A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

14. Chapter Fourteen


1.         Social Darwinism


Darwinism has, since its inception in the latter half of the 19th Century, been influential beyond the field of biology proper, in ethical as well as economic, social and political theorizing and commentary, some of which has been pernicious. Under the heading of ‘Social Darwinism’, racism, exploitation and violence were given a boost, causing much suffering to many people. Although similar ideas existed before Darwin published his theories, they gained credence and prestige from their superficial association with such an important work of biological science. Using pseudo-scientific discourse extrapolated from Darwinism, ideologies like Hitler’s could thenceforth pretend to justify conquest and domination.

Concepts like “the struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest” seemed charged with meaning, suggesting that biology condoned harsh, dog-eat-dog societal practices, pitting people against each other and judging whoever won the contest to have naturally deserved to win. Alternatively, the necessity of “adaptation to the environment” could be interpreted as a biological call to fit-in socially and not make waves, to accept and not rebel, to be subservient to the powers-that-be. The doctrine served both to justify the oppressors and to keep their victims docile.

Here, we wish to ask the question – is such reasoning logically appropriate? Given that human society is from a biological viewpoint an ordinary population grouping, one might well infer that such concepts can legitimately be applied to it. But if there are conceptual errors concealed in such discourse, what are they – i.e. what are the limits of the Darwinian concepts of evolution?

To begin with, it should be admitted that the conceptual error is not entirely on the side of the Social Darwinists – they were dished out a misleading terminology by Darwin himself. Terms like ‘struggle’, ‘fittest’ and ‘adaptation’ were no doubt chosen as approximations illustrating certain aspects of evolution, but the ignorant and their manipulators could readily misconstrue them as confirming a ‘law of the jungle’ scenario for society. In principle, epistemologically, these choices were of course legitimate; as our knowledge develops, we frequently expand and contract the meanings of existing words to match new data. But they were unfortunate, in that they were easily misused.

Paradoxically, such terms are based in the human (and animal, or at least higher animal) experience, but applied by the biologist by analogy to the whole range of living beings (including bacteria and plants), who thereby gives them new and specialized connotations. The Social Darwinist then comes along and picks up these same terms, reapplying them to human society, in view of their anthropomorphic flavor, glossing over the biologist’s precise intentions, and concentrating exclusively on the images the terms superficially project by virtue of their original meanings. Although the terms have returned to their original domain, they have in the interim acquired subtle ethological significations.

Thus, the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ projects an image of fighting for one’s life against difficult odds and powerful enemies; the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ implies that in this life and death struggle whoever won is naturally the best man, who in fact deserved to succeed all along, as his victory proved ex post facto; the phrase ‘adaptation to the environment’ suggests a scenario of submission, which the losers if they at all survive must remain content with, serving their masters, keeping their tails well between their legs. These dramatic connotations were conveniently adopted by the Social Darwinists, under the pretense that they came from biology.

What such phrases have in common, in their original senses, before Darwinism used them as biological expressions, is the underlying human (or animal) consciousness and will they imply. When biology co-opted them, it applied them indiscriminately to organisms without these faculties, notably bacteria and plants. Moreover, the harsher aspects of the original words were simply abandoned in favor of wider and softer applications. For example, when a flower appeared in nature, with a brighter color than hitherto, one more attractive to pollinating insects – this was labeled by the biologists as an ‘adaptation’, a maneuver in the ‘struggle’ and an increased ‘fitness’.

Apart from such terminological misappropriation, Social Darwinism involves serious misunderstandings of the concepts of biological Darwinism. Evidently, bacteria and plants cannot be said to have purposes, since they lack consciousness and will – their ‘actions’ can only at best be regarded as quasi-purposive, in the sense that they apparently de facto have a common direction, viz. the perpetuation of life. Thus, the flower in our example did not ‘do’ anything that could literally be characterized as adapting, struggling or becoming fitter; the flower can claim no credit for its evolution. According to Darwinism, there were just random genetic mutations, which happened to be physically compatible with surrounding conditions that happened to occur.

The concept of struggle for existence, as understood by biology, treats every possible behavior pattern under the same heading. It is not limited to situations of conflict or even of difficulty, but covers every aspect of the life of individuals and populations that happens to be ‘good for’ them. In this broad perspective, cooperation, sharing, mutual service and symbiosis are equally forms of ‘struggle’ – they are expedients adopted by the organisms concerned – consciously, or of course (by analogy) unconsciously, as the case may be – to further their own lives, by means of exchanges of goods and divisions of labor. Even true altruism (to the extent of self-sacrifice) may be assimilated under this concept, if separate individuals or groups are conceived as really parts of the same whole. Tolerance and peace are also expedients. Social Darwinism foolishly or cunningly ignores such nuances.

Furthermore, Social Darwinists misunderstand natural selection. Survival is not a product of conquest or at least compromise in some dramatic struggle of the organism with other organisms and with the environment. Survival, even for humans, is not proof of some sort innate fitness or personal credit; things are not that simple, orderly or satisfying[1]. As Darwin was careful to stress, survival is mostly a matter of plain luck. The law of averages makes some individuals or groups survive and some die off, with little or no regard for their genetic potential.

