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Notes on Social Darwinism, Sociobiology, and the “Free Market” Continuation?

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Often we talk about Social Darwinism, but we seldom know what it means. Here is a link to a brief explanation:


The modern revival of this theory is called sociobiology.


Social Darwinism has also returned in an economic disguise where the market determines the survival of the fittest and does the natural selection among corporations and groups that can afford to live and those who cannot.

Notes on Social Darwinism added to Robert Bellah’s lectures on the Sociology of Religion (February 1996) by Peter Krey:

Robert Bellah said, “Economics tends to be done completely in isolation from and oblivious to society and community.[1] Are we the species that has to do what the market demands?”[2]

Some Notes from Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1944, revised edition of 1965). Time period about after Civil War until after WWI.

Laissez-faire conservatives were the first to pick up the instruments of social argument that were forged out of Darwinian concepts. (ff. 5-6) Critics of social Darwinism were first a hard pressed minority, then after establishing their critique, became split over the question whether racist and imperialist invocations of Darwinism had any real justification. (6) Catch words were the “struggle for survival” and “survival of the fittest.” Nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that process would lead to continued improvement. In itself this was not a new idea, as economists could have pointed out, but it did give the force of natural law to the idea of competitive struggle.(Ibid.) Slow gradual change seemed reinforced by evolution, and despite hardship, evolution meant progress tending to some very remote but altogether glorious consummation. (7) Thus all reforms were an attempt to remedy the irremediable, which interfered with nature, and could only lead to degeneration.(Ibid.) Social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. A conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion.(Ibid.) [It contained] A body of belief whose chief conclusion was that the positive functions of the state should be kept to the barest minimum, it was almost anarchical, and it was devoid of that center of reverence and authority which the state provides in many conservative systems. Most importantly, it tried to dispense with sentimental or emotional ties.(Ibid.)

Hofstadter cites Graham Sumner who criticizes rank, status, bond and ties of Medieval times, finding progress in realistic, cold and matter of fact contract, lasting only as long as the rational purpose for it. In a state based on contract, sentiment is out of place in any public or common affairs. It is relegated to the sphere of private and personal relations….Sentimentalist always want to go back to the old order (p. eight). Hofstadter remarks about these passages of Sumner: was there ever a conservatism more progressive than this? He compares Edmund Burke with Sumner, noting that the first is a religious conservative who respects the wisdom of the community, while the other disdains the past and wants the community to give full play to individual self-assertion.(8-9) To just summarize the rest: at this time the conservatives were the real headlong economic and social innovators and daring promoters of new types of organizations, like Alexander Hamilton, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan. The left spoke of conserving old values. This only changed with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It is not quite true that social Darwinism was completely secular. It seemed to be a harsh naturalistic Calvinism considering the necessity of labor, self-denial, and inevitability of suffering, in relation to nature as in relation to God in Calvin’s system. It was to exploit the resources of our country for industrialization, discipline the work force, and produce character with a harsh economic ethic.(10) Though the credit living and over-consumption induced by the advertizing industry in 1965 seemed to show the end of such an ethic, Hofstadter has misgivings of the future of a society bereft of the moral discipline to work. (11) Men of Sumner’s stamp could contemplate human misery with callousness and excessive dogmatic certainty that nothing could be done about it, they tended to be stern masters of themselves. Sumner put his position at Yale into jeopardy three times – over introducing Spencer into his teaching, opposing the protective tariff, and denouncing the Spanish-American War. But ironically, the values Spencer and Sumner held, personal providence, family loyalty and family responsibility, hard work, careful management, and proud self-sufficiency, tended to designate the millionaires as the fittest, who in the struggle for survival were transforming the environment so rapidly that Spencer and Sumners values were less and less fit for survival.(12)

Hofstadter has put the most charitable construction on the leading ideologues of Social Darwinism. In the book the crude and vulgar forms it took with the gospel of wealth, the legitimation of racism and imperialism come to light. It was an apology for the elimination of the unfit.(230) That spelled the poor and the natives, not yet having arrived at white Anglo-Saxon superiority, should first be eliminated. Indeed hospital, asylums, where the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick are kept alive, thus allowing the weak members of civilized society to propagate their kind, [were considered] highly injurious to the race of man.(91) Teddy Roosevelt is shown advising the manly virtue of being warlike, and General Homer Lea makes no excuse for brutality: As we increase the aggregate of individuals and their collective activities, we increase proportionately their brutality.(170) Social Darwinism can be seen leading into the euphoria into which WWI was entered, very much in tune with future racist fascist and Nazi developments.

Hofstadter cites Luther from “On Trade and Usury.” (1524) Luther is complaining about large monopolies of his day:

[They] oppress and ruin all the small merchants, as the pike the little fish in the water, just as though they were lords over God’s creatures and free from all the laws of faith and love.(242)

Quite another natural law is offered here. And Bellah shows that evolution even among animals develops a protective response against the sheer brutality of the struggle for survival. The exaptation,[3] equipping the species to survive, the niche building, and the culture that teaches young animals to survive. All this seems to be jettisoned by Social Darwinism, which teaches that sheer inhuman natural forces determine who lives and dies. In the words of Charles Sanders Peirce: “Every individual for himself, and the devil take the hindmost. Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount expressed a different opinion.”(231)

[1] These two statements come from Robert Bellah and Loïc Wacquant’s Durkheim seminar.

[2] I imagine that in social terms, markets represent competition, natural (economic?) selection, struggle, and survival of the fittest. Bellah is pointing out that the ruthless biological doctrine – nature is bloody in tooth and claw – which is now being challenged even for biological theory, is being misapplied to society through economics. The invisible hand may well belong to Darwin, whose theory is dehumanizing when applied to sociology.

[3] From my notes taken from a Bellah Lecture on Feb. 8, 1996, during a Sociology of Religion course in the University of California at Berkeley:200,000 or so years ago, what was the brain for? Why that huge computer? They did not have to learn physics. At that time they only wielded sticks and stones among a few human beings. Is that brain just an adaptation in a passive sense? [Stephan Jay] Gould, theorizing about exaptations, does not abandon Darwin in a broad sense, but rather insists on this internal evolution. True, if we do not adapt we will be eliminated. But there is play room, and the higher you go on the evolutionary scale the more play room there is going to be. They are not only adapting but building. It is called niche construction. They see opportunities and respond.


Written by peterkrey

August 4, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Ethics

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