Saturday, July 10, 2010

What Happened to the Social Darwinists?

This essay is a follow-up to the one I posted on June 13 about English and American social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century: people such as Herbert Spencer, John Fiske, Henry Ward Beecher, and Andrew Carnegie. As I completed Werth’s book, Banquet at Delmonico’s, I realized how much effort all of these thinkers had put into their work. They poured out their lives and their health into their work. They died disappointed. Spencer and Fiske, in particular, broke their health from nervous overwork on trying to figure out the evolution of societies. They did not live long enough to also discover that they were wrong.

Andrew Carnegie did live long enough. Like the academics, Carnegie believed passionately that government should not interfere with the process by which societies evolve into ever higher forms. On the negative side, this meant that the government should not help the poor. On the positive side, this meant that governments should encourage industry and get out of the war business. All of them expected an imminent utopia, or something tolerably like it. Carnegie, however, lived until 1919, which was long enough to see England cling to its colonialist policy and the United States begin one; to see that militarism was on the rise in Europe; to see that the social evolution for which he hoped was not going to happen. He was a broken man starting the day when World War I began, and died in disappointment. With his death, it might be said that World War I had driven the final stake in the heart of social Darwinism.

We now understand the message of evolutionary science to human society. It is that we are animals, not so very different from chimpanzees. Evolution has conferred upon our innate behavioral patterns the ability to be altruistic and the ability to be destructive. This means that, for every individual and every society, the choice of good and evil is always before us. There is no inevitable evolution of society. The world will be what we make of it. This is the mental flexibility that evolution has given us.

Right now, in the world, we see an unstable altruism that threatens each moment to collapse. And as global warming causes international disruption, the threat of collapse gets ever greater. What can we do? Perhaps what Andrew Carnegie did. Even when he was discouraged, he continued to be philanthropic. To the end, he gave away millions of dollars. His foundation still exists and does good work. Few of us have very much wealth to give away, but we can keep doing whatever good we can.

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