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The Paradox of Christian Social Darwinism

by Somebody Else
August 11, 2010

For considerably more than a century in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Christians of several different denominational and non-denominational backgrounds have risen up to vociferously oppose the theory of evolution as outlined by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. In the most general terms, their points of opposition are the following. For one, the earth, as one must infer from carefully reading the Bible, is only a few thousand years old, so therefore the millions or even billions of years required for the evolutionary processes described by Darwin simply never existed. Secondly, the Bible makes clear that God created Adam and Eve in the most direct way imaginable, forming the first from clay, and the second from the former's rib; therefore, man did not evolve from more primitive forms. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that man was previously a kind of monkey or chimpanzee, and then very gradually lost his body fur and tail, began walking upright, and then assimilated the powers of speech, is for fundamentalist Christians absolute anathema, since it contradicts their conviction that man was created by God in the exact same condition and form that characterize him today.

Given their supposedly strict literal interpretation of scripture, and the supposed disagreement between Darwin's theory and the biblical account of man's creation, one might assume that the opposition of so many Christians to the concept of evolution is based upon nothing more than a deep need to defend and preserve the scriptural authority of the Bible. However, even though such a motive appears evident enough at first, upon deeper analysis it may seem that something more psychologically subtle and indeed even sinister is involved.

Returning to the theory of evolution, let's recall the well-known phrase often associated with it, the "survival of the fittest." This phrase did not actually originate with Darwin himself, but rather was coined later on by proponents of a social theory that took as its model the principles of Darwinian evolution. Actually, the phrase is often attributed to nineteenth-century author Friedrich Neitzche, who devised the idea of the superman, that is, of the exemplary human being who, through the force of sheer will and inherent superiority, rises to the top of society to dominate it. Thus, in agreement with the proponents of social Darwinism, the concept of the survival of the fittest, just as it is in the wild, must be allowed to run its natural course within human society. The weak must be weeded out so that the strong may prosper unhindered by any misguided concern for the less capable. This formed the core of Nazi philosophy, which purported to apply the Darwinian principle of natural selection to human society.

Our distant cousins: would they want anything to do with us?

It may be mistakenly assumed that social Darwinism is a dead and defunct philosophy, and that it was dealt its death blow with the wretched demise of Nazi Germany. The unspoken argument might run that racially-based fascism has been banished to the extreme fringes and margins of global society. In the most literal sense, that is indeed true, particularly when we refer to those groups of people that openly proclaim a doctrine of racial superiority. Evidently, such groups no longer enjoy the kind of widespread appeal and support as in former years. Besides Nazi Germany, we witness how compulsory and legal segregation in the southern United States met its end in the 1960s, and how South African apartheid fell in the 1990s. Thus, one might erroneously conclude that social Darwinism has ceased to exert a significant influence upon world affairs.

However, the problem with drawing such conclusions is that in doing so, we do not take into account the sometime insidious and subconscious influence of a particular doctrine upon those who apparently oppose it. Is it not possible that the main tenets of social Darwinism have infected the minds of those who most ardently deny and condemn it?

History is filled with examples of just such a phenomenon. For instance, consider how the early Christian church gained prominence as a promised alternative to the decadence, cruelty, and corruption that characterized the blasphemous and sinful Roman Empire, and then, once it had assumed the temporal powers of that collapsed regime, went on to descend to much greater depths of depravity than its predecessor. Recall how the leaders of the French Revolution cried out against the gross injustices of the French monarchy, and then, once in power, themselves filled the streets of Paris with the blood of the innocent as well as that of the guilty. Think of how Martin Luther started the Protestant movement by pointing out the abuses of the Catholic Church, and now see how some self-proclaimed Protestant Evangelical Christians shamelessly offer God's salvation in return for the television viewer's contribution, which is made by credit card after calling a toll-free number.

In none of the previous examples might we expect the corrupted to admit the baneful influence of their enemies upon their own conduct. As a case in point, let's keep in mind that the Catholic Church of today might admit that it has made mistakes in the past, but it will never concede that it has been contaminated by the same unseemly influences that ruined the Roman Empire. Similarly, the leaders of the French Revolution were never able to acknowledge that they had come to be even more autocratic and unjust than the royals they had so recently guillotined. Finally, one will never find a successful televangelist who admits that he has come up with a system of religious indulgences that rivals the one used by the Catholic Church in the time of Martin Luther.

