Social Darwinism as modern mythology

2009 November 2

[Commenting on a prior post, Sid challenged whether social Darwinism can be considered mythology. I thought Stu's detailed reply--a mini-essay really-- deserved it's own post.  --prodigl]

Hi Sid,

First off, you’re correct in your understanding: Darwinists of today (known more formally as evolutionary biologists) never use the term social Darwinism nor apply social Darwinist ideas to people (though I am sure someone can locate a rogue biologist who does); most of them regard the term as illegitimate since human culture–which includes political action–has (and had even in Darwin’s day) replaced nature as the prime force upon human survival.

Those who coined the term in the 19th century (Darwin didn’t use it) were social progressives attempting to show how every natural law in the universe leads to progress. It seemed at the time that life was indeed looking up for many folks, some more than others. Like elites in other times and places, those atop the Victorian social order placed themselves at the top of the ‘natural’ order of things, though Darwin himself (in The Descent Of Man, a follow-up to On the Origin of Species) cautioned against what his cousin Francis Galton approvingly (and what we today disparagingly) would term eugenics:

…if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Many who still do use the term social Darwinism today are the ultra-rich (and their apologists) who want to justify positions of privilege, just as robber baron capitalists in the late 1800′s justified cutthroat business dealings. Ironically, proponents of social Darwinist mythology (and its ‘Survival of the Fittest’ myth) include a contingent of fundamentalist Christians who firmly believe in God and a divine plan, all the while calling for removal of evolution in school curricula (and, in a curious non sequitur, lower taxes for the rich).

Myths in the modern world are tools we humans have at our disposal to convince others that certain ideas are ‘true’. Those in positions of wealth and influence have used the social Darwinism myth in order to preserve their positions of privilege. They need only convince their fellow humans (or at least some of them) to accept a myth as valid. Social Darwinism is, primarily, a story about why the losers of cultural and political battles ought to give up fighting and accept the status quo as not only natural, expected, or preordained, but even desirable.

Members of the privileged class don’t have to prove their fitness in accordance with the theory, since, as far as they are concerned, it’s a self-evident truth. It doesn’t matter if they truly believe in the myth. Though, personally, I suspect most of them do. It’s only important to get the culture at large (or at the very least those who might work for change) to accept the myth.

If you can get your opponents to accept their status as inferior (or beaten), then you have won the war without fighting. The social Darwinist myth holds that everyone is (and was destined to be) in their ‘proper’ (social) place and that things could not have turned out differently, which implies that no change in position, influence (i.e., voice in society or government), or wealth is needed, nor is any desirable since intentional change ‘violates’ the ‘natural’ order’ of things.

The mythology of social Darwinism ignores or outright denies a number of facts:

1) Survival is not of the fittest (at least not often) but merely the luckiest of the least unfit. Mediocrity can thrive as long as it is does not possess a trait that actively hurts its chances of survival, and even the not-so-fit can survive as long as it is lucky; selection works in the negative: culling the unfit. Selection has no mechanism to eliminate all competition to the most fit. Survival only proves luck or lack of bad genes or traits.

2) As the environment changes, those that were most fit can quickly become trapped by their fitness to the old conditions, unable to adapt fast enough to the new ones. In other words, fitness is not a static condition.

3) Even if the social Darwinist myth were true, we humans needn’t accept its outcomes. At least in the modern world, we have enough resources to create a more equitable distribution than that made by chance.

4) There is no divine plan ordaining the lucky few as the ‘fittest’. Biologists and geneticists have demonstrated (with support of computer models) that, given enough time and small changes, no plan is necessary. (See Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett for more detail.)

5) In our human world, many of the pressures on survival or success are human-made and therefore open to change by human beings. Even were there a divine plan, if we humans have been granted free will, God couldn’t guarantee that pivotal historical figures would come to the ‘right’ conclusions. Otherwise, there is no free will at all. So this further puts the onus upon all of us to act fairly towards each other instead of pushing unsupportable social fictions about the fitness of some individual or group.

Thus, I think one can reasonably argue that social Darwinism, in its simplest, crudest form is mythology since it explains nothing real or active in the present day. It is an unsupportable story (a social lie) used to justify immoral actions or conditions. Its moral lesson is that those with little ought to accept their proper place.

Well, I hope this is food for thought or discussion. Feel free to comment as you wish.

It is cool to hear that your group is similar in size and dynamic to ours. I wish you all well in your endeavors from all of us at Socrates Cafe Seattle to you in Okemos Michigan.

Best Regards,

Stu Levy, Co-facilitator SCS

2 Responses
  1. Sid from Michigan permalink
    November 30, 2009

    Hi Stu in Seattle.

