In a previous article for This View of Life, David Sloan Wilson argued the importance of rescuing tainted words by “restoring their face value definition.” [1] In Wilson’s view, Social Darwinism “is perhaps the most important example of a term that became tainted and needs to be rescued.” According to him, from the very beginning, this term “was used as a pejorative to brand laissez faire policies that Darwin did not endorse. Ever since, it has given the impression that evolutionary theory is somehow more dangerous than other theoretical frameworks in the formulation of public policy. Not only is this conceptually and historically false, but it has retarded the use of evolutionary theory to understand and improve the human condition for decades.” [2]

The discrediting of social Darwinism did not stop attempts to harness science toward social improvement, as Wilson notes, but “some terms fall into disuse and other equivalent terms come into use just because people weren’t courageous enough to call a spade a spade.” I would like to examine this claim from a historical perspective. My goal is to analyze what went wrong in the past in order to understand the reluctance to speak of social Darwinism that prevails today. Second, I would like to explore the question, whether with respect to the social deployment of evolutionary theory the present is in any way different from the past, and whether we can apply evolutionary theory to the study of social evolution in a different way, one that cleans today’s tainted concepts.

A historical example. What went wrong in the 19th Century?
The use of science to develop social policies predated Darwin’s theory of evolution; it had existed throughout the whole 19th century, particularly in the new republics that emerged in the Americas. For example, in a speech delivered at Brown University in 1843, the politician and judge Job Durfee (1790-1847) affirmed that it could not be “a subject of historical question or doubt” the “great truth that human progress is the result of an ever active law manifesting itself chiefly in scientific discovery and invention, and thereby controlling legislation, and giving enduring improvement to all social and political institutions.” This fact was in Durfee’s view ”a law as palpable in the history of the social mind, as the law of gravitation in the movement of matter.” [3] More than anything, the fundamental role of science in the improvement of societies, and the development of the republic was well in place by 1859.

Ironically, it was the way in which Darwin’s theory challenged the established order that led to the development of social Darwinism, which was an appropriation of Darwin’s name to hide the most dangerous, and revolutionary, aspects of his evolutionary ideas. Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, the early reception of Darwin’s work opened new paths to understanding human transformation that went against the established ideological order of society, including laissez-faire policies. In Spanish America, for example, sexual selection was received as a positive and optimistic way to understand race, even when it challenged gender roles in society. The fact that Darwin’s theory carefully skirted the received relationship between science and politics, present in Auguste Comte’s and Herbert Spencer’s systems, left a vacuum in which this connection was left to be reestablished by others. In this sense, the emergence of social Darwinism was due to a sort of ventriloquism that consisted in making Darwin say whatever was needed to justify either the existing social order, or the need to change it.

Then and now, Darwin’s evolutionary theory offered us a wonderful demonstration of human unity, and a clear diagnosis of the error of making variation the basis for an essential and permanent identity. The problem was, though, that the continuity and duration of the modern nation cannot be assured by recourse to evolutionary science in the same way it had been with prior scientific platforms. If nature adapted to changes through the selection of chance variations, it was clear that neither beings nor institutions could be expected to remain stable. It is for this reason that one of the main applications of these ideas was in the understanding of human diversity and the groups classified as human races. The long-standing intention had been to provide stability to the population that constituted the “people” of a given nation. The development of the new science was then forced to fit a pre-existent order that bore little resemblance to the early inferences drawn from Darwin’s ideas, particularly with respect to design and mechanistic principles. This was clearly understood by some Spanish-American thinkers who distrusted Darwin because he did not offer a philosophical system that could be applied to the workings of society, as had been done with the scientific philosophies of the past. These intellectuals openly favored Spencer or Haeckel over Darwin, precisely because of the latter’s lack of interest in creating a totalizing philosophical system that connected science with social development.

