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Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism

Abstract

Entry on Social Darwinism in the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science
S
Social Darwinism
Justin K. Mogilski
Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA
Synonyms
Social evolution;Survival of the ttest
Definition
The application of Darwinian biology and evolu-
tionary principles to human social theory.
Introduction
In the broadest sense, the term social Darwinism
has been used to refer to any effort made toward
applying concepts from Darwins theory of evo-
lution by natural selection to social theory, polit-
ical systems, economics, and other domains of
human social life (Dickens 2000). However,
social Darwinism is likely best known for its
infamous association with early twentieth century
political ideologies targeted at improving the
human race.Darwins ideas were used to justify
eugenics (Nourse 2016), race war (Barondess
1998), imperialism (Leonard 2009), and a variety
of economic political ideologies (Hawkins 1997).
However, these ideas were often based on
misinterpretations of Darwins original ideas and
the process of natural selection. Some have argued
that early academics who have since become asso-
ciated with nefarious applications of social Dar-
winism (e.g., Herbert Spencer, William Graham
Sumner, Richard Hofstadter) were often
misinterpreted or misrepresented (Hodgson
2004; Leonard 2009). Moreover, earlier work
did not incorporate many contemporary discover-
ies within evolutionary biology that have since
replaced some of Darwins original ideas (e.g.,
Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini 2011).
Natural Selection
Perhaps one of the most widely misinterpreted
concepts within the theory of evolution was the
phrase survival of the ttest.The lay under-
standing of this phrase (i.e., the strongest indi-
viduals survive) has been the mantra for social
and political policies aimed at favoring one group
of individuals over another (e.g., Barondess
1998). However, this understanding of the phrase
is inaccurate. In evolutionary biology, survival of
the ttestis a catchy and succinct way of describ-
ing one of the central processes of evolution:
natural selection. Natural selection occurs when
variation in a heritable trait (e.g., intelligence)
leads to differential reproduction within a popula-
tion of individuals. For example, individuals who
were relatively more intelligent may have been
better at adapting to new situations, inventing
#Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
T.K. Shackelford, V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_448-1
creative solutions to novel problems, and
attracting potential mates. Therefore, more intel-
ligent individuals would have experienced greater
reproductive success compared to less intelligent
individuals. Over several generations, if intelli-
gence consistently conferred this reproductive
advantage, intelligent individuals would have
begun to outnumber relatively less intelligent
individuals in the population. In this example,
the process of natural selection thereby leads to
the survival (i.e., consistent and continued repro-
ductive success) of the ttest (i.e., individuals who
possess a trait which confers a reproductive
advantage over competitors). Therefore, ttest
does not necessarily equate to strongest.In fact,
some adaptations for physical strength could be
detrimental to an organisms reproductive success
if, for example, diverting somatic resources to
muscle development were to become an inef-
cient use of the bodys resources.
Relatedly, there are no traits that are inherently
better than other traits. A common justication for
the use of eugenics (Nourse 2016) was that the
human race could be improved by articially
selecting traits which were believed to be geneti-
cally superior (e.g., blonde hair and blue eyes).
However, this presumes knowledge of which
traits will confer a reproductive advantage.
A trait only benets an individuals reproductive
success insofar as it helps the organism adapt to
current environmental conditions. Returning to
the example of strength, within environments
where same-sex competition between males is
intense, physical prowess may increase competi-
tive success and thereby reproductive success.
Likewise, physical strength might allow individ-
uals to manipulate large objects or protect kin,
friends, and mates. In this sense, one could argue
that physical prowess should be articially
selected for inclusion in future human
populations. However, having less physical
strength may also increase reproductive success
within particular environments. Greater physical
strength typically entails more muscle mass and
therefore greater body size, which may slow an
individual down or make an organism conspicu-
ous and more likely to be preyed upon. Genes
coding for greater physical strength may also
inadvertently affect the expression of other traits,
such as circulating levels of testosterone and
behavioral aggression. In this way, something
that is typically seen as better(i.e., strength)
may actually contribute negatively to an organ-
isms overall tness within a particular environ-
ment. This is only one example, but the basic logic
may be applied to a variety of potential traits.
Those who applied this logic to social and politi-
cal theory were not concerned with reproductive
success, per se, as much as with optimizing vari-
ous aspects of human social, political, and eco-
nomic systems (Dickens 2000; Hawkins 1997).
However, applying evolutionary logic in this way
is similarly awed in these contexts. People, and
social systems, are the products of multiple
intersecting processes and traits. Altering or
favoring one trait (e.g., physical strength) without
conscientious consideration of this changes
impact on related attributes and processes (e.g.,
behavioral aggression) could have unintended
consequences.
Contemporary Social Darwinism
Any version of social Darwinism which has had
its origins in these awed understandings of Dar-
winian and evolutionary logic has no credibility in
current evolutionary science. Yet, some modern
social and evolutionary theorists still discuss (and
debate) how evolutionary principles might be
applied to the study of human social systems
(e.g., Dickens 2000; Hodgson and Knudsen
2010; Schubert 2012). This debate includes
whether social evolution (i.e., memetic descent
and modication) more closely resembles
Lamarckian or Darwinian evolution (Hodgson
2001), whether welfare economics may be
reformed using evolutionary principles (Schubert
2009), and how an understanding of psychologi-
cal adaptations can inform various facets of
human morality and politics (see Shackelford
and Hansen 2016). Unlike its predecessors, con-
temporary social Darwinism adopts a more
nuanced and morally conscientious approach to
integrating human social behavior and evolution.
Indeed, although social Darwinism has acquired a
2 Social Darwinism
stigma within many intellectual circles, an under-
standing of how evolution has shaped human
psychology will provide clues about how to opti-
mize the various social, political, and economic
systems that have emerged from that psychology.
Cross-References
Dangers of Evolutionary Ethics
Mismatch Between Evolved Morality and
Modern World
Moral Concerns
Racism and Prejudice
Science and Morality
References
Barondess, J. A. (1998). Care of the medical ethos: Reec-
tions on social Darwinism, racial hygiene, and the
Holocaust. Annals of Internal Medicine, 129, 891898.
Dickens, P. (2000). Social Darwinism: Linking evolution-
ary thought to social theory. Buckingham: Open Uni-
versity Press.
Fodor, J., & Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (2011). What Darwin
got wrong. London: Prole Books.
Hawkins, M. (1997). Social Darwinism in European and
American thought, 18601945: Nature as model and
nature as threat. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Hodgson, G. M. (2001). Is social evolution lamarckian or
darwinian? darwinism and evolutionary economics,
120,87120.
Hodgson, G. M. (2004). Social Darwinism in Anglophone
academic journals: A contribution to the history of the
term. Journal of Historical Sociology, 17, 428463.
Hodgson, G. M., & Knudsen, T. (2010). Darwin's conjec-
ture: The search for general principles of social and
economic evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press.
Leonard, T. C. (2009). Origins of the myth of social Dar-
winism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter's
social Darwinism in American thought. Journal of
Economic Behavior & Organization, 71,3751.
Nourse, V. (2016). History of science: When eugenics
became law. Nature, 530, 418418.
Schubert, C. (2009). Is novelty always a good thing?
Towards an evolutionary welfare economics. Journal
of Evolutionary Economics, 22, 585619.
Schubert, C. (2012). Generalized Darwinismand the
quest for an evolutionary theory of policy-making.
Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 24, 479513.
Shackelford, T. K., & Hansen, R. D. (2016). The evolution
of morality. New York: Springer.
Social Darwinism 3
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