revolutionized the way the world thinks about creation,
, and the entire world around us. Whereas previously creationism
was practically the only conceiveable method by which the plants and animals
existing today came into being, Darwin introduced the world to evolution--the
idea that species could change over time, thereby bettering themselves
over the course of millenia. Darwin was not the man to coin the term,
"survival of the fittest
," but it has come to be the one term most associated
with evolution--the strong outlive the weak. Those who can adapt easily
are the ones who survive when forced into harsh new environments.
The slandering of Darwin's actual theory of evolution occurs when it
is confused with Social Darwinism
. Social Darwinism takes the same
theories that Darwin set forth and, instead of confining them primarily
to nature, applies them to mankind
. This has been repeatedly used
during the past hundred years to justify oppression, slavery
, and outright
. "After all," as Social Darwinist
s would say, "if I
am stronger than my opponents, I have an absolute right to vanquish them."
Since Darwin's name itself appears in "Social Darwinism," many assume
that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist. Looking at Darwin's writings,
along with some other sources, we find that evidence can be found to both
support and refute that claim.
First, we must discuss whether Darwin can be a Social Darwinist at all--Darwin
didn't coin the term, nor did it come into existence until some time after
The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were published. This
being the case, some would argue that it is impossible for Darwin to have
been a Social Darwinist since there was no such thing as one at the time
Darwin made his theories known (since they are the sources by which we
are evaluating Darwin's beliefs). This argument can, however, easily
be refuted. Martin Luther, the cause of the splintering of the
Catholic Church, stated often that he never intended to split the church
at all. Without him, however, the splintering would never
have happened. Whether he intended to be the founder of the Protestant
Reformation or not, this is how history remembers him. Galileo
Galilei, as is evidenced in his writings, believed strongly that science
and religion should have nothing to do with one another. While the
term "separation of church and state" did not exist during that era,
Galileo certainly would have believed in it had it existed. By the same
token, it is possible for Charles Darwin to have been a Social Darwinist
even though the term had not yet come into being.
So, confident that it is possible that Darwin was a Social Darwinist,
we can begin to examine the actual validity of the claim. Before
we analyze Darwin's own writings, it may be beneficial to look at some
of his influences. Darwin had stated that in his college years, he
liked very much the theories expounded by William Paley in his Natural
Theology. In this work, Paley speaks of the belief system (Natural
Theology) appearing in the title. He makes the argument that even
if objects (watches, in his example) are self-replicating and are complex
enough so that we cannot discern how the different pieces interact together,
there must have been some creator (watchmaker) that manufactured the very
first object. The very fact that the objects can create themselves,
he claims, neccessitates a creator that instilled this ability into the
first object. Applying this belief system to the entire world, Paley
paints a picture of creator that was present at the instant of creation
but not neccessarily thereafter. This theory, obviously, is not Social
Darwinism in the least respect. Darwin stated that he no longer believed
in Paley's arguments after his trip on the Beagle, so it really lends
no support for or against the claim that Darwin was a Social Darwinist.
It simply indicates that early in his life, Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.
As we are much more concerned with Darwin's theory of Evolution than
his previous beliefs, we will now move on to an analysis of his thoughts
and writings, from the time he left aboard the Beagle through his writings
on evolution. Most of the evidence Darwin uses to prove his theory
came from his trip aboard the Beagle (1831-1836), so it is the most logical
place to start our analysis. While he makes no theories or postulations
during this period, we do gain insight into his thoughts and beliefs by
his recount of the voyage. In general, his entire manner of describing
the Fuegians is condescending and superior. While he says nothing
of wanting to exterminate or enslave the Fuegians, he says at one point
that he can hardly believe that both Englishman and these "savages" belong
to the same species. Refuting this seemingly Social Darwinistic attitude,
however, is an argument Darwin had with the leader of the Beagle expedition,
Captain Fitz Roy. Fitz Roy, while the Beagle was in Brazil, once
told Darwin that he was a staunch supporter of slavery. Darwin
made it very clear that he did not support slavery in any form--this is
contrary to Social Darwinism. A Social Darwinist would more than
likely support slavery, since the enslaved race is "obviously" inferior
to the masters and therefore don't deserve their freedom. Thus, we
have contradictory evidence from the Beagle voyage and can not form a conclusion.
Analyzing Darwin's primary published work on evolution, The Origin
of Species, gives us a like result. He has hardly any specific
examples at all (in the "Recapitulation and Conclusion," at least), and
those he does use focus on lower animals and plants, never venturing into
the kingdom of man. There are two possible explanations for his avoidance
of civilization in his arguments--first, that he doesn't want to be associated
with Social Darwinism (or, more closely, since there were no Social Darwinists
yet, he doesn't want to be seen as one who would use the "survival of the
fittest" argument to promote genocide or slavery). The second possibility
is that he is what would come to be known as a Social Darwinist, but he
doesn't want to be publicly known as one. His rationale for this?
He might have felt, and rightly so, that giving his findings a political
spin would have taken some of the credibility away from the research itself,
as well as making him look as if he was just using science to influence
society. Since we have no way of knowing why Darwin omits human references,
we are still left without a conclusion.
In his other main published work on evolution, The Descent of Man,
Darwin finally gets around to directly talking about evolution's impact
upon mankind. He notes that artifically imposed restrictions upon
the gain of wealth and reproduction, such as primogeniture, can uneven
the level playing field of natural selection. He also notes later
on that "survival of the fittest" is exactly that--a race for survival;
a race of reproduction. Quoting from a Mr. Greg on the eventual outcome
of a race for survival between the "careless, squallid, unaspiring Irishman"
and the "frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious" Scotsman, he
argues that "it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed--and
prevailed not by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults."
The Irish, while (he claims) less intellectually endowed, would reproduce
more rapidly as a result of their disgusting living habits and thereby
arise victorious over the Scots. While these statements are openly
prejudicial, they say nothing as to Darwin's actual opinion of Social Darwinism...while
he may concede that it exists, his support of it is neither confirmed nor
It is interesting to note that in The Descent of Man, Darwin
maintains a belief in religion ("To my mind it accords better with what
we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator", etc.), while in
his bibliography he has a much more negative view of it ("I can indeed
hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true").
While this may simply be because the two pieces were written at different
times in his life, it also may be another refusal to deviate too far from
the social norm in his scientific papers.
Through an analysis of Darwin's published works, it is impossible to
conclusively determine whether Darwin was in fact a Social Darwinist.
When he can avoid going into detail about the human side of evolution,
he does so. When he cannot avoid it, (even though his analysis may
be prejudicial towards certain races) he speaks of it in the most factual
terms possible. As far as the public world is concerned, Darwin is
simply a scientist out to report his findings in a scholarly manner.
Charles Darwin's views on Social Darwinism are not truly relevant to his
work, and so he simply omits them.