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Misunderstanding evolution: a historian's perspective on Social Darwinism

KC‑6.3.I.A (KC)
MIG (Theme)
Unit 6: Learning Objective G

Video transcript

so Emily and I have been talking about how natural selection Darwin's theory of evolution has differed from some of the ways that people have interpreted evolution over time and specifically was interested in this group known as the social Darwinists who were mostly a group of sociologists and other sort of public policymakers we're trying to apply Darwin's theories to how the world should be ordered and how races should relate to each other classes should relate to each other basically how this idea of evolution could be used to explain the world around them in a social way so Emily you were explaining to me how natural selection actually works so just as like a quick recap on the way that natural selection works at biological populations is that there's some variation in the population that's heritable meaning that it's it's in the organism's genes and it can be passed on to offspring and if that variation affects how well the organism can survive and reproduce so if it affects how many offspring is able to leave behind in the next generation then it's possible for certain traits that are well suited to the organisms immediate environment to become more and more common in the population over generations so that's that's kind of the idea of natural selection in a nutshell right and we also talked about the fact that there's no such thing as one race or one organism being more evolved than another organism because we've all been evolving this whole time so what I'd like to do now is just to talk about some of the ways that the sociologists of this time kind of Miss applied Darwin's theories and just get your opinions on how what they were saying actually relates with how biology really works so Herbert Spencer was a sociologist from England - he's actually the person who coined the term survival of the fittest which i think is interesting so it wasn't Darwin who coined this term but rather Spencer and I think what was animating people like Spencer and other social Darwinists in this time was just to say why are some people in a better social position than others so why are some people poor versus rich why do African Americans or people from colonized nations have a worse situation in the world than people in civilized nations or civilized kind of in air quotes from that time period and what Spencer said was oh this must be Darwinism right it must be that people who are wealthy are better adapted to their environment they're more evolved than people who are poor so I think this this idea of difference between the classes was one of the first animations behind the idea of social Darwinism so is there any way that that actually relates to how biology explains Darwinism I mean I think that that's really a case of an idea from biology being not very accurately applied to society on yeah I think that there was probably a strong motivation for someone in Spencer's position to want to explain things in that way because that would justify inaction on his part and sort of say that this is acceptable because it's quote/unquote natural odd and you know I think that it's really not a very scientific or even an investigated perspective I think that it was sort of an effort to fit something sort of a round peg in a square hole so to speak yeah it's interesting as I've been learning more about this what I've noticed that people in general seem to take up one of these explanations for like how the universe works and then try to apply it to everything even if it might not necessarily apply so yeah I think I think your word inaction here is is really accurate because one of the things that Spencer is just wondering about is like should the government do something for people who are poor for people who are in a bad position and he basically says no because his idea is that if the government helps them then you're interfering with this survival of the fittest and that those sorts of people should naturally be bred out of the populace to make our the race more evolved so is there any truth into this idea that you could make the human race more evolved by breeding out certain parts of it my tendency would be to say that any program designed to reduce variation in a biological population is probably not going to be beneficial for that population okay so that's kind of a broad statement but on you know if if you look at factors that make endangered species endangered one of the big ones is that they have very low genetic variation their gene pool and that means that harmful gene versions are more likely to come together in the same individual so it's more likely for there to be genetic defects genetic disorders on in general a high level of variation is an indicator of a healthy population and a low level of variation or any population where you have intensive inbreeding of similar individuals that's going to be a populations probably less healthy interesting because there's this very popular movement in the United States and then moving on to places like Germany where we see this very strongly in the Holocaust of eugenics right that the idea that you can make your your race more in your country more evolved more fit this survival of the fittest by breeding out certain things that are termed undesirable I mean in terms of long term population survival from a biological standpoint I don't see how that could be beneficial and you never know what's down the road you never know if there's a new infectious disease that's going to show up and who's going to be resistant to it somebody who has genetic variation that doesn't matter right now but you don't know who that's going to be so it's that sort of general principle applies that the reason variation is great is it prepares a population to deal with an uncertain future this is so interesting to me because I think you see this a lot in history because people in some ways here they're very much confusing culture for biology right because in many cases they're saying that traits that they see as culturally undesirable you know looking through the eyes of white supremacy of sort of this racial and cultural supremacy of people from England from the United States from Western Europe you know they're they're looking around them and they see people who are different from them and they ascribe that to a kind of biological inferiority when in fact it's just a cultural difference I think that that's a very good way to state it I think that there's just a big conflation here of cultural and biological and applying ideas that might be great for one and in a place where they're not actually as well-suited and I think it one thing that also interests me about this is the the way that things like eugenics are used as justifications and using Darwinism as a justification for not helping certain people for saying oh you know you're less evolved you belong at the bottom of the social scale and if I help you then I'm not helping us evolve as a race with also kind of a flipside of saying oh we must help certain cultures become more civilized and you see that a lot in the era of colonialism which is also big in the Gilded Age is kind of becoming a world event in the Gilded Age as England begins to take colonies in India and Africa and other nations do the same one of the justifications that they're giving is these people are less civilized than us they're less evolved than us and so we have to help them it's the white man's burden phrase by Rudyard Kipling to help these other races evolve yeah I mean that's the very definite conflation of biological and social I mean teaching people to behave in a different way does not affect their biology that was actually one of Spencer's misconceptions he was an adherent of Lamarckian evolution which would suggest that if you gain a trait during your lifetime you will biologically and genetically pass it on to offspring and you may pass it on to your offspring by teaching them something but genetic traits that are acquired during your life you don't pass those on you actually don't generally inherit the acquired genetic traits exactly so I think that that definitely reflects the confusion in terms of what biological evolution is and how it works mechanistically yeah so I think I think if there's anything for us to take away from this it's that one that there's no such thing as one person being more evolved than another person we're one race being more evolved than another race I think there's actually not much of a biological basis for the concept of race to start with since human beings are biologically but like 99.9% the same yeah I mean from everything that I've seen race is really something that people have come up with in an effort to categorize the world around them but it's not actually reflected very meaningfully in people's genetics you know there are certain very superficial physical traits that are inherited that we defined as quote unquote race but if you actually look at the genomes of the people who belong to a particular racial group that is socially defined there's a huge amount of variation there and there's much more variation within what we would consider a race then there are differences that separate races it's basically is a pretty arbitrary way to categorize people