For example, a city tree has thousands of seeds; most of them fall on the pavement, with no chance of ever germinating; one or two may fall on the lawn under the tree and not get raked away by the gardener, each giving rise to a seedling; then comes the lawn-mower and puts an end to that attempt, though one seedling may be missed and grow on for awhile. In this example, the seeds all have genetic content of more or less equal value for the furtherance of life, though some may in fact be more robust and fertile than others; but it is generally mere chance and not their relative genetic potential that has determined which finally survived.

The same truism applies to all individual lives. Lightning may strike a tree, which falls and kills the dominant monkey in a group – supposedly, the best genetic specimen; it was not killed by any inherent unfitness, but by bad luck; there was no fault in its makeup that differentiated it from its mates, that earmarked it for genetic extinction (assuming it had no offspring before) – it was simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As, indeed, was the tree. The trees and monkeys spared by that accident of nature may in fact be genetically much weaker and in the long term have less chances of survival, so that the world’s genetic pool has in fact been impoverished by those two deaths.

Similarly, with regard to whole species: The existence of the human species today is just, according to biology, due to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago when a giant meteor struck planet Earth. The dinosaurs were eminently ‘fit’ for life here, more so than the mammals, since the former did much better than the latter for over 130 million years, keeping them small and insignificant. Only after these essentially fitter species were wiped out, could the mammals (those that happened to survive the cataclysm) emerge, diversify and grow, eventually giving rise to the human species.

It may be that if dinosaurs had survived, they would have in time given rise to species far superior to the human (i.e. more intelligent and more powerful, in the best senses of those terms). Maybe the genetic strains that did survive the catastrophe, and give rise to the human species, were by far inferior in every respect, except for a lucky break. One could of course argue that the mammals were proven fitter by the very fact of their survival; their fitness consisting presumably in being smaller (under 25 kg) and thus able to take shelter from the physical upheavals that destroyed the dinosaurs (though not all of them, note – since reptiles, birds, and other of their descendents persist). But this argument is rather circular, because it treats exceptional events as on a par with routine events.

Fitness, or adaptive capacity, should not be construed as implying a sort ability in principle to somehow preempt eventual disasters. In our above example of the tree and monkey struck down by lightning, the natural event involved was such that it would have killed any other tree and monkey that happened to be there at the time. The trees and monkey that survived had nothing notably different in their makeup; nothing saved them other than coincidence. In particular, the surviving monkeys did not sense the lightning coming and scatter.

Some commentators, after similar reflections, have suggested the expression ‘survival of the luckiest’ would be more accurate. More precisely, we might say that, within the range of those biologically fit enough to survive in a give environment, the fittest are not always the luckiest. The specimens that do ‘make it’ are not necessarily the ideal candidates. I shudder to think of all the great genes destroyed in natural disasters, and due to human wars and environmental devastation. Ours is not ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

The concept of fitness (as here described) is faulty not only because it ignores the important factor of luck, but also because it is applied in an undifferentiated manner to the whole organism or species, rather than to specific characteristics, and is then used for comparative purposes. It should be kept in mind that (a) each fitness is relative: what is fit in one respect may be unfit in other respects; and (b) overall fitness is an average: the same individual or group may have more characters that are usually more fit than characters that are usually less fit, and so be declared ‘on the whole fit’; therefore (c) comparisons of fitness between individuals or species are not very meaningful, since different circumstances are necessarily involved in their respective lives.

If a man is eaten by a tiger, it does not prove the tiger to belong to a higher species than the man. It just means that the tiger is physically stronger than the man. It remains true that, in other respects, the man is superior to the tiger, being able to invent a spear or gun that kills it at a distance, or simply by virtue of being able to write poetry. If the human species ends up eliminating the tiger species, it does not prove the tiger species to have been unfit for life on earth. It just shows how stupid and shortsighted mankind can be. Similarly, in human society: if a thug kills a gentleman, or a Nazi kills a Jew, it is only a demonstration that the former was more violent, and certainly not proof of greater moral or social worth. The victim is not shown genetically deficient or constitutionally less viable.


2.         Spiritual Darwinism


Those who believe in Social Darwinism usually wish to flatter themselves that they belong to the class of the fittest; the superior, beautiful people; the dominant elite. I would say that a more logical impact from Darwinism would be to make us kinder, more sympathetic to other creatures. That is its impact on me, anyway. Once we realize that we are all really made of the same stuff, just genetic variations on the theme of living matter, we feel closer to other people, other peoples and other species.

Social Darwinism promoted a culture of racism, claiming a genetic basis for its collective evaluations of peoples. But the ‘value’ of a person is not in his or her genes, but in what he or she makes of them – in his or her ‘virtue’. The dignity of a human being, as of an animal, is in how it responds to the challenges of life with the means at its disposal, the use it makes of its cognitive and volitional powers. In the case of humans, the possibility and necessity of decency towards others seems essential, since violence, hatred and fear are in the long run to the disadvantage of all, even if they may in the short run seem advantageous to some. Nothing in biological science justifies the reading that war, of some against others or of all against all, is natural. For creatures like us endowed with reason and freewill, wisdom, kindness and intelligence are obviously the best course.

