Was Charles Darwin a “Social Darwinist”?
Today it is often claimed that “Social Darwinism—the application of Darwin’s theory to such areas as economics, welfare, and race relations—has nothing to do with Charles Darwin himself. Darwin, it is said, had no interest in applying his theory outside of biology. It was other people who illegitimately twisted his theory who are responsible for “Social Darwinism.” In the following essays, you can explore the debate over the relationship between Darwin and “Social Darwinism” through the writings of leading supporters and critics of Darwin’s theory.
American Museum of Natural History
In the online version of its exhibition about the life and legacy of Charles Darwin, the American Museum of Natural History argues that Social Darwinism was a serious distortion of Darwin’s ideas, claiming that “Darwin passionately opposed social injustice,” and “he would have been dismayed” to see his name attached to ideologies like Marxism and practices like forced sterilization for eugenics.
John G. West
John West criticizes the American Museum of Natural History for “presenting a thoroughly sanitized portrait of Charles Darwin, completely suppressing Darwin’s real views on such troubling issues as eugenics and race.” Elsewhere, West has faulted the museum for covering up its own role in the American eugenics movement.
In a section of a blog post about the implications of Darwinism for limited government, political theorist Larry Arnhart concedes that “utopian eugenicists and… American progressives identified themselves as Darwinians,” but goes on to argue that these Social Darwinists were distorting Darwin’s scientific theory and that Darwin himself only supported “good eugenics.”
John G. West
Responding to political theorist Larry Arnhart, John West argues that in order to distance Darwin from Social Darwinism, “Arnhart must radically downplay the centrality of the struggle for survival in Darwin’s account of human progress.”
Analyzing Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, Benjamin Wiker admits that “contemporary liberals have attempted to separate Darwin from Social Darwinism, but Darwin’s own words advocating severe struggle show us quite clearly that he was the first Social Darwinist.”
Adrian Desmond recasts Charles Darwin as a crusader for human equality, arguing that “the latest evidence suggests that Darwin’s anti-slavery beliefs helped to shape his theory of evolution.”
Although Darwin did favor the abolition of slavery, Benjamin Wiker notes that “his own theory entirely undermined his cherished moral stand…. Even worse, it demanded an abominable kind of racism, a racism he blithely accepted.”