Friday, April 8, 2011

Why was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which was strictly about biology, important in the development of the ideology of conservatism?

Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species”, published in 1859, brought to light the idea of humans evolved from simpler forms of life through the process of “natural selection." Darwin’s theory was to become the foundation of modern biological science.

“Natural selection” in Charles Darwin’s words, or “the survival of the fittest” – in Herbert Spencer’s words, reflect the roots of the conservativism movement in America. While these are words expressed by scientists, originating in Darwin’s evolution theory promoted in his work “On the Origin of Species”, the conservative American thought was based on a quite similar idea, the so called “Social Darwinism”, advocated by William Graham Sumner. A sociology professor, Sumner promoted competition as a law of nature, with the ‘fittest’ rising above others, while the success of the society depended on the process of “natural selection”. Sumner considered “the millionaires “to be the fittest, selected individuals in the society. Social Darwinism explained the competitive American economy, rejecting any interference with social processes.

While giving a talk to the textile workers in Providence, Rhode Island, the cotton manufacturer Edward Atkinson defined “the survival of the fittest” as it pertains to society: a person will rise as far as his talents allow, and would receive his reward accordingly, while his success as an individual contributes to the success of the society as a whole. This idea continued to be promoted through various works, such as Horatio Alger’s tales “Thoughts for the Young Men of America”, “A Few Practical Words of Advice to Those Born in Poverty and Denied to be reared in Orphanages” (1871), or Andrew Carnegie’s best seller “Triumphant Democracy” (1886). The Episcopal Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts also preached the idea of success as an individual’s earthly calling, promising the eternal salvation as a reward: “godliness is in league with riches” was Lawrence’s version of “the survival of the fittest”.

John D. Rockefeller claimed the fortune he accumulated was "merely a survival of the fittest, ... the working out of a law of nature and a law of God." Social Darwinism offered a moral justification for the gap between rich and poor, for rejecting social insurance and supporting tax cuts for the rich, for allowing ‘robber barons’ to control most of the American industry, or politicians to be bought off by the rich, etc.

Henretta, James A. and David Brody. America: A Concise History, Volume II: Since 1877. 4th ed., Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2010, 556-557

Reich, Robert B. Of Darwinism and Social Darwinism. Published on 11/ 29/2005 by 01/10/2010.

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