It is interesting to note that the image of human society projected by Social Darwinists matches perfectly with the traditional portrayal of the egoist grasping and clinging, climbing over the bodies of all those that are in his way, taking whatever he wants whenever he can. It shows up the essence of Social Darwinism, as a narrow-minded doctrine designed to vindicate selfish pursuits and the social injustice resulting from them. Instead of such mindless behavior, spreading suffering, one may of course propose an enlightened self-interest that considers the broader and longer-term consequences of one’s actions. In Darwinist terms, one could say that only justice, peace and love (excuse the clichés[2]) are over time likely to ensure survival of human life and life in general.

Finally, it is all an issue of quality of life. What kind of world do we want to live in – an obscure place of stupidity and conflict, death and destruction, or a shining place of wisdom and harmony, life and progress? Of course, utopian philosophies and religions can also cause much harm, but they should not for that reason be ignored, constituting as they do mankind’s attempts to probe more deeply into such issues.

Can Darwinism, properly conceived (and not as some have historically misconstrued it), assist the humanities (i.e. ethical, social, economic and political discourse)? The time frame of biological evolution is very long, very much longer than the span of human history. The humanities mainly draw on the latter for their empirical data, to predict what forms of social behavior and organization are likely to bring good or bad to individual humans, human groups or humanity as a whole. The survival of the human (and other) species is a legitimate standard of judgment for the humanities, drawn from biology. But within that broad framework, many conjectures are possible, between which we can only judge with reference to history, if only approximately. Many questions faced by humanity remain unanswerable, whether we look to biology or to history, for the simple reason that they deal with novel issues that have no precedent in the past.

In any case, we have seen in the present work the specificity of human beings, in terms of their degree of consciousness and volition compared to other animals. These two differentia are radical enough to suggest that whatever conclusions biology may come to with respect to life in general, it has to reconsider them very carefully when trying to apply them specifically to homo sapiens. A species that displays such major distinctions is bound to be subject to some more specific, less mechanistic biological considerations. Our fate cannot be left to chance. If humans have the power of choice, then their nature is to refer to ethical discourse, to help them decide in a pondered manner what courses to follow.

It is important in this context to understand the term ‘survival’ in a large and deep sense. Ultimately, it does not just mean physical continuity at all costs; this is only minimal survival. There are greater degrees of survival, ranging from physical health up through psychological wellbeing to spiritual life. The human being, especially, is no mere body, but a largely mental and spiritual entity. Mankind is not just driven by matter, but has other, seemingly ‘higher’ considerations. Consequently, the standards of success or failure may be different for humans than for other species.

A person may succeed materially but woefully fail in other dimensions of his or her being. Another may fail in the material domain yet succeed in the intellectual or spiritual domain. Who is ‘better off’? If we insist on applying ‘genetic perpetuation’ as the only conceivable biological norm, we will prefer the first. But if we allow that at the human level of existence other issues may be involved, we may prefer the second. The fact is, many people are no longer subject to the reproductive instinct, and choose to have sex lives without begetting children, or to become monks or nuns.

Physically, they are naturally selected out; but what does that prove? Perhaps some of the latter function on another evolutionary scale, wherein it is not the genes that matter most but the soul. Perhaps genes only exist to eventually give rise to souls, or as vehicles for souls. The materialist interpretation of things is not necessarily the final word. I mean, from an ethical point of view, it is just a doctrine like any other.

It could be argued, in accord with the biological principle of evolution, that the soul ‘evolved’ in certain forms of living organism, as an instrument of the body, improving the body’s chances of survival and reproduction. In a materialist perspective, ‘spiritual philosophy’ may then be considered as an aberration, whereby the tool (the soul) has forgotten its original function and acquired the pretension that it is life’s goal and that the body must serve it. But it is equally conceivable that, once the soul appeared on the biological scene, it surpassed all other considerations in the material pursuits of the organisms that had one.

The latter perspective might be characterized as ‘Spiritual Darwinism’ – or as the salvation of the morally fittest – a doctrine diametrically opposed to that of historical ‘Social Darwinism’, which refers to the physical or political dominion of thugs. If we reflect, the spiritual principle of salvation of the morally fittest is nothing new; it has always been the basis of spiritual philosophies like Judaism or Buddhism. Some people advance on the spiritual path, and some are left behind or regress. Some people make the effort to evolve spiritually and are ‘saved’ or ‘enlightened’; others refuse to use their life constructively, and remain in darkness or sink further down. So it goes – and few, very few, find their way to true ‘survival’ – i.e. ‘eternal life’.


Drawn from Volition and Allied Causal Concepts (2004), Chapter 15 (sections 1 & 2).



[1]           If they were evidently so, everybody would believe in God and Job would never have written his book!

[2]           Most people would in principle agree with these “politically correct” generalities. However, some people treat “peace and love” as absolutes, which one must impose on oneself without regard as to whether the opposite party does so too. With that, I find it hard to agree – one has the right and duty to self-defense when necessary. That is why “justice” should also be mentioned; it ensures equilibrium.

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