a thesis sans argument*:

IMG_3872Amusingly, what makes the infamous and much-castigated “social Darwinists” conceivably Darwinistic is not so much the theory of natural selection, especially construed as a “survival of the fittest” by way of a ruthless weeding out of weak individuals, but, instead, a reliance upon sexual selection as the basis of human breeding. By defending a dispersed responsibility for begetting and rearing children, the individualists** completely relied upon individuals to choose their own mates and determine their own fates, as well as that of following generations.

This quasi-Darwinistic social vision of the individualists was challenged and replaced by a new hard-headed view of society — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — that of the social engineers associated with Fabian Socialism and American Progressivism. Their new vision was not so much “Darwinian” as “Galtonian,” in that it carried social engineering to the extreme of coercive eugenics.

This did not mimic either of Darwin’s great contributions, Natural Selection or Sexual Selection.

The principle to which the new social engineers appealed was quite old-fashioned and understood by folks prior to Darwin: Artificial Selection. They insisted upon direct human control of the process of selecting qualities to breed into future generations. Sure, the selection criteria “were scientific” — just as breeders of cattle and dogs were careful in their arrangements of livestock mating — but in no way dispersed.

Their idea was to concentrate (centralize) choice (or at the very least the “breeding out” criteria and enforcement) into the hands of experts. It was thus sexual selection turned artificial.

An old idea, to some extent (since marriages were historically subject to arrangements by clans and courts, to encourage the inheritance of some traits, usually non-biological traits such as wealth and power), but now more expicitly statist, and in theory defocused from families and focused wider onto society as a whole. To be managed by the State.

Yes, social engineering and eugenics were indeed promoted as “scientific” during the heady, early days of Progressivism, and Darwin’s name was often . . . taken in vain.

Darwin had nothing to do with the outrageous notion of applying Artificial Selection to human populations at the macro-social (societal) level. His theory of sexual selection indicated, instead, a more dispersed process that explained adaptation and speciation.

The eugenicists of Progressivism were engaging, on the other hand, in a scientistic misappropriation of Darwin’s legacy, and it was the earlier individualists, relying instead mostly on invisible hand processes of nature and society, who were closer to the spirit of evolutionary science.

But, in fairness, the eugenics movement had its scientific backers. The term eugenics itself was coined by Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin once removed. And Galton was no slouch, revolutionizing statistics and the research of inheritance.

Tipping the hat to Galton, honesty and precision suggests an alternative to “social Darwinism,” societal Galtonism.***

Resting upon Galton’s obsessions, the statist eugenicists donned the mantle of science. Within a half century of the eugenics heyday, progressive intellectuals, under the guise of “liberalism,” rewrote the history and jiggered with the concepts to obscure the enormity that their parent generation had embraced whole-heartedly. And, twist of the proverbial knife, they castigated the earlier individualists as cruel “social Darwinists” when the real crimes — their tradition’s — were far more directly inhumane and unchristian, and more plausibly a misappropriation of evolutionary theory.

Politics and ideology are full of droll reversals of fortune.

The memes that survive must serve functions, yes, but they are selected, artificially selected by humans with interests. And “social Darwinism” has served progressives for a long time, helping them bury the sorry history of their own movement by deflecting to others the apt charge of scientism.


* This post is admittedly mostly just assertion. But I hope the reader will forgive me for floating the notion before I find time to defend it. Maybe I should do a Kickstarter campaign to fund my elaboration of this and allied ideas!

** I am mostly referring to Herbert Spencer here, though the Americans John Fiske and William Graham Sumner might also fit into this category as relevant.

*** A Google search called up just one comments-section coinage of “social Galtonism,” but “social,” to my ear, more properly applies to micro- and meso-levels of human interaction than the macro level, so the uglier adjective “societal” makes a quantum of sense.