This year we have an important double anniversary of Charles Darwin: the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th anniversary of his classic work, The Origin of the Species. Already plenty of celebrations and commemorative events are under way.
In truth there is a real mix of opinion in regards to Darwin and his thought. Many applaud his life and work while others demur. Plenty of aspects can be canvassed here. I want to focus simply on one part of his legacy – the social and political outworking of his views.
Of course there is plenty of debate about how much Darwin should be credited – or blamed – for the way in which his theories were translated into social realities. But one writer, John West, has argued in a recent book that the social implications of Darwinism are part and parcel of his worldview. His 2007 volume, Darwin Day in America is well worth examining in this regard.
"Social Darwinism" is a term which refers to the social and political ramifications of biological Darwinism and the materialism which it is imbedded in. Darwin regarded humans as basically higher animals, and as the social sciences became more and more tinged by the Darwinian outlook, humans increasingly began to be treated as mere animals, or machines.
The volume by West looks at how the materialistic worldview of Darwinism has impacted on a wide range of fields. As academics, scientists and politicians apply the Darwinian view of man to various social sciences, some very negative outcomes have ensued. We have steadily become dehumanised and depersonalised as we have taken on board the logical implications of evolutionary materialism.
West offers a far-reaching and profound look at numerous areas clouded by the Darwinist mindset. He examines the fields of law, education, business, economics, sociology and ethics to see how the revolutionary ideas of Darwin have penetrated every aspect of Western culture. Scientific materialism, flowing forth from Darwin and the Neo-Darwinists, today underpins much of public policy in the West.
Consider how extensive scientific materialism has become in public life. The title of this book refers to the move to make February 12 Darwin Day in the US, a date usually associated with the birth of Abraham Lincoln. But so great has the influence and impact of Darwin’s ideas become that he has now risen to the status of a secular saint in many quarters.
West is certainly right to argue just how far and deep the influence of Darwin has been. Consider the issue of crime and punishment. For much of human history crime was about punishment and restitution, based on the belief that humans had free will and were morally responsible for their actions.
But with the advent of Darwin — in part — academics and elites increasingly began to view humans as simply animals who needed treatment, not punishment. After all, if we are simply the products of our biology, how can we be held accountable for our actions? Such thinking flows directly out of Darwin’s materialistic account of evolution.
Thus the American lawyer who defended evolution in the famous Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow, for example, took materialistic Darwinism to its logical conclusion and argued that criminals are basically programmed by material forces. If men are simply machines, powerfully determined by their heredity and background, then crime and punishment must be radically redefined. Crime began to be studied not only in terms of one’s biology, but also in psychosocial terms. Crime was seen as a mental illness, not willful immorality. Criminals came to be seen as victims, and punishment was replaced with rehabilitation and therapy. If crime is just an illness, then cure, not punishment, was required.
West also reminds us that the ugly eugenics movement also flowed very nicely out of the Darwinian worldview. Eugenics was the idea that man could "take control of his own evolution by breeding a better race". The father of the eugenics movement, Francis Galton, happened to be a cousin of Darwin, and was inspired by The Origin of the Species to "improve" the human race.
Of course the rest of the title of that book reads, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. People like Margaret Sanger – who founded Planned Parenthood — simply took all this to its logical conclusion. Compulsory sterilisation of the "unfit", lobotomies, electric shock treatments and other coercive measures were all features of the eugenics movement. And it found its fullest and most ghastly expression in the Nazi death camps.
West shows how the materialism of Darwinism leads to the Nazi worldview. Hitler argued that eugenics had a scientific basis, and that race betterment was a result of the biological principles articulated by Darwin. Indeed, the three great genocidal regimes of last century – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China – were all firmly grounded on the principles of scientific materialism.
Mention can also be made of Alfred Kinsey and the radical sex education movement which also finds its roots in the Darwinian view of humanity. West covers this in sordid detail, along with other contentious social issues of the day. For example, some evolutionary psychologists are now arguing that rape and adultery can be fully explained, if not excused, on a biological basis. All sexually deviant behaviour is simply the outworking of our evolutionary adaptation and programming. Kinsey sought to scientifically justify all sexualities, including bestiality and paedophilia.
West makes a solid case for how all such ugly social and cultural radicalism finds solid ideological grounding in the ideas of Darwin. For too long there have been apologists for Darwin who have sought to argue that there is a gulph between the biological ideas of Darwin and Social Darwinism. West very capably demonstrates that there is in fact very little distance between the two.
Of course to make the link between Darwin and social Darwinism is not to ignore other sources for the later. For example, the man most associated with social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, was an evolutionist before Darwin, and he was the one who actually coined the phrase "survival of the fittest". But Darwin certainly was aware of the anthropological implications of his 1859 study of animals and natural selection. Indeed, his 1871 volume, The Descent of Man, looks at how man fits into this evolutionary framework. In it he argues that there are no crucial differences between man and animals. He argued that animals were capable of mental reasoning, imagination, emotions and self-consciousness. He insisted that "there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties".
As noted, there is a division of opinion on the question of how much of the thinking of Darwin can be directly attributed to the negatives outcomes mentioned in the book. West points out that in his revised edition of Descent Darwin tried to play down some of these more distasteful ramifications. But West notes that Darwin’s later, private views seemed to contradict these concerns.
Even if Darwin did not favour all the negative out workings of his theory, as West reminds us, an "idea’s consequences may not be fully anticipated by its proponents". But that does not mean that he avoids all responsibility for how those ideas panned out. And West shows that the scientific materialism of Darwin and his colleagues led to plenty of destructive consequences, such as technocracy, utopianism, dehumanisation, and relativism.
In truth, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. West superbly makes the case that Darwin had plenty of bad ideas, and we are seeing plenty of ugly consequences today as a result. This very important book deserves to be widely read and discussed. It clearly informs us that perhaps our celebrations this year need to be tempered somewhat.
Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a PhD candidate at Deakin University.