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Social Darwinism

If one gets into a discussion of evolution by means of natural selection with politically-minded people, and evolutionary mechanisms in economics and society come up, then those who consider themselves on the left, or ‘caring’, are highly likely—as surely as Godwin’s Law—to start emphasising that evolution proceeds not only by individual selection, but by group selection. The point intended by this trope is that group selection is how caring collectivity succeeds, and that market, and other pointwise-negotiated, institutions—what with their brutish know-nothing insistence on competition and individual benefit as the measure of all things—are arbitrary, unnecessarily harsh, and retard progress.

Be careful what you wish for. Consider for a moment the social mechanisms we see everywhere that are calculated to the collective advantage of one gene pool over another. They are particularistic institutions with little truck with equality of treatment: the clan; the tribe; religious exclusivity; in-marriage, family honour and sexual repression; suspicion of outsiders; vendetta; genocide.

I’ll stick with ‘the tyranny of choice’, thank-you.

29 comments to Social Darwinism

  • The point intended by this trope is that group selection is how caring collectivity succeeds

    But failure is a part of natural selection. So group failure…. Calling Mr. Godwin.

  • Okay, I’m going to go for broke and hit the Godwin straight away.

    Ultimately, those who espouse Social Darwinism are often trying to push a specific agenda, usually (although not exclusively) an agenda of the left. It used to be somewhere along the Socialist spectrum when I was a kid, but now it is as likely to be disguised as a Warble Gloaming agenda or whatever.

    Regardless, it means getting rid of the elements of society which do not fit with their particular agenda. Remember the 10/10 Climate Change video – where those who fail to believe in CAGW get splatted? That’s where Social Darwinism leads you.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS5CH-Xc0co

    Those pushing Social Darwinism are often attempting to provide a pseudo-scientific basis for getting rid of political critics and enemies so that they can build their Utopia.

    Hannah Arendt understood this better than most and it is no surprise to me that those who push Social Darwinist agenda’s are most likely to lead us to back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” or the atrocities of Aktion T4.

    Fuck.That.Noise.

  • Mr Ed

    The laws of natural selection describe, they do not prescribe. The survival of the ‘fittest’ is inevitable in biological systems as the purpose of any organism is to continue to survive and propagate itself. The fittest are those best suited to the environment that they happen to be in.

    Every living thing* needs some form of taxis or action to survive, be it a bacteriophage latching onto a receptor on an E.coli bacterium, a cheetah chasing its prey, a lichen metabolising, or a plant growing to light.

    In a slovenly Welfare State like the UK, a ‘rational’ for an individual adult might be to go on welfare and breed for benefits, a form of economic parasitism. Optimising income and breeding success it may be, but it might not be sustainable should the state run out of money. Whereas trading and adapting is not parasitism, and is self-sustaining. It also provides enough for those unable to provide for themselves to be looked after, should those able to provide be willing to do so. And of course, if they are not so willing, by what right does one compel them to do so?

    * taking ftsoa, viruses as being alive.

  • We should also remember that although Social Darwinism bears his name and had some usage during his lifetime there is no evidence that Charles Darwin either supported or rejected the idea. In his published writings he was at times accepting of the concept and at other times somewhat doubtful of it.

    Indeed if anything the source of the concepts which are called Social Darwinism are more clearly traced back to the Malthusian’s and the eugenicists, both groups that have been thoroughly discredited, even though you can still find their modern day proponents such as Sir David Attenborough and his Optimum Population Trust cronies.

    It seems that for all of their promotion of social selection the Social Darwinists are much too keen on helping old Mother Nature along by doing a bit of pre-selection and population stress themselves. Not quite what Charles Darwin was thinking at all.

    Just because Mother Nature is sometimes ruthless in blood and claw does not excuse brutality or cruelty on our part.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’m struggling to extract a concise point from the OP. As far as I can tell the implication is that left leaning statists are practicing a form of social Darwinism and are unconsciously mirroring the Nazis.

    But there is no agreed upon definition of Social Darwinism. The only thing that is agreed upon is that “the strong” should suceed in society as in genetics, and “the weak” should perish. And by perish, different people mean different things – ranging from simply not suceeding to being bunged on the train to Auschwitz.

    By certain definitions, free market capitalism is considered a social Darwinist idea, given that “the strong” (those with the most resources, the best ideas, the hardest work ethic, or sometimes simply the most influential friends) will suceed whereas “the weak” will not.

    Given that no-one agrees on what Social Darwinism truly is, I’m really struggling to see the point of this post. Perhaps someone can elighten me?

