The Insanity of “Social Darwinism”

The bizarre subject of “social Darwinism” has been discussed around here before. For example, see Banquet at Delmonico’s — Spencer and Social Darwinism, where we defined it and described its origin. It was developed by Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (which Darwin never used).

From that misguided beginning, the creationists have found enough ammunition to condemn Darwin and his theory of evolution for virtually all the ills of society — for example, see Discovery Institute: Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, Part VI, and also Ellis Washington: Driven Mad by Darwin, and also Discovery Institute: Beyond Despicable.

That’s enough background. Now let’s turn to what prompted today’s post. We found this at the National Review website: Ryan’s Anti-Poverty Plan . It’s attributed to “the Editors,” and it says, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

President Obama famously accused Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) of “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” for one of his budgets.

That was a couple of years ago. We remember it well, because we wrote: Is Barack Obama a Creationist?, in which we said:

One of the typical creationist arguments against Darwin’s theory of evolution is to raise the specter of what they call “social Darwinism,” a term that is as unconnected to biology as “social plate tectonics” is to geology or “social quantum mechanics” to physics. … The slur of “social Darwinism” is both nonsensical and squalid — which is why it’s such a favorite of creationists.

[…]

What this tells us is that Obama sees fiscal conservatives as “Darwinists,” and he sees his own policies of ever-expanding government as the opposite — which we all know is creationism. This isn’t the first time your Curmudgeon has commented on the apparent relationship of free-enterprise and evolution (see Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Barack Obama), but it’s the first time the President has confirmed our thinking.

[…]

We can’t help but conclude that Obama sees himself more than a community organizer — whatever that really is. Now he thinks he’s the intelligent designer of America’s economy.

Some of you didn’t like what we wrote, but that never restrains a true Curmudgeon. Anyway, National Review goes on to praise Paul Ryan’s new budget proposals. They make sense to us, but we won’t bore you with any of that. What we really want to talk about is the old slur of social Darwinism.

The expression “social Darwinism” is misleading not only because it’s based on a false conception of the theory of evolution, but because it’s an equally misleading label for the free enterprise system. The enemies of reason and freedom score two propaganda points every time they play the social Darwinism card.

Free enterprise is not like the law of the jungle, where predators (i.e., the rich) pounce upon and devour the poor. Donald Trump doesn’t lurk in alleys looking for winos from whom he can steal to add to his fortune. If you don’t achieve success, it’s not Darwin’s fault, and no one is plundering you.

Okay, let’s sum it all up. Is Paul Ryan a social Darwinist? No, of course not. Is Obama a creationist? He behaves as if he were the intelligent designer, but who knows what he thinks? Is this a slow day for news? Indeed it is.

Hey — we just had a sudden thought: Astrology is social astronomy. Well, why not? It makes as much sense as social Darwinism.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “The Insanity of “Social Darwinism”

  1. SC: “Is Obama a creationist? He behaves as if he were the intelligent designer, but who knows what he thinks?”

    The ironic analogy (more than an analogy?), hit me one day in 1994, 3 years before I started intensely following the creationism/evolution “debate,” and early in my “evolution” from mostly liberal to mostly conservative.

    I have since realized that it’s the “is-ought fallacy” to claim that natural selection justifies free-market economics, no matter how well it works, or how poorly the alternatives work. But I’m not so sure about the alternative. It seems that the far left and far right both have an irrational need to invoke “design” arguments, either due to genuine doubt that some part of nature can work on its own, or as an excuse to give them control, or some combination of both.

    But I would add that both “RM + NS” and free market economics are counterintuitive to most people, including those most who accept one or both. Concepts of “emergence” and “self-organization” have been proposed to make both less counterintuitive, but they are too complicated for most people. And often dismissed as unnecessary by those who do understand them.

  2. Yes, I read a brief summary of Ryan’s newest proposal. In order to get gov’t off peoples’ backs, he’d have a gov’t “advisor, a.k.a. a social worker” take on every individual who needs “help,” to steer them in the “right” direction. This notion has been experimented before, it was noted, in Nebraska and even in Ryan’s state of Wisconsin. It failed in both instances, but that won’t stop Paul “Ayn Rand” Ryan from pushing it, then maybe we’ll get real socialism in this country as everyone will have their own personal care-taker to look after them.