The struggle to adjust Darwin’s evolutionary ideas to goals of the past led to a diversity of views regarding social transformation. Those who were privileged by the social order in place defended it by imposing on science the rationality that justified their power. They saw in the association of science and society the potential to provide biological continuity to the nation, creating identities fixed by policy. In this sense, Wilson is correct in seeing social Darwinism as a complete detour from Darwin’s views. Those intellectuals and scientists who were viewed as belonging to the inferior races took an interest in Darwin because his ideas offered a way to challenge racial essentialism, renewing the conception of self-transformation promised by the Enlightenment. The Darwinian challenge to the supposed inferiority of certain groups made obvious that the reality of races was more the result of a cultural choice than an evolutionary process. In 1897 psychologist James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934) explained this problem clearly:

In the southern United States there is a social barrier to the intermarriage of blacks and whites. It is part of the unwritten law of polite society. The result is that there continue to be a white population and a black population existing side by side, the mixed element of the population being for the most part of illegitimate origin from black females. This keeps the white race pure, while there is a growing race of mulattoes and a diminishing race of blacks. The cycles of causation represented by these different races are distinctly held in physical bounds by the social cycle. Suppose, on the contrary, a generation of whites should be born who should forget the social sentiment now existing, or that a sufficient number of Northern whites, who do not regard such a barrier, should migrate to the South and marry freely with the blacks then the only future society would be one of legitimate mulattoes. In this case we should have to say that the series of terms representing the causes and effects in the physiological cycle had become different simply from a change in social sentiment, or from the inrush of men and women of different social heredity. [4]

Baldwin was correct in affirming that social policies based on culture made the existence of certain identities more real than could be inferred from biology alone. Obviously, the segregation of humans into discrete groups made the stability of certain traits possible, and the fluidity of biological exchanges less visible. The identities that resulted from this process were, then, made essential to the continuing functioning of the nation. Although the emergence of the human species itself had been the result of a process of adaptation and continuous intermingling without rational design or planning, and without taking into consideration the construction of stable social organizations, it was believed then that civilized societies had, thanks to science, the power to design their own foundations: their populations.

This meant that biology was used to turn ideological identities into biological ones. Because those defined as racially inferior had been branded as such long before Darwin wrote about evolution, his ideas had to be “corrected” to provide continuity with the social structure in place. In reflecting on the relation of social progress to biological progress, “or the possible identity of the two”, Baldwin remarked that he did not see “how, as long as we have bodies, the laws of biology and of heredity should cease to be operative. But it is equally plain that in human society certain other influences, springing from intelligent and social life, come to modify the outcome. We may simply say, therefore, that biological laws do hold all through human life, but that we sometimes find reason for saying that they are interfered with by other devices or laws.” [5] Human groups’ interest in preserving themselves in power could also give rise to an objective biological reality that seemed established by science, even when it was the result of human design.

This turned social policies into key mechanisms for imagining the continuity or extinction of particular human traits. Historically, this was reflected in the understanding of Latins, Indians, Asians and those of African ancestry, as populations that had diverged too much from the civilized design of human populations. As we will see, many intellectuals in the Americas noticed that while evolutionary biology was extremely liberating in its emphasis on change, the social evolution that resulted from its appropriation was not. Social Darwinism became a way to correct the uncertainties triggered by Darwin, helping in the process to make nature obey the desires of humans regarding the condition of their species. Following the logic of self-creation and self-realization developed by the Enlightenment in pre-Darwinian days, humans were able to naturalize their subjective desires for self-improvement. This was not only adaptation to the environment, but the creation of an environment that made natural law conform to a very human and predictable path.

In applying evolutionary ideas toward the understanding of social evolution, intellectuals were appealing to forces that understood variation in terms of a master plan that rationalized choices and made social evolution into a timely process leading to predictable results. This is quite the opposite of blind variation and selection. On the other side, those who were of African, Indian, Asian, and Latin descent in the Americas saw the possibility of transforming their own bodies into worthier stable identities, crafted through the flexibility of human evolution. According to them, in emphasizing the superiority of Anglo-Saxons social Darwinians contradicted the true workings of nature, which favored the adaptation of difference into what would turn out to be a new totalizing and universal identity. In their view love and altruism were key elements in the process of human evolution. If the Enlightenment had bequeathed the idea of self-realization through ideology as an important tool for the transformation of humanity, self-realization through biological evolution meant the end of races in a process of mixing that favored the selection of the best in each. Human variation, then, was both unavoidable and needed, and could be manipulated by means of scientific knowledge to produce the ultimate stable population.

A reaction against scientific materialism and social Darwinism appeared clearly in the 20th century, and in Spanish America was first centered around Ariel, published by the Uruguayan writer José Rodó (1871-1917) in 1900. In this work he rejected the determinism that resulted from applying Darwin’s ideas to social development, but he kept a key element of evolutionary thinking: selection. He proposed the return to a spiritual notion of aesthetic selection that made the development of human populations responsive to beauty and harmony. In opposition to designs that would craft a future led by the Anglo-Saxon race, Rodó redefined the historical role of the Latins, and their function in the preservation of true civilization by virtue of having already assimilated a large part of the human population. So, while those deemed superior were focused on preserving the traits that were believed to have given them evolutionary advantages, an outcome best fostered by a laissez-faire society, those who were deemed inferior were writing about a future of transformation through evolutionary malleability, and were critical of the greed, selfishness and materialism of the social and economic order. This crucial difference made the meaning of social Darwinism different in the two groups.

The same happened in the United States among African Americans, with the difference that they could not develop a project of glorious racial past, as those who defined themselves as Latin did by tracing themselves to the Greeks and Romans. But in both cases “blood” and the material body became something meaningful for what they could offer to humanity, and the spiritual traits that they brought for the future. As W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963) acknowledged, those of African ancestry needed to sustain at the same time the faith in the ideology of self-transformation that predated Darwinism, while also affirming their identity.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—- this longing to attain self conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach the Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that the Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face. [6]

But if the opportunity for self-realization was now related to the racial manipulation of biological evolution, this raised the problem of introducing selection, the crucial distinction of post-Darwinian evolution, to the process. This put at center stage the problem of what/who would continue and what/who would not, even when it was unknown how heredity works. Designing a society for the future meant not only to imagine what it would contain, but also what it should not. So, while those groups considered more favored by nature wanted to preserve themselves as they were, those who were the opposite saw in selection an opportunity to exercise agency, introducing design and planning into the process of racial improvement.

In a 1909 essay Dubois explained that those who complained “that the Negro problem is always with us and apparently insoluble” had forgotten that many social problems and many phases “have passed through a great evolutionary circle and that to-day especially one may clearly see a repetition, vaster but similar, of the great cycle of the past.” [7] Notwithstanding the politics of preservation of power in caste societies and their kin, evolutionism had provided evidence of the plasticity of human bodies and continuity even amidst diversity.

What the age of Darwin has done is to add to the eighteenth century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of physical immortality of the human race. And this, far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasizes its necessity and eternal possibility — the boundlessness and endlessness of possible human achievement. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration but social self-realization in an endless chain of selves, and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the revolutionary theory. So, too, the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry not obliterated but transfigured; not equality of present attainment but equality of opportunity for unbounded future attainment is the rightful demand of mankind. [8]

As a result, breeding was the key mechanism that humans needed to regulate. Unlike other species in nature, humans had the ability to transform themselves according to self-design, with the possibility of multiple outcomes. This was the result not of an objective choice made by nature, but of the subjective conceptions of self that circulated at a given time. DuBois described this idea in his defense of intelligent breeding, in which individuals would procreate to the benefit of the group according to scientific ideas.

It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty. [9]

In Spanish America, as we have seen, Darwinian natural selection was also connected with aesthetics in building the race of the future. The Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) is the most well known ideologue of this position. In his view humanity had begun the last stage in human evolution that would end racial divisions through a process of mixing, erasing the types of the past. In 1925 he published The Cosmic Race in order to promote the improvement of humanity through a process of miscegenation furthered by political and cultural choices. This meant that the grouping of humans into different races would end in favor of the amalgamation of all humans under the spiritual guidance of Latinism. Social Darwinism was adapted here to mean a careful process of culling that was guided by the education of the senses, in accordance with a subjectivity that included a new understanding of breeding. In Spanish America, this translated to the ideology of “mestizaje” and the building of the Latin as a biological identity defined by the desire to assimilate all humans into one single group.

Race was made real through the continuity of mating and procreation within a closed group, but this reality was not permanent and it was subject to change in response to ideological conceptions that made mating across different groups an option. According to this view, a racial difference sustained through political power was a betrayal of the freedom implied in Darwin’s evolutionism. But those who understood Darwin’s ideas as introducing a notion of evolution that would put an end to their racialization, since races were the simple result of mating practices, had to face the fact that this very flexibility challenged conceptions both of the modern nation and social development. The ideology of the nation favored continuity and avoided variation every bit as much as nature favors variation and change. Even today in the United States many of those who deny evolution connect this idea to a dangerous ideology of change that challenges essential hierarchies. This was one of the crucial dilemmas of the nineteenth century: scientists and intellectuals needed to maintain their blind faith in scientific design while, at the same time, Darwinian evolution revealed the importance of chance and random occurrences. This tension between design and chance continues in the evolutionary debates of today.

