History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Natural Selection click here for audio

Charles Darwin (1809-82)

Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution. Even Linneaus had changed his mind from the idea of immutable life forms to the notion that life evolves over time. fish fossilThe difficulty was that the amount of time required for evolution meant that the earth must be very old. Ancient and Biblical beliefs about the age of the earth dated its creation at only a few thousand years previous, but geological and fossil discoveries in Darwin's day provided solid scientific evidence of an older earth.

Darwin was influenced strongly by Thomas Malthus' work on population, in which Malthus claimed that population would always increase past the food supply. Malthus, a classical economist in the tradition of Smith and Ricardo, noted that humans struggle for existence, increasing their numbers beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. The"Malthusian nightmare" is that the population of the earth will outrun the planet's ability to provide food. Plagues, epidemics, starvation provide checks on this population. Darwin wrote:

"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work".

DarwinWhat Darwin invented was Natural Selection. This is the idea that there are more plants and animals than food, so they must compete to survive. Those able to adapt to the environment survive because they have characteristics favorable to food collection, and they reproduce ("favorable variations would tend to be preserved"). Those that can't adapt don't survive and thus don't reproduce. This meant that all species, including humans, had evolved from simpler life forms. It was this that caused a public outrage, since Biblical fundamentalists believed that God had created the world and everything in it (including humans) in perfect, final form. A war began between Darwinian naturalists and theological fundamentalists which continues to this day. (Comte would have said that this was was the expected result of positivism, as the abstract and the positive argue over what replaces supernatural causation.)

Many scientists making significant geological discoveries disputed Darwin because they believed in Divine Design: the idea that God had deliberately designed a set pattern to evolution. Although this position might be seen to be the "middle ground" between creationists and Darwinians, it actually supported the non-scientific view. As Darwin himself wrote in his autobiography in 1887:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

Although true scientists did not condone it, the Divine Design perspective became the foundation for popular textbooks, which adopted the premise that all of nature had been created for human benefit (one textbook claimed that nature was ""a beautiful world, which was made for the enjoyment and benefit of the whole human family"). By positing non-natural causes for natural phenomenon, divine design theorists sought to undermine the very foundations of science.


cartoon lampooning evolution of man from ape to computer-using man

Social Darwinism: Herbert Spencer

An unexpected extension of Natural Selection proved to be far more dangerous. In an attempt to apply science to society, Darwinian naturalism became an excuse for racism, imperialism, and other rotten deeds of mankind.

"Social Darwinists" like Herbert Spencer of England considered society to be a set of organisms in competition. He coined the term "survival of the fittest". In intra-human competition, the victors are those who "adapt" to the changing "environment". Progress was the result of the "fittest" winning the political and economic competition.

Web document: Herbert Spencer on Social Darwinism (1857)

According to Social Darwinists, the "unfit" should be allowed to die off, in order to make a better world. In fact, they claimed it is morally right, and natural, that this should happen.Nazi prisoners This argument could be easily extended to races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexes, or any other definable group of human beings. It can be used to argue that white is naturally superior to black, and can support racism. It can be argued that Europeans are inherently superior to Asians, and can support imperialism. It can be argued that Germans are superior to Jews, and lead to a Holocaust. Might makes right.

This theory did not go unopposed. Evolutionary biology, applied to human sociopolitical life, can support other views. Peter Kropotkin (remember him? the anarchist?) wrote a book called Mutual Aid in 1902 (take a look). It argued that cooperation was required for survival, and thus implied that cooperation was at a higher form of evolution than competition.

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