Understanding Social Darwinism

In the middle of the partisan fight over the federal budget last year, President Barack Obama criticized the Republican’s “attempt to impose a radical vision” as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” And in a recent show, Jon Stewart referred negatively to the idea of economic class warfare as “so Darwinian.”

Barack Obama and Jon Stewart are two of my favorite public figures. So it’s frustrating to hear these brilliant men misuse and stereotype a core principle of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Understood correctly, social Darwinism refers as much to cooperation and community as it does to individuals looking out only for their immediate self-interest.

Our hominid ancestors learned to cooperate in order to hunt and raise families successfully. It’s true of other primates too, especially apes. Chimpanzees coordinate hunting and child rearing, share food, and demonstrate emotional sensitivities to other members of their troops. They work together to solve problems too, as this Youtube video shows:

We always strive to increase our chances for individual survival, so self-interest never leaves the equation. But the term “social Darwinism” or “Darwinian” behavior conjures up images of purely uncharitable egoism. This is a harmful misunderstanding of Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory that is often used to discredit the scientific truth of social relations in the human and animal world.

Barack, Jon, everybody—let’s not make this mistake any more! Instead, let’s politely but firmly clear things up when we hear anyone else making the same serious mistake.

© James Lull