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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

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Social Darwinism: A Bad Idea With a Worse Name

Posted: 03/14/10 07:30 PM ET

As has been well reported by now, the Texas State Board of Education has just finished the first round of its work rewriting the state's social studies curriculum. This is the same group that dismantled the state's science standards last year.

They did make one change, however, that might well serve as a model that could productively be emulated. According to the report in The New York Times, "They also replaced the word 'capitalism' throughout their texts with the 'free-enterprise system.'" The move was carefully explained by one board member: "'Let's face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,' said one conservative member, Terri Leo. 'You know, 'capitalist pig!'"

Unlike "capitalism," "social Darwinism" is a concept whose woeful misnaming has led to serious damage. Social Darwinism is a bizarre name in that it has precious little to do with either Darwin or the theory of evolution to which his work gave rise.

Indeed, social Darwinism is a bastardization of the largely meaningless concept of "survival of the fittest," coined by Herbert Spencer rather than Charles Darwin. Social Darwinism has been used by its proponents to advance a wide array of causes from eugenics to the belief that government should not fund social programs because such programs simply help the poor, or, as some crassly express it, the less fit, survive.

As it has been constructed as a social policy, social Darwinism is despicable. Many have used it to attack evolutionary theory, somehow thinking that an unpopular social policy that sounds like science can undercut sound scientific ideas.

Consider a recent pronouncement from Answers in Genesis, the creationist organization that built the creation museum-cum-theme-park in Kentucky: "Social Darwinism is not a perversion of the principles of Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, it is taking them to their natural, logical conclusion. Further, if there were no connection to evolution then why is it called social Darwinism?"

Exactly! Why is it called social Darwinism? It shouldn't be -- and it is time we changed the name to stop the confusion.

Except for those, like the folks from Answers in Genesis and Ben Stein in his film Expelled, who use the term shamelessly to attack evolution, people on all sides of the political spectrum should rally around this call for change. After all, conservatives who disparage evolution love to fall back on social Darwinism when advancing their attacks on health care initiatives, welfare policies and unemployment benefits. They can't be comfortable endorsing something that seems tied to evolution when they're so opposed to the concept of evolution.

In addition to knowing that social Darwinism is unrelated to evolutionary principles, proponents of evolution also understand a larger truth. They understand that even if the two were actually linked, human society allows us to move beyond some biological imperatives. Just because we are part of the animal kingdom does not mean that we have to act in the same manner as other members of that kingdom; we can exercise choice to create a social network not observed in other species.

Perhaps the world's best known popularizer of evolution, Richard Dawkins, made this point exceedingly well in a 2005 interview published in Die Presse. He said, "No self-respecting person would want to live in a society that operates according to Darwinian laws. I am a passionate Darwinist, when it involves explaining the development of life. However, I am a passionate anti-Darwinist when it involves the kind of society in which we want to live. A Darwinian state would be a Fascist state."

Let's stop this confusion and find a better name for social Darwinism -- one that makes intellectual sense and permits people to understand its intent.

In that spirit, I'm creating a contest calling for suggestions of a name change. The new name needs to be short and catchy. It needs to be fully expressive. It needs to be divorced from the science with which it has nothing to do.

Offer your suggestions coupled with a brief explanation. The winning entry will earn a prize to be determined later. Judging will be done by a panel to be determined later. All I can say at this point is that the judging will not be conducted by the members of the Texas State Board of Education.

 
 
 

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