This post in the ninth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here,and the next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
“I came to the conclusion that selection was the principle of change from the study of domesticated productions; and then, reading Malthus, I saw at once how to apply this principle.” – Charles Darwin
“It seems that Malthus legitimized the idea of a law of struggle, impressed Darwin with the intensity of struggle, and provided a convenient natural mechanism for the changes which Darwin was studying in the selection of domesticated varieties. It gave Darwin the analogy he needed to move from artificial to natural selection, and this was the essential step in his reasoning: indefinite variation and natural selection could produce new species.” – Robert Young
Robert M. Young (1935 – ) is an American-British Marxist, psychologist, and historian of science who is best known for his contextualist approach to the history of evolution, an early instance of what would later be called standpoint theory. In a series of essays written between 1969 and 1973, he argued that scientific theories, like all other products of the human mind, arise out of a specific social context. For this reason theories necessarily incorporate the values and concerns of the people who create them, and can only be understood as an expression of their personality and concerns, which are themselves expressions of their specific historical context. Therefore, if we want to understand evolution (he argued), we need to understand the history of Victorian England.
In order to do this, we need to look at England a generation or two before Darwin published Origin of Species (1859). During the 1790s France was convulsed by revolution, the leaders of which were confident that philosophy had revealed the laws of government. They believed that a perfect society could be created on earth. But in the midst of wars, conspiracies, and repeated frustrations, they turned against each other, and a Terror killed tens of thousands of Frenchmen. Later, French armies led by Napoleon overran most of the continent, leaving Britain virtually alone. In the midst of this war against left-leaning France, Great Britain defined itself as a conservative power. One Briton, Thomas Malthus, wrote an Essay on Population (1798) which undertook to show why French-style plans for “the improvement of mankind” were doomed to failure. His argument was that if the state instituted living-wage laws, workers would get married sooner and have larger families. As a result, there would be even more workers in the next generation, and so more people who would have to be paid an artificial wage. But as the real value of their labor plunged, the net drain on the economy would increase. After a few generations, the population growth would become unsustainable, leading to a population crash (or “Malthusian catastrophe”) in which nature would forcibly correct the misguided policy of the reformers.
Great Britain rapidly industrialized during the first decades of the 19th century. As workers began to organize in order to press for better working conditions and higher wages, employers sought arguments that could be used to keep wages low. Malthus’ arguments were extremely useful for this purpose, and for generations Britain’s conservatives recast it as “the Iron Law of Wages.” Charles Darwin was descended from wealth on both sides, and, like most people from his background, he was impressed by Malthus’ ideas. He took a copy of Malthus’ essay with him on his voyage, and recorded in his autobiography that he had his insight after reading Malthus’ essay. As Robert Young pointed out, his theory has many other connections to his time and place. Darwin’s emphasis on the importance of competition has some obvious parallels to the laissez faire industrialism of Victorian England. Just as every business owner competes for scarce resources and strives to bring the best product to market in order to secure them, every species has to compete for scarce food and mating opportunities, and over the generations tends to produce the adaptations best suited to survival. And, just as failed businesses go under and are replaced, failed species go extinct and are replaced by more fit competitors. Indeed, Origin is steeped in the language of not only laissez faire, but also imperialism. The full title of the book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. At a time when European states had conquered about 4/5th of the earth’s surface, no educated reader could possibly doubt which races had been “favored” in the “struggle for life.”
According to Robert Young, the natural thing for people living under a capitalist system is to see the free market as a reflection of natural law. This is how it was in fact interpreted by theorists such as Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, who, like Darwin, took it for granted that laissez faire capitalism was the best form of production. However, there are reasons to think that causation actually runs in the other direction. It’s a truism that people often see what they want to see, and the fact that all of us are products of the same type of society as Darwin doesn’t help matters. We have, in other words, a built in bias to see things his way, and this has been powerfully reinforced by Darwin’s addition to the modern pantheon of “great men of science.”
Darwin, a white, male, sexist, imperialist millionaire, was in every way a member of the elite. So it is perhaps unsurprising that he liked to think of nature in terms of competition. After all, competition had worked out very well for him, and this explanation had the pleasant byproduct of transforming his success from an accident of birth to scientifically proven superiority of inheritance. When other biologists took a look at Origins, many of them concluded that while competition in nature was real enough, Darwin had overstressed it. Most of Darwin’s observations took place on the South American coast, where competition is indeed fierce in the densely-packed rain forests. In other environments, such as the frozen plains of Siberia, animals often work together, because the chief danger to their survival does not come from one another, but from a hostile environment. Indeed, as Peter Kropotkin pointed out in Mutual Aid (1902), cooperation, not competition, characterizes much of what goes on in nature – such as symbiosis, social organization of insects like ants and termites, and, indeed, human society. In general the most successful species on the planet are not loners living in ruthless cutthroat competition with one another. They cooperate because groups are often more effective than individuals. That we tend to think of nature as “red in tooth and claw” is, on this reading, a byproduct of the ruthless laissez faire business ethos of Victorian England, not a product of nature itself (which few of us have any prolonged experience with, and so are not really in a position to evaluate.)
