The Two Darwinisms

The conservative movement is now mounting a full-throttled attack on Darwinism even as it has thoroughly embraced Darwinism's bastard child, social Darwinism. On the face of it, these positions may appear inconsistent. What unites them is a profound disdain for science, logic, and fact.

In The Origin of Species, published 150 years ago, Darwin amassed evidence that mankind evolved from simpler forms of life through a process he called “natural selection.” This insight became the foundation of modern biological science. But it also greatly disturbed those who believe the Bible's account of creation to be literally true. In recent years, as America's conservative movement has grown, some of these people have taken over local and state school boards with the result that, for example, Kansas' new biology standards now single out evolution as a “controversial theory.” Until a few weeks ago, teachers in Dover, Pennsylvania, were required to tell students that they should explore “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to evolution. (The good citizens of Dover just booted out the school board responsible for this, summoning a warning from Pat Robertson that they have no right to expect God's help should disaster befall them.)

Social Darwinism was developed some 30 years after Darwin's famous book by a social thinker named Herbert Spencer. Extending Darwin into a realm Darwin never intended, Spencer and his followers saw society as a competitive struggle where only those with the strongest moral character should survive, or else the society would weaken. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinism thereby offered a perfect moral justification for America's Gilded Age, when robber barons controlled much of American industry, the gap between rich and poor turned into a chasm, urban slums festered, and politicians were bought off by the wealthy. It allowed John D. Rockefeller, for example, to claim that the fortune he accumulated through the giant Standard Oil Trust was “merely a survival of the fittest ... the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

The modern conservative movement has embraced social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism. Social Darwinism gives a moral justification for rejecting social insurance and supporting tax cuts for the rich. “In America,” says Robert Bork, “‘the rich' are overwhelmingly people -- entrepreneurs, small-business men, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, etc. -- who have gained their higher incomes through intelligence, imagination, and hard work.” Any transfer of wealth from rich to poor thereby undermines the nation's moral fiber. Allow the virtuous rich to keep more of their earnings and pay less in taxes, and they'll be even more virtuous. Give the non-virtuous poor food stamps, Medicaid, and what's left of welfare, and they'll fall into deeper moral torpor.

There is, of course, an ideological inconsistency here. If mankind did not evolve according to Darwinist logic, but began instead with Adam and Eve, it seems unlikely that societies evolve according to the survival-of-the-fittest logic of social Darwinism. By the same token, if you believe one's economic status is the consequence of an automatic process of natural selection, presumably you'd believe that human beings represent the culmination of a similar process over the ages. That the conservative mind endures such cognitive dissonance is stunning, but not nearly as remarkable as the repeated attempts of conservative mouthpieces such as the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard to convince readers that the conservative movement is intellectually coherent.

The only consistency between the right's attack on Darwinism and embrace of social Darwinism is the utter fatuousness of both. Darwinism is correct. Scientists who are legitimized by peer review and published research are unanimous in their view that evolution is a fact, not a theory. Social Darwinism, meanwhile, is hogwash. Social scientists have long understood that one's economic status in society is not a function of one's moral worth. It depends largely on the economic status of one's parents, the models of success available while growing up, and educational opportunities along the way.

A democracy is imperiled when large numbers of citizens turn their backs on scientific fact. Half of Americans recently polled say they don't believe in evolution. Almost as many say they believe income and wealth depend on moral worthiness. At a time when American children are slipping behind on international measures of educational attainment, when global competition is intensifying, and when the median incomes of Americans are stagnating and the ranks of the poor are increasing, these ideas are moving us rapidly backward.

Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect.

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