Social Darwinism, its misinterpertations and realities

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posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 10:00 AM
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Social Darwinism, depending on who you are, your politics, and your knowledge of history, this single phrase may conjure up loathing, applause, mirth, sarcasim, incredulity or introspection. It has been used as an excuse for racism, and repression, and as an explanation for the so called power elite. For those of you unfamilar with the term It was orginally coined by Herbert Spencer shortly after Chares Darwin's seminal work "on the orgn of species" and was billed by many as the logical application of scientific principles to social theory. At its core social darwinism as orignally coined was the idea that "survval of the fittest was as true in human society as it was in biology. The idea being that those who rose to the upper echelons of society were some how genetically gifted and or superior to those who were poor and disadvanteged. Social darwinism has been used to justify the crmes of the robber barons in the early 19th century and was also a basic tenet of hitlers "aryan superiority" theory.

The problem with what on the surface seems to be a straightforward and in truth rational theory (that those who succeed have an advantage over those who do not) is that it is based on a basic misinterpertation of darwins theory of speciation and of the theory of evolution in general. This misinterpertation stems from the phrase "survival of the fittest" The theory of evolution, contrary to most peoples belief, is not that competition with other species causes adaptation but rather that competion with members of ones own species causes adaptation, after all who are you more likely to be in competition with for resources than other members of your species who need the exact same resources. As an examples examine the complex relationship between wolves and deer. Contrary to popular beef deer did not evolve thier speed to outrun the wolves that prey upon them, rather thier speed evolved to enable the individuals to outrun other deer in thier species. (when being chased by a predator it is not necessry to be able to outrun the predator it is only necessary to be able to outrun the slowest member of your own species) Those individuals that were able to outrun other members of thier own species were able to survive long enough to procreate while those who could not were eaten and did not breed.

The scond flaw in reasoning which has lead to the misuse of Social Darwinism is the idea of what precisly is meant by "fittest" Those of the victorian and early industrial age were under the misconception that fitness was a constant factor which was consistant in all situations. The truth of social darwinism is not that those who succeed are more fit to succeed but rather that they are more fit to succeed within the parameters of the society they live in. While this may seem like a small point it is in fact a hugely important one. As an example let us take a success story of modern american society, in this case Bill Gates, and transplant him from his own society where his skills and abillities are highly valued, and place him into a society which is vastly different, in this case a tribe of bushmen in africa. Though the skills he has learned coupled with his natural abillities has sttod him well in our society his lack of naturally good vision, and other less than ideal physical traits would make him a drain on a society which is based on the hunter gatherer paradigm. As we can see by this thought experiment the traits which make one successful in one type of society do not necessarily make on successful in another type of society, which means that while no one can deny that societal competition does ensure that those who rise to positions of power in a society are most fit to survive in that society we can not say that it is because of any fundamental superiority but rather do to circumstansial superiority.

Now that we have cleared the misconceptions of Social darwinism we must now address the realites of social darwinism. All societies that exist on earth have some type of competition between members of those societies for resources. Though the nature of the economic theory of that society will, to an extent, determine how fervent that competition is, and what form of resources members are competing for, in no form of society can that basic competition be removed. Even in communistic societies in which the competition is not over economic gain there is still competion over political currency. As an example in the soviet union while all citizens were given the basic essentials of life I.E. food water etc. those who gained political power were more able to ensure thier survival and the survival of thier offspring in times of hardship just as in capitalstic societies the rich are better able to ensure thier survival and that of thier offspring.

Just as within a species the competition for survival amongst the individual members of that species contributes to the overall success of the species as a whole, the competition between members of a society contributes to the survival of that society as a whole. In addition the greater the competition between individuals the greater the chances that species or society will be able to compete with other species or societies. As an example allow me to return to the deer analogy I used earlier, because the competiton between individual deer was great the species as a whole was able to flourish. Had the pressure not been as great, I.E. no wolves or other fast predators the competition to evolve would not have been as great and as a result the species would be less well equipped to survive. One need only look at the effects a species which had great evolutionary pressure placed upon it has when it comes in contact wth similar species whos evolutionary pressure was lesser as in the case of the introduction of the Africanised honey bee to the americas and its effect on the native bee populaton.

Relating this to modern society to is easy to see why the U.S. was able to bring the U.S.S.R. to financial ruin by forcing it to spend at the same rate as the U.S. in the arms race of the cold war. Because the competition for the top spots in the American economic structure was so much greater than the competition for the top spots in the poltical structure in the U.S.S.R it is easy to see why the U.S.S.R. was doomed to economic collapse. (the fact that economic competition is more valueable to a society than poltical competition had a lot to do with it as well) This also explains why the U.S. has been able to achieve a dominant position on the world stage today as the competion for resources in america is far more competitive than in most countries worldwide. (allthough the U.S.'s landmass, resources, and poulation size are also major factors.)

