Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has been rated by many as the single best idea anyone has ever had. His idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology, but it threatened to leak out into human culture, ethics, politics, and religion. It has been abused and misrepresented by many to give an air of scientific respectability to appalling political and social doctrines. If we judged Darwin's theory by some of the people who used it later in morally reprehensibe ways, we would avoid reading about it.
Using evolution to justify social inequality has become known as "social Darwinism." It's not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and became nasty on the basis of his theory. We are especially prone to self-serving biases. It was thus no surprise that many used evolution to advance their nefarious causes. These biases are advantageous for some people in the short run but they are often harmful to other people and even to everyone in the long run.
Although Darwin himself never applied his theory to social evolution, Herbert Spencer was only too eager to do so. He liked evolution because he thought it justified the inequalities of British class society. Hitler liked evolution because he thought it justified the ultimate social inequality of genocide. Darwin himself was passionately against slavery and thought that social policy should be based on compassion, which he regarded as "the noblest part of our nature".
The expression ‘survival of the fittest’, coined by Herbert Spencer, translated Darwin's evolutionary theory into a catchy phrase, so that it came to be applied to society. Evolution — understood erroneously by many to mean progress — might well be based on chance mutations, but surely that didn’t mean we had to resign ourselves to our fate? 'We could give chance a hand, couldn’t we?', was their line of thinking. This provided an important added twist to ideas about change: it could be steered, preferably in the right direction.
This was the aim of social Darwinism, an ideology that caught on in the late-19th century. Darwin used the term ‘fittest’ to mean ‘best adapted to an environment’. In the wake of Spencer, it came to mean ‘most successful’ — that is to say, ‘strongest’. The adherents of social Darwinism saw society as a living organism that evolved like any other, and whose individual cells (social classes and races) were sick or healthy, fit or unfit. According to this line of thought, social abuses are not socio-economic phenomena but diseases, ‘cancers’, whose carriers are ‘parasites’ that must be eradicated.
For social Darwinists, the remedy was clear. Weak groups only hold the rest back and by properly steering evolution, they must be removed without delay. This led to eugenics as a tool of social Darwinism: the strongest were encouraged to reproduce, while efforts were made to curb the reproduction of inferior specimens. Social Darwinism was advanced as a scientific justification of racism and power abuse. It was used to defend colonization: ‘Negroes’, ‘Indians’, Aborigines, and other ‘savages’ in overseas regions were portrayed as races that had dropped behind in evolution, being only a rung higher than brute creation.
Failure was seen as a sign of intrinsic weakness and disease; to provide help in such cases was counterproductive, because it merely prolonged the survival of groups who were doomed to die out anyway. Social amenities were abolished to stop the poor reproducing. In 1834, under the influence of the Malthusians, Britain introduced a new Poor Law that defined poverty as a moral shortcoming. When Hitler claimed that the German people had the moral right to conquer the territory of inferior peoples when they needed more 'Lebensraum' or living space, he was voicing the notions that prevailed in his day and age.
Eugenics was a serious academic discipline at many universities. Institutes devoted to it existed in England, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, America, Germany, and Norway. Its theories were supported by prominent figures, including American presidents. Its founding father, the British anthropologist and polymath Sir Francis Galton, became a fellow of the Royal Society and was knighted well after having espoused ideas about improving the human race. Galton felt that the average citizen was “too base for the everyday work of modern civilization.”
Spencer sold hundreds of thousands of books on his assertion that we should fan the flames of this battle, since ‘the whole effort of Nature is to get rid of [the poor] – to clear the world of them, and make room for better’. The steel baron Andrew Carnegie wrote in a 1889 essay known as “The Gospel of Wealth.” “While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore . . . great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”
This ideology using less extreme language, featuring ruthless economic competition, the brutal exploitation of workers, and extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty, persists to this day. The latest mutation of social Darwinism interprets nature to mean market forces. The strongest man or woman makes it, at the expense of all those other men and women if they try hard enough. The ethical implication is that rich people are rich by virtue of their own effort and dispositions. Luck has nothing to do with it. Paul Verhaeghe writes in What About Me?:
The main thrust of that thinking is clear. If success is the new moral standard, those who commit the sin of failure need to be referred by the high priest (manager) or to the father confessor (psychotherapist) for further treatment. All this must be done as efficiently as possible, of course.
It is painful to see how mental-health disorders are these days almost automatically translated into economic losses. The most eye-popping example was a small article in a Belgian newspaper of 21 January 2012, reporting that suicide was costing Flanders €600 million a year, ‘seriously threatening our economy’. What appallingly selfish behavior!
The fact that matters could be seen from the opposite perspective — that our economy poses a serious threat to our health — apparently occurs to nobody.
Charles Darwin perceived a fundamental problem of social life, and a possible solution. At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Yet members who behave “for the good of the group” often put themselves at a disadvantage compared with more selfish members of the same group. If so, then how can altruism and other prosocial behaviours evolve?
The solution, according to Darwin, is that groups containing mostly altruists have a decisive advantage over groups containing mostly selfish individuals, even if selfish individuals have the advantage over altruists within each group.
During the 1960s, evolutionary biologists, while agreeing with Darwin’s logic, decided that between-group selection – the evolutionary force favoring altruism – is almost invariably weak compared with within-group selection, the evolutionary force favoring selfishness.