  • Kevin B

    The point of the post is that today is Sunday and thus a day of rest and contemplation. Since we don’t do religion anymore, Guy has provided us with a secular(ish) homily to channel our thoughts toward the metaphysical. ;)

    As for Social Darwinism, the concept suffers from the same problem as Darwinism itself. Viz, everyone ‘knows’ all about ‘survival of the fittest’ but no-one understands what ‘fittest’ means in this context or who or what defines it.*

    *Hint: The definition changes in random and chaotic ways, or it doesn’t change at all for long periods of time for a particular species or social arrangement, (say mastodons, or hunter-gatherers), and then it changes quickly and in unexpected directions.

  • Runcie Balspune

    In answer to JV, I think there is confusion about whether Social Darwinism refers to the observational facts of society, or the mechanisms employed to “remedy” those facts when they are deemed “issues”. In the latter case, free market capitalism is certainly not Social Darwinism as interference is the very thing it is not.

    Social Darwinism can only ever be a mere observation, any application of a policy to correct it becomes part of the basis of the idea not the solution, its a kind of social Schrödinger’s Cat.

    I think libertarians know full well that it is often better not to interfere, thus the OP decision on the lesser of two evils being the “tyranny of choice”, in reality it isn’t actually an “evil” in the first place.

  • I’m struggling to extract a concise point from the OP. As far as I can tell the implication is that left leaning statists are practising a form of social Darwinism and are unconsciously mirroring the Nazis.

    Indeed JV, which is why I have focussed on the groups that have espoused Social Darwinism and how they have practised it “in the wild” as it were.

    Although the views of Malthus the eugenicists and the collectivists of both the left and right differed widely, they all ended up being shitty to people they didn’t like or didn’t value.

    For Malthus there were too many hungry mouths to feed, so in order to prevent a Malthusian Catastrophe you do a little pruning of your own through forced population control.

    For the collectivists (along both the Fascist/Nazi/Swedish model track and the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist track) they were attempting to create a utopian model in their own mould and used Social Darwinism as a justification to be crappy and vindictive against those they felt were in opposition to their utopian ideal or whom they simply didn’t want in their utopian society.

    In practice, all of these viewpoints seem to lead to either forced sterilisation / euthanasia or forced labour camps.

    This is not a road I wish go down regardless of the rationale.

  • AngryTory

    Social Darwinism is the scientific proof that welfare is not just useless and wasteful – it directly destroys the competitiveness of nations and the fitness of the species.

  • John B

    It is an oft spouted fallacy that in evolution the ‘strongest’ survive, it is the ‘fittest’ not in the muscular sense but being best adapted, as the serendipitous result of genetic mutation, to the environment or best adapted to environmental change.

    The next oft spouted fallacy is ‘group’ survival. Survival of the fittest is determined by genes; it is actually genes which survive down the generations clearly not individuals.

    For genes to survive in a group of 100 individuals sharing the same genetic make up, only one individual need survive to pass on copies of the genes.

    Group task sharing, not division of labour, safety in numbers is learned not inherited behaviour, and group sharing quick enough breaks down in times of low food supplies, one member striking it ‘rich’, disease, lack of mates, divergence of interests, external threat… run away to fight another day.

    The confusion arises because in our Western societies we have developed differentiation of labour, instead of task sharing, so skills are dispersed and we need to cooperate in voluntary exchange out of mutual self-interest.

    That has nothing to do with genetics, and it has nothing to do with Socialism either which is about forced exchange determined by a central, controlling elite, in the interest of the Collective and said elite, not the individual.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “Survival of the fittest” is a bad description of the concept, which is better put as “survival of the fitted.” Koalas are not especially ‘fit’, but they are ideally fitted to prosper on a diet of eucalyptus leaves.

    Even so, species selection proceeds by individual failure, and in the context of Social Darwinism group selection does, too. Attempts to strengthen a group by averaging out the failures among the group’s population weakens, not strengthens, the group.

    Hitler, incidentally, was a Social Darwinist, or at least had tendencies in that direction. This is seen in Mein Kampf, where he disdains birth control in favor of periodic wars as a means of controlling population. His rationale there is that birth control is a random process, while war selects the most fit – leaving open the question of what they are fit for, of course (but not in his mind).

  • RRS

    Suggestion:

    To grasp a more concise (most people don’t seem to prefer concise) understanding of “Social” Darwin-ism (consider why ? the use of “ism”)the serious might look back to the investigations of Erasmus Darwin, and the analogies considered in those times (Lunar Society, e.g.) to the structures of social relations; i.e, how and by what causes had the social structures (composed of individuals) come into its then formations, and what could affect those formations. That all preceded the work and influenced the interests of Charles Darwin as a Naturalist.

