Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Social Darwinism 3.2

by Gary Berg-Cross
President Obama recently assailed the Ryan Republican budget plan as ‘social Darwinism. It makes sense that he is setting the stage for a budget values debate that is likely to define the fall election. To kickoff the debate he has appealed to the idea of Social Darwinism and he’s labeled the Republican budgets, drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as part of a slippery and "a prescription for decline" because it would gut such essential programs as Medicare and education. A central part of this “radical vision” is
“Disguised as deficit-reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism. It’s antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who’s willing to work for it — a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training; research and development — it’s a prescription for decline.” 
Not everyone may understand the reference to “social Darwinism” beyond an implied argument that a society's strongest members will and should flourish and that it is a mistake to help society’s “weaker members survive and reproduce. Translated to policy, it pits the poor against the wealthy in some struggle for survival. People may vaguely know that Libertarians or Randians adhere to a form of “conservative Darwinism” stressing laissez-faire markets that allow the strongest to emerge and flourish.

We should be more literate about Social Darwinism. Like the difference between chemistry and alchemy it's one of those scientific cultural things that everybody should know a bit about. In The Age of American Unreason Susan Jacoby describes Social Darwinism as one of the pseudoscience encouraging an American social environment of unreason and ignorance (see my blog Critical Thinking in a Time of Political Truthiness. Since unreasonable arguments are likely to be thrown about during the Presidential campaigns it might be useful to understand the history of Social Darwinism, who has favored it and how it has been critiqued. This will allow us to be more reasoned in the debate.

The phrase "survival of the fittest" is central to the concept and was coined by Herbert Spencer, British philosopher, in 1851. (His picture is above sitting next to Paul Ryan) The original form of Social Darwinism (call it Social Darwinism I in the current vernacular of versioning) appeared pretty rapidly after the Origins publication and was recognizable by the late 1860s as suggesting broader implications of evolution. The actual term appeared later in 1877 for the idea that the struggle for survival seen in animal species also applies to humans. Fair enough, but is this a hypothesis or a scientific theory that gets refined by evidence over time.  If so one would expect that people like Evolutionary Biologists would be increasingly in the forefront of the discussions.  Instead we find politicians, clergy, fringe philosophers and lassez faire corporatists and their mouthpieces in the forefront of the efforts over time making arguments that appeal to people who know little of the science. 

The simple fact is that cooperation also applies to intelligent species. Darwin, himself felt that "social instincts" such as "sympathy" and "moral sentiments" were central to human life and may have also evolved through natural selection. Darwin speculated that social concerns actually strengthening the human cultures in which Anthropologists see them wrote about it this way in his later book Descent of Man:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them
It's pretty clear that we can make plausible arguments for natural selection working on human tribes. Some tribal members will possessing in a high degree social sentiments we might think of as patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy. If they are socially conscious and ready to aid each another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, there is a good chance they will be victorious over most other tribes. If these social sentiments are able to be passed on they could be selected for.That’s a big IF but no more than the selfish struggle or each against the other.  And such better angels sentiments aren’t what Social Darwinists were talking about. Ideas like sympathy for others is not what they see as being selected.
Unlike Darwin popularizes of Social Darwinism I ignored the complexity of human descent and inheritability issues and tuned out of the eventual surge of comparative data from Anthropology. They focused on socially deleterious traits, like "pauperism" and mental illness. Like Andrew Carnegie hey had a simple approach to fitness via competition:
"The law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, [but] it is best for the race , because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department."
Andrew Carnegie, "The Gospel of Wealth, (1889)
The simple idea is that competition produces winners - some type of success within a culture. In the class stratified England on the 19th century you can imagine who was seen as fit – the aristocracy and noveau rich. In such society’s with big wealth gaps, material success can easily be interpreted as evolution’s considered moral and progressive judgment. Wealth success was the proxy for fitness as the dominance of the white race could be interpreted as evolutionarily superior to other races. Likewise colonial success of countries like Britain made them superior to other nations. In American the general social theory became a practiced justification for laissez faire capitalism during the Gilded Age.
This superiority included cultural-political institutions and Religion, with some special reasoning to make conclusions come out right. Christianity is championed as better than all the rest and has out competed them. Well it fought Islam to a draw, but then perhaps we can rationalize this because Islam flourishes in inferior cultures. It is intellectually interesting that an oversimplified application of an agnostic theory like Darwinian evolution should have been picked up by 19th-century Christian ministers like Henry Ward Beecher, as an attempt to reconcile Christianity with evolution, although to be fair they did not call it Social Darwinism. To Beecher and others the Science of Evolution proved God's will in making certain that 'the poor will be with you always.' Indeed, economic success is evidence of the working of God's will through some biological imperative of natural selection set up by God for this purpose. Given this double authority in the natural order, only fools attempt to ameliorate economic inequality.Thinking like this leads to a Prosperity Gospel rather than a compassionate one.
The whole Social Darwin agrument strikes some as an inhumane, weakly formed and flawed philosophy. Like Intelligent Design or Freudian Psychology it can be used elastically to justify whatever its supporters want to justify. As previously discussed it is appealing as a racial argument. To be sure it was welcomed by the ultra-rich in 19th century America to justify their status and world view. And it justified Gilded Age comfort while removing moral responsibility for poor immigrants floundering in Dickensian poverty and misery.
Social Darwinisn II was a later version, again popular in the post WW-I Roaring 20s with its banking wealth. One impetus was a mix of the rise of the eugenics movement which grew out of the coupled with massive immigration that threaten some with a dilution of the Caucasian and Northern European races. Eugenics had roots in Social Darwinism I with its primitive notions of fitness and that biology was destiny. Interestingly, the word "eugenics" was coined in 1883 by Darwin cousin scientist Francis Galton. Galton wanted to promote the ideal of perfecting the human race by, as it is often put, weeding out "undesirables" while promoting "desirables." This may have seen simpler in Galton's day before we knew the mechanics of genetics, although there were efforts to study identical twins to see how much intelligence is inhereted. If you take an Intro Psych course today you might learn about how the early English studies actually fabricated data. We know a lot more today about the essentially interactive nature of intelligence emerging in the environment.
Which brings us to a 3rd phase of Social Darwinism which started a while ago (so I call the current version 3.2) as part of a conservative movement that features things like trickle down economics and shrinking safety nets. This version has its dog whistle appeal points. One focuses on poor (aka inferior) people who should not be pampered - pregnant immigrants, the poor, elderly and disabled. These are trotted out like Reagan’s welfare queens as implied 'parasites.' This phase is again associated with our rising wealth inequality and a new brand of wealth elites. The current wealth gap, like that of the 1920 and 30s, is justified as due to some type of personal fitness. You can see this embedded in Mitt Romney’s messages. (See my blog on Behind the Prosperity Message of Happy Warriors.) He is obviously fit to lead because he is wealthy and a “job creator.” This ignores the fact that he didn’t create jobs or that many have become wealthy through a fitness for influencing tax laws and getting special exemptions.Ignoring facts is again one sign of a pseudo-science and in this case it is even lighter than that and is just social fiction driven by  powerful political and their media voices.
The press of arguments justifying austere budgets and programs probably will fuel a new round of discussion with some embedded Social Darwin issues - things like 'class envy' & 'class warfare,' social compassion, what is a fair and productive society and whether preventive measures as simple as vaccination are justified. When blame is being allocated for things like the national deficit these are some of the factors focused on as opposed to specific decisions taken in the Bush years that produced the large deficits we see.
The current launch area is the “smoke and mirrors” Ryan budget which by one estimate adds something like 4 trillion dollars to the deficit, but includes $4.3 trillion in tax cuts which would again benefit those fittest among us like Mitt.
The list of possible cuts in Ryan’s budget includes Medicare, Social Security, college aid, early education, the Federal Aviation Administration, and even the weather service. As Ezra Klein identified there is real hypocrisy in Ryan's arguments arguments for deficit reduction and minimal impact :
The cuts to Medicaid and other health programs for the poor are twice the size of those to Medicare. The cuts to education, to food stamps, to transportation infrastructure and to pretty much everything else besides defense are draconian. As for the tax reform component, it cuts taxes on millionaires by more than $250,000, but it doesn’t name a single loophole or tax break that Ryan and the Republicans would close.
 Even among conservatives there are debates on such draconian approaches. Former Bush speechwriter, Mike Gerson is uncomfortable the Tea Party ‘sink or swim’ attitude that seems at odds with some older aspects of conservatism (or at least compassionate conservatism):

“It is at odds with Abraham Lincoln’s inclusive tone and his conviction that government policies could empower individuals. It is inconsistent with religious teaching on government’s responsibility to seek the common good and to care for the weak. It does not reflect a Burkean suspicion of radical social change.”

This new round of Social Darwinism discussion would be improved by a healthy degree of skepticism and by a respect for data, such as cited on the Ryan budget in contrast to its claims. Wisdom on policy resides at least partly in understanding the consequences of policy action. And for all the social philosophizing one wonders if the voices of experts will be hears are and whether they will be listed to. If claims about human nature and the society are at issue, we want experts in these areas to advise us. As a culture we are, unfortunately, increasingly less interested in hearing such deep analysis and are rather captured by slogans and hot button coverage.


Don Wharton said...

Gary, as usual you have delivered an excellent post highlighting one of the most salient areas of preposterous right-wing propaganda. Somehow we are to accept an increasingly entrenched oligarchy of the super-rich as the overlords who bring us to the best of all possible worlds. While the evidence is now showing that their version of the "opportunity society" is resulting in significant reductions in upward social mobility for the rest of us. In fact the agenda is the systematic abolishment of opportunity as the super-rich take care of their own and funding for education, research and the social safety net is systematically destroyed.

Mike Reid said...

How I wish we could banish the term "Social Darwinism" from the language. The term is confusing and misleading.

Charles Darwin had nothing to do with this social theory and never suggested that his theory of organic evolution through natural selection should be applied outside of biology to human societal orders.

The advocates and beneficiaries of the Gilded Age and Victorian social orders invented the term and misappropriated and misapplied Darwin's name to a social theory that he had no connection with and never endorsed.

Mike Reid
President of WASH