Tag: social darwinism

Socialism and Social Darwinism

The arbiters of appropriate expression in America get very exercised when conservatives call Barack Obama a “socialist.” They treat the claim in the same way as calling Obama a Muslim, Kenyan, or “the anti-Christ.”

But headlines this week report that President Obama accused the Republicans of “social Darwinism,” and I don’t see anyone exercised about that. A New York Times editorial endorses the attack.

Is “social Darwinist” within some bound of propriety that “socialist” violates? I don’t think so. After all, plenty of people call themselves socialists – not President Obama, to be sure, but estimable figures such as Tony Blair and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Members of the British Labour Party have been known to sing the socialist anthem “The Red Flag” on the floor of Parliament.

But no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one’s opponents. In that sense it’s clearly a more abusive term than “socialist,” a term that millions of people have proudly claimed.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that social Darwinism is

the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak….The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.

Not a pleasant idea. And a pretty nasty thing to accuse someone of. It’s always used as a smear of conservatives and libertarians – by the historian Richard Hofstadter, by the fabulist Robert Reich, and now even by the president of the United States. (Damon Root noted that the real eugenicists were not the laissez-faire advocates that Hofstadter accused but the “Progressive reformers” that he admired.)

As Dan Mitchell pointed out, Paul Ryan’s budget proposes to make the federal government substantially larger than it was under Bill Clinton. Does that make Clinton a social Darwinist?

Those who deploy the charge are, first, falsely implying that Republicans support radically smaller government, which neither Ryan’s budget nor any other Republican plan actually proposes. And second, they are accusing both Republicans and actual supporters of free markets of believing in “the survival of the fittest” and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ideas of eugenicsscientific racismimperialismfascismNazism and struggle between national or racial groups.”  “Social Darwinism” is nothing more than a nasty smear.

The president should be embarrassed, and those who call for civility in public discourse should admonish him.

Evolution and Liberty

Political scientist Larry Arnhart heads this month’s Cato Unbound. He argues that libertarians need to integrate biological evolution into their thinking about human cultures and even politics.

More provocatively, he claims that the “a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.” This is the case, he argues, even though

market competition differ[s] radically from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. Smith concludes: “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply.”

Our genes, however, help get us to where we are, and understanding their contribution to the formation of societies and institutions is one of the most important projects in evolutionary biology, helping to bridge the gap between the hard sciences and the social sciences.

To borrow a phrase used by Karl Popper and later by Daniel Dennett, in a free society, we may allow our ideas to die in our stead, in the course of experimenting with them, debating, and innovating within a framework of laws and rights. This ability is made possible by a set of inheritances – genetic, epigenetic, and cultural – that help make us who we are.

As usual, we have a panel of fascinating commentators lined up for the rest of the week, starting with science-blogging superhero PZ Myers, followed by eminent behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis, and rounded out by pathbreaking anthropologist Lionel Tiger. Stop by during the rest of the month for what’s sure to be a stimulating discussion.