Evolution quotes: Social Darwinism by Haldane

The actual application of Darwinism to contemporary capitalist society is quite clear. The poor leave more offspring behind them in each generation than the rich. So they are fitter from a Darwinian point of view. And if, on the average, they differ genetically from the rich, their innate characteristics are spreading rapidly through the population. If any meaning can be attached to the word social Darwinism, it should mean recognition of this fact …

J.B.S. Haldane, “Concerning Social Darwinism”, Science and Society, volume 5 number 4 (fall, 1941) pages 373-374 (quote courtesy of Tom Scharle)

23 thoughts on “Evolution quotes: Social Darwinism by Haldane

  1. It is remarkable how quick they were to look to genetics for an explanation of economic inequality when the most obvious reasons for it were legal. Especially in Britain where the laws that enforced economic and, so, social inequality were an everyday fact of life. Those laws, in their most extreme form, had been a feature of British law since Elizabeth I. Only the severity of the legal enforcement of the class system varied, somewhat, not that it was the obvious cause of that difference.

    In Darwin’s discussion of inequality in The Descent of Man he assumed some biological component of inequality and he asserted that any attempt at aiding the poorest would be catastrophically dysgenic for the entire population. He slammed mass vaccination, the incredibly stingy Poor Laws, medical care and other attempts to give aid as being almost inevitably catastrophic because they impeded natural selection. But, as I thought I was so original in noticing, he neglected to mention the laws against theft and the far more effective enforcement of those as being, almost certainly, the greatest impediment to natural selection in the human species. Only last year I found out that William Cobbett had made the same point against Malthus years before Darwin adopted Malthus and applied his ideas to evolution.


    Haldane certainly should have noticed that there were far more obvious legal mechanisms that accounted for differences in economic status than the speculative and quite unlikely genetic differences he wrote about. It’s always interesting how quick determinists are to ignore the obvious components of choice, selfishness and legal thuggery to assert some mysterious and unalterable force of nature. I think if more of the self-described Marxists among scientists had not been actual members of the middle and upper classes they might have noticed things like that.

    No, the choice is ours, as is the choice to ignore what’s lying right under our noses. We determine those things, not nature.


    1. Anthony, while I agree with all you say about the social causes of poverty, I don’t think you read Haldane carefully. He is giving a reductio of the usual social Darwinian claim that the rich are the fittest by noting that the poor are fitter in Darwinian terms, in that they are more fecund, so if anything is social Darwinism, it is the exact reverse of what the fashionable eugenicists were arguing.


  2. What a great reminder of how far we have come in our view of evolution and its application to philosophy and political economies. And great reply from Anthony McCarthy above!


  3. Two quotes:

    The Descent of Man: “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature…We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind…”

    Haldane “Darwinism and its perversions” in “Everything Has A History” (p 128-9):

    “[Darwin] wrote of natural selection “favouring the good and rejecting the bad”…Marx and Engels pointed out that Darwin was severely biased by his views as a well-to-do member of the English bourgeoisie. The passages quoted show that he did not draw a clear distinction between goodness and success, or might and right. The capitalistic class begins to notice the distinction when things are going against it, as at present, though curiously it is still as convinced of its own righteousness as it as a hundred years ago” 😉


  4. “Those laws, in their most extreme form, had been a feature of British law since Elizabeth I.”

    Significantly older. As old as British written law. The only difference would be that poverty would be more fully associated with particular language groups and Ethnicity.

    European tribal laws seem to use a simple legal maneuver it makes outside ethnic groups worth half the honor price of the ethnic group within administrative control.

    Not dramatic but within a few generations that is going to push family groups down to the bottom of the food chain and well on the way to cultural extinction.

    This theory is of interest to a range of academics including geneticists. Agreement between the different disciplines on the evidence base is often seriously strained.

    I like the way legal thinkers discuss these issues although I don’t feel the urge to agree with everything.

    “similarly, a certain branch of economics has been proposed to the law as the machine that will solve all its problems, this time with the power relations reversed; instead of the methodology being subordinated to the preexisting concerns of the lawyer, the claim is made that the method of economics can supplant law. But in either case the idea is of a discipline as a technology…… and it goes to work, spitting out results as a log chipper spits out woodchips.

    This kind of talk is rooted, I think in, in our false contemporary meta-languages about knowing, learning and talking….”

    James Boyd White.

    The law is a messy business. But it is identified and discussed as such.