  3. “If you don’t achieve success, it’s not Darwin’s fault, and no one is plundering you.”
    Really?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takeover#Hostile_takeovers

    In the end usually most or all working (wo)men are fired. That’s a way of plundering.
    Bad argument, SC. Though I don’t defend the equation free enterprise = social darwinism. Sometimes the first can lead to the latter though.

    @Frank: “it’s the “is-ought fallacy” to claim that natural selection justifies free-market economics”
    That’s correct. The reverse is also correct: claiming that the government organizing society is somehow intelligent design is an is-ought fallacy as well. Our dear SC is guilty of this.

  4. I don’t follow your logic on this at all, Curmudgeon. Social Darwinism is built on an is-ought fallacy that justifies a “let the devil take the hindmost” view of how society ought to work. It is also built on two significant misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. First is that the struggle-for-survival always requires individual competition, never individuals cooperating with each other. This happens to fit roughly with the role of competition in capitalist economies, but only roughly as even capitalists are very aware of the survival benefits conferred by various forms of cooperation. Second, and more pernicious, is the view that people are or become part of the “lower social classes” because of a fault or weakness in themselves. They are unfit and so destined for extinction. They may even deserve social punishment for being the abject losers that they are. In any case it is not only useless but immoral to offer them help.

    Many conservatives love Social Darwinism and creationists are no exception. They just prefer not to call their social policies “darwinism” because, ironically, they reject darwinian science. But you look at the social policies they favour, especially the fiscal policies, and it is Social Darwinism all the way through. Funnel the wealth to the already rich, deprive the poor of any economic rights whatsoever, even the right to water and other necessities of life, or the right to any means to improve their situation, from birth control to education. Social Darwinist policies entrench existing social inequities and may exacerbate them, but that’s all right because those losers in the lower classes are morally depraved and unfit to live anyway. Society is better off without them. That is the attitude, and most decent people, including a good many conservatives, find it reprehensible.

    Liberals are wishy-washy on Social Darwinism. They have many of the same social attitudes as conservatives (in fact from a Canadian perspective, Democrats are conservatives and Republicans more conservative–there are no liberals visible in the US political spectrum) but like to present themselves as more compassionate. Yes, those poor folk in the lower classes have a right to some consideration. We shouldn’t let them starve in the streets. But their is still much of the attitude that they deserve their lot and that they need a nanny-state solution, because they are incapable of fending for themselves.

    But a truly anti-Social Darwinist view, (and a true evolutionary point-of-view) would not write anyone or any group off as incurably unfit to be either hounded to extinction or coddled like babies. I recall a slogan expressed in Latin America that could come from anywhere in the world in response to “liberal Social Darwinist” policies such as foreign aid.

    “No, I don’t need a helping hand. But I would appreciate you taking your foot off my back.”

    Oxfam did a great report in the late ’90s showing that the US & Europe could provide significantly more aid to the third world by reducing trade barriers than through foreign aid. Globally poverty could be virtually wiped out by dedicating two weeks worth of annual military spending to providing latrines, clinics, schools and small business credit everywhere such facilities do not currently exist. It is not, for the most part, personal weakness that keeps people poor. It is a web of restrictive legislation, some favoured by conservatives, some by liberals, but all of it holding people back from what they could become.

    Conservative Social Darwinism stomps on the poor,disguising it as a concern for freedom and responsibility. Liberal Social Darwinism traps the poor in a false promise of helpfulness while doing nothing to liberate their own capacity for creativity and ingenuity. Neither allows for a genuine competitiveness or cooperativeness.

  5. gluadys says: “I don’t follow your logic on this at all, Curmudgeon.”

    Yes, I can see that.

  6. Most of us regulars here on Curmy’s blog are science-oriented, and dare I say “Economics” is not a science? I realize it is treated as such, but “science” is the study of reality — there is but one set of physical laws governing the cosmos, and the role of scientists is to discover those laws.

    But is there one set of economics laws? Every economist has his (or her) ideas about economics. Can they all be right? Probably not. Is there “One True Set of Laws of Economics”? If there is, we haven’t discovered it yet.

    Therefore, no one here really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to economics. Let’s stick to discussing biology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, and all the other subsets included in the above, and let the world’s economists make fools of themselves when they attempt to sound erudite.