Likewise, with regard to mainstream Christianity's relationship to Darwinian-based philosophy, the picture is not as black-and-white as it might seem. As mentioned earlier, Christians have from the beginning opposed the main tenets of Darwinism because of a perceived fundamental contradiction between the Bible and the theory of species evolution. In its essence, this opposition is founded upon the need to defend a static or supposedly religious concept of creation against a dynamic or Darwinian one. That is, many Christians believe that the world has not evolved or changed much since God created it. In such a static world, everything has its proper place. Thus, according to the unchanging decree of the Almighty, some were born to rule and others were born to obey. Ironically, the fatalism of such a viewpoint is in certain ways quite similar to the strict determinism implied by the Darwinian theory of natural selection.

With the application of a particularly brutal and inhumane form of chattel slavery in the southern United States, this argument was extended to such a degree that many of the white ruling class were led to believe that God had purposefully created people of African background to be enslaved by those of European descent. Support for such a viewpoint was dutifully sought for in the Bible itself, and certain verses were frequently quoted as examples of God's explicit approval of slavery based upon inherent racial superiority. However, we should keep in mind that this despicable philosophical system, supposedly based upon an upright and just interpretation of the Bible, was well in place many decades before Darwin's views became known in the United States.

When the English scientist's views did finally receive widespread diffusion in America, slavery had been abolished throughout the nation, but a system of racially-based economic exploitation still remained in its place. At that point, it had become understandably difficult for certain white religious leaders in the southern United States to justify the reestablishment of slavery, so they instead clamored for the continuing enforcement of an inferior social position for African-Americans, and once again resorted to their Bibles for verses to misinterpret in order to back up their exploitative views. Curiously, such religious leaders, by constantly arguing that blacks had a natural place in white society and by insisting that the fundamental character and disposition of the black man and woman made it necessary for them to be submitted to the superior leadership of the white race, were in a way promulgating a perverted version of key Darwinian doctrine, which emphasizes that the genetic makeup of a specimen is the primary factor for determining its ultimate role in the natural order.

In the case of Nazi Germany, all pretense of separation between Christian theology and Darwinian philosophy was abandoned in a concerted effort undertaken by that fascist state to merge the two views into one. Granted, Darwin's conclusions were severely distorted and muddled by the Nazis in their awkward and intellectually dishonest attempts to apply the theory of natural selection to the idea of a conquering nation of racially dominant supermen, and the exalted moral standard of Jesus Christ was thoroughly degraded and perverted when seen through the warped lens of Hitler's perspective, but in any case, there was apparent widespread success in convincing the general public that a harmonious blending of science and religion had been accomplished. However, as is well known, such a ramshackle philosophical and theological construction did not survive the implosion of its patron regime.

At this point, we would do well to recall that Darwin never extended the implications of his theory of evolution to the social world of humankind. Simply put, Darwin himself was never a proponent of social Darwinism. He merely sought to describe how certain species came to be as they are. Also, Darwin did not separate human beings into separate species according to race, and in any case it is commonly recognized by geneticists today that the human race is one species only and cannot be divided into racial subspecies.

In fact, one might even argue that humankind's superior intellect and reasoning ability have freed us from the essential evolutionary processes that govern all other species. That is, by virtue of our ample brains, we are no longer necessarily subjected to the brutal and ruthless selection that weeds out the weak and causes the strong to prosper in the natural world. Instead, we have largely subjugated and transcended the requirements of the natural world. Therefore, so the argument might go, it would be unworthy of us to imagine that our human society, which should be based upon justice, must necessarily be subjected to the supposedly natural rule of the strong.

Unfortunately, as is all too apparent today, global society is not primarily governed by the principles of justice, but rather by the Machiavellian practice of might makes right. This is most evident on the world stage, where the most powerful nations are held to standards different from that of weaker ones. On the level of individual nations, we see how the interests of the economic elite and of