  5. David Duffy, that famous and almost always truncated quote from The Descent of Man follows another almost truncated quote in which Darwin explicitly asserts the premise of eugenics, that vaccination, the Poor Laws, medical care, etc. are responsible for the inhibition of natural selection in the “civilised” parts of the human species and the reproduction of the “weaker members” of those societies will inevitably lead to disastrous, dysgenic consequences. The eugenics paragraph is stated as science and is unconditioned, Darwin states that assumption (unsupported with Data of any kind) as a practical certainty. The “aid which we feel impelled to give” paragraph continually undercuts the wisdom of giving that aid as he rather hypocritically said that it “must be given”. The case for giving it is, furthermore, undercut by most of the rest of that long book. Darwin supported the incubating “science” of eugenics, supporting its development in that book and encouraging those who were developing it. Those people, Galton, Haeckel,… were encouraged by Charles Darwin in unambiguous terms. A full and unbiased reading of The Descent of Man, looking at just what he was citing in that book makes it absolutely clear that he was the inspiration of and one of the early promoters of eugenics. That case is absolutely solid.


    1. Anthony, I discuss this quote and Darwin’s views here. Darwin was not a eugenicist in my view. He was responding to the views of others, including W. R. Greg.

      I note you made a comment on that post…


    2. The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization had a special issue Darwin, Darwinism and Social Darwinism in 2009 covering this very topic.

      Richard Weikart (Was Darwin or Spencer the father of laissez-faire social Darwinism? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71(1):20-28) suggests that Darwin was not too far from Spencer and others in his stance. I was aware of the later sections from The Descent of Man that you mention, as well as the fact that the short quote I used is often regarded as a fig leaf. Since Darwin took his scientific theories seriously, it is not surprising that he believed that Poor Laws, vaccination etc would have effects on fitness in the population, and that disease, poverty and competition were the spurs that had lead to the evolution of modern humans.

      And given the time, place and society he lived in, it is also not surprising that he writes of “the lower races” being displaced b y civilised races, and “that Cooperative Societies, which many look at as the main hope for the future, likewise exclude competition … [and] seem to me a great evil for the future progress of mankind”.­


      1. Couple of points. First, when Darwin and other contemporaries use the term “race” it does not mean what we now mean by it, or at any rate, not all the time. To speak of the “English race” indicates that the term has a lot more to do with culture and political structures than anything biological (especially since the strictly biological notion of inheritance doesn’t come into being until somewhat after this period), and Darwin can be more charitably read as talking about these sociopolitical institutions than anything biological. But he is clearly confused on the matter.

        As to the Poor Laws, Darwin had read Ricardo closely, and like many others (Mill, Spencer) had thought long and hard about them as social issues. That doesn’t immediately translate into a biological case, even for Spencer. The poor laws were in fact an issue of political conservatism versus progressivism, and Darwin was often more conservative than progressive as he aged. Doesn’t make him automatically a social Darwinian or a eugenicist then as now.

        Finally Weikert is a master at confirmation bias. He went into the field knowing Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust and social Darwinism (even though there is sufficient evidence that these views predate both Darwin and the movements and events concerned by centuries). He is a scholarly cherry picker. He is also, although this is ad hominem (not always a fallacy), closely allied with the Intelligent Design movement.


        1. Hmm. Weikart even has a Wikipedia entry. However, despite his ideological position, the material he cites is not that different to those examined by others eg in
          The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, Diane B Paul concludes her paper on Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics (p235) with:

          “Darwin was not an original thinker. His writings reflect assumptions conventional for a man of his time and class. Virtually everything he had to say on social matters – concerning the value of population pressure and inheritance of property, the naturalness of the sexual division of labour, and the inevitability of European expansion – can be found in Malthus, Spencer, Wallace, Greg, Bagehot and other contemporary writers.”


        2. Forgoing the issue of Spencer, Darwin did so translate that into a biological case in one of his most infamous passages in The Descent of Man:

          “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

          He said, “Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Which puts, with vaccination, asylums and poor-laws among those which inhibit “the process of elimination” which allows people in those named groups to survive childhood and have children and that their reproducing will be “highly injurious to the race of man”. And that from a man whose fame rested on his providing an explanation of how “races” became extinct through a decline in their quality.

          That is a statement of the premise of eugenics, asserted to have the reliability of science, unmitigated in any way. That is in contrast to the equally well known “aid we feel impelled to give” paragraph that directly follows it. Unlike the “With savages” paragraph, Darwin continually discredited his weak assertions of giving aid as he strikes a pose.

