Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, January 07, 2005

Midgley and the evils of Spencer

While we're on the subject of Spencer, it's worth noting that Mary Midgley has fingered him as the culprit for the fundamentalist reaction against individualism in the United States, in a recent article in New Scientist (25 December 2004-1 January 2005, p. 29) entitled "On the origin of creationism".

After noting the strong Old Testament influence on early American settlers (a point first discussed, if I recall aright, at some length by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his tour of the US in the 1930s, before the Nazis had taken full control over Germany. Bonhoeffer was later hung by the SS for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler), Midgley then says
A second, less well-known ingredient is the peculiar form in which evolutionary theory reached the American public. In the 1880s, the biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer toured the US to immense acclaim, indefatigably preaching a doctrine that he claimed was Darwin's. It was actually social Darwinism, a crude application to human life of the "survival of the fittest" principle, amounting to "devil take the hindmost". Spencer regarded this principle as the driving force of evolution and hence the true guide for morals. After the tour, his works outsold those of all other philosophers in the US for a decade, and his simple-minded, competitive individualism has remained powerful there ever since.
I am a bit nonplussed at this. Recently I picked up another of Spencer's works on politics - The Man versus the State (1881, I have the 1969 Penguin edition), and it seemed to me he was neither simple minded, nor entirely individualistic, in his critique of English politics. He was clearly a Whig, or Liberal (a term Americans seem to have redefined to mean something very different than Mill or Spencer thought it meant), yes, and a laisse faire economist. And there is an element of individualism in Spencer's ideas. But I wonder if it is true or fair to say either that he was a social Darwinian in the way Midgley suggests, or that he was as influential as all that in firming up the United States' urban economic ideals.

America was the land of the rugged individual long before Spencer. In fact, it is arguable that there ever even was a social Darwinian movement as such. Certainly historian Robert Bannister argued that the similarity was more apparent than real and that those who are called social Darwinians are ususally just being chastised for not agreeing with the one doing the labeling. There was a social Darwinian in my view - just one, named William Graham Sumner, an economist and political theorist at Yale, already in the US. Social Darwinism seems to be a home-grown American philosophy, which might explain why Spencer's rather less harsh philosophy was both received well there, and preferred over the local product. Sumner had a "devil take the hindmost" philosophy. Spencer did not.

And is it really the case that this is what caused creationism and Christian fundamentalism, as Midgley claims? Not according to those who deal with creationism, it isn't. Ronald Numbers, in his books The Creationists and Darwinism Comes to America discusses the actual causes. One major figure who contributed to the rise of fundamentalism, George Wright, is likely, thinks Numbers, to have become a fundamentalist because he was reacting to the rise of Higher Criticism, a movement that did come from England to America (although of course it was a European, largely German, invention). Similarly, fundamentalism arises in the South more than the North, and it appears to have a single major feature - a reaction against the modern world.

You don't need to posit a special influence from Darwinism (social or otherwise) or any other single aspect of the modern world - it is modernism itself for which literalism and fundamentalism are invented to deal with.

A friend, Mike Syvanen, once suggested that the reason cults share such obviously false ideas is that they insulate the followers against the rest of the world. Creationists can only talk to other creationists, and so it reinforces the solidarity of the community. In terms of the social evolution I favour, creationism is a fitter belief in the density-dependent selection of ideas than openness to science. this makes a kind of sense, I think - given the use of ideas to generate social identity, and the fact that a certain percentage of folks are going to be less adaptable to changes in society than others, something like antimodernism is going to generate things like creationism without any boost from a specific source like Spencer.

Bannister, Robert C. 1988. Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought, American civilization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Original edition, 1979.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1992. The creationists. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1998. Darwinism comes to America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spencer, Herbert, and Donald Gunn MacRae. 1969. The man versus the state: with four essays on politics and society. Harmondsworth,: Penguin.