Social Darwinism actually predates Darwin, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” several years before Darwin published The Origin of Species. Spencer was more Lamarkian than Darwinian, actually, but “Social Darwinism” was the fittest catch phrase. Add the broth of 19th Century racial theories, and you have a truly toxic brew. Stephen J. Gould has suggested that an opposition to Social Darwinism was behind William Jennings Bryan’s opposition to biological Darwinism, and I find it plausible though there are those who disagree Gould’s suggestion would mean, among other things, that Bryan got another bum rap from history.
One of the funny-but-also-sad things I sometimes see are the bumper magnet decals that show a Darwin fish being eaten by a Jesus fish, seemingly suggesting that the car owner doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution, but does believe in “survival of the fittest,” i.e. Social Darwinism. Certainly that is a general attitude from a good many people on the Right. Dog-eat-dog society, but let’s not consider the natural world as anything other than divinely planned. Well, that’s okay; dogs were intelligently designed.
In fact, Social Darwinism is probably mistaken for Darwinism by more people than there are people who know the difference. This is sad and disturbing. Similarly, I’m pretty sure that people who have a decent understanding of scientific evolution are a minority among people who say they believe in evolution. The Social Darwinism contaminates the scientific understanding.
Social Darwinism also contaminates the political discourse. John Adams wrote that the U.S. Senate should be a body of “the rich, the well-born, and the able,” and that has become an approval phrase for one ideal of government. What Social Darwinism claims is that all three can be the same, that the able will get rich and their children will be all three, yea unto the umpteenth generation.
So I cringe a little when I hear the phrase “evolution in action” referring to some unfortunate person (usually of a lower social class than the speaker) dying from some strange combination of circumstances (which usually include alcohol) that allows the speaker to feel superior. Things like the Darwin Awards elevate the outlook to cheap entertainment.
When a poor man acts a fool, the poor man dies. When a rich and powerful man acts a fool, the poor man dies. Some might consider that “survival of the fittest,” but it also sounds like a prescription for revolution. I’m just not fool enough to believe that the revolution will get it right either, or even that there is a “right” to be gotten.
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