A consequence of this view of Darwinism is that "social Darwinism" is not a narrow-minded misapplication of legitimate biology to politics and society. Rather, "Darwinism is Social" (stress in the original title) - that is to say, it is a legitimate application of Darwin's ideas to society. On this view, Malthus' writings were political in the first place. Darwin applied them to nature, and then his contemporaries applied them back to politics. Because the idea of natural selection was political from the beginning, it of course had political implications. The output and the input were essentially the same, only the output was tremendously magnified, because the opinions of Thomas Malthus had been transformed into *scientific facts,* from which dissent could not possibly be rational. This transformation (carried out by prominent social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, and T.H. Huxley) allowed conservative politicians to plausibly claim that they were merely applying the laws of nature to society by setting up laissez faire economic regimes and pursuing imperialist wars abroad. In politics as in nature (they could say) might makes right, and success is its own vindication. This view became unfashionable during the first and second world wars because of its association with German militarism. The war transformed "legitimate science" into "a crude misapplication of Darwin to society," which is the status it retains today. Its role in American and British imperialism and laissez faire was either forgotten or repudiated, and applications of biology to politics were disallowed. However, as the generation that remembers the war and its atrocities is passing, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, and other Social Darwinists are being rehabilitated by conservatives in a renewed effort to claim the legitimation of science for laissez faire and imperialist policies.
According to Robert Young, the view that ideology and science can be separated was and is a fiction - people do not stop having political opinions when they put on lab coats and look through their microscopes. Try as they might to be objective, they can never quite succeed. A different political system would have (and in fact did) produce different theories of nature. Needless to say, such a contentious view has not gone unchallenged, and the issue is further confused by Robert Young's explicit Marxist commitments. However, his work remains a landmark (for better or for worse) within the field of Darwin history, and is a prime example of the "externalist" approach to history of science, which stresses connections between context, theorist, and theory.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Good post again, hope to see more in this series. People not familiar with the history of the discipline are often ignorant of the social theoretical roots of Darwinism.
A quite through history of 19th century evolutionism that’s worth recommending can be found in Marvin Harris’ 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory. Harris takes a charitable perspective due to his own commitment to cultural materialism, which is actually useful even if you don’t agree with Harris (I don’t).
Critiques questioning the ethnocentric or political underpinnings of evolutionary theory as it is applied to cultural matters are many, but see for example Susan Mckinnon’s Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology.
Thanks for your encouragement and the recommendations. I believe the next in the series discusses similar influences on Quantum Mechanics. One application of darwinian thought I was not able to cover but would have liked to is EO Wilson’s sociobiology project, which was (rightly, I think) perceived by many scholars as an attempt, in utero, to revive social darwinism. It seems to me that the metaphorical link between natural selection and capitalist social norms is so strong that the periodic resurgence of such myth-thinking is almost a feature of modernity now. Even though what natural selection means in the lab or in the library is very different than the vulgar “war to the death” model of nature, in the popular mind the meaning of that particular text is probably fixed, and does not have many non-invidious uses as a social allegory. Nevertheless it seems scientific so it has an intrinsic plausibility. It’s all very worrying.
A quick search on jstor shows that Marvin Harris’ work was much discussed in the years after its release. I’ll read up on it. As I suppose you can see from my comments I’m well-persuaded of what I take to be McKinnon’s argument, that sociobiology was a basically sinister attempt to link darwin with political conservatism. In my opinion such attempts are inevitable because Darwin’s theory was linked to conservatism from the beginning.
I should perhaps clarify that the Harris book is useful as a single rather detailed description of the many strands of thought within 19th century evolutionism, not so much for any theoretical insight. It is a rather old book so there might be better overviews available. I am firmly opposed to the kind of cultural materialism Harris represents and I’m more in line with Marshall Sahlins’ scathing critiques of his work. Sahlins’ witty review of Harris’ Cannibals and Kings and its materialist reductionist interpretation of Aztec sacrificial cannibalism is a typically hilarious example of this:
Sahlins wrote the seminal anthropological critique of sociobiology in the late seventies: The Use and Abuse of Biology (though that book is necessarily dated by now).
