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Matt J. Rossano

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Should Evolutionists Be More Self-Critical About Social Darwinism?

Posted: 07/20/11 10:53 AM ET

The celebrated Scopes "monkey trial" was an intriguing, convoluted affair, only generally reminiscent of Lawrence and Lee's famous stage play "Inherit the Wind." As popular mythology, it rightly highlights the folly of outlawing the teaching of legitimate scientific theories because they are perceived as threatening to religion (or any other influential social institution, for that matter). However, in his book "Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution" (2008, HarperCollins, pp. 73-74), physicist Karl Giberson points out a small, often overlooked fact about that case with troubling implications.

The science textbook from which John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution discusses eugenics in terms likely to offend most of today's liberal academicians. The book, "A Civic Biology" by George W. Hunter (New York: American Book, 1914), recounts the infamous story of the Jukes family, studied by the New York social reformer Richard Dugdale. Over five generations, concluded Dugdale, the Jukes begot more than 700 criminals, prostitutes and other sundry degenerate social burdens. Hunter's text provides even more details on the Jukes claiming that three were epileptic, 24 were drunkards, 33 were sexually immoral and 143 were feebleminded. "Parasites," Hunter brands them, responsible for spreading "disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of the country" (p. 263). He then shows high school students how to use biology to draw moral conclusions:

"The cost to society of such families is very clear. Just as some animals or plants become parasitic ... these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. ... They take from society but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites."

William Jennings Bryan, of course, was the major anti-evolution figure at the Scopes trial. Whatever his flaws, he had a bit more sand to him then the bellowing showboat Matthew Harrison Brady of "Inherit the Wind." Bryan was a religiously motivated social liberal, championing workers' rights and women's suffrage while condemning the moneyed elites and the KKK. Part of his opposition to evolution may have stemmed from a genuine and honorable (if in this instance, misapplied) concern that it would undermine society's moral obligation to the weak and disadvantaged. By the early 20th century, biological Darwinism had become so entangled with social Darwinism that many, such as Bryan, felt compelled to attack the science in order to discredit what appeared to be its inevitable social implications.

It was British philosopher Herbert Spencer who popularized social Darwinism, not Darwin himself (whose opposition to slavery and life-long commitment to charity belie the concept's surname). Sadly, however, prominent scientists have often played a significant role in making social Darwinism a natural bedfellow to scientific Darwinism. Giberson reviews some of this history from Ernst Haeckel's evolutionary ranking of human races in the late 19th century to Nobel Laureate William Shockley's eugenics of the mid-20th.

It is on this very point that Giberson chides science, which, in his view, has been reluctant to acknowledge the full extent of its complicity in legitimizing social Darwinism. Instead, he worries, scientists and science writers often skew their discussions so as to absolve science while laying blame on non-scientists and a general public who misunderstand and oversimplify evolution.

Take, for example, two very prominent venues where evolution is conveyed publically: Eugenie Scott's "Evolution vs. Creationism" (Scott is the head of the National Center for Science Education) and Carl Zimmer's "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea" (which served as a companion to the PBS seven-part series on the topic). Both have two pages or so discussing social Darwinism and what they say (as far as I can tell) is perfectly accurate. In both cases, however, a similar theme pervades: non-scientists distorted and the general public misunderstood evolution. In Zimmer's case, Haeckel is the only scientist mentioned; Andrew Carnegie (industrialist), Herbert Spencer (philosopher) and William Graham Sumner (a Yale sociologist) take hits for twisting evolution to suite their particular interests. In Scott's case, Carnegie is again singled out along with Germans who misunderstood natural selection. Scott writes, "German views of evolution were quite different from those of Darwin..." Yes they were. They were much more in line with the views of another very prominent scientist -- Haeckel.

I did a quick survey of my own on the issue. I took four evolutionary biology books (two texts, two edited volumes), four evolutionary psychology texts (including my own), three text/reference books on human evolution and one biological anthropology text and scanned the subject index of each for "social Darwinism." Of the 12, eight (including mine) had no entry. Evidence for a conspiracy of silence? I doubt it. When I was writing my text, no editor or reviewer ever told me "Don't mention social Darwinism." Instead, the topic simply didn't register amidst the numerous other more directly "scientific" issues to be covered. I'm sure the same is true in these other instances.

Across the four books that did discuss social Darwinism some obvious consistencies were present. The usual dubious suspects, Haeckel, Spencer and Carnegie, were trotted out for boo-hisses, and the naturalistic fallacy (you can't draw a moral "ought" from a natural "is") was dutifully recited.

The fact that four of the six evolutionary biology books (I'm including Scott's and Zimmer's books) discuss social Darwinism suggests to me that evolutionists are not as avoidant of the subject as Giberson fears. However, the fact that Haeckel is usually the lone scientist among a collection of evolution-misinterpreting non-scientists is a bit troubling. While not necessarily inaccurate, it does give the impression that the nastiness of social Darwinism can almost entirely be laid at the feet of ignorant outsiders. As Giberson shows, over the last 150 years, Haeckel had more scientific company than we'd like to admit.

Evolution's supposed moral implications are a major part of the creationist's case against the theory. If creationists' literature becomes the general public's most common source for the role of science in the history of social Darwinism then that can only strengthen their hand.

Creationism should be weakened at every turn. If that means evolutionists need to be purposefully more self-critical on social Darwinism, then so be it. Looking squarely at things builds credibility and integrity, and that wins in the long run.