    In essence, the “Social” considerations and studies came first.

  • Snorri Godhi

    The hidden assumption in most of the comments here (though not in the original post) seems to be that there is such a thing as “Social Darwinism”.
    Contrary to that assumption, i claim that “Social Darwinism” is a morbid fantasy of the charlatan Richard Hofstadter. There is scholarly support for this claim:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1122430

    Going further than the above claim, what follows is my speculation.
    Apparently R. Hofstadter claimed to “hate capitalism and everything that goes with it.” I cannot help speculating that, after a century of socialist antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust, Hofstadter found a strong psychological need to reconcile his anti-capitalism with his Jewish background. Hence, his book Social Darwinism in American Thought, which cleverly conflates the free market with nationalism and racism,. It also provides ammunition for creationists; though that was not Hofstadter’s intention, presumably.

  • Tedd

    These people need to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments. They are more than two centuries behind the times in their thinking.

    Also, what John Galt said.

  • Laird

    “evolution proceeds not only by individual selection, but by group selection.”

    Therein lies the flaw in the entire argument. Groups or societies neither succeed nor fail, they neither prosper nor perish; only individuals do. Societies* do change over time, which can, if you like, be styled “evolution”, but only as a result of changes within the individuals (whether by removal, death, or changes in their actions) of which they are comprised.

    * By which is meant the aggregate interactions of the persons comprising a specific group.

  • Tom Hunt

    There remains only the problem that “group selection” does not exist. Groups do not have a genetic code and do not reliably reproduce according to their current inclinations; therefore, one can safely assume that whatever evolution-alike behavior groups appear to exhibit is in fact merely ordinary individual evolution. Where this is producing behavior which appears to disadvantage the individual for the sake of the group, it is usually because the group has mechanisms which punish defectors and so therefore actually lead to ‘altruistic’ behavior benefiting the individual who exhibits it. (Either that or it’s due to inclusive fitness.)

    Really, very few of the people who make analogies involving evolution in political discourse know the first thing about it.

  • Regional

    During war only the best get recruited and they get killed, how does that improve the gene pool?

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    The best of the Best will survive a war, and thus spread any beneficial gene among the population. The lesser best will be eliminated. I guess the middle best will be POWs. they can scrub this gene pool thing clean, so the best of the best can use it. See how it works?

  • Rich Rostrom

    Consider for a moment the social mechanisms we see everywhere that are calculated to the collective advantage of one gene pool over another. They are particularistic institutions with little truck with equality of treatment: the clan; the tribe; religious exclusivity; in-marriage, family honour and sexual repression; suspicion of outsiders; vendetta; genocide.

    Somewhere in the Human-Biodiversity-osphere, I saw a posting which suggested that when a society practices endogamy (for example cousin marriage), that substantially increases selection pressure for behavioral traits which advantage near blood kin over more distant relatives over non-kin (i.e. the general community).

    It was suggested this could explain a lot about the Middle East… And that the restrictions on endogamy in northwestern Europe might explain that region’s success in building societies with wide trust networks and communal loyalties.

  • Nicholas Panayi

    Friedrich Hayek was big into social or cultural group selection. He believed that it was the mechanism by which more controlling societies are weeded out or forced to conform to more liberal standards. Cultures like Sparta are the kind of example he had in mind. Successful in the short run but extinct in the long.

  • Deep Lurker

    The subtle lie in “evolution proceeds not only by individual selection, but by group selection” is the implied size of the group. The bait-and-switch is that the group size in group selection is much smaller than the group size called for by “caring collectivism.”

    If you want an evolutionary model for larger groups, you need commensalism or better yet mutualism, rather than kin-selection. But making those work requires ruthlessly casting out the parasites. For some reason, parasites object to that.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Laird
    > Groups or societies neither succeed nor fail, they neither prosper nor perish; only individuals do.

    I don’t believe that is true at all. You might argue that it doesn’t matter if groups or societies succeed or fail, since, by some values only the success or failures of individuals matter. However, it is plainly the case that societies do succeed, fail, evolve and revolutionize. For example, cultures derived from post bill of rights England have spread throughout the world, and still exist in a recognizable, clearly derived form. They have plainly been more successful by most metrics than, for example, the contemporary Moorish societies, or the great and ancient societies in Rome and Athens.