This relates to the topic only tangentially, but Sahlins also has a fun history of ideas type article trying to link various strand of Judeo-Christian cosmology and western philosophy that relate to an economic interpretation of human nature. (I’ve probably tried to peddle links to the article a couple of times before in the hopes someone would get a kick out of it)
Sure, but I’m at least as interested in the way ideas change over time as I am in which beliefs are the right ones. I’ll give Harris a look. Also Sahlin’s. Thanks again for the recommendations.
Alan Cook says
Talking about Darwin and the Origin of Species seems to me be something of a red herring here, since the core ideas of contemporary evolutionary biology come out of what’s sometimes called the “neoDarwinian synthesis.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_evolutionary_synthesis.) My impression is that biologists working within that paradigm are by no means of one mind about sociobiology/evolutionary psychology; a lot of them think it’s nonsense. I’d be interested in hearing how this sort of ideological critique applies (if at all) to the synthesis.
(FWIW, in my view the best critique of evolutionary psychology is David Butler’s Adapting Minds. http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/adapting-minds)
Yes, I certainly didn’t mean to conflate all modern evolutionary biology, 19th century Darwinism, and evolutionary psychology. Socio-cultural anthropologists sometimes have a tendency to miss nuances of the discourse and create straw men when discussing evolutionary biology and other materialistically oriented approaches, and the reverse is equally true.
Another more recent overview of issues one deals with when applying evolutionary theory to the study of human societies can be found in Stephen Shennan’s Genes, Memes, and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution, though again I stress that this is an approach I firmly resist.
Thanks for the Butler recommendation. I bought the recent Krausz anthology on Relativism, so this might mean a second visit to Amazon due to your endorsement.
Alan this is indeed a red herring if our question is “is natural selection a good scientific theory,” but not if our question is “how does this idea relate to its historical context” or “why does it possess so much intrinsic credibility with people who are not themselves familiar with the evidence.” In other words I’m just asking a different question about this theory than you are. I don’t know enough about current thinking on biology to really comment on the former question.
To get to the root of the issue, however, in my opinion Social Darwinism is not, as the name implies, a mere modification of Darwin’s ideas. I find Robert Young’s argument persuasive, and conclude that both Darwin’s own theory and it’s social application are actually strains of Malthusianism dressed up in scientific garb. What we call “Social Darwinism” is therefor actually the prior theory, and it explains Darwin better than Darwin explains it.
While it is often assumed that subjectivity and context enter into scientific explanation only by way of impediments, I disagree with this view. I think they inspire scientific theories and help explain both where they come from and why they are believed. Darwin’s metaphor may be a fitting one, but it has its origins in Darwin’s England just as surely as it does in the South American jungles or the Galapagos Islands.
Excellent post, Daniel. Super interesting and engaging.
I was wondering about Darwin’s sexism. I’m quite interested in unearthing some evidence of this; would be interesting to think about how Victorian misogyny might have shaped Darwin’s world view. Any suggestions or links would be much appreciated.
Thanks for your kind words, Timea.
The following extracts from Origin and Descent of Man may help clarify Darwin’s attitude toward women. It should be stressed that these are not offered as an indictment of Darwin as a person, since these views were by no means uncommon at the time. Nevertheless they demonstrate the influence of the broader culture on his thinking about biology, and we may reasonably suppose that the latter reflects the former – not simply in form, but also in content. Certainly we would have a different theory today if Darwin had been a woman, a socialist, a Russian, and so on, and not a rich white British male.
Robert Young maintains a website. The essays on which the article is based, and many others, are available in full here: http://human-nature.com/rmyoung/ Essays that reflect more recent scholarship on the question of the relation between Darwin and Social Darwinism can be found in Darwin’s Coat-Tails, by Peter Crook.
And this leads me to say a few words on what I call Sexual Selection. This depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring…. Origin (1859), p. 88.
There is one other point deserving a fuller notice. It has long been known that in the vertebrate kingdom one sex bears rudiments of various accessory parts, appertaining to the reproductive system, which properly belong to the opposite sex… Descent (1871), vol. 1., pp. 207 – 208.
Man is more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius… Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 316 – 317.
Difference in the Mental Powers of the two Sexes… Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness… Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 326 – 327.
The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands…. Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 327.
Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen. Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 328 – 329.
In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters…. Descent (1871), vol. 2, p. 329.
Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection… Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 371 – 372.
Thank you for your very interesting post.
In this last little bit I am afraid you give Darwin to much weight: “Certainly we would have a different theory today if Darwin had been a woman, a socialist, a Russian, and so on, and not a rich white British male. ”
I doubt that Darwin’s influence could be so lasting. Russians, women and socialist have since had plenty influence on the theory of evolution.