A true understanding of Social Darwinism and any serious thought about it's implications will lead most ratonal people to conclude that by reducing the level of competition in a society, socialist programs are in fact weakening that societies abillity to survive conflict and strife. The lack of such europen concepts as universal healthcare and statefunded retirement as well as the comparitive dearth of welfare and unemployment programs in the U.S., when viewed in this light, show themselves to be, contrary to popular belief, strengths rather than weaknesses.

However it must be noted that the principle of Social Darwinism applies only so long as the competition between members creates value for the society as a whole. If that competition degrades that society, (for example if the only way to succeed is to kill, maim, or succeed through violence to other members of that society) Then that competition achieves the opposite effect. An example of this can be illustrated by an examination of Saddam era Iraq. In that society the only way to advance was to please the dictator, which most often happened by exposing (falsely or accuratley) traitors and or threats to hs regime, or by acting as a tool of his wrath. In the afore mentoned example competition resulted in survival of the toadyist as opposed to survival of the fittest. Unfortuntley this always seems to be the case in dictatorial or opressisive regimes.

In summary the key to a successful society is to recognise that competition is not only inevitable but, if harnessed properly , benefecial.




posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 10:19 AM
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Not TOTALLY disagreeing here but arguing about terms i am afraid...


Competition is a myth and definately not "natural", once you have fullfilled yourself you could't care less what happens to other people. Just look at the sense of solidarity in the west... it just isn't there.
Why? Coz once YOU are happy and content the world can go #@$% itself.

Jealousy on the other hand is natural. When you are in need and you see others in comfort... well you start to crave... and will do ANYTHING to get it.

Now the ideologues have turned this jealousy into "competition", we are suppsoed to look up to those that have more and want more too, want it so bad that we will do ANYTHING to get it. Like commit crime for example...

Self-fulfillment is natural, jealousy too... this "competition" has been bred into us over the last 500 odd years, since we started on this capitalism venture.

Not TOTALLY disagreeing here but arguing about terms i am afraid...



posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 10:22 AM
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Corinthas you are competing everytime you go on a date, a job interview,or go to the mall whlie a sale is on. Individals compete for money, power, sex, grades,etc. So given that competition is present in allmost everythng we do I find it amusing you think its a myth.

[edit on 22-9-2004 by mwm1331]



posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 01:16 PM
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Well in a sense as you mentioned it is not some single type of ideal individual but an aglomeration of various traits that are distributed diffusely through a population or species.
Classic [rather ignorant] Social Darwinism implied some 'aryan' or other ideal single individual, but infact we exist in context of our species, and not to Pollyanna it, but it really does take different strokes for different folks. Robust survival of a species depends on diversity.

As the recently illustrated example of finches in the Galapagos, where two beak types exist within a species. Big beak and small beak. Most the time the small beaks flourish and the big beaks really struggle, but when El Nino hit and the island was in drought the regular food supply died off the only food left was edible only by the big beaks. So the species necessarily to insure it's survival has to have both traits in individuals, but with only one trait being expressed. Usually it is in some proportion that historically optimized the species for survival. ie. 60-40, 20-80, etc.

I believe as you say there are better thinkers, better talkers, more persuasive, more inventive individuals, sociopaths, comedians as well as probably a somewhat larger number of people who tend to act and think in a tradition only manner. Again it probably optimizes the utilization of the balance between known/traditional methods of survival and the aggregation of new ideas and ways of living.

The trouble with Social Darwinism makes it sound like those on top [read distinct in] of society are actually more important than those in the mass of a society. This is fundamentally inaccurate. The people on top are only on top as a relative position to those below. But it probably feeds the ego mechanism for the people 'on top' to think they are superior and makes them feel empowered to do those things that are different from everyone else. Without which they might not do those unique things which our [human] evolution has 'learned' are best for this species.

Robust genetics is very multidimensional too. one person may have a bigger heart, another longer legs, better eyesight or hearing, one more body mass, one less, more body fat , or less, different pigmentations, as well as the more subtle social, psychological, and intellectual traits. I suspect as harsh as it may sound some people may actually be 'designed' to be less visually appealling or less mentally adroit. Sexual promiscuity creates more and more diverse offspring, prudishness prevents the spread of commnicable diseases. Think about how these kinds of behavior are controlled/affected by our mental attitudes and social interactions. Most traits are a rainbow of possiblities between two polar extremes.

'Social Darwinism' is actually nothing to do with development of a species, it is a mechanism for some people who are different/unusual to feel ego empowered to continue to hold themselves somewhat separate and still continue. It is also probably inate in some people to subordinate themselves to various degrees to these different 'elite' people.

It does two things, it puts eggs in multiple baskets and allows a kind of leverage for the species of intelligence and technological advancement.

