1914’. History of Political Thought, volxxi no.4, pp682-710 at p698.

[7] Kropotkin, P. (2006) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, op cit., n.3 at p10

[8] Ibid at p13

[9] Ibid at p17

[10] Ibid at pp68-74

[11] Ibid at pp73-74

[12] Ibid at p96

[13] Ibid at p71

[14] Stack, D. (2000) ‘The First Darwinian Left: Radical and Socialist Responses to Anarchism 1859-1914’, op cit., n.6 at p698

[15] Darwin, C. (1982) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (2nd edn). London: John Murray, p129.

[16] Ibid at p130


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This post was written by David Benbow

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