D.S. Wilson is on a quest to ‘rescue’ Social Darwinism and restore the term to respectability. Although this is now old news, I still think it is worth taking some time to discuss the implications and potential unintended consequences of this agenda.
First, I should state clearly that I do believe it is an admirable goal to attempt to readdress the various inaccuracies surrounding the history of Darwinian evolution and to reaffirm that the theory holds potential relevance to human sociality. But what I remain unconvinced of is Wilson’s contention that to use and defend the “face value definition” of Social Darwinism will help to achieve such aims.
The academic world can often seem like a bubble but with evolution research the academic and non-academic worlds frequently collide, due to religiously inspired opposition to the theory. This is especially the case in the US where there are various well funded anti-evolution movements and organisations, such as the infamous (and misleadingly named) Discovery Institute. I mention this because I think evolutionary theorists should be mindful that they are working in the unusual context of having a hostile, organised opposition that is actively seeking opportunities to attack evolution and influence how it is perceived by the public. And it is precisely because of this context, that I think D.S. Wilson’s admirable goals could prove to have rather disastrous consequences.
Regardless of the historic facts of precisely how the term Social Darwinism became popular, the fact remains that the term is now established in the common vernacular and it is loaded with associations of racism, cruelty, and the pseudo scientific concept of ranking human ‘races’ on a ladder of progress. As a result, even if we ignore the ideological critics of evolution, we are left with a public who are unlikely to look kindly on attempts to rebrand what is widely perceived as a racist ideology. To expect anything different would be to deny what we know about fundamental psychological biases and the modern world’s penchant for outrage and witch-hunts.
Due to this, I feel that D.S. Wilson’s efforts to restore Social Darwinism to respectability are akin to dubbing a political movement ‘New’ National Socialism and arguing that this is reclaiming a term that the Nazi’s misappropriated. Although such an argument could be factually correct, it would invite reactions wherein critics labelled these efforts to establish a ‘New’ National Socialism as apologetics representing a modern repackaging a harmful ideology. Such sentiments could be easily stoked as all opponents would need is to invoke the established associations with a well known term, whereas those advocating ‘New’ National Socialism would be battling to establish new associations, while simultaneously distancing themselves from ‘Old’ National Socialism. Whether or not the negative reaction would be justified is besides the point, the association would be poisonous to any legitimate political agenda.
The parallels between this example and efforts to rehabilitate Social Darwinism are self evident and I can’t help but conclude that as a result such efforts are pragmatically ill advised and ultimately doomed to fail. Furthermore, pursuing this agenda could actually prove harmful to the public perception of ‘evolution’ and evolution research.
To explain why, take a look at the image below:
This is a still shot from the Creationist/Intelligent Design advocacy movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed showing the narrator, Ben Stein, staring down a statue of Darwin. Why is he staring down Darwin’s statue? It’s not just because Ben Stein disagrees with Darwin’s theory, it’s because throughout the whole movie there is a constant attempt made to link evolutionary theory with Social Darwinism. Hence, Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps are a recurrent motif and various interviewees attempt to elaborate how Darwin and evolution were the ultimate motivations driving Hitler and the Holocaust.
The film was poorly received and seems to have won few new converts to the anti-evolution cause. But my point in mentioning it is that there have already been attempts by opponents of evolution to try and link modern evolutionary theory with Social Darwinism. But what such critics have typically lacked is any evidence of modern day evolutionary theorists endorsing Social Darwinism . D.S. Wilson and colleagues are changing that and in arguing for how Social Darwinism has been misunderstood and needs to be brought back to ‘respectability’ they are providing exactly the sort of material that can be easily quote-mined to demonstrate that modern evolutionary theorists do endorse Social Darwinism.
I might just be pessimistic, as so far I haven’t noticed any intelligent design advocates take note of Wilson’s efforts. And the articles that have followed on from Wilson’s announcement have provided interesting, historically informed accounts. However, I can’t shake that niggling feeling that Wilson’s devotion to his ideals and his well established tendency to defend the use of controversial terminology will have unintended negative consequences. Pragmatically, it also seems that if you want to promote the relevance of evolutionary theory to modern society then a good first step should be to abandon usage of a term that invites negative (perhaps unjustified) associations with a pseudoscientific and racist legacy.