Lessons learned—Now, can we return to social Darwinism?
The previous section attempted to show that the ventriloquist treatment of Darwin was what allowed the reconciliation of the pre-Darwinian order with the post-Darwinian one. But following Wilson we must ask whether the conditions in the present are really different from those of the past. Can we now achieve the nineteenth century aspiration to study the evolution of human societies as we study the analogous process in biology? Let’s consider, for example, the attempts by Wilson and group selectionists to explain social and cultural evolution, and their claim that natural selection occurs not only at the level of genes or individual organism. Even though today we have both classical and molecular genetics, and a much clearer idea of how inheritance works, how different are these discussions from the debates about race discussed above? The core debate remains focused on ideas of design, on the prospect of purely mechanistic nature, and on the possibility of the hereditary transmission of acquired traits. Stephen Pinker has warned us of how we “should not be diluted by metaphorical, poetic, fuzzy, or allusive extensions that only serve to obscure how profound the genuine version of the mechanism really is.” But this admonition is just like complaints about Henri Bergson’s strain of evolutionism in the first half of the 20th century, for example.

The debate between Pinker and group selectionists today is pretty much framed in terms of the unresolved questions originally posed by those who long ago sought to understand racial evolution, and the evolution of human societies. According to Pinker “Modern group selectionists are often explicit that it is cultural traits they are talking about, or even that they are agnostic about whether the traits they are referring to are genetic or cultural.” [10] This is the same frame used by DuBois, Rodó, or Vasconcelos, only that they explicitly acknowledged that social evolution in modern societies was pretty much the result of ideological preferences that restored ideological design in human nature. They saw the evolution of groups (races) as the result of a process at the intersection of biological traits and the decision whether to retain them (cultural process). Vasconcelos’s use of altruism to explain how the cosmic race would come about through the self-extinction of some groups has its contemporary counterpart in current debates on altruism in social evolution. In Spanish America, in fact, mestizaje was used to explain a complex biological negotiation of traits based on the design of a population according to civilized culture. The multiplicity of selves that resulted from evolutionary outcomes was then corrected by the assimilation and selection of the right traits.

Finally, the other problem that continues to this day is the question of the existence of “biological design.” Harvey Whitehouse and Richard McKay have commented on Pinker’s criticism of Wilson’s position, suggesting that perhaps Pinker’s negativity is related to the fact that “intelligent design is commonly associated with supernatural theories of creation that have no place in science. If so, that impediment to understanding can surely be dismissed. To appreciate that designed creations evolve does not expose us to the charge of theistic creationism.” [11] But the analysis of the historical cases in the 19th and 20th century seems to indicate that this might not be possible. Designing ourselves blurs the separation between our subjective desires to become something and our biological realities, challenging us to translate a theory intrinsically connected to winners and losers in nature into something that does not lead to violence and exclusion.

Wilson’s position is based on his desire to “enable human cultural diversity to be studied in the same way as biological diversity”, [12] but this has been done in all sorts of configurations in the past, some of them mentioned here, and all have failed, since as objects of scientific enquiry we are tainted with ourselves, and by our consciousness of our own existence. So the ideas of the past were not only the result of malice, ignorance, or mistakes, but of the design that is implicit in the understanding of human evolution. The cultural evolution of societies is not only the result of adaptations to the environment, but, more importantly, of adaptations to our own actions, our own mistakes, and the successes and failures of our aspirations. Intellectual adaptation is as crucial in the cultural evolution of post-Enlightenment societies as biological evolution.

The problem is not only in the understanding of how science works, but also in the understanding of the meaning of our own species, its place in nature, and the acceptance of a biological existence that is not organized by our ideology. The issue, then, is how the ideas of self-realization and self-transformation are impregnated by design, and how these ideas are not that different from ideas promulgated by some of the theists who promote intelligent design today. After all, Social Darwinism emerged in the nineteenth century as the belief that human intelligence can be so complex as to be able to articulate a totalizing design with aspirations to perfection. Obviously, this does not mean that we should not use science to improve conditions of life, or improve societies. It means that we cannot naturalize the human desire for self-realization and self-improvement by means of a project that gives us the power to determine our own evolutionary path. It seems to me that the historical evidence does not in any way assure us that the current debates avoid the past problems that followed from bringing biological evolution into social development. This kind of project makes nature ideological with respect to humans, and only humans, and this is precisely the problem. We can transform nature, obviously, but we cannot design it entirely within the realm of our subjective conceptions. In the same way, we can transform society, but we cannot design it to exist exclusively according to the selfish interests of some group, particularly when our political institutions have been formed to preserve the existence and advantages of certain groups. The study of social Darwinism in the nineteenth century shows us when our inner desires are structured in a complete, totalizing, and perfect way that provides continuity and stability to the nation, this is always done at the expense of science.

Articles in this series:

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson

The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words by David Sloan Wilson

Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality by Paul Crook

Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism by Adriana Novoa

When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir by David Sloan Wilson

Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! by Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson

Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce by David Sloan Wilson

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (And Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt by David Sloan Wilson

Toward a New Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson


[1] Sloan Wilson, David. “The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words.” This View of Life, July 29, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Durfee, Job. “The Influence of Scientific Discovery and Invention on Social and Political Progress.” Oration, Brown Univ (1843), 41.

[4] Baldwin, James Mark. Social and ethical interpretations in mental development: A study in social psychology. Macmillan, 1897, 79.

[5] Ibid., 455.

[6] Du Bois W. E. B. The souls of black folk: Essays and sketches.

[7] “Evolution of the race problem.” In Proceedings of the National Negro Conference 1909. (New York, 1909), 142.

[8] Ibid., 152.

[9] 164.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Whitehouse, Harvey and Richard McKay. “Intelligent Design Versus Random Mutation?” Social Evolution Forum, June 22, 2012. https://new.evolution-institute.org/commentary/harvey-whitehouse-ryan-mackay-and-daniel-dennet-intelligent-design-versus-random-mutation-a-comment-on-steven-pinker/

[12] Sloan Wilson, David. “Human Cultures are Primarily Adaptive at the Group Level.” Social Evolution Forum, June 22, 2012. https://new.evolution-institute.org/focus-article/david-sloan-wilson-human-cultures-are-primarily-adaptive-at-the-group-level/

Published On: January 5, 2016

Adriana Novoa

Adriana Novoa

Adriana Novoa completed her MA and PhD in Latin American History at the University of California, San Diego. She is a cultural historian whose specialty is science in Latin America, and with Alex Levine she has written a book about Darwinism in Argentina: From Man to Monkey (The University of Chicago Press, 2010), and Darwinists! (Brill, 2012). Dr. Novoa’s articles have been published in Journal of Latin American StudiesScience in ContextThe Latinoamericanist, and Revista Hispánica Moderna, among others. She is currently working on a book dealing with Darwin’s evolutionism and masculinity in Argentina, From Virile to Sterile.

One Comment

  • James V. Kohl says:

    In “Mutation-driven evolution,” http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0199661731 Masatoshi Nei attempts to rescue “mutation” from its use by biologically uninformed neo-Darwinian theorists.

    Excerpt: “Mutation is the change of genomic structure and includes nucleotide substitution, insertion/deletion, segmental gene duplication, genomic duplication, changes in gene regulatory systems, transposition of genes, horizontal gene transfer, etc.”

    The rescue attempt is futile. He doesn’t seem to realize that changes in genomic structure start with nutrient energy-dependent base pair substitutions that are linked to the physiology of reproduction in all living genera.

    Every aspect of RNA-mediated reproduction is biophysically constrained by the availability of energy, which is linked to all biodiversity in the context of models that link atoms to ecosystems.

    Nei concludes: “…genomic conservation and constraint-breaking mutation is the ultimate source of all biological innovations and the enormous amount of biodiversity in this world. In this view of evolution there is no need of considering teleological elements” (p. 199).

    All serious scientists know that constraint-breaking mutations are the source of pathology, not increasing organismal complexity. That fact makes it impossible to rescue neo-Darwinism from its definitions and assumptions.

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