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Darwin & Politics

Darwin’s influence is far from limited to science. His work has influenced a wide range of topics including political and economic thinking. Natural selection is based on a very simple premise: some characteristics are better for survival than others, and so are going to spread in the population. As soon as Darwin proposed his theory, people started trying to apply it to different types of human relations. Politics and science rarely mix pleasantly. Natural selection was often used to reinforce existing ideas and prejudices, by adding a thin veneer of scientific justification. Initially, we shall consider some 19th century thinking.

Economic Social Darwinism

Before Darwin ever sailed to the Galapagos Islands, economists were singing the praises of competition. In the 19th century, the emerging middle class of industrialists and bankers were anxious to attack hereditary privilege, in order to undermine the lingering power of the aristocracy. They thus argued that society should allow everyone to compete freely for power and wealth, with the most competent emerging on top, by which they meant themselves. They also said that government should not spend their taxes on helping the lower classes, as it would just give the poor less reason to compete by working hard.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon as scientific proof that fierce competition was nature’s method for improving the world. Herbert Spencer, who popularised some of Darwin’s work, coined the phase ‘the survival of the fittest’, which soon became a slogan for unrestrained and ruthless economic competition. This became known as social Darwinism. The trouble with applying natural selection to human economic relations is that the eventual goal of a capitalist is to create a monopoly, at which point competition and evolution cease.

In any case, it was a clear case of the wealthy using a scientific theory as a metaphor to justify their predatory behaviour and avoid paying more taxes. This was the age of 14 hour days for workers, with no pensions, healthcare or education. In no sense could the competition for positions be called fair, as the children of the rich inherited their wealth, giving them an immense advantage, regardless of whatever ability they might possess.

The more extreme social Darwinists believed that both abilities and flaws were largely inherited. This meant that a person’s future was largely determined from birth. The free-market economists had said that the poor should work their way out of poverty, as help would make them lazy. The social Darwinists now said that poverty and other problems were genetically determined, so nature should be allowed to remove the unfortunate, as there was no point in helping them. One advocate for this view was the economist William Sumner, who said that ‘A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things. Nature has set upon him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness.’

National Selection And Race Conflict

Natural selection involves competition between individuals, or more strictly, between genes. However, some writers were able to stretch the Darwinian metaphor even further, by suggesting that the conflict between different nations and races also involved the ‘survival of the fittest’. Walter Bagehot, in his 1872 Physics and Politics, argued that stronger nations have always conquered or destroyed their weaker neighbours, and by doing so, spread their superior cultural traits.

This alternative Social Darwinism is completely contradictory to the first form, as the economists argued for individual freedom and competition, whereas Bagehot believed that superior societies were distinguished by superior discipline and organisation. This national selection theory became more popular towards the end of the 19th century, as class animosities were increasingly obscured by extreme nationalism. The end result of this nationalist upsurge was the First World War, when the warring populations were willing to put up with almost any suffering for victory. So we can see that natural selection was twisted to add support to whatever belief became popular or convenient.

Perhaps the most revolting example of this concerns conflict between different races. 19th century colonial expansion brought Europeans into contact with many societies based on much lower technology. In Africa, the local population was first harvested for slaves, and then conquered. In America, the inhabitants were almost exterminated. Natural selection could be used to imply that such behaviour was perfectly natural and inevitable. Some attempts were made to claim that other races were less evolved than Europeans and closer to the apes. In the 20th century, the Nazis carried this perverse racial Darwinism to its logical end, when they declared that the Aryans were the master race, with all others destined to be enslaved or destroyed. Ironically, Darwinian evolution completely undermines those abominable doctrines. It is clear that we are all one species, with a common ancestor. Recent genetic research has shown that there is little genetic variation between races, with most variation not being racially linked.

Directing Evolution

By the early 20th century, people had become more accustomed to considering humans as the product of evolution. Attention began to focus on whether the human race was still evolving, and if so, in what direction. As mentioned before, some rich people justified their unwillingness to pay taxes to help the poor by arguing that their money would be wasted, as the poor were genetically inferior and incapable of improvement. However, for various reasons, poor families tended to have more children than the rich families, supposedly increasing the proportion of inferior characteristics in the population.

The social Darwinist economists believed that nature should be allowed to correct the problem with a higher death rate. Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin, was the first to argue for a more active policy. He coined the term ‘eugenics’, to describe a programme of artificial selection aimed at eliminating bad genes and improving the race. The eugenics movement began to gather support in Britain and elsewhere, particularly when it was realised that the poor health of the workers made them indifferent soldiers, thus endangering the nation.

It was of course true that, on average, the workers were less healthy than the middle and upper classes. However, this was a purely a consequence of their appalling living and working conditions. There was also a panic about increasing numbers of people diagnosed with mental health problems, who then required looking after. It turned out to be rather difficult to persuade the wealthy to have more children. Instead, the eugenicists began to push for the limiting of the reproduction of the unfit. However, it also proved difficult to persuade the poor to have fewer children.

The principle ‘success’ of the eugenics movement was to persuade several countries to pass laws to sterilise certain mental patients. In the United States alone, 60,000 people were forcibly sterilised. Eugenics began to decline in the 1930s. Firstly, scientists agreed that most characteristics in humans are affected by many genes. There was no single ‘feeble-minded’ gene or ‘criminal’ gene that could be eliminated by sterilisation. In addition, the importance of the environment on developing characteristics was recognised. If poor people do worse on intelligence tests than rich people, the obvious reason is education. Secondly, the brutal policies of the Nazis gave eugenics and social Darwinism generally a deservedly bad name.

Left, Right And Everything In Between

Social Darwinism misunderstands evolution, basing its views on the idea that nature is unsparingly ‘red in tooth and claw’. In fact Darwin recognised that cooperation was a key factor in the evolution of our own species and of others. During the evolution of humans, groups and early societies which cared for their ill, and for each other and used trade of skills and resources to cement social ties were more successful than those which were less cooperative.

It is therefore possible for both politicians from the left and from the right to claim Darwin and evolution as their own, and to claim their policies fall in line with the laws of the natural world. Of course this has nothing to do with either Darwin or evolution. Darwin’s theories were devised and evidence was accumulated to explain the biological world. The evolution of the human brain, a higher state of consciousness, and free will has, to some extent, freed humans from the demands of evolution. We no longer rely solely on instinctive behaviour, but have the capacity to make intelligent assessments of the world around us and understand how our actions affect others. There is no need to exploit Darwinism for political gain, rather the best political policies and decisions are those based on rational thought and available evidence. Just like Darwin’s theories!

Despite this politics is often discussed within an evolutionary framework; in democratic countries policies which have a long term benefit but are disadvantageous for the public in the short term are seen as promoting ‘political extinction’ whilst government interference to protect jobs and prosperity are thought to increase popularity amongst the voting public.

Written by Joe Walmswell

References & Further Reading

Evolution: The History of an Idea
by Peter Bowler, University of California Press: 1983

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, 2nd edition, 1879, as (for example)published by Penguin Classics with an introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond: 2004

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, Director John van Wyhe, Cambridge University Press

Darwin Correspondence Project, Director Jim Secord, website: