The Impact of Darwinism

by Tristan Abbey on April 22, 2008

With the premiere of Ben Stein’s new movie, Expelled, many people are pondering the long-term impact of Darwinism on society. We touched base with two experts on the subject.
Arguing that Darwinism has had a largely positive impact on society is Michael Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. Arguing that Darwinism has had a largely negative impact on society is Richard Weikart, Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus.

1. Set this up for the layman. What is Darwinism? Is it science? Is it a social theory? A philosophy?

MR: I understand three things by Darwinism. First the fact of evolution, namely that all organisms came through a long slow process of development – a natural process – from a few forms and ultimately from inorganic material. (Darwin himself does not assert this in print, but today we would claim this.) Second, the mechanism of evolution, namely that natural selection – the survival of the fittest – is the chief mechanism (although not the sole mechanism, there are other causes like chance and genetic drift). Third, often one finds that people want to use evolution to promote social and religious ideas – as in Social Darwinism. This is a loose form of the term.

RW: Darwinism is an historical science based on many empirical observations, but Darwin’s theory was also shaped by philosophical presuppositions popular in the nineteenth century (historicism and positivism), as well as social and economic theories, especially laissez-faire. In turn, Darwinism necessarily impinges on and overlaps with philosophy, ethics, psychology, religion, and social theory, especially when it tries to explain human evolution. In his published writings, especially in The Descent of Man, Darwin made claims about the origins of morality, the origins of religion, social developments, the need for laissez-faire economics, and the extinction of lower races.

2. What is the historical relationship between Darwinism and progressive ideas like racial equality, feminism, and so on, given that universal common ancestry makes us all brothers and sisters?

MR: Well, it is difficult to say absolutely. Some people took Darwin’s ideas to promote feminism etc – this was the move of the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace. Others, including Darwin himself in his Descent of Man, were less inclined to do so. As so often happens, what one finds is that the social ideas come first and then they are given a somewhat skimpy evolutionary justification that has little to do with the real mechanisms of evolution.

RW: Darwinists have not been united on these issues, but in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most leading Darwinists, including Darwin, tended to stress human inequality more than equality, in part because evolution requires biological variability. Darwin stated in The Descent of Man: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” By the mid-twentieth century and thereafter most Darwinists abandoned racial inequality, stressing the common ancestry of all humans.

3. Evolutionary reasoning seems to underlay free market economics: the fittest survive in a pitched commercial battle. Do we owe Western prosperity to Darwinism?

MR: Well, of course this assumes that free market economics yields Western prosperity. I would have thought that FDR’s new deal had something to do with America’s success and this has little to do with free market economics. In any case, if anything, Darwin based his ideas on Malthus rather than the converse. The ideas you are talking about, classical Social Darwinism, owe more to Herbert Spencer than to Darwin, and others – Wallace again, Karl Pearson for another, Keir Hardy for a third – claimed to be socialists in the name of Darwin!

RW: The historical causation worked in the opposite direction. As many historians have demonstrated, Darwin adopted many of his ideas from economic theories prominent during his time. He was an avid reader of British classical economists, and he admitted that his key idea of natural selection derived from his reading of the economist Malthus.

4. Was there a connection between Darwinism and Marxism? One rumor holds that Karl Marx offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin.

MR: Virtually no connection at all. Marx wanted to dedicate the second volume of Kapital to Darwin, who politely declined and never opened his copy. Marx read the Origin when it came out and liked aspects but thought it all very English (he wrote a letter to that effect to Engels). But Marx wrote in a continental tradition very far from Darwin.

RW: Marx formulated his worldview before Darwin published his work, so Darwin’s theory had no influence on the origination of Marxism. Though the rumor you mentioned was false, Marx was so excited about Darwin’s theory—especially the anti-religious implications of it—that he wrote to his colleague Friedrich Engels that Darwin’s work “contains the foundation in natural history for our view.” While Marx and most early Marxists adopted some elements of Darwinism with alacrity, most of them rejected natural selection, especially when applied to humans.

5. Some contend that Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were profoundly influenced by Darwinism. Is this true?

MR: No, not at all. The communists often paid lip service to Darwin, because at his funeral, Engels said that Marx had done in the social world what Darwin had done in the biological world. But lip service (and departments of Darwinism) was what one got. Remember the Lysenko affair in Russia in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s when they tried to change wheat using Lamarckian techniques – this was deeply non-Darwinian.

WR: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, like most Marxists, clearly embraced biological evolution and considered it important in underpinning their atheistic worldview. Like Marx and Engels before them, however, they rejected any application of Darwinism to human society, so the atrocities they committed were not connected in any direct way to Darwinism. The only way that biological evolution could have contributed to their atrocities was indirectly by undermining Judeo-Christian morality and the sanctity-of-life ethic.

6. Tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized in the first half of the 20th century. What role did evolutionary reasoning play in the eugenics movement?

