Give Them the Social Darwin Award

10/06/2007 01:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans love Darwinism!

Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind. Known as "Social Darwinism," it presents life as a struggle in which those who make it shouldn't let themselves be dragged down by those who don't. Survival of the fittest has become a political prescription. The President again sided with this prescription when he vetoed SCHIP.

The plot deepens when we look at exactly which Americans are Social Darwinists. About one-third of the nation believes that the rich owe nothing to the poor. [1] Ironically, these are generally the same people who doubt the theory of evolution, and who'd like to shield their children from it. Who in their right mind would base their political views on the distortion of a theory they consider invalid?

As a biologist, my problem is that Social Darwinism is giving real Darwinism a bad name. The first time this hit me was when the morning newspaper screamed "Why have we been left behind like animals?" quoting people stuck for days in the Louisiana Super Dome following hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of people with money and cars had fled New Orleans, leaving the sick, old, and poor to fend for themselves. The result was dead bodies floating in the water, being eaten by alligators. This was survival-of-the-fittest writ large, but the headline struck me as misleading, not because there was nothing to complain about, but because not all animals necessarily leave each other behind.

Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also to our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking away their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and traveled slowly if these couldn't keep up. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group-animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one.

The trick to understanding this is to distinguish between the process of evolution - which is based on elimination, hence harsh and merciless - and its products, which include tendencies that evolved to maintain group life. Survival requires a cohesive and cooperative group. As a species, we evolved for a complex give-and-take, not take, take, take.

The reason Herbert Spencer, who in the 19th Century gave us Social Darwinism, had to emphasize that there was no reason for the "fit" to worry about the "unfit," or why Ayn Rand had to write one-thousand page novels to advocate unmitigated self-gratification, is precisely because these attitudes don't come naturally to our species. Nature has pre-programmed us to pay attention to and care about others. Thus while we don't need to be told to breathe or love our children, we do require quite a bit of indoctrination to achieve social indifference.

Darwin himself wasn't happy at all being drawn into the political fray by Spencer's theories. In 1860, he complained about it in a letter to Charles Lyell, an influential geologist:

"I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved "might is right," & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right."

Since the Conservatives in this country question evolutionary theory while at the same time driving health care into the ground by sticking to Social Darwinist policies [2], there's no more suitable award for them than the Social Darwin award, which is to be given to those who stupidly harm their own survival by neglecting the common good.


[1] From the Pew Research Center about Americans: "... two-thirds (66%) say it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't care for themselves."

[2] Conservatives speak with disgust of "socialized medicine," as if privatized health care is such a success story. When I get seriously sick, I want to be close to a European hospital, where they simply give you the care you need, not an American hospital, where you need to negotiate what your insurance covers. And that's for those who have insurance. The US pays more for health care per capita than any other nation, yet doesn't even belong to the top twenty-five nations anymore in terms of quality of care or the most critical health measure: life expectancy.