The obvious as well as the ideal place from which to begin a consideration both of social Darwinism and of evolutionary ethics is the work of Charles Darwin and the ideas he developed and presented in On the Origin of Species (1859), which advocates both of social Darwinism and of evolutionary ethics have tried to apply more widely. This is not, of course, to say that Darwin had no intellectual ancestors, any more than it is to say that biological theory has stood still since his death. To say or to suggest either of these things would be wrong.
It would not even be true to say that nothing was published with any claim to the label “evolutionary ethics” until after the first appearance of On the Origin of Species. Herbert Spencer was strictly correct when, in the general preface to The Principles of Ethics, he claimed that the “doctrine of organic evolution” as it applied to humans had come earlier than that. Spencer was on this occasion referring to his Social Statics, first issued at the end of 1850 and containing an outline of the ethical ideas he was about to develop. He could also have claimed, and elsewhere did claim, to have been the first to use the notion of the “survival of the fittest” in an evolutionary context, in an article in the Westminster Review for 1852.
The very phrase a “struggle for existence,” which epitomizes the gladiatorial view of human life so often taken to be the true moral to be drawn from On the Origin of Species, is to be found already, in a similar context, in 1798, in what should be called “the first essay of Malthus on The Principle of Population,” in order to distinguish it from the substantially different work Malthus issued in 1803 as if it were merely a second edition. Darwin himself acknowledges his debt to this first essay of Malthus in On the Origin of Species. Nevertheless, after all due cautions have been given, it is On the Origin of Species that is, and must be, the reference point here. It was the ideas of that work which the forerunners foreran. It was the triumph in biology of the theory that it presented which lends vicarious prestige to whatever can be put forward as Darwinism.
Since many sharp things need to be said about some particular sorts of attempts to develop an evolutionary ethic, it becomes important to emphasize from the beginning that the desires to connect, to see microcosms in relation to the macrocosm, are in themselves excellent; and certainly, they should be shared and not despised by anyone who aspires to the title of “philosopher.” It is therefore neither surprising nor discreditable that in every generation since Darwin, some of the liveliest and least blinkered of students of biology have wanted to explore the possibility of connections between Darwinian evolution and ethics.
The main reason why professional philosophers are apt very brusquely to dismiss all such efforts is that we mistake it that they must involve the committing of what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy.” The nerve of this fallacy is the attempt to deduce a conclusion about what either ought to be or ought to have been the case from premises stating only, in morally neutral terms, what either actually is or actually was the case. Once this fallacy has been recognized for what it is, it may seem that with evolutionary ethics, this is both the heart of the matter and the end of the affair.
This is not good enough. Certainly, the first necessity when a logical fallacy has been committed is to show what was going wrong in that particular case and then perhaps to reinforce the lesson by citing a few further cases of committing the same fallacy in various other areas of discourse. But to stop there would be to fail to appreciate that the source of the very idea of an evolutionary ethic, which Darwin himself did not accept, lies in On the Origin of Species. The danger of Darwin’s pointedly paradoxical expression “natural selection,” and this danger has often been realized, is that it can mislead people to overlook that this sort of selection is blind and nonrational, which is precisely the point. Once this point is missed, it is easy, especially if you are already apt to see nature as a mentor, to go on to take natural selection as a sort of supreme court of normative appeal—and this despite, or in many cases doubtless because of, the time-serving character of the criterion of fitness by which this sort of selection operates. Such ideas may then be, and often have been, regarded as the biological application of the Hegelian slogan, “World history is the world’s court of judgment.”
These apotheoses of natural selection take many forms. Perhaps the most interesting and important of such misconceptions, and one from which Darwin himself was not altogether free, is that the deductive argument that was the core of his theory proves some sort of law of progressive development. Thus, Darwin concludes his chapter on instincts with the sentence: “Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster brothers, ants making slaves… not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings—namely multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”
Again in the penultimate paragraph of the whole book, Darwin writes: “As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendents of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch we may feel certain that . . . no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”
The first of these two passages is not, perhaps, as clear and explicit as one could wish. But in the light of the unhesitating concluding sentence of the second, we may perhaps take it that “what may not be a logical deduction” is not the “one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings,” but rather its implications as regards the more unattractive instincts. Certainly Darwin here was offering natural selection as a guarantee of progress and as both a descriptive and a prescriptive law. Equally certain is that this guarantee was not in fact warranted by his theory. Indeed, neither of the conclusions of this second passage can be justified as deductions from the theory alone.
The first was, on the evidence available to Darwin, an entirely reasonable inductive extrapolation. It is only since the beginning of the atomic era that we humans have acquired any grounds for anxiety about the survival prospects of our own species. The second conclusion never was justified. To choose is necessarily to exclude, and there would seem to be no reason at all, and certainly none within the theory, for saying of every individual who loses out in the struggle for existence that that must be for its own good. Applied not to individuals but to species, the statement might seem to find some justification in the now notorious fact that most actual variations are unfavorable. But because survival is, in theory, the criterion of fitness, and hence of what counts as favorable, the only good that is guaranteed is the survival of whatever makes for survival; and this good is not necessarily good by any independent standard.