    Which isn’t to say that, for example, Australian society is identical to William and Mary England. But there is a clear, evolutionary link between the two, the the foundations of the former have lead to the success of the latter. In much the same way two finches might have different beaks in England and Australia, even though the ancestral finch is shared, and his competitive advantages are inherited.

    @Tom Hunt
    > Groups do not have a genetic code

    That is only kind of sort of true. The further out you go from the individual the less shared genetic code there is. However, if you look at a family group, or a clan, or such lower level groupings they clearly do have a genetic code, shared in much the same way all my cells have copies of my genetic code. Of course each instance is slightly different, but the group has certain shared elements that the carriers’ sharing of resources will facilitate preservation.

    However, for humans I think we have mostly moved beyond the slow process of genetic evolution to the much more rapid process of memetic evolution. Not just for speed, but for leverage — changing memetics are much more effectual than change genetics. And certainly memetics are strongly correlated with groups. I think mostly it is that which is evolving in human societies, and that which is the true fit that is being selected for.

    I actually think it is largely why countries like the US and UK are drowning in, what the Soviets used to call “western decadence”. Their societies have so successfully out competed the others than they have little to drive them to succeed further. Consequently they can engage in the decadent navel gazing of entitlement spending, environmentalism and foreign aid. The most effective enemies in Western society are from within. And so these defense mechanisms have evolved to keep control of that threat to their ongoing survival.

  • Mr Ed

    In much the same way two finches might have different beaks in England and Australia, even though the ancestral finch is shared, and his competitive advantages are inherited.

    A finch with a weak bill, unable to break open its food, is likely to suck seed.

  • Adam Maas

    Groups certainly do have a genetic code analog, it’s normally referred to as a memetic code, and these memes are often directly related to societal success.

  • CaptDMO

    Tom Hunt
    9:34 pm

    There remains only the problem that “group selection” does not exist. Groups do not have a genetic code and do not reliably reproduce according to their current inclinations.

    Astonishing.
    Current experts in DNA, as well as those NOT in denial concerning anthropology, MIGHT have something to say in the interest of “peer review”.
    The history of tribal customs, adopted to accommodate environment, may dampen such enthusiasm for such “science” as well. (IE) MY “group” STILL practices the “custom” of keeping track of ones own immediate family, avoiding procreation with them, or even borderline mentally retarded “stock”. Obviously, globally, others do not, will not, or cannot, afford such “privilege”.
    Of course, I COULD be wrong.
    I’m still waiting for my copy of “An Unfortunate Inheritance” to come in at my local book monger’s shop.

  • Groups certainly do have a genetic code analog, it’s normally referred to as a memetic code, and these memes are often directly related to societal success.

    Absolutely. The problem is with the definition of success: in an individualist society, it is defined on a personal, subjective basis, where each individual decides for himself what he understands by this word, and acts accordingly. In a collectivist society, that definition is supposed to be the result of some kind of collective process, but in reality it always ends up being similarly defined on a personal, subjective basis – only by a much smaller number of people, more often than not by a single person.

  • Michael Staab

    Individuals adapt or die; cultures are bound by those same constraints. Success is both an individual and a collective quality; lack of success as an individual, or as a collective ends the same, usually in failure.

    Evolution is not a moral agent of change, so it is quite inadequate to inform political philosophy as a meaningful counselor. I mention this because if we act to use law to enforce a particular view,in which some posit evolution itself as a guide to political ideology, then we could be in for earthly hell. I think something like this was done at least once in recent history.

    More so if we use this morality to justify what is to come as a collective.

  • Fraser (and others),

    I read somewhere a few years back (soon enough to be relevant) that in India 80% of PhDs are awarded in hard sciences. In Pakistan 80% in Theology.

    Who are you tipping?

  • Richard Thomas

    Regional: “Best” by which criterion? It’s important to set terms before the discussion proceeds.

    Arguably, the wars of the 20th century vacuumed up a lot of people with aggressive tendencies and drastically reduced the percentage of such genes in the pool. Those left behind would have been the less able (evolutionarily disadvantaged in any case) and those smart enough to find a way to avoid being marched off into a massacre (Not that I am endorsing such actions but one must be dispassionate about things). Possibly, these two things could have lead to the unprecedented prosperity and peace (largely) seen in Europe through the latter half of the 20th. In the light of the opportunities presented by the industrial revolution, a genetic shift might have been in order and WW1/2 were a “correction”.

    This is explored a little by Larry Niven where his Man/Kzin wars were engineered by the puppeteers to make both races more pacified.