Thursday, December 29, 2005

The evolution of social darwinism

The Economist's year end issue is a winner. Not only does it have a delicious cover (note the expressions of the last two males in the chain), it also prominently features a review of human evolution. One would think they're getting bored with their pet George.

The story of evolution taught me something (emphases mine):
Evolution | The story of man |

...It was [Herbert] Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, “survival of the fittest”. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin's masterwork, “On the Origin of Species”, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution. As a result, he became one of the band of philosophers known as social Darwinists. Capitalists all, they took what they thought were the lessons of Darwin's book and applied them to human society. Their hard-hearted conclusion, of which a 17th-century religious puritan might have been proud, was that people got what they deserved—albeit that the criterion of desert was genetic, rather than moral. The fittest not only survived, but prospered. Moreover, the social Darwinists thought that measures to help the poor were wasted, since such people were obviously unfit and thus doomed to sink.
Spencer was the champion of the proto-Calvinist doctrine of Social Darwinism. So it turns out that Calvinism (the weak suffer because they offended God) preceded Social Darwinism (the weak must suffer because that's the way the race gets stronger) preceded Darwin (who was a compassionate man who suffered not a little). Historians of Science love this sort of thing.

Calvinism is again the state religion of Bush's America, and Social Darwinism is again the governmental philosophy (welfare only preserves the weak), but Darwin himself is forbidden. Odd.

How will the meme of social Darwinism next mutate?

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