The Origins of Darwinian Political Thought


As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, it is time to realize that the best way to honor his legacy is to fight its overextension and misapplication into the realm of politics. The first in a two-part series.

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Fans of Charles Darwin are having a big year. 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species. People the world over are using this year as an occasion to celebrate Darwin’s life and his primary intellectual accomplishment.

Amid the celebration, I would like to introduce a note of criticism—not, I hasten to add, of Darwin’s work as a scientist, but instead of his broader intellectual legacy, especially as it has been developed by those who adapt his ideas for non-scientific purposes. Put simply, Darwin’s legacy is overblown, not because his scientific influence is less than is commonly thought, but because too many people have mistakenly claimed that his account of evolution should transform our thinking about politics and morality.

Such claims are not the exclusive province of a particular political ideology. Thinkers on both the Left and the Right have held that Darwinism provides a scientific justification for their political prescriptions. In the two-part article that follows I examine four examples of the politicization of Darwinism, two from the Left and two from the Right. The first two arose about a century ago, when biological theorizing about politics was still in its first heyday. The second two examples are taken from the last few years, when the application of Darwinism to political and moral questions has enjoyed a renaissance. My aim in this account is to bring to light the confusions into which these thinkers have been led in their efforts to establish a Darwinian political theory, and hence the confusion that they have introduced into our public discourse.

Consider, in the first place, an example of the older American Left’s political Darwinism, the argument of John Dewey’s essay “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” first published in 1910. Dewey begins by highlighting Darwinism's radical break with the classical Greek understanding of science that had dominated the West since the days of Plato and Aristotle. For that older view, individual animals developed according to their natural telos or end, which was given by their form or species, but species themselves did not change. Contrary to Darwin, species had no “origins”; they were rather part of the eternal structure of nature. Moreover, the ancients believed that nature as a whole was similarly teleological. Nature not only consisted of various beings directed toward their particular natural ends, but the whole itself was ordered to one, final, supreme end—to, in Dewey's words, “the unchanging, pure and contemplative intelligence beyond nature.” This understanding of nature influenced the Greek, and the pre-Darwinian West's, understanding of science itself. On this ancient view, to have true knowledge was not so much to understand processes of change as to grasp eternal forms and ends or purposes.

The modern scientific revolt against the ancient understanding began in the physical sciences. The old Aristotelian teleological physics was replaced by a physics that was deliberately non-teleological, that sought to understand the behavior of physical bodies not in terms of ends but merely as matter in motion. Darwin then completed the revolution by expelling teleology from the science of life. Darwinism claimed to be able to explain the variety of living beings as the result of an interplay of chance and necessity: useful and useless variations arising from random mutations in species worked on by natural selection. Species could now be understood as the product of these unintelligent forces, and there seemed no longer any need to appeal to an eternal order of things proceeding from a divine wisdom.

Dewey claims that this change in the character of science must also change our approach to political and moral questions. According to Dewey, a post-Darwin philosophy must abandon the quest for “absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them.” Because science has turned away from a concern with eternal forms to the historical circumstances in which animals gradually developed, politics and philosophy will turn from a concern with the ultimate good to the “direct increments of justice and happiness that intelligent administration of existent conditions may beget and that present carelessness or stupidity will destroy or forego.”

Dewey’s Darwinian philosophy supports his liberal pragmatism in politics, which was sympathetic to the progressive critique of laissez-faire individualism and to efforts to constrain it such as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Conservatives at the time tended to paint such reforms as violations of fundamental principles of right—such as, say, the individual rights presented by the Declaration of Independence as being grounded in the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the Constitution, understood as a permanently valid structure of institutions by which those rights would be protected. That is, the Founders and their followers believed that the Declaration and the Constitution were based upon ultimate insights into the nature of human society. From Dewey’s point of view, such absolute claims erected a bar to the kind of political and social changes that might be effected in order to gain incremental progress in justice and happiness. He therefore welcomed a system of thought, like Darwinism, that seemed to undermine claims to possess knowledge of eternal principles and to support a concern with adaptation to changing circumstances.

Dewey's politicization of Darwinism, however, seems to lead him into incoherence. For him, we must not concern ourselves with “the good” or “the just” in any ultimate sense, but should merely seek incremental progress in goodness and justice. But how can we speak of improvement, or betterment, without some sense of “the good”—without implying that we have some knowledge, however imperfect, of what is simply good? How can we speak of “increments” of justice without some intuition of “the just”? Of course we must look to specific conditions if we are to make practical improvements, but we must also be guided by some standard that cannot be derived merely from specific conditions. If we confined our minds merely to specific conditions, it is not clear how we would even become aware of the need for improvement.

Indeed, Dewey’s position is not merely confused but also dangerous. By calling for efforts at improvement divorced from permanent principles of justice, he seems to assume that modern people can obviously be trusted to act decently in their quest for social progress. Dewey’s position calls to mind the placid confidence with which another progressive intellectual, historian Carl Becker, announced that the question whether the principles of the Declaration of Independence are true is essentially a meaningless question. Later, in the early 1940s, Becker had to admit that the question of the ultimate, absolute truth of the theory of individual rights had regained new vitality because of the rise of regimes, such as Nazism, willing to trample such rights underfoot.

The older American Right was no less interested in adapting Darwinism to its political purposes, and its effort led to no less confusion than that to be found on the older Darwinian Left. Consider here the social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner’s essay, “The Forgotten Man,” which appeared in 1883. For Sumner, the Forgotten Man is the man who can support himself by his own efforts, but who is the victim of social reformers who compel him to help others who cannot or will not support themselves. Sumner advocates the kind of society in which the Forgotten Man would be liberated from such victimization. Such a society would be characterized by what Sumner calls “civil liberty"— the condition that permits to each man “the exclusive employment of all his own powers for his own welfare.” Here mutual assistance will arise not from government coercion but from “free contract,” when “men come together as free and independent parties to an agreement which is of mutual advantage.”

Sumner holds that such civil liberty would be better not only for the Forgotten Man but also for society as a whole. He notes that schemes of government assistance to the poor and weak are always based on an important oversight: their proponents forget that somebody—namely, the Forgotten Man—has to pay for them. Government assistance and regulation divert resources to some people from others, typically industrious and prudent people who would have put those resources to better use. Thus Sumner concludes his essay by suggesting that civil liberty itself is the best plan for social improvement. Deviations from it waste society’s productive forces, while adherence to it results in “a clean and simple gain for the whole society.”

Sumner's argument sounds very much like what has commonly been called Social Darwinism. In fact we can see signs of an effort to appropriate Darwin in Sumner’s suggestion that his system of civil liberty arises from “the strictest scientific thinking” on social topics. We might wonder what makes Sumner’s approach to social questions more scientific than that of the progressives, who also fancied themselves acolytes of science. Sumner's scientific pretensions seem to arise from his adaptation of concepts from Darwinian biology. He warns for example, that when we “expend capital or labor to elevate some persons” we “interfere in the conditions of competition,” thus embracing “artificial schemes of social amelioration.” Sumner seems to have taken from Darwin the belief that whatever interferes with competition is “artificial” because competition itself is natural—and that artificial interference with natural competition is bad because competition is nature’s way of fostering development.

Sumner’s position, however, is not as scientific as he thinks, because the Darwinian conception of nature does not provide him the unqualified support that he thinks it does. Sumner contends that when we decline to transfer resources to the poor and weak we act in accord with nature. Yet, on Darwinian grounds we act equally naturally when we do make such transfers. Darwin did emphasize natural competition, but he also taught that sympathy was one of the naturally evolved passions of human nature, because man is by nature a sociable animal. Sumner ought to have realized this. If they were not natural to human beings, why would the “sentimental” ties that he seeks to downplay (at least in the realm of politics and economics) have played such a large role in all human societies, in which people have never been linked only by freedom of contract?

Even when government transfers are done from the most flagrantly selfish motives they are still natural in a certain sense. Sometimes politicians ambitious for power appeal not only to compassion, but also to the self-interested desires of those who want government assistance. But, again, even on Sumner’s own account such redistribution in service of the selfish desires of the poor is no less natural than “civil liberty,” and is perhaps more natural. Sumner himself admits that “cupidity, selfishness, envy, malice, lust, vindictiveness are constant vices of human nature,” and that therefore “all history is only one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others.” If such things are natural to human beings, then the political burden-shifting of which Sumner complains is no less natural than the system of contractual relationships that arise under conditions of civil liberty. To put it a different way, if, as Sumner says, competition is natural, then we are entitled to wonder why the political competition he deplores is less natural than the market competition he praises.

The first attempts to draw political guidance from Darwin, then, on both the Left and the Right, turn out to be not examples of a scientific political theory but examples—however sophisticated, sincere, and well-intentioned—of the partial appropriation of scientific concepts for pre-determined ideological ends. Their popularization therefore led not to the enlightenment of the public discourse but the reverse. As we will see in the second part of this article, contemporary examples of Darwinian political theory, on both the Left and Right, fare no better.

Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy and a contributor to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question. This article is the first of a two-part series. Read the second installment here.

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