          The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit*, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind*; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage*, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.

          :”We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind” “this is more to be hoped for than expected”.

          You can analyze the two paragraphs yourself to see that is exactly what Darwin did. You can also put it into the context of the entire book to count how many times Darwin asserts the premise of eugenics as opposed to how many times he contradicts it.

          You can read in his often “quote mined” exchange with Gaskall that he relied on his implausible deniability paragraph, even as the obvious logical conclusions of his assertions were brought up to him.



          1. Okay, enough is enough, Andrew. You have your own blog for this sort of campaign. I will have the last word, though: a statement of fact (if it is fact) is not a prescription for action. I do not think Darwin is trying to recommend that we do anything. Rather, I think he is confused about what it all means. And whether or not he is a eugenicist (and I do not think he is), it has nothing to do with the logic, which Haldane shows, from an evolutionary perspective.


            1. “…the logic, which Haldane shows, from an evolutionary perspective.”

              I am loathe to continue this much further, but this is precisely the “eugenic argument”: that in the shorter term, reproductive success can become uncorrelated to those phenotypes that have longer term benefits for the species (in terms of probability of extinction): Haldane considered that success in intraspecifc competition “may be biologically advantageous for the individual, but ultimately disastrous for the species”, so that abundant species are more likely to become extinct (see Chapter VIII of The causes of Evolution; Haldane 1932).


              1. True, but evolution doesn’t “care” about that. In plain terms, if the poor outbreed the rich, and there is any heritable covariance of traits, then the poor are fitter, end of story. That may result on the extinction of a species (runaway processes may be common), but so what? Species go extinct all the time.

                For a eugenics argument you need to add a prescriptive element; and while Darwin (and possible Haldane, although I’d be surprised – I’ll dig out my copy of Causes later tonight) may bemoan this from a human perspective, evolution itself, nor anything I know that Darwin ever said about evolution, does not license the eugenic argument.

                Darwin (and Huxley of course) knew that facts are not prescriptions: Huxley even wrote a book about Hume before he made the argument in Evolution and Ethics that evolution is not a moral guide. Any polity (which Huxley called a “pigeon fancier’s polity”) that intends to preserve this or that trait or institution or class does so without support from evolutionary theory. Darwin is reciting facts as he sees them, with some regret, but I do not see him supporting a policy of eugenics, which is, after all, just the Spartan breeding program updated. The ultimate and constant source of eugenics is not evolutionary theory: it is animal breeding. This explains why it is a constant preoccupation of the monied classes. They are usually the equestrian class or the landowners.


  6. John Wilkins, after a major blog brawl on that issue, I wrote a series of (hastily written) posts in which I made a case that Charles Darwin was a eugenicist, by the testimony of Francis Galton, Darwin’s sons -especially Leonard, Francis and George), other eugenicists and based on what Charles Darwin, himself, said.


    In two of them I cited your post of Greg’s article, discussing Darwin’s use of a “quotemined” passage from it.


    In that post I argue that Darwin seems to have been in the unusual position of undermining natural selection in order to make an assertion of eugenics, an assertion entirely unfounded in science, as are so many of his assertions in The Descent of Man.

    The post dealing with Galton, I would assert, pretty much proves the case that Charles Darwin was the inspiration of British eugenics. The post dealing with Leonard Darwin and Schallmeyer shows that Darwin’s son attributed the inspiration of German eugenics to his father, uninfluenced by Galton. Leonard Darwin, Francis Darwin, Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckel, etc. had the distinct advantage of having known Charles Darwin and spoke with him, off record. I have, as of yet, found not a single person who knew Charles Darwin who distanced him from eugenics. I have only found the opposite, the longer I look into that question.


  7. Galton is Galton, and Leonard is Leonard, etc. While it really doesn’t matter if Darwin is a eugenicist from the logical perspective of the validity of his theories, it seems to me that he can only be interpreted as such through the back application of later concerns and issues. Moreover, the heyday of eugenics was the period from around 1880 to 1950. Note that Darwin died in 1882. Of course people will appeal to Darwin’s authority; hell, Lenin did too. But is there the documentary evidence to support that interpretation? I do not think so.

    However I do appreciate your work and attempts to back up your views; a rare virtue.