While some traits do seem to carry along family inheritance, in fact most of these more 'exotic' mental/social traits are pretty well distributed through out the population and therefore pop up in seemingly random individuals.

My philosophy is borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr. , If you are a streetsweeper be the best streetsweeper you can be, in other words put your whole self into your life. You will find more total joy in it, and if there is an opportunity for advancement you are more likely to get it, or better make your own. For every element of society, if you have loved what you are doing/living what more can there be? Love the Universe you are in, don't wait for some mythical Universe you have no evidence of.
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posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 01:56 PM
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Originally posted by Corinthas
Not TOTALLY disagreeing here but arguing about terms i am afraid...


Competition is a myth and definately not "natural",


How do you figure it's not natural?? Are you telling me even animal don't fight over terrirtory or food?? I'm sorry, but humans are no different... It is natural my dear.


once you have fullfilled yourself you could't care less what happens to other people. Just look at the sense of solidarity in the west... it just isn't there.


WRONG... OH SO WRONG!!!!
where do you get your information from? That book or person seems like they'd be kind of fun to hang around with!
Mazlow's theory still is true to this day. I'm sorry but I see it all the time. Once people fulfill their basic needs and self actualization phases, it's natural to help other people out. I see unity all the time. I see people caring for others, helping them out, giving guidance, ect... IT'S THERE...



Why? Coz once YOU are happy and content the world can go #@$% itself.


Are you self projecting?? Maybe YOU think the world can go # itself since you got that oh so caring attitude toward other human beings who AREN'T LIKE YOU.


Jealousy on the other hand is natural. When you are in need and you see others in comfort... well you start to crave... and will do ANYTHING to get it.


Really? huh, I didn't know that... Maybe your own personal opinion is what you just said... Tell me, what kinds of things have to done to "get" what other people have? you said people will do anything.. Well I haven't, has any other person on here?? Seems like you maybe the only one, so please do share...


Now the ideologues have turned this jealousy into "competition", we are suppsoed to look up to those that have more and want more too, want it so bad that we will do ANYTHING to get it. Like commit crime for example...


Again, thats some not all.... There's always going to be jealous people, and criminal minds in this world... Don't generalize sweetie.


Self-fulfillment is natural, jealousy too... this "competition" has been bred into us over the last 500 odd years, since we started on this capitalism venture.


Capitalism?? Don't you mean a free market?? I'm sorry again, but in a capitalistic society you have the chance to invent something, to work for yourself, to make as much or as less money as you want... It's called personal responsibility, maybe people are jealous of others because they have more of a drive... I don't think capitalism has anything to do with people's attitudes... I think people get their attitudes from their parents... If your parents are losers, chances are you'll probably become one too... It has nothing to do with capitalism...



posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 03:19 PM
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Originally posted by mwm1331
However it must be noted that the principle of Social Darwinism applies only so long as the competition between members creates value for the society as a whole. If that competition degrades that society, (for example if the only way to succeed is to kill, maim, or succeed through violence to other members of that society) Then that competition achieves the opposite effect.


Well put mwm1331 - a very well-worded and thought-out post...I couldn't agree more with the points you have hi-lighted here in this thread, especially the own quoted above...I do believe the term is often loosely used and frequently misunderstood by the general public - today, it seems to be more of a catch phrase for those who truly seem to think that they know what they're talking about.

[edit on 9/23/2004 by EnronOutrunHomerun]



posted on Sep, 22 2004 @ 10:30 PM
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I find it dubious that there would be no competition over economic supremacy in a communist system as opposed to a capitalist system.
Comparing the economies of the Soviet union and America is like comparing apples and oranges or like comparing the performance of a drag racer and a station wagon. Russia was never a wealthy country at least not by the standards of the west. the united states bragging about beating the Soviets economically is about on par with a twenty year old bragging about beating up a twelve year old. The fact that the soviets managed to compete at all speaks volumes about the effectiveness of communism as an economic system. Its like India all of a sudden giving Japan a run for their money in the tech development field.

But hey what do I know right?



posted on Sep, 23 2004 @ 02:37 AM
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Slank - Exactly correct, unfortunately msinterpertations of Social Darwinism has been used as a justificton for opression and as a way of strokng the ego of the rich. I agree that diversity is necessary for the survival of both species and societies. While those who are rich do have an advatage in the social-economic culture that they live in they are not superior in any fundamental way just better at making the most of the system they are in at that time. If that system were to change in a fundamental way then those who are less succesful could very well take a positon of dominance. Those at the top are in a very limited sense more important in that they are more important in that specific system. However what is important regardless of the system is the competition itself.

