Victorian social climate, like the world of science, was not composed of one set of views, but by a number of competing doctrines and ideas. And it is just as easy, despite the progressive overtones to evolution and the consolations of group selection, to see the process of a 'struggle' as set against the grain of Victorian ideas of harmonious social progress. With regard to apparent altruism, whatever the social climate, the observable facts in nature remain constant, and without knowledge of the existence of genes, Darwin's solution to problem of apparent altruism was the most logical and plausible. However, in recognising that there was something of an uneasy compromise between the good of the individual and that of the community, Darwin seems tantalisingly close to the actual truth that apparently altruistic behaviour arises in fact for neither individual nor community. Or rather if natural selection operates on the genetic level it may in the 'interest' of the genes to bolster the success of the community - and thus many of the individuals in it. This may be purely through protecting those who share the same genes (as in the case of social insects), or a process of reciprocal altruism: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours (as in the case of many primates including humans.)
Whatever the degree to which science reflects society, the reverse is certainly true, and Darwinism was a godsend to certain political positions. The laissez-faire of Malthus that had helped inspire Origin now took Darwinism as one of its chief weapons. Indeed the term 'survival of the fittest' so often associated with Darwin was not in fact coined by him at all, but by social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903), the originator of the doctrine of Social Darwinism. In many ways little more than the logical extension of existing laissez-faire ideology but with the spurious appropriation of Darwinism, Social Darwinism was the economic policy of total non-intervention by government in individual or industrial affairs, justified by the idea that those with superior talents and ability would 'naturally' rise to the top. Of course this meant that the weak would 'go to the wall' according to the natural order of things, all in the interests of what the likes of Spencer saw as social and economic progress.
Social Darwinism should not, incidentally, be confused with the doctrine of Eugenics. Eugenics, the selective reproduction of humans according to 'desirable' traits, was championed by Francis Galton (1822 - 1911) and often favoured state- intervention. Rather than just letting evolution take its course, it was giving it a helping hand in a particular direction. Besides, the notion of selective reproduction in human societies predates Darwin by millennia - Plato in his Republic for one is in favour of it - and it owes more to the animal breeders than to Darwin.
The many political perversions of Darwinism hardly bear repetition, but an intellectual and cultural trail does lead from 'the survival of the fittest' to some of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century. What one might refer to as a sort of National Darwinism, coupled with the evils of Eugenics fused most notoriously in Nazi Germany and lead ultimately to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but one cannot blame Darwin for any of this any more than one can blame Jesus for the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. And the political right was not alone in embracing Darwinism, just as Eugenics drew support from across the political spectrum. Wallace became an active socialist, and he saw evolution as caught up into the socialist project of 'improvement'. As Gillian Beer writes of Origin, "What is fascinating is to see the extent to which diverse societies can read in these pages those elements most justifying their own ideals and practises." In the interests of balance it is worth noting that a wilful ignorance of Darwinism has its fair share of pitfalls. In Soviet Russia in the 1930s Stalin sought to bring the laws of inheritance under the Marxist dictum of all-powerful environmental and social influence. Accordingly, the Kremlin appointed scientist T.D. Lysenko insisted on adhering to a half-baked crypto-Lamarckian doctrine, claiming that if winter wheat (which is planted in places with a climate mild enough to sustain it) were planted in Siberia among the stubble of spring wheat (which grows over the summer) it would be able to survive the coldest winter. Of course it didn't. Thousands died from famine.
Throughout all the interpretations of his theory during his lifetime, Darwin remained apolitical. But science has a hard time of remaining apolitical, and Darwin was not the last to suffer as a result of the way people interpreted his discoveries. The area of Sociobiology - the application of natural selection to the social systems and behaviour of animals, including humans - has suffered particularly. It has had to fight off confusion with Social Darwinism, accusations of racism, and the misconception by its critics that by
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