Although we would be mistaken if we believed that Darwin’s theory implies a general law of progressive development, the idea that it does has been perennially tempting. Since it surely is the case that in every epoch of the fossil record, fresh possibilities of life have been realized, and since it also seems that the most complex of these in each epoch have been more elaborate than the most sophisticated achievements of the previous period, and since we ourselves are among the latest products of such development, it is easy to pick out a trend that we can scarcely regard as anything but progressive.
To pick out a progressive trend is, of course, made still easier if we allow ourselves to misconstrue in a normative sense the paleontologists’ purely spatiotemporal use of the terms “higher” and “lower” to characterize first the strata and then the creatures that first appear in those strata. It was not for nothing that Darwin pinned into his copy of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation the memorandum slip, “Never use the words higher and lower.”
Once a trend has been thus identified it may seem a short step from a trend to the trend, another equally short step from the trend to a law of tendency, and so again finally, from a law of tendency to a universal overriding law of development. This slippery slope is greased by the fact, first, that the crucial mechanism is called natural selection or the survival of the fittest and, second, that the core of Darwin’s theory is a deductive argument that certainly does prove that natural selection is operating and is therefore ensuring the survival of the fittest.
But a trend is a very different thing from a law of tendency. There is a trend if there has been a direction in the development so far, whether or not there is any reason to think that things will continue to develop along this line. But to assert a law of tendency is to say that something always has occurred and always will occur, except in so far as this tendency was or will be inhibited by some overriding force. Furthermore, a law of tendency is a very different thing from an absolute law of development. The former may obtain even though the tendency in question is never in fact fully realized; the first law of motion and Malthus’s principle of population are not disproved by the observations that in fact there always are impressed forces and countervailing checks. But an absolute law of development would state that some particular line of evolution is absolutely inevitable, that it neither will or would be prevented by any counteracting causes.
Darwin himself seems never to have gone further than to suggest (as in the two passages already quoted) that his theory might warrant a conclusion of the first and weaker kind: that there is in the evolution of all living things an inherent tendency to progress. It was left to others reviewing evolutionary biology in the light of their own various preconceptions about the (supposedly) predestined lines of nonhuman development to discern in Darwinism the deeper foundation for, or the wider background of, their own supposedly discovering absolute laws of human progress.
By far the most interesting and most important case is that of the two most famous young Hegelians, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In his preface to the first German edition of Das Kapital, Marx wrote, “When a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement—and it is the ultimate aim of this work to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society—it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs.” And in his speech at Marx’s graveside, Engels claimed, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”
The crucial distinctions between actual trends, laws of tendency, and absolute laws of development can be instructively applied to the writings of two 20th-century British social Darwinists: Julian Huxley, who, after first acquiring his Fellowship of the Royal Society as a result of his biological research, eventually went on to become the first director of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), and Joseph Needham, who, after first acquiring his Fellowship of the Royal Society in the same way, went on, with considerable assistance from Chinese colleagues, to produce his massive study, Science and Civilization in Ancient China.
Huxley in a famous essay on “Progress, Biological and Other” quoted one of the sentences from Darwin we have just quoted: “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” It is, I think, clear that Huxley, if pressed, would never claim to be revealing more than a law of tendency, and usually only an actual trend.
Huxley starts by urging that the most fundamental need of man as man is “to discover something, some being or power, some force or tendency… moulding the destinies of the world—something not himself, greater than himself, with which [he can] harmonize his nature…repose his doubts …achieve confidence and hope.” He then offers “to show how the facts of evolutionary biology provide us, in the shape of a verifiable doctrine of progress, with one of the elements most essential to any such externally-grounded conception of God.” He later concludes that “the fact of progress emerging from pain and imperfection . . . is an intellectual prop which can support the distressed and questioning mind, and be incorporated into the common theology of the future.”
Although Julian Huxley is certainly not adequately insistent upon the first crucial distinction between an actual trend and a force, he does in the following essay on “Biology and Sociology” fairly clearly repudiate the suggestion that the actual progressive direction of development to be discerned in evolutionary biology and elsewhere necessarily reveals an absolute law of progressive development: “When we look into the trend of biological evolution, we find as a matter of fact that it has operated to produce on the whole what we find good …This is not to say that progress is an inevitable “law of nature,” but that it has actually occurred ” This strongest idea of a law of inevitable development, rejected by Huxley, is in fact urged, eloquently and unequivocally, by Joseph Needham in two books of essays, Time: The Refreshing River and History Is on Our Side. Much of their interest for us lies in the attempted synthesis of biological science, Marxist historical pseudoscience, and ritualistic Christian religion. For the author was at the time of writing a leading biochemist, an active member of the Communist Party, and a practicing Christian.
Thus, Needham was able to write that the historical process was the organizer of the City of God. “The new world-order of social justice and comradeship, the rational and classless world state, is not a wild idealistic dream, but a logical extrapolation from the whole course of evolution, having no less authority than that behind it, and therefore of all faiths the most rational.”
- Farber, P. L. (1998). The temptations of evolutionary ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Katz, L. D. (Ed.). (2000). Evolutionary origin of morality: Cross-disciplinary perspectives. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.
- Nitecki, M. H., & Nitecki, D. V. (1993). Evolutionary ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Thompson, P. (Ed.). (1995). Issues in evolutionary ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.