Victorians and Edwardians did terrible, cruel things in the name of Malthus and Darwin.
by Philip Hall
The cast system is inhuman. Female Genital Mutilation (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 and prejudiced 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.
But Europe is blind to its systemic moral failings, too. It was Kenneth Clark who said that the Victorians and Edwardians 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 fully guided by their Christian morals.
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 superior civilisation to places that needed it. Kipling called it ‘the white man’s burden’.
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 still valid. They don’t question them – just as a billion Indians still accept the caste system.
Malthus has taught us misanthropy.
Malthus has taught us misanthropy. I do not exaggerate. 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. For some sick people, COVID is Darwinism in action. They celebrate it.
The evil of this immoral western 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 a demonstration of the mechanisms of adaptive evolution.
The ideas of Darwinism were easily bowdlerised. They gave rise to theories of scientific racism and eugenics. Darwinism has combined syncretically with a crass strand of heroic capitalism to generate the philosophy that suggests that if you are rich and successful, you have greater value as a human.
This is the philosophy of the advocates of euthanasia, of genetic manipulation and the philosophy of the measurers of human intelligence. In fact, modern social Darwinists like Peter Singer reflect the views of 1930s eugenicists on disability. The eugenicists believed that severely disabled children should be ‘put out of their misery’ like sick animals.
You could say Peter Singer’s arguments are more nuanced than those of 1930s eugenicism, but ask disabled people how they feel about the proposal to screen foetuses with disabilities. Ask them how they feel about Singer’s recommendations that severely disabled children be euthanised.
The Nazis were extreme social Darwinists of the worst sort. In fact, Darwin himself was something of a social Darwinist. There is clear evidence of this, despite the desperate attempts of Darwin’s defenders to re-contextualise his words and say that they were taken out of context. Darwin’s ideas lend themselves to a winner takes all mentality.
Darwin wrote that it was inevitable that the ‘inferior’ or ‘primitive’ non-white races would be driven to extinction by the superior civilised European people. He said that. There is no escaping it.
Darwin wrote that it was inevitable that the ‘inferior’ or ‘primitive’ non-white races would be driven to extinction by the superior civilised European people.
Any attempt to critique social Darwinism and Malthusianism by pointing accusing fingers at Darwin and Malthus themselves is immediately deflected by unconvincing disavowals.
You hear things like this. Darwin was just ‘a man of his time’ and he was ‘humane’ and ‘kind’. He was against slavery. His scientific ideas have nothing to do with social values. Bullshit!
The vile culture of inequality that justifies cruelty and inequality in modern western societies, and in particular in the USA, derives from the influence of Malthusianism and Darwinism. They are the blind spot.
Social Darwinism and Malthusianism are the log in our eye. We look critically at the values of other cultures, and rightly so, but many of us just cannot see the poisonous ideas that nestle 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.
Just as many people who live in the caste system accept it as normal, we accept Malthusianism and Darwinism as normal. The clothes the ideas take partially disguise them. Call it radical conservatism, call it deep ecology, call it scientific rationalism. Call it what you will, it’s old wine in new bottles.
For the modern social Darwinists and Malthusians, it is a sad day 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. ‘What a shame there are so many people on the Earth.’ someone sighs.
In Wendy Northcott’s world, the deaths of ‘stupid’ people are celebrated as ‘evolution in action’.
The social Darwinists even concentrate their unquestioned truths into a joke. It’s called The Darwin Awards. There used to be a snuff channel set up by Wendy Northcott. Northcott’s ‘jokes’ about stupid people dying are now regularly published by Penguin in a series of books. Where’s the moral outrage? There is none because Northcott’s ideas are common currency.
Wendy Northcott is a shapeshifter. Interestingly, from people who die doing ‘stupid things’ she has changed the emphasis to people who stupidly harm the environment. Social Darwinism hides its hatred of the poor and vulnerable behind a so-called Deep Ecology. In Wendy Northcott’s world, the deaths of ‘stupid’ people are celebrated as ‘evolution in action’. Her high concept line.
Her snuff videos have now been blocked. But at the time one video showed a young man, paralysed, from the waist down, committing suicide.
The young man smashes his wheelchair into an elevator lift in anger, over and over again, until the door opens and he falls down the shaft. If someone who was depressed or mentally challenged were to take pills or touch a live wire and died, presumably Wendy Northcott sees that, too, as ‘evolution in action’. Northcott can’t have her cake and eat it.
No Muslim, Hindu or Christian would ever laugh at that, or celebrate suicide. To do so needs the heart of a fascist. And there are plenty of hard-bitten misanthropists around, who found that channel pretty funny – it had many subscribers who laughed as the young man killed himself: Someone I know. Someone you know. The quintessence of moral failure.
Phil Hall is a college lecturer. 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, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.