KeywordsNatural Selection Reproductive Success Political Ideology Physical Strength Evolutionary Principle
The application of Darwinian biology and evolutionary principles to human social theory.
In the broadest sense, the term social Darwinism has been used to refer to any effort made toward applying concepts from Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to social theory, political systems, economics, and other domains of human social life (Dickens 2000). However, social Darwinism is likely best known for its infamous association with early twentieth century political ideologies targeted at “improving the human race.” Darwin’s ideas were used to justify eugenics (Nourse 2016), race war (Barondess 1998), imperialism (Leonard 2009), and a variety of economic political ideologies (Hawkins 1997). However, these ideas were often based on misinterpretations of Darwin’s original ideas and the process of natural selection. Some have argued that early academics who have since become associated with nefarious applications of social Darwinism (e.g., Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Richard Hofstadter) were often misinterpreted or misrepresented (Hodgson 2004; Leonard 2009). Moreover, earlier work did not incorporate many contemporary discoveries within evolutionary biology that have since replaced some of Darwin’s original ideas (e.g., Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini 2011).
Perhaps one of the most widely misinterpreted concepts within the theory of evolution was the phrase “survival of the fittest.” The lay understanding of this phrase (i.e., “the strongest individuals survive”) has been the mantra for social and political policies aimed at favoring one group of individuals over another (e.g., Barondess 1998). However, this understanding of the phrase is inaccurate. In evolutionary biology, “survival of the fittest” is a catchy and succinct way of describing one of the central processes of evolution: natural selection. Natural selection occurs when variation in a heritable trait (e.g., intelligence) leads to differential reproduction within a population of individuals. For example, individuals who were relatively more intelligent may have been better at adapting to new situations, inventing creative solutions to novel problems, and attracting potential mates. Therefore, more intelligent individuals would have experienced greater reproductive success compared to less intelligent individuals. Over several generations, if intelligence consistently conferred this reproductive advantage, intelligent individuals would have begun to outnumber relatively less intelligent individuals in the population. In this example, the process of natural selection thereby leads to the survival (i.e., consistent and continued reproductive success) of the fittest (i.e., individuals who possess a trait which confers a reproductive advantage over competitors). Therefore, “fittest” does not necessarily equate to “strongest.” In fact, some adaptations for physical strength could be detrimental to an organism’s reproductive success if, for example, diverting somatic resources to muscle development were to become an inefficient use of the body’s resources.
Relatedly, there are no traits that are inherently better than other traits. A common justification for the use of eugenics (Nourse 2016) was that the human race could be improved by artificially selecting traits which were believed to be genetically superior (e.g., blonde hair and blue eyes). However, this presumes knowledge of which traits will confer a reproductive advantage. A trait only benefits an individual’s reproductive success insofar as it helps the organism adapt to current environmental conditions. Returning to the example of strength, within environments where same-sex competition between males is intense, physical prowess may increase competitive success and thereby reproductive success. Likewise, physical strength might allow individuals to manipulate large objects or protect kin, friends, and mates. In this sense, one could argue that physical prowess should be artificially selected for inclusion in future human populations. However, having less physical strength may also increase reproductive success within particular environments. Greater physical strength typically entails more muscle mass and therefore greater body size, which may slow an individual down or make an organism conspicuous and more likely to be preyed upon. Genes coding for greater physical strength may also inadvertently affect the expression of other traits, such as circulating levels of testosterone and behavioral aggression. In this way, something that is typically seen as “better” (i.e., strength) may actually contribute negatively to an organism’s overall fitness within a particular environment. This is only one example, but the basic logic may be applied to a variety of potential traits. Those who applied this logic to social and political theory were not concerned with reproductive success, per se, as much as with optimizing various aspects of human social, political, and economic systems (Dickens 2000; Hawkins 1997). However, applying evolutionary logic in this way is similarly flawed in these contexts. People, and social systems, are the products of multiple intersecting processes and traits. Altering or favoring one trait (e.g., physical strength) without conscientious consideration of this change’s impact on related attributes and processes (e.g., behavioral aggression) could have unintended consequences.
Contemporary Social Darwinism
Any version of social Darwinism which has had its origins in these flawed understandings of Darwinian and evolutionary logic has no credibility in current evolutionary science. Yet, some modern social and evolutionary theorists still discuss (and debate) how evolutionary principles might be applied to the study of human social systems (e.g., Dickens 2000; Hodgson and Knudsen 2010; Schubert 2012). This debate includes whether social evolution (i.e., memetic descent and modification) more closely resembles Lamarckian or Darwinian evolution (Hodgson 2001), whether welfare economics may be reformed using evolutionary principles (Schubert 2009), and how an understanding of psychological adaptations can inform various facets of human morality and politics (see Shackelford and Hansen 2016). Unlike its predecessors, contemporary social Darwinism adopts a more nuanced and morally conscientious approach to integrating human social behavior and evolution. Indeed, although social Darwinism has acquired a stigma within many intellectual circles, an understanding of how evolution has shaped human psychology will provide clues about how to optimize the various social, political, and economic systems that have emerged from that psychology.
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