Boogyman - the point I was making n reference to russia was that both America and russia had competition for dominant positions the difference being tht in russia the competition was for political power while in America the domnance was for economic power. Due to the communist system it was impossible for russians to gin power through trade or economics the only route to power was through the party.



posted on Sep, 23 2004 @ 11:41 AM
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Maybe one can think of a species as a plastic flow of population, as in a 'lava lamp'. Where the mass of a population may cleave and form a new subspecies or two separately evolving (sub?)species. Traditionally this has happened with any number of species cleaved by geographic locations and eventual enviornmental differentiations. With our global transiting of the world I rather suspect humanity is/will becoming somewhat homogenous.

Social Darwinism implies that a 'single' individual or exceedingly small minority in isolation are superior to the originating species itself and change, alter or lead the species, but in reality they probably wouldn't have sufficient numbers to affect the species or create their own. Which is why it is much more sophistry and an internal social mechanism than an aspect of species evolution. Social stratification may be a species development/advancement and the 'myth' of Social Darwinism works to enable this.

Changing a given species or creating a new subspecies would require a sizable number of individuals taking on or exhibiting a unique trait.

Social Darwinism is very external in nature. A lot of it is about show. Not to say this in our species and other higher species is not important, especially in attracting a mate and aquiring resources. It is the sheer arbitrariness and variety of these shows and displays that i believe create most of what we call human culture. These things also affect our mind developement as a species. So the 'myth' of Social Darwinism does help to evolve the species along more sophisticated mental capabilites, but in fact the fundamental underlying aspects of a species HAVE to be there to support a species. You cant live on a smile, intellectual stimulation, it also takes some food, water, and shelter and clothing help too.

Social Darwinsm - is almost an oxymoron isn't it? Darwinism is about Genetics and Society is an artifice of our sophisticated thinking. Societies are exceedingly ephemeral and shortlived. Think of all the little gold rush towns in the US West that sprang up with Opera houses, Libraries, Saloons and sizable populations and then when the gold played out disappeared and became ghost towns. Genetics is a tangible physical working mechanism of biology. Societies come and Societies go in ever changing variety, Genetics actually has a corporeal function to it. The interesting aspect of this to my thinking is the sheer adaptability of our minds to complete changes in physical and social environments.

Ancillary ideas/questions:
Anyone else think that lying and deception are a part of the mental arms race so to speak? How well can someone lie, how well can someone else tell they are lying, and so on. In an ever escalating sophistication? Until someone more pragmaticly gathering fruit laughs at the two combatants spending all this time lying to one another instead of gathering fruit. They laugh and start gathering fruit too.

Does anyone think that a single individual with a particular distinct trait could shift or effectively create a new species?

What about distinct internal/invisible differences in a specific individual that did confer some advantage? A more powerful heart, bigger lungs, a different type of liver, that sort of thing. Would that work like a quiet slow almost subversive type change in a species. That as opposed to something obvious like longer, shorter legs.

In an odd way mental/intellectual development is not an immediately obvious trait. It often shows itself socially, but maybe not always in the obvious way. Sometimes people are embraced for their uniqueness and sometimes rejected. This probably works in a whole matrix of ways. Sometimes dulling the unique trait, sometimes accentuating it.



posted on Sep, 23 2004 @ 12:27 PM
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I certainly don’t have any argument with your correlating of Social Darwinism and Charles Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest, but there are a few things which I think could be expanded upon.

First, you say (correctly) that “fittest” is not necessarily a constant factor, and you quote Bill Gates in the Kalahari Desert as an example of success within the parameters of the environment. However, you later say that survival is due more to a circumstantial than an innate “superiority”.

The goal, of course (and the only long-term goal imaginable), is the perpetuation of the particular genotype. But sometimes society itself perpetuates genotypes which do not seem “superior” in any milieu.

You mention survival in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an example of how survival was enhanced by being a toady, the the denigration and subsequent death of other Iraqis. I agree, but I believe a better example of this is the practice of many First World countries providing “incentives to survival” for those people who are physically or mentally handicapped. In a more “primitive” society, these unfortunate individuals would die, and not pass on their genes – which may or may not contribute to the health (or lack of it) – of the “herd”. However, our advances in healthcare, coupled with what appears to be a moral imperative on the part of the citizens of these societies, has resulted in the survival and subsequent successful reproduction of genotypes which are not suited to just about any “natural” milieu.

I don’t intend to discuss the “morality” of such a practice; I am merely pointing out that, from a survival aspect, we are ensuring the survival of a group which “should” not survive in the natural environment.



posted on Sep, 23 2004 @ 01:05 PM
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We are rapidly approaching a point where, given social stability to support technology, evolutions becomes socially mechanistically 'artificial' [as you pointed out] and further literally artificial. Already we produce Genetically Modified agriculture. We have the capability to create modified humans too. This will almost inevitably happen.

I suppose pragmatically it is best to not get mired in the ethical questions and try to deal with the ramifications to our personal lives when and where they occur.
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