    When everyone’s opinion is valid, no one’s opinion is valid.

  7. There are two points that current conservatives get wrong regarding the free market system. (1) A progressive tax structure does not inhibit free enterprise, but rather encourages it, and (2) not all services are best provided by private enterprise. Not all conservatives think this way, but it seems like most current ones do – or are too afraid of the idealogical voters in their primaries to speak up if they don’t.

    With respect to (1) above, individual companies and the overall economy grows in response to demand for goods and services. (Companies do not increase production or hire new employees because their taxes drop, or their owners grow more wealthy – they invest when they can no longer meet the demand for their products with their current staff and facilities.) Demand comes from consumers who have the resources and desire to buy those services. A society with a shrinking middle class and increasing concentration of resources in a tiny portion of the society will experience an erosion of demand for the goods and services produced, as fewer and fewer people have the resources to pay for such things. A properly structured progressive tax system with lower taxes for lower wage earners across all sources of income (including dividends and inheritance) helps decrease income inequality and increase the portion of the society in the middle class. When politicians talk about tax cuts, they should target their cuts on those groups which will increase demand in the economy, rather than those who will simply concentrate wealth.

    With respect to (2), it is obvious that some services such as fire and police protection, national defense, some utilities, etc. are not easily translated to a marketplace – these are more efficiently handled by governments. The debate over healthcare is of course the most heated example of a service that the rest of the developed world has concluded is a function of government – while we hang on to our idea that it is a free market service. I tend to think the rest of the world has it right on this issue, but in any case there is fundamental merit in using the free market system where it can produce the best results, and turning to government solutions where they can produce the best results.

  8. mnbo: “The reverse is also correct: claiming that the government organizing society is somehow intelligent design is an is-ought fallacy as well. Our dear SC is guilty of this.”

    SC can correct me if I’m wrong about him, but neither he nor I claim that “government organizing society” is, or follows from, “intelligent design,” either in the general sense (e.g. Paley’s formulation) of the DI’s scam. And indeed the irony is that most people who advocate more govt. control have no problem with “RM + NS” in biology, while those who do insist that “RM + NS” in biology has “limits,” usually advocate (or pretend to advocate) less govt control. But they – and I mean the anti-evolution activists, not necessarily rank-and-file evolution-deniers – don’t really mean it, and don’t truly believe in anything but all-out authoritarian “top down” control. For starters, they demand taxpayer-funded “handouts” to teach unearned material in science class. And they refuse to take personal responsibility and develop their own “theory.” I have no doubt that if they got their way, we’d have a net increase in govt regulation (more social, if less economic and environmental), and a net increase in taxes and/or national debt.

  9. Ed: “There are two points that current conservatives get wrong regarding the free market system. (1) A progressive tax structure does not inhibit free enterprise, but rather encourages it, and (2) not all services are best provided by private enterprise. Not all conservatives think this way, but it seems like most current ones do – or are too afraid of the idealogical voters in their primaries to speak up if they don’t.”

    I listen to Michael Medved on the radio a lot. He’s not just a conservative, but also a Discoveroid. He often admits that he prefers a “progressive tax structure” and that “not all services are best provided by private enterprise,” including some economic services. One of the many ways that conservatives shoot themselves in the foot is to call the simpler tax plans “flat” taxes. They are neither flat in terms of $ amount or even % of income, but progressive in effect after one accounts for standard deduction. I have yet to hear other conservatives challenge him on that at least. But there are some, such as Steve Deace, whose show I catch a few minutes of on the way to work, who are far more radical, if you can believe it, on social issues.

  10. Darwinist and evolutionist. I associate both terms with creationists.
    Both imply a massive failure of understanding, intellect, character or
    ethics.

  11. Darwinist and ‘evolutionist’ and Social Darwinism are word salad inventions of the far right or their relatives. And they have a very warped idea of what ‘survival of the fittest’ even means. Like most things in life they dogmatists invent their own meanings and apply them as needed to further their ignorant dogma. I prefer the word ‘dogma’ over religion as it also includes nonreligious BS as well. Show me any dogma worth getting into.
    To understand Evolution and Social change and theory and ‘survival of the fittest’ required intelligent study, two words dogmatist do not want anything to do with.