    I finally found some time to read your post.
    Nice post.
    We don’t agree on some things, but that’s ok.
    I’ll explain how I think we differ below.

    I’m sticking with the definition of Myth as a story someone makes up as a “lesson for today” about something that may or may not be true from the distant past. Repeat: distant past. At least two thousand years or more.

    I am not on board with the definition that Myth is equivalent to a Lie.
    In my opinion Myth must contain the romantic possibility, no matter how obscure in the mists of the distant past, that some portion of the Myth could have been true in the time of its origin. I think that it is improper for modern people to apply the term Myth to anything that is happening now or that has happened recently.

    Myths should remain the sole repository of stories about Unicorns, Zeus, Osiris and friends, not stories about baseball players, politicians or anyone else that anyone knows today or in the recent past within recorded-documented history.

    Maybe a new term could be used today.
    How about Neomyth?

    A Lie is a story that has never been true in any degree.
    Someone has to stop the hijacking of old terms and bending them to some modern application. There are plenty of words to describe things people invent that are bad, a lie, or that don’t work in the present. I think the best terms to use in present cases would be “bad,” a “lie” or “doesn’t work.”

    Memetics at work:
    In your story, in my opinion, Meme (Dawkins) would work just as well, (or neo-myth).
    ‘A unit of cultural information that replicates.’

    A Meme can be either good or bad, work or not work, true or a lie.
    If it replicates – people spread it around – then it is a Meme.
    Religion is a Meme: it may be good or bad, work or not work, true or a lie.

    My understanding of Evolution is that the term is the name of a theory about what happens as a result of a process.
    Natural Selection is the term that describes that process.
    If will can trump natural selection, then what happens is not evolution, it is design.
    I doubt evolutionists would want to include design in their theory. ;-)

    iPods are not evolving.
    Nature is not selecting an iPod, I am.

    They don’t get better because of mutations at the cellular level.
    I would wager that many people would not agree with me on this point.

    Steve Jobs designs iPods.
    (Steve Jobs bought himself a new liver – a choice).
    (Steve Jobs did not evolve a new liver).
    (Steve Jobs’ liver did not move into his abdomen because he was “more fit” and the liver-donor “less fit”).
    Steve Jobs is not a Social Darwinist in this example because he (I presume) followed established moral and ethical constraints within the system of medical therapeautics approved of by the society in which he lives. If he had someone in South America killed to get his new liver, then he is a Social Darwinist. See how this works?

    I am uncomfortable using the term Evolution to describe what happens because of what people do, when they use the process of free will to make a choice between things. People’s choices in my opinion definitely do not constitute “natural” selection because corrupt memetic programming or design can produce “unnatural” selections (bad designs) – as in “I will choose to rob a bank today” or “I will kill soldiers at Fort Hood-because I can.” Persons who do those things are, according to me, Social Darwinists because they design their actions to overpower others by force because they can and they want to, without regard for the fate of their victims. Same with the Bernie Madoffs of the world.

    Media examples:
    FOX network and AM radio are examples of Social Darwinist efforts, by my use of the term.

    Additional perspective:
    I use the term Social Darwinist/ism with a specific intent.
    When I use it, it is meant by me to be a negative term that describes people or institutions that use unethical and immoral behavior against another person or other group. Social Darwinists are not “more fit.” They only seem to be more fit by comparison to their victims because their victims are restricted by their choice to use self-imposed limits of moral and ethical behavior ignored by their Social Darwinist attackers.

    I don’t need any more detail than that.

    Bad is not good:
    Those who are Social Darwinists in my thinking, cannot justify using the term with pride to describe themselves any more than a neo-Nazi, a child molester, a rapist, or ponzi scheme operator today could. If those in this group do take pride in their choices, this is sociopathic. Natural selection does not select a sociopath as “more fit.” Social Darwinist-sociopath s – by design – choose themselves over their more fit victims because their more fit liberal victim’s moral and ethical restraints permit this. Social Darwinists consider this restraint a weakness because Social Darwinists are pathological.

    I don’t wish to spread the meme that a Social Darwinist is in any way to be admired or supported in their efforts.

    Remember the movie: “There Will Be Blood”?
    Social Darwinists “drink your milkshake” and kill preachers with Bowling Pins.

    As far as I can tell based on my interpretation of your post, except as written above, I think I am pretty much on board with your ideas.

    Fraternally. ……… …Sid / Michigan

  2. S.J. Levy permalink
    November 30, 2009

    Hello Michigan Sid,

    Let us reason together to see if we can clarify each others arguments. I think what we are closer to agreement than not. As an aside, I like the ‘neomyth’ neologism but I am not sure that it will catch on since the only distinction it makes is one of context (ancient legend vs modern story). Humans are lazy and don’t add syllables to words unless they get some significant payoff.

