Social Darwinism: the deadly poison at the heart of reason

A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift, cartoon by James Gilray

by Philip Hall

The cast system is inhuman. FGM seems impossibly cruel. Look at the Taliban: Malala got a bullet in the head just for going to school. Look at forced marriage, at child marriage. How can that be tolerated?

These are the persistent systemic failures of whole cultures and systems of values. When religion is patriarchal it cannot claim to be universal. Societies and cultures are conveniently blind to their own failings, so that the caste system is reinforced. The mother, eager to be respectable in a traditional society, forces her child to be circumcised.

Europe is blind to its systemic moral failings, too. It was Kenneth Clark who said that the Victorians did the terrible, cruel things they did around the world in the name of Malthus and Darwin. These were things that they would never have contemplated doing if they had allowed themselves to be guided by their Christian morals.

Victorians did the terrible, cruel things they did around the world in the name of Malthus and Darwin.

The idea of western racial and cultural superiority was reinforced by the ideologues of empire who used a bastardised form of Darwinism to license colonialism; European people, society and culture were superior, you understand, and by colonising the British were really just bringing a superior civilisation to places that needed it. Kipling called it ‘the white man’s burden’.

There are moral, seemingly decent, environmentally aware liberals who you know …who actually think it would be better for the world if ebola wiped out hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa.

Malthus argued that populations grew geometrically, he claimed that the Earth could not sustain such a large population. Many Europeans think that Malthus’s ideas are true, they don’t question them just as a billion Indians accept the caste system.

Malthus has taught us misanthropy. I do not exaggerate. There are moral, seemingly decent, environmentally aware liberals who you know – just as there are people who follow the caste system – who actually think it would be better for the world if ebola wiped out hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa.

The evil of this immoral philosophy is compounded. Its proponents believe in the death of the maladapted poor, in the destruction of ‘failed states’. They believe that when poor people die this is proof of Darwin’s ideas on the mechanisms of adaptive evolution.

The ideas of Darwinism gave rise to ideas of scientific racism and eugenics. Darwinism gave rise to the philosophy that says: if you are rich and successful then you have greater value as a human than if you aren’t. This is the philosophy of the advocates of euthanasia, of genetic manipulation, of the measurers of human intelligence, of the idea that no disabled child should be allowed to be born.

In fact, social Darwinists like Singer, reflect precisely the views of the Nazis. They believe that severely disabled children, like animals, should be put out of their misery. Peter Singer advocates something similar.

The Nazis were extreme social Darwinists of the worst sort. Darwin himself was something of a social Darwinist. Despite the desperate attempts of his defenders to re-contextualise his words. He believed that it was inevitable that the ‘inferior’ or ‘primitive’ non-white races would be driven to extinction by the superior civilised European people.

Despite the desperate attempts of his defenders to recontextualise his words. He believed that it was inevitable that the ‘inferior’ or ‘primitive’ non-white races would be driven to extinction by the superior civilised European people.

The blind spot of our society is that toxic blend, that cocktail of of anthrax and arsenic: the idea that the fittest survive best. These toxic ideas embedded in the culture derive from the influence of Malthusianism and Darwinism; this is the blind spot of many Europeans, the log in our eye. These belief systems are the ideological dregs of post empire. We look critically at the values of other cultures, and rightly so, but many of us just cannot see the poisonous ideas are at the root of the systemic moral failure of European society.

Social Darwinism and Malthusianism have generated philosophies more dangerous than the Aztec idea that the if the sun rises it is only because we spilled human blood to help it do so. And just like people embedded in the caste system, for whom it is almost invisible, Malthusianism and Darwinism are almost invisible to the people who breath and live them. Call it radical conservatism, call it what you will.

For the social Darwinists and Malthusians a sad day today is when infant mortality falls. And the people with these ideas are not rare, they do not hide. Inquire a little and you’ll find they are all around you.

The social Darwinists even make their unquestioned truth into a joke. There is a snuff channel where the deaths of ‘stupid’ people are celebrated. It’s called the Darwin Awards. One ‘hilarious’ video shows a young man, paralysed, from the waist down killing himself. He smashes his wheelchair into an elevator lift in anger, over and over again until the door opens and he falls down the shaft.

No Muslim, Hindu or Christian would laugh at that, would condone that suicide, but there are plenty of people who find that channel very funny – it has many subscribers. They laugh as the young man kills himself: the subscribers are modern social Darwinists. Someone I know. Someone you know. The quintessence of moral failure.


Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.



Categories: Capitalism, History, Phil Hall, Racism

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