How were Charles Darwin's ideas misapplied to justify wealth disparities and deny government equalizing opportunity?

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Social thinkers, called Social Darwinists, misapplied Charles Darwin's ideas to justify massive disparities in wealth and power and to deny government a role in equalizing opportunity, and they did this by distorting Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection by arguing that existing disparities in wealth and power between humans were natural. Therefore, they argued, it was wrong for the government or anyone else to interfere with them. The weaker elements of society should be permitted to go under.

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Social Darwinism became relatively popular in intellectual circles during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, particularly in the United States. Thinkers such as the American William Charles Sumner and the Briton Herbert Spencer applied Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to human society in order to explain how it worked and how it should work.

Though adopting a scientific, value-free facade, Social Darwinism had a distinct ideological flavor about it, and as a set of ideas was used to justify enormous disparities of wealth between rich and poor and between different races, as well as to argue against any kind of role for the government in ameliorating social conditions.

To the likes of Sumner and Spencer—the latter of whom coined the phrase "survival of the fittest"—social and economic inequalities were natural, arising from differences in skill, talent, and ability. If someone was rich it was a sign that they were one of nature's higher specimens. By the same token, the poor were only poor, not because of injustice, injury, or bad luck, but because they were culturally and biologically inferior.

This meant, among other things, that it was wrong for the government to intervene and to improve the lives of the poor and dispossessed. On the contrary, they should be allowed to go under as society on the whole would benefit from the weeding out of these supposedly inferior specimens. Without its weaker elements society would be much stronger and healthier.

One gets the impression that Social Darwinists hid behind science, or rather a distorted version of science—to justify a harsh and unequal society. Individuals like Sumner and Spencer were both part of the social elite, and so it was naturally very easy for them to defend social arrangements which benefited themselves and others like them while condemning millions to squalor, idleness, and ignorance.

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It was Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" to describe Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. He, along with Thomas Malthus and Francis Galton, took the lead in applying the concept to human beings. There are obvious problems with the phrase "survival of the fittest," the most important being its tautological nature. The only way of determining who is the fittest is by observing who survives. In effect, it means "survivors survive."

The numerous campaigns for species conservation across the world demonstrate that people are not satisfied with the idea of "survival of the fittest" even in the animal kingdom. Cockroaches are plentiful, and tigers and pandas are not, but people make efforts to preserve tigers and pandas because they are beautiful and thought by many people to be worth saving. If we believed "survival of the fittest" was a sufficient principle, we would leave them to die out.

This idea, however, is used by the intellectual descendants of Spencer, Galton, and Malthus to justify disparities in wealth and discourage government intervention. The argument is that the market decides who is the fittest to survive. If you can make billions of dollars building up a company such as Amazon or Microsoft, then you must have provided enough value to the market to be worthy of these rewards. If, on the other hand, you have no skills, or no one appreciates the skills you have, then you cannot justify your existence.

One obvious misapplication of Darwin's ideas is the introduction of the language of morality and virtue into purely functional descriptions of the way things happen in the natural world. When Darwin says that the strong prey upon the weak, he is not making a value judgment that the strong are superior. This is the confusion that arises from the use of the word "fittest." The people who are best at ensuring their own survival are not necessarily, one might even argue not usually, morally superior to those who are less practical in this regard.

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In the past, social thinkers misapplied Charles Darwin's ideas to justify massive disparities in wealth and power and to deny government a role in equalizing opportunity. Why was this important, and how can it be related to the present?

Social Darwinists misapplied Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to society in a concerted attempt to justify massive disparities in wealth, power, and opportunity. In doing so, they sought to convey the impression that such differences were entirely natural rather than man-made. That being the case, they argued, there was no point in the government intervening to improve people's life-chances, or to make society more equal. Some people were rich, and others were poor; it was all just a question of superior and inferior specimens.

In giving itself the mantle of a scientific theory, Social Darwinism sought to insulate itself from criticism. After all, if a body of opinion has the status of science, then that makes it all the more difficult for it to be refuted. Moreover, a large number of trained scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries actually believed that disparities in wealth, power, and opportunity were due to the evolution of the human species. This wide body of scientific opinion helped to confer respectability upon a social and political dogma that didn't deserve it.

Though there are few, if any, Social Darwinists around today, there is still a large body of opinion on the political right that sees disparities in wealth and opportunity as being somehow natural. They may not ascribe these disparities to the workings of evolution—which many of them don't even believe in anyway—but do nonetheless treat them as if they were. That being the case, they would argue that it is unnatural, and therefore unwarranted, for government to intervene in an effort to make society fairer and more equal.

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