In the introduction to this series, we promised a complicated story about the application of Darwinian thinking to public policy. Truth and reconciliation for Social Darwinism involves acknowledging the misuse of evolutionary theory, but it also involves acknowledging false accusations and the omission of benign uses of evolutionary theory. In our concluding article, we will summarize some of the take-home points.
• The strong taking from the weak is an ever-present danger in both human and non-human societies. In human societies, the strong taking from the weak is often accompanied by moral justifications. These moral justifications are constructed from the elements of the culture that are at hand, which could be tribal, religious, nationalistic, or scientific. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Darwin’s theory was pressed into this kind of service. However, it is clear from the historical record that at most, it was merely an arrow added to a quiver already full of other arrows. Darwin’s theory did not lead to an epidemic of social policies that enabled the strong to take from the weak. At most, a perverted form of the theory was used to justify policies that were already in place.
• Symmetrically, efforts to restrain the strong from taking from the weak are accompanied by moral justifications constructed from the elements of the culture at hand. Darwin’s theory has been used to argue for cooperation in addition to competition. The fact that the term “Social Darwinism” is restricted to negative applications of Darwinism is one of the pathologies that needs to be addressed as part of a truth and reconciliation process.
• We should be suspicious of all narratives that attempt to incorporate Darwin’s theory for one purpose or another, past and present. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we are permanently trapped in a hall of mirrors. The articles by Paul Crook and Adriana Novoa show that it is possible to understand how a scientific theory is refracted through the lens of a particular person or culture. Admittedly, this is easier to do for the past than for the present. In any case, avoiding cultural bias is a problem for all theories, not just evolutionary theory.
• Invented histories exist inside the Ivory Tower. From a cultural evolutionary perspective, it is expected that human societies will be highly biased and even downright fictitious in what they remember as their histories. A volume titled The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger provides eye-opening examples for modern nations. The only thing preventing a permanent loss of memory is the scholarly study of history, with strong norms for determining the facts of the matter. Good scholarship is much like good science in this regard, the main difference being the greater use of quantification in science. For example, it is clear from the historical evidence that Darwin had little influence on Hitler (as shown by Robert Richards) and a strong influence on Dewey (as shown by Trevor Pearce). If there is room for disagreement among scholars, then it will be settled on the basis of evidence, just like disagreements among scientists. However, Paul Crook’s article reveals a disturbing truth: Scholars and Scientists can have their own invented histories. Biased and downright fictitious views about Social Darwinism exist inside the Ivory Tower, side by side with careful scholarship. If occupants of the Ivory Tower don’t keep their own house in order, no one else will do it for them.
• Every academic discipline has its own history. The received view that the human-related disciplines recoiled in horror from the misuses of Darwin’s theory is far too simple, as Russell Schutt shows for the field of Sociology. Every branch of academic knowledge has its own history in relation to evolutionary theory, which needs to be understood in detail to accomplish a modern integration. Even biological branches of knowledge such as ecology, behavior, genetics, molecular biology, development, and neurobiology have their separate histories. In these cases, integration began earlier than for the human-related disciplines, but even they are works in progress.
• On the basic need for cooperation. From Herbert Spencer to Ayn Rand to Jeff Bezos, a dominant assumption has been that creating the best society is a matter of selecting the “best” individuals. This assumption is profoundly false from a modern evolutionary perspective, as David’s interview with animal breeder William Muir shows. Selecting the “best” individuals within a social group is a recipe for disaster, insofar as they achieved their “best” status at the expense of other members of the same group. For natural selection and artificial selection experiments, groups must be selected as groups to become functionally organized and group-level selection must be strong enough to oppose countervailing within-group selection. The fact that human evolution can be understood within this framework, first for genetic evolution at the scale of small-scale society and then for cultural evolution leading to the mega-societies of today, is one of most important developments of modern evolutionary thought.
• Nothing about policy makes sense except in the light of evolution. A public policy can be regarded as a form of managed cultural evolution; a recommended social practice that is intended to benefit the common good. Few readers of these words will contest the claim that wise policy must be based on the best scientific knowledge. Yet, from there it is only a small step to conclude that scientific knowledge for every important policy topic must minimally be compatible with evolutionary theory and often will be informed by an explicit analysis from a modern evolutionary perspective. How can it be otherwise, when every important policy topic involves human beings interacting in societies that are products of cultural evolution, within an environment inhabited by thousands of other products of evolution, with genetic and cultural evolution an ongoing process?
• A seat at the table. Our previous point might sound grandiose, but it can be given a more humble formulation. For complex reasons that we have touched upon with our series of articles, modern evolutionary science is the new kid on the block with respect to public policy formulation. Restoring the face value definition of Social Darwinism as “the formulation of public policy from an evolutionary perspective” means that the new kid deserves a seat at the table for any discussion of public policy, subject to the same ethical and evidential standards as any other perspective. Will the evolutionary perspective pull its weight, adding value to other perspectives? Time will tell—in fact, it has already told to a degree. The Evolution Institute—the first think tank that explicitly formulates public policy from a modern evolutionary perspective—has proven its worth on topics as diverse as education, risky adolescent behavior, social responsible businesses, economics, and the cultural evolution of large-scale societies. This View of Life and other communication outlets supported by the EI, such as the Social Evolution Forum, Evonomics.com, and PROSOCIAL Magazine show that understanding and improving the human condition from an evolutionary perspective go hand in hand. The biggest victim of the stigmatized view of Social Darwinism has been all of us, by preventing the application of evolutionary theory to public policy until very recently. We don’t know if a de-stigmatized use of the term “Social Darwinism” will gain wide currency or if the term will fade into disuse. Either way, we hope that our “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” series will pave the way for the widespread application of evolutionary science to solve the problems of our age.
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
Toward a New Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson