Social change and theory
Putting the social back in Darwinism since 1962
Article: Dietrich Neu – Contributor
Survival of the fittest. Many people ascribe that phrase to the father of evolutionary biology: Charles Darwin. Believe it or not, Darwin never uttered those words. They were first said by a man named Herbert Spencer, one of the world’s early sociologists. Spencer created a model for social change based partly on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and I’m sure you can guess where it goes – the strong survive and the weak die. According to Spencer, society should let its weakest members perish, and through the gradual elimination of the weak a stronger society will be formed. Because of his historical proximity to Darwin, Spencer’s theory has become known as “Social Darwinism.” It sounds heartless on the surface, but more of you may empathize with Social Darwinism than you think. Clippings of Spencer’s theories are sprinkled across one of the core beliefs of conservatism: everyone starts from an equal position in life, and their success or failure in life is largely determined by their work ethic and motivation.
In short: if you suck, you won’t get far; if you’re good, you will. This is Social Darwinism in a nutshell, and conservatives have no problem cozying up to the idea. It’s a romantic view for the privileged and well-off, but doesn’t have the backing of many reputable modern-day sociologists. The reason for that is simple: Social Darwinism allows a small number of people to flourish while the rest starve, which is bad for society as a whole.
As many sociologists have already pointed out, societies are not biological organisms. The rise and fall of individuals is not solely dependent on their “fitness” as it were. Other factors, such as discrimination and predetermined social standing, play major roles and usually favour the privileged.
Not a member of the privileged elite yet? No problem, just work harder, you’ll get there.
The problem is we won’t all get there, and we’re not all independent species competing with each other. To act as if we are will only serve to bolster inequality and create an increasingly stratified society, which is exactly what’s happening in the world right now. The rich and powerful pull ahead of the “weak”, making it easier to gain more power over an increasingly weakened group the next year, and so on.
Today, the 85 richest people in the world have the combined wealth of the 3.5 billion poorest.
Spencer’s theories were very popular among England’s ruling class in the 19th century because it justified their claims to power, and the theories are popular today among modern elites for the same reason.
Believing that everyone should work their way up the social ladder in isolation isn’t a solution to inequality, it’s the cause of it.
But the truth is that not everyone starts life on an equal playing field, as we are told, and no amount of hard work is going to change that – a change in ideology will.
Sociologists realized long ago that Social Darwinism is toxic for society’s growth. It’s time the rest of us had the same epiphany.