    1. The Descent of Man, Darwin’s positive citations in that book, Darwin’s letters to Galton, Haeckel, Fick, Gaskell, etc. especially his extremely troubling citations of Haeckel and his letters to him all constitute a primary record in which Charles Darwin promotes eugenics and Haeckel’s monism as it was not only in development but had already been quite fully developed. Those are not someone’s interpretation of Darwin, it’s Darwin himself saying it.

      He even praised Haeckel’s boldness in going farther in his speculations, even as he noted the political difficulties of saying what others were unwilling to say.



      As I have pointed out Haeckel, as well as Francis, Leonard, George Darwin, etc. spoke with Darwin. Haeckel reports that in his private conversations with Darwin at Down, he was in total agreement with Haeckel’s monism and Spencer. If you want to refute Haeckel, who was there, you would have to show in Charles Darwin’s own words where he rejected that monism which was already quite well developed in works Darwin cited, in which the “final triumph” of that monism is explicitly attributed to Charles Darwin. Failing that you might cite Darwin’s close associates quoting or paraphrasing him as rejecting it, something I have yet to find them doing. But even that would only get you to a draw in arguing from those who knew Darwin. You might want to look to Lankester, a very close associate and friend of Darwin, who translated Haeckel’s “The History of Creation” during Darwin’s life to see if the pretty troubling stuff Haeckel included ever incited him to make that argument. I haven’t found any place where Darwin or his friends distanced him from what Haeckel said in that book.

      I used to believe in the eugenics free Darwin, myself. Then, about six years ago, I started looking at the primary source material and found that nothing in it supported that post-war invention. Darwin gave himself one or two extremely weak avenues of implausible deniability but those are nothing compared to what else he was saying.


  8. Francis Galton explicitly said that what he called eugenics in 1883 began earlier with an article in Macmillians and with the book Hereditary Genius, both of which Charles Darwin praised in the highest terms as he cited them as science in The Descent of Man, Galton explicitly said in chapter XX of his memoir that his inspiration in inventing eugenics was reading On the Origin of Species (Schallmeyer said as much). He published Darwin’s letter praising Hereditary Genius. There is no one who else who could have possibly exonerated Charles Darwin of the charge of inspiring eugenics and Galton never did change his mind on that.


    C.D., in his letter praising Hereditary Genius, noted that his son, George, had read the book before he did and praised it as well. You might want to read about Francis Darwin calling George’s articles of the 1870s “eugenic” articles and read how their father vigorously supported and defended those as well as Francis Galton’s obviously eugenic writings.


    The problem for those who want to distance Charles Darwin from eugenics is that no one who knew him as well as his sons and his closest professional associates and friends, people who knew the man more intimately than any of us, seems to have ever distanced Charles Darwin from eugenics. They all seem to associate him and natural selection with eugenics. It would be hard for them to have done so when Charles Darwin positively cited the eugenics assertions of Galton, Greg, Haeckel, etc. in his second major book dealing with evolution. The several weak threads that the attempt of much later people who never heard the man to disassociate Charles Darwin from eugenics fall apart when those are looked at in full and in the context of his extravagantly enthusiastic citation of eugenics contentions within science and his personal encouragement in letters to the very people who were doing it.

    Most of all is the fact that Charles Darwin knew what Galton, Greg, Haeckel, and others were doing with his ideas and instead of complaining about it he promoted what they were doing, adopting arguments and, as his citation of Greg and others shows, their entirely baseless assertions. If The Descent of Man and those encouragement of the early eugenicists, including his own son, didn’t exist it might be possible to make a case that Charles Darwin was an unknowing victim of those distorting his thinking. But they do exist and in Darwin’s own words he was a supporter of the developing “science”.

    There is no one I’ve come across who tries to disassociate Charles Darwin from eugenics who has the credibility of those who associated him with eugenics. Including Leonard Darwin, Francis Darwin, George Darwin and Horace Darwin, all eugenicists, who, unlike any of us, were raised by the man. Not a single one of them ever distanced their father from eugenics, not a single eugenicist I’m aware of, those who knew Charles Darwin or those who never met him, seems to have distanced him from eugenics. I’m not aware of anyone who did that until after WWII made eugenics all too temporarily discredited. And none of those who tired that ever knew the man.


  9. John Wilkins, I will, of course, abide by what you’ve asked for your blog though I can certainly refute what you said with Darwin’s own words. It was reading The Descent of Man and Darwin’s letters and the citations he made in that book that radically changed what I’d always believed on these issues. Galton, Schallmeyer, Haeckel, Darwin’s sons, etc only confirmed that what I read in those was what he really thought.


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