MR: It is hard to say really. The eugenicists would have been evolutionists, although not all were Darwinian – Certainly someone like Karl Pearson would have tied the two – on the other hand, Wallace again was anti eugenics and no one was more of an evolutionist than he. I think that genetics was more important than straight evolutionary thinking – together with the hubris of scientists who thought they could solve all of the problems with science. Of course today it still goes on, although under the radar. Parents of severely handicapped children make sure that they cannot reproduce – sometimes girls are given hysterectomies on the grounds that they are unable to handle menstruation – which I suspect is often true. But of course one is not in the business of trying to shape the future of humankind – although to be honest, most of the early eugenicists were not trying to do that either. They were more worried about degeneration.

RW: The founder of modern eugenics, Francis Galton, formulated his idea about breeding better humans while reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, and almost all early eugenicists believed that their ideas were an application of Darwinism to society. They thought that modern humane institutions had allowed the “unfit,” i.e., the physically and mentally disabled, to procreate, thus setting aside the beneficent influence of natural selection, which would not have allowed these “inferior” individuals to propagate their hereditary defects. A famous slogan of the international eugenics movement was: “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.”

7. To what extent did Darwinism influence Nazism?

MR: Hard to say again, although my bet is not a lot. Certainly there are passages from Mein Kampf that sound Darwinian, but Hitler picked up bits and pieces all over. He was not a systematically well educated man. I think the Nazis owed much more to other factors, like the Volkish movement of the 19th century (Wagner etc) and general anti Semitism – not to mention all of the daft but dangerous ideas about living space. The interesting thing is that the Nazis did not want to glorify their famous German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel – apart from anything else, his solution to the Jewish problem was intermarriage! Of course, generally the Nazis did not like evolution – it implies that we are modified monkeys and that Aryans and the rest – Jews, Slavs, etc – are all one people. You certainly do not see systematic use of evolution by the Nazis and if you read the authorities – for instance Kershaw on Hitler – you don’t get much sense at all that evolution was important – nothing like the half baked ideas that Hitler picked up in the doss houses of Vienna before the Great War.

RW: Though Nazi ideology derived from many sources, most of them having nothing to do with Darwinism, Darwinism was a central, guiding principle of Nazi ideology. Hitler believed in a human struggle for existence, especially between the races that would result in the triumph of the “superior” individuals and races and the extinction of the “inferior” ones. He viewed his pronatalist policies, compulsory sterilization and compulsory abortion for “inferior” individuals, killing the disabled, expansionist warfare, and extermination of “inferior” races as measures to promote biological evolution. Many of Hitler’s ideas about how Darwinism applied to races and society derived from leading Darwinists in early twentieth-century Germany, such as Ernst Haeckel, Alfred Ploetz, Fritz Lenz, Eugen Fischer, and others.

8. What role does Darwinism play in the debates over abortion, euthanasia, and the like?

MR: I would say absolutely none. Abortion is a religious fight entirely, with Catholics and Evangelicals against the rest. Same with euthanasia. Perhaps more evolutionists are pro abortion etc, but even here it is dangerous to generalize. Most Catholics accept evolution.

RW: Peter Singer, one of the most famous bioethicists in the world today, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic, which has been the main deterrent to abortion and euthanasia in Western culture. Ian Dowbiggin and other historians who have examined the history of the euthanasia movement claim that Darwinism played a central role in changing people’s attitudes about human life. In most contemporary debates about abortion and euthanasia, Darwinism is seldom invoked, but it nonetheless plays a crucial role in the background, shaping people’s conceptions about the meaning, purpose, and significance of human life.

9. Richard Dawkins and others like him contend that atheism and Darwinism go hand in hand. Is he correct?

MR: Well, I have argued NO , NO, NO on this many times and have invoked Dawkins’s ire and scorn for doing so. Of course you cannot be a biblical literalist and a Darwinian, but I have often pointed out that biblical literalism is not traditional Christianity but an idiosyncratic form of American Protestant evangelical Christianity, from the first half of the nineteenth century – we now know owing much to the theology of the Seventh-day Adventists. I think Dawkins is ignorant of just about every aspect of philosophy and theology and it shows. I could go on, but I will simply say, look at my Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The answer I give is Yes, although not always easy but whoever said the important things in life are easy?

RW: Dawkins is wrong in his claim that Darwinism logically entails atheism, but many atheists have correctly perceived that belief in Darwinism undermines many of the cogent reasons to believe in a God. Darwinism purports to explain naturalistically not only the origin of biological design in organisms, but often also the origins of human reason, morality, aesthetics, language, and even religion itself.

10. On balance, should we be thankful to or angry with Charles Darwin for what he hath wrought?

MR: I think evolution – the theory of evolution through natural selection – is one of the great achievements of humankind, along with Hamlet and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It shows truly that although we may be modified monkeys we are little lower than the angels – if ever there was proof that we are made in the image of God, finding this theory is the best evidence.

RW: I once had two intelligent students in a small senior-level seminar tell me that since Darwinism showed the illusory nature of morality, Hitler was neither good nor evil. Darwin implied in The Descent of Man and Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson have stated explicitly in an essay on “The Evolution of Ethics” that “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” Perhaps Ruse and Wilson find the pursuit of illusory morality liberating, but how can they then morally condemn Hitler (or Stalin or Mao) for pursuing their own illusions?

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