The Problem With the Phrase "Social Darwinism"

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Last week, President Obama slammed the Republican budget proposal as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism," referring to massive proposed cuts in social welfare programs that would leave the poor and working class fighting one another for scarce resources.

As an ecologist, I’m interested in the ways in which scientific concepts are used -- and sometimes abused -- by the social and political sciences, but I also found myself wincing slightly at the statement, and not because I disagree with the president's underlying sentiment (I am a proponent of social safety nets and equality).

What's the problem? To answer this, we need to put the term "social Darwinism" in its historical and scientific contexts. The phrase was coined in the Victorian age by folks who wanted to apply the basic principles of Darwinian evolution to social and political problems. Basically, the idea of Social Darwinism was that social laws resembled natural laws of competition -- that human interactions resembled the struggles for "survival of the fittest" seen in nature. The term was, in fact, originally used to critique politics that ignored the plight of the poor, but the concept was later adopted by proponents of eugenics and as the scientific basis for a host of racist ideologies1 (including Nazism).1 The phrase re-emerged in the mid-20th century to characterize right-wing politics by left-wing scholars like Richard Hostadter, who argued that the "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" rhetoric of Darwinian evolution has been used to "give the force of a natural law to the idea of competitive struggle" by conservatives.2

Photo by Jintae Kim. (Flickr)

Interestingly, the term "survival of the fittest" wasn't coined by Darwin, but by one of his contemporaries, philosopher Herbert Spencer, who drew parallels between the ideas of natural selection (what Darwin called "the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life" -- though by "race," Darwin meant "species") and Spencer's own economic theories. Darwin later included "survival of the fittest" as a synonym for "natural selection" in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, and the phrase is still popularly used today as a catch-all for the basic processes of evolution.

However, most people don’t have a good sense of what "fittest" actually means in biology; in everyday terms, "fitness" conjures images of physical superiority that can easily be extrapolated to combat and struggle. When evolutionary scientists say "fitness," however, they’re referring to how well an organism is able to reproduce, which is related to how well a species is adapted to its environment. Those that aren't well adapted and aren't very successful at reproduction don't pass their genes on to their offspring. The sets of genes best suited to the environment are therefore "selected" by nature; hence, "natural selection."

Scientists who study evolution today avoid the term "survival of the fittest" because it's less accurate -- for one thing, reproduction is more important than survival -- and because the term "fitness" means something so very different to the public.

It's also important to note that not all nature is "red in tooth and claw," to quote poet Alfred Lloyd Tennyson (and another phrase often popularly ascribed to evolution). Competition between species (and even among organisms of the same species) for limited resources is an important evolutionary process, but conflict isn't the only kind of interaction in nature. Especially in recent years, scientists have begun to realize how common -- and in some cases critical to survival -- symbiotic relationships (close, long-term relationships between species), mutualisms (mutually beneficial interactions), and commensalisms (relationships that benefit one organism but the effects to the other are neutral) are in nature. For some species, like ants, collaboration is a key to success: Ants not only work together within a colony, for example, but often form relationships with other species -- cultivating fungal gardens for food, or protecting acacias from herbivores in exchange for sugary snacks provided by the trees.

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