A final word on Social Darwinism (and misunderstanding a blog!)

Recently I blogged here about Social Darwinism. My main point was that Social Darwinism is incompatible with Christianity. Somehow that launched some readers into a series of assumptions and comments based on them. They assumed that I was attacking capitalism. That’s instructive to me. Do some people interpret any criticism of Social Darwinism as criticism of capitalism? I certainly hope not, but so it seems.

True, I’m not a fan of unregulated, unrestrained capitalism. I don’t call myself a socialist because of the connotations of that term. But I am an advocate of a mixed economy.

HOWEVER (yes, now I’m shouting) I don’t understand how some otherwise quite reasonable people leaped to the conclusion that my post was about capitalism. I didn’t even comment on capitalism per se. I was criticizing a Christian editor for recommending Darwinian economics. SURELY there can be justifications for capitalism that don’t entangle with Social Darwinism. (I call it “Social Darwinism” because the editor clearly was not referring to biological Darwinism.)

Does anyone here want to defend Social Darwinism as compatible with Christianity? Anticipating the objection that government is totally separate from Christianity, let me ask it this way, then. Does anyone want to defend a Christian recommending Social Darwinism as the basis for public policy?

That was my other point in the post–to suggest that too many Christians bifurcate between their Christianity and other areas of their lives including what they believe about public policy. It’s one thing to defend capitalism, it’s something else to recommend it because of “Darwinism” (which in this context can only mean Social Darwinism).

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  • Roger, I enjoyed you article on Social Darwinianism. Your rejoinder to negative comments uncovered one of the true issues of our day. Due to the training received, mostly informal, from the media (and blogging is part of that group now) individuals prefer to determine their opinion of a report based on “key words” that create in them a positive or negative response. Thanks for taking the time to “SHOUT OUT” to your readers that if they want to follow your blog on Arminianism they need to prepare to read well constructed comments rather than short, meaningless blurbs. Way to go!!!

  • OBieOne

    I am curious to know when social Darwinism stopped being a comment on the evolution of society and became an economic theory. Social Darwinism served as a justification for the assumption of what was known as the “white man’s burden.” Darwin’s thinking proved a good rationalization for colonialism. Following biological evolution’s ideas, people of the late 19th and early 20th century saw it as applicable to societal evolution. Heavily informed by technology (listen to the ironically brilliant “Everything’s up to Date in Kansas City” from the musical “Oklahoma”) the West was seemingly more highly evolved and bore the burden of bringing civilization to the uncivilized of the world. Now we have a old, but catchy, name for another bad idea about an economic world that is “red in tooth and claw.”

    • rogereolson

      One entertaining attempt to answer your question is in the book and film series The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke. In one of the later episodes he begins with Darwin’s biological discoveries and theories and ends with three applications of “survival of the fittest” (Herbert Spencer’s phrase) to ideologies: American laissez faire capitalism, German national socialism and Russian Leninist communism. I think you can see the episode on youtube, but I’m not sure. Burke mentions late 19th century and early 20th century theorists of Social Darwinism.

  • gingoro

    For me a good deal of the essence of Darwinism is that a living entity is changed or modified in some way and the off spring of that entity is then tested against the environment. If the offspring reproduces then the process is usually repeated over and over again with additional changes. Of course in biological evolution the process of modification occurs without any intelligence or foresight unless one holds to some form of Intelligent Design.

    Today we had a failure of the Space X rocket to liftoff. So what will happen is that the engineers will study what went wrong and likely they will make some change in the system to correct whatever the problem was. Modification of the procedures used by the mission controllers,the software, the hardware or the propellant are likely changes that come to mind. Once these changes are made they will again try for launch with hopefully better results.

    In terms of economic activity the same cycle of try some new organization or service whatever, test it, improve it and try again seems to me to be eminently reasonable and compatible with Christian belief. BUT two factors (at least) need to be considered in the economic realm. The first is that the individuals involved are humans made in God’s image and as such there needs to be at least a minimal social safety net. The second is that all the individuals have a tendency to evil and sin and therefore need to have a certain amount of regulation to curb and control their appetites.

    I suspect that there are other definitions of Social Darwinism that may well not be compatible with Christianity. I know at least one philosopher who argues against any kind of analogy to Darwinism by any other area of study or activity because in almost all cases the element of random change and self reproduction that is part of biological Darwinism is missing, I disagree and we have agreed to disagree. My field was large complex software systems and I can not think of any such system that has been developed without using the iterative trial and error process that I described above.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me the trial-and-error process you describe is simply the modern scientific method (which Darwin used). Social Darwinism is generally understood to take the idea of “survival of the fittest” (from Herbert Spencer who thought he was faithfully describing Darwin’s idea of natural selection) and apply it to social policy. By the way, the news about Space X is especially interesting to me as I have endured months of listening to Space X’s rocket engine testing about 20 miles away. Our family room has a large (wall size) picture window facing our back yard. It absorbs and projects into the family room the sound of the rocket engines when they are being tested. It sounds like a sustained rumble of loud thunder when there’s not a cloud in the sky and they have did it almost nightly at around 9:30 PM for some reason!

  • John C. Gardner

    I totally agree with your observations Dr. Olson about Social Darwinism and Christianity. We need to remember that even though we may as Americans disagree about how to care for the poor and hungry we are obligated to do so. We need to commit are financial resources, time and talents to help others. We also need to support governmental policies that assist others around the world. Thus, we need to follow Christ and serve like John Wesley, William Wilberforce and others.