Degrading Darwin

How the theory of natural selection has suffered at the hands of history and culture.

Stuart Hobday

Topics Politics

In June 1860, seven months after his Origin of Species was published, Charles Darwin wrote to the geologist Charles Lyell:

‘I am beginning to despair of ever making the majority understand my notions…I must be a very bad explainer. Several reviews and letters have shown me too clearly how little I am understood. I suppose “natural selection” was bad term; but to change it now would make confusion worse confounded. “Natural preservation” would seem a truism and would bring man’s and nature’s selection under one point of view.’ (1)

Darwin’s lament was that nobody seemed to understand that natural selection is a process without purpose – without a preordained outcome and without an active selection process as in ‘Man’s selection’. I believe that this aspect of Darwin’s idea has never become widely understood – and that instead, history and culture have dictated that evolution, as an active conscious selector and an inevitably progressive force, is widely thought to represent natural selection.

Indeed, there has not been a true Darwinian revolution. If evolution has had an impact then it is the evolutionary thinking of Lamarck, Wallace, Huxley and Spencer that has prevailed. All of these thinkers saw evolution as actively progressive, with mankind on a pedestal, and could not accept the blind, random, purposeless approach.

There are many reasons why Darwin’s idea is not well understood in the modern world. I only have space here to suggest some of the more powerful historical forces that have abused natural selection over the past 142 years. We need to start with the popularisers of evolution in the context of Victorian Britain, where we can see that Social Darwinist thinking was pervasive rather than aberrational – and to move on to the twentieth century, where Darwin’s non-purposeful idea got completely lost.

Thomas Henry Huxley became known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. He was a respected scientist and writer in his own right, but he found fame after grasping Darwin’s idea and taking it upon himself to become its champion. But Huxley had his own agenda – and was principally a champion of Victorian progress and science. He ploughed headlong into opposition from the religious establishment and restlessly fought for science education. He sought to wrestle power away from its traditional bases and to gain it for the intellectually progressive. According to his biographer Adrian Desmond:

‘Out of his provocations came our image of science warring with theology…Huxley created a new scientific culture. Championing a modern education he epitomised the rise of the middle classes as they clawed power from the Anglican elite. This man from nowhere was making the modern world.’ (2)

Everything about Huxley’s ideology was mankind as a pinnacle within progressive nature – and Victorian Britain lapped it up. This was the very peak of Britain’s journey towards industrialised wealth and colonisation. It was clear to the restless Victorian go-getters that the engine room of their superiority lay in science, engineering and technological breakthroughs. Darwin’s idea of evolution was the perfect embodiment of Victorian progress – as both evidence and proof of mankind progressing in the guise of rationality and reason.

This notion of social progress as natural was accentuated in the influential work of Herbert Spencer, who took Darwin as confirmation of ideas he had already espoused around social evolution. Indeed, Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, with its harsh connotations. Spencer took a Lamarckian approach based on progress as self-development, which would later influence not only Social Darwinist philosophy, but also the socialist doctrines of betterment that appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century. Science historian Peter Bowler describes Spencer’s influence:

‘The popularity of Spencer’s philosophy more or less guaranteed the prevalence of Lamarckian ways of thought. It was all too easy to think that the individuals struggle to better itself was part of the Darwinian theory.’ (3)

Another influential populariser of evolution was Ernst Haeckel, who idolised Darwin, but who can be seen as a principal architect of Social Darwinist thinking. Haeckel associated evolution with racial categories, and like Huxley he saw his advocacy of science as an ideological battleground. He helped found the scientific arm of the University of Jena in East Germany, and he taught there in the 1880s. This was to become the model National Socialist university, and the concentration camp at Weimar-Buchenwald was built next to it. It is not difficult to see this as a legacy of Haeckel’s work, considering the words with which he greeted Bismarck there 60 years earlier:

‘While the booming guns at the battle of Konniggratz in 1866 announced the demise of the old federal German diet and the beginning of a splendid period in the history of the German Reich, here in Jena the history of the phylum was born.’ (4)

The transition from the Victorian reception of evolution into Social Darwinist thinking is a seamless one. Spencer and Haeckel can be seen as the godfathers of Social Darwinism. Their work was picked up in Britain by influential figures such as Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Salisbury – and used to justify colonisation in the name of some nations being naturally superior to others. Their continental counterparts were French foreign minister Theophile Delcasse, and German chancellor Theobold von Bethman-Holweg, while in America Social Darwinist ideas found enthusiastic advocates in President Theodore Roosevelt, and industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and JD Rockefeller.

The Americans who took up Social Darwinist ideas saw capitalism and the rise of business as a manifestation of the laws of nature. This kind of thinking formed the basis of US capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century and is still prevalent today. The whole basis of Western right-wing thinking in the twentieth century has been based on the premise that individuals’ natural self-interest should be the foundation of progress. In his History of the Tories, Alan Clarke writes that Thatcherite and Raeganite economics was based on ‘economic Darwinism’ – reflecting a bastardised version of Darwin’s original idea and a misunderstanding of natural selection.

In Europe, Hitler and the rise of the Nazis are the obvious manifestation of Social Darwinism. Eugenic thinking was orthodox science across Europe in the years before the Second World War – as illustrated by the 1938 book Essay on Aspects of Evolutionary Biology. AM Carr, the then director of the London School of Economics, wrote a paper entitled ‘Human evolution and the control of its future’, in which he outlined the types of people who should be sterilised if human ‘evolution’ is to continue (5). Indeed, many countries continued sterilisation policies after the war – and according to evolutionary thinker Stephen Jay Gould, Social Darwinist thinking ‘remains a primary component of our global arrogance’ (6).

There are many other ways in which history and culture have worked against an understanding of natural selection. The whole notion of race and nation states will tend towards ideas of some being superior to others. But there is no basis for this in natural selection.

The whole basis of technological development is based on our ability to reflect and improve – creating the modern world with industrialisation and technological improvements spreading to most parts of the globe. It is intuitive to see this ability not only as evolution in action, but as an example of how evolution works. This is nothing less than a direct tension between what has evolved and how it has evolved. We have evolved decision-making reflective abilities that pervade everything we do.

But this is not – contrary to popular mythology – how Darwinian evolution works. Natural selection is the antithesis of conscious improvement and until the implications of this are assimilated the true Darwinian revolution remains in abeyance.

Stuart Hobday is currently writing a book attempting to refute right-wing connotations of natural selection. He welcomes contact from anybody who feels they could help with this project (email [email protected]).

(1) The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol 8, Cambridge University Press, 1993

(2) Huxley – The Devil’s Disciple, Adrian Desmond, Michael Joseph, 1994

(3) Quoted in Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph, 1991

(4) Quoted in Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph, 1991

(5) ‘Human evolution and control of its future’, AM Carr-Saunders, in Evolution: Essays on Aspects of Evolutionary Biology, (ed) De Beer, Clarendon Press, 1938

(6) Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, Penguin, 1991

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Topics Politics


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