“It is thinly veiled Social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility…. It is a prescription for decline.”
Those are President Obama words, taken from a by-now famous speech he made to news executives on April 3. He was commenting on Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, describing it as a backward-looking “radical vision.”
What is Social Darwinism, and why is it a matter of current interest?
Answers are clearly articulated in a NDN guest commentary published on April 17, 2010, two years before Obama’s speech. Titled “Repeating Darwinist debate of a century ago,” it was written by a retired history professor from Northeastern Illinois University. I am relying heavily on this fine article for my column, but I urge readers to visit the Daily News online archive to see her complete remarks.
The writer begins with the following: “Toward the end of the 1800s, social thinkers tried to apply Charles Darwin’s discoveries about the animal world to the human world. Englishman Herbert Spencer and many of his American admirers developed a theory about human society that became known as Social Darwinism.”
That theory looks to the idea of natural selection, the mechanism in nature by which some species succeed and others become extinct. This idea is known to most through the phrase “survival of the fittest”: organisms able to adapt to a changing environment will stick around, whereas those that don’t are doomed. “This view,” the writer tells us, “in its purest and most consistent form, meant that people, groups and governments should not intervene in the natural order—or in the marketplace. The most adaptive and able survive and thrive while others fall by the wayside.”
If you accept the theory of evolution as true (many do not or cannot), you accept the principle that surviving species have evolved from less complex predecessors. With humans, we view the various surviving primates as relatives of our ancestors. You can see some of them on the Conservancy boat rides, next door to the Naples Zoo.
Many competing theories explain “what happened,” but one of my favorites goes like this: in the dim past, the two polar ice caps began moving inexorably toward the equator. The process led to dropping temperatures, which in turn caused jungles and rain forests to shrink. Today’s dwindling colonies of apes and gorillas continue the old way of life in what remains of that early environment.
But other primates responded to the eco-disaster by coming down from the trees. In order to spot much stronger predator species already hunting on the ground, they had to figure out how to stand, and how to walk upright. They also had to change in other ways—and remember, all this takes place over many millenia.
No longer could these protypical humanoids simply pluck food off the branch (the original Garden of Eden?). Kicked out of their free-lunch life in the trees, they weren’t strong enough individually to “stand their ground” and compete with saber-tooth tigers and the like. Necessity demanded they form hunting teams and cooperate. We can assume those who didn’t quickly entered the food chain for stronger species.
The guest commentator observes that few nineteenth-century Social Darwinists “applied these principles consistently. For example, railroad barons may have been against income and property taxes, but they saw nothing wrong with the government providing land grants to them so they could build railroads. Ranchers got the government to let their cattle graze on public lands at minimal costs, but objected to social programs for the poor. Developers of minerals also got favorable treatment from the government they all loved to hate.”
The pushback came from what were called Reform Darwinists. “In their view, Darwin’s ideas could be shaped by people in different cultural settings to suit their particular needs. People living in cold climes, they noted, did not grow extra hair to withstand the frigid weather. Rather, they built homes with heating units and wore wool coats when going outside.”
The point here is that humans are able to adapt through culture. “Laws were passed to ensure the safety of the water and food supply. Schools were created to educate all classes of people. Human culture, in short, developed over time many different responses to the physical and human environment.”
If readers haven’t yet grasped what she means, the writer explains: “We do not live in a jungle nor do we live by the rules of the jungle.”