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Is Social Darwinism Still Alive?

Don Mize
© 2005, Don Mize

As I follow current events, I sometimes wonder if Social Darwinism is dead after all.  
This popular philosophy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries applied Darwin's
evolutionary "survival of the fittest" to society, seeing life as a struggle for existence with
unregulated competition guaranteeing progress.

Social Darwinism became so popular, so accepted, and so influential that its ideas are
still around long after it has been thoroughly discredited scientifically and philosophically.
 Some of its exploded myths are that the poor are poor because they are unfit biologically
and/or morally, that aiding the poor interferes with evolutionary progress, and that
society is improved as the unfit poor fail to survive.  Another myth is that the wealthy
are wealthy because they are superior biologically and/or morally: their wealth proves
that they are more fit in the competitive struggle for existence.

In other words, the strong is good and the weak is bad.  Therefore, the strong, more
advanced, more fit nations should dominate the weaker nations because they are more
progressed along the evolutionary scale.  To wit, the strong nation's culture, institutions,
and people are superior.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these ideas led to
imperialism, colonialism, and racism (the Anglo-Saxon and Aryan races being superior
because of natural selection).

Also, according to Social Darwinism, any attempt to improve society is wrong (through
government or otherwise).  If natural selection is allowed to work through unregulated
competition, the fit will survive and the unfit will not.  Progress thus comes as the unfit
are eliminated.  Moreover, Christianity's concern for the poor and weak is misguided.  
The Golden Rule (treating others as you wish to be treated) actually impedes progress.

Thus, Social Darwinism of necessity supports a status quo conservatism: current
traditions, institutions, or privileged groups are the superior outcome of evolutionary
natural selection.  Also, Social Darwinism supports a laissez-faire economics (no
government interference): natural selection will weed out the unfit while the fit prove
their biological and/or moral superiority by becoming wealthy.

Adam Smith is often quoted (
The Wealth of Nations, 1776) to justify laissez-faire
economics.  However, in the historical context in which he wrote, he wrote against
monopolies, arguing that government should not be dominated by business.  The
dominance of business interests in the government of his day produced the monopolies
that interfered with the natural adjustment of prices.  In fact, Adam Smith stated that
business people should not be the rulers, held many business practices in contempt, and
saw the downside of the commercial system.  Those ideas are not so often quoted.

Social Darwinism has been thoroughly discredited on both scientific and philosophical
grounds, but the ideas hang on.  The "survival of the fittest" is not some universal truth
to be applied to society at large.  The myth that unregulated competition allows the fit to
become wealthy and powerful while the unfit deserve to be poor and powerless is not
true.  Other carry-over myths are that attempts to improve society are wrong and that
government should not promote the well-being of all people.

Although I know I will be considered naive, I firmly believe that an ethic of love (Golden
Rule, treating others as you want to be treated, Matthew 7:12) will work and applies not
only to personal life but to economic life, national policy, and international relations.  
Christianity's concern for those without social, political, and/or economic power is based
on the words and actions of Jesus as described in the New Testament.  Who can forget
the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or the widow bringing her meager
offering (Luke 21:1-4)?  Ideas have feet; we should be careful which ideas we
uncritically accept.