    However, I disagree that the social Darwinist (sD) myth (or neomyth) is a lie. A lie can be proven false. A myth is a story that has (or had) a grain of truth (or reveals a deeper perhaps moral or ethical truth) but in its details there are no facts or evidence to discover that would prove it false.

    Social Darwinism (sD) is a myth (or neomyth) since it is based on a fact, an actual principle (natural selection). When applied to our fellow humans it is not strictly applicable since we humans can choose to change the circumstances of selection thru cooperation and mutual aid; it is not something we are helpless against.

    The proponents of the sD myth DO hold that there is nothing that can be (or that should be) done, and therein is the LIE. They wish for all of us to take their perspective on the sD myth as absolute truth and therefor not a myth at all. (I am sure you are aware that most effective lies are those that contain an element of truth.)

    The fact is that it (natural selection) was true for humans in the past and remains partially true today, so it is not a lie. For instance: take the H1N1 virus (swine flu). If you should come down with it and die (especially if you have no offspring) then you have been removed from (selected out of) the gene pool.

    Today we have medical care that might save you but it is expensive. The sD people may say you ‘deserved to die’ because you could not afford the cost of care. You might, of course, die in spite of medical care but the sD folks will say that your ‘poverty’ is your own fault and there for “natural selection” has done its job an none of the rest of us should fret too much about it.

    The actual cause of death IS a real “darwinistic” process (i.e. H1N1), so the case is not a total lie. The lie is that the poor deserve to die; or in a more sophisticated version: the sD folks would assert that no sound argument can be made that the poor deserve equal care that the more well off can get because resources are scarce and can’t be freely given away especially to those folks who will just “squander their lives on TV and booze”.

    As you say, a myth is a ‘romantic possibility’; you and I might say that the sD myth is a “romantic” possibility in the Nietzschean sense (of heroic struggle from a bygone age, to which I might add “and good riddance”). Tho sD folks might counter that our egalitarian ethos is wasteful of scarce resources and that WE are the romantic dreamers. That is why we call these ‘myths’ or stories and not facts or reality.

    When we find evidence which supports scientific principles that contradicts a myth we (should) abandon belief in the myth, except perhaps for story telling purposes which may include conveyance of moral (or prosocial) precepts. But that too is a moral precept: that the method of science is a reliable method of coming closer to truth and that the truth is more important than any tradition.

    Therein lies the rub: when you argue from moral positions you can justify almost anything. Moral precepts are major premises of arguments and you cannot prove them invalid, only unsound i.e. in being objectionable in their consequences, but another person may be perfectly willing (at least in the abstract) to accept those consequences as acceptable or at least tolerable when they happen to other people they do not know.

    Unfortunately there are those who tell stories they know to be false (or suspect to be false but refuse to examine too closely lest they be forced to abandon a cherished ideal). For one reason or another they try to get other folks (or their children) to accept as these myths as real. Social Darwinism is one of those myths since it supports some view they have about the way the world ‘ought to be’.

    Having said that, I do not believe that everyone who uses the social Darwinist theory to explain some facets of human life are Sociopaths (tho certainly a sociopath would use it if they thought that it served their purposes).

    Certainly those who invented the concept were not sociopaths; they were social progressives who were rejecting the Church’s ideas of a static society designed by God where everyone knew their place (and should stay in it). Survival of the Fittest was supposed to represent the wave of the future where society would be the ultimate meritocracy and each would be rewarded for his efforts.

    And in my own view it is preferable to the old world view. What has gone wrong is that some folks have taken the idea of Merit to an unreasonable extreme: they argue that factors such as Luck or chance are in fact bestowed to those who somehow deserve them, or that the amounts bestowed on particular individuals are sacrosanct and must not be interfered with (i.e. no taxes on the rich).

    Not everyone who uses the term, social Darwinism, is a sociopath even if you and I would agree that their theory is at best a misguided or mistaken one. We can have disagreements about how much society should do for each citizen without accusing the other side of being evil.

    Generally accusing the other side of being evil is a nonproductive strategy since you only get the support of people who already agree with you – the uncommitted folks in the middle do not follow an angry argument unless they are already angry.

    When someone uses restraint and another does not, all civilized people rightfully rebuke the barbarian, if they find out about it. Monsters only succeed in the dark; sunlight and rebuke make their plans unworkable. The monsters always loose in the long run. We humans work by coalition and cooperation. Sociopaths only succeed in the short run because they run out of easy victims when people stand together.

    By the way, every myth must be a meme since a meme is simply ANY piece of thought (that is replicable). A myth is just a particular type of meme; one that is either not regarded as true in any factual sense or else given lower standards of proof in those cases where we humans (or some humans) would like it to be true.

    Seattle Stu

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