Friday, September 20, 2013

Social Darwinism

Darwinians are fond of citing Theodosious Dobzhansky's assertion that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Evolution, we've often heard, is a grand narrative that expresses a universal law of development. It's a process that's been found to have application not just in biology but in numerous related disciplines as well. All of this is said with the glowing approval of the Darwinians. Until, that is, someone undertakes to apply the principals of selection and survival of the fittest to human populations, and then squawks of protest drown out all other conversation.

It's objected that Darwinism applied to society, what's called Social Darwinism, is a gross misapplication of the theory. Darwin didn't intend for his theory to be used in this manner, we're told. Besides, we've evolved ethical constraints and understandings that make it wrong for us to apply the principle of "survival of the fittest" to human populations.

Well, maybe, but I've not seen a good argument for why this should be.

George Dvorsky writes a fine essay at io9 on the history of social Darwinist thought and concludes with the standard rebuke of those who would extend Darwinism to human societies. I find Dvorsky's objections very unconvincing.

He writes:
Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1860, many political theorists and opportunistic politicians applied his findings to human society. In the 20th century, these ideas were put into practice — and it nearly destroyed us....Social Darwinism was one of the worst ideas ever.

Darwin’s theory served not merely as an explainer for life on Earth — it was also a veritable God-killer. What’s more, it “reduced” humanity to the level of animals, forever disrupting the Judeo-Christian notion that humanity existed in an exalted place between God and the natural world. Humanity, it was suddenly realized, was not privy to the whims of God, but rather to the laws of nature.

In the absence of God, went the argument, humanity needed to act to ensure its fitness and ongoing survival. Darwin’s thesis seemed to provide a blueprint on how this could be done. And thus began the transference of Darwinian theories from animal species to social groups and races — a development that would lead to catastrophic results.
Indeed it would, but once God was dispensed with there was no logical reason why this development shouldn't occur. Having been told over and over again that human beings really are just "naked apes" there was no reason not to apply the principles that governed the evolution of other apes to the human ape. Moreover, having killed God there was no reason why man, having become his own god, shouldn't undertake to engineer the human species in any way those who held power saw fit.

Critics of Social Darwinism like Dvorsky don't have a problem with throwing God overboard, but they do have a problem with following the implications of that act of cosmic rebellion to their logical endpoint.

What's the problem with applying Darwinism to human societies? As Dvorsky points out it led to eugenics, racialist theories of inferiority, anti-semitism, colonialism, war, and though Dvorsky doesn't mention it, the founding of Planned Parenthood as an organization among whose purposes was to cull the unfit from the population. He assumes we're all appalled at the record, but to paraphrase Dostoyevsky, once God is eliminated it becomes impossible to say that anything is wrong.

Dvorsky closes with a complaint:
Quite obviously, equating natural selection...with the ills of Social Darwinism is a tragic mistake. The science is still science, while Social Darwinism, with its gratuitous generalizations and misreadings of how natural selection works (e.g. it completely fails to account for group selection theories and the rise of such characteristics as empathy) will forever remain in the realm of pseudoscience.
Presumably, Dvorsky thinks that since we've evolved empathy for our fellow man that makes racism and anti-semitism and all the rest morally abhorrent, but I simply don't see how someone who's willing to embrace Darwinian naturalism can think that human empathy has any moral binding force. Also, if both human empathy and the human desire to kill off those outside one's own group are equally the products of Darwinian evolution, how can we say that empathy is right and killing outsiders is wrong? How can a blind, impersonal process make one of its results morally superior to another?

Here's one more excerpt:
What’s more, the application of Darwinian processes to human morality is about as facile an exercise as it gets. As a moral maxim, “survival of the fittest” is as unenlightened as it gets.
This is true enough, but only if one assumes the existence of a transcendent, personal moral authority. The problem for Dvorsky is that he wants to say that just because something happens in nature that doesn't make it right, and he's correct. But, if nature is all there is then neither can we say that whatever happens in nature, or in human society, is wrong. It just is.

For Dvorsky to express a sense of moral repugnance at the Social Darwinist's application of survival of the fittest to human societies is, given his metaphysical assumptions about God, absurd. What, exactly, is the basis for his moral sensitivities? What is the ground he stands on when making his moral judgments of the behavior of others?

For the metaphysical naturalist the answer can only be that he stands on nothing more substantial than his own subjective feelings and preferences, but to criticize others because their behavior doesn't conform to one's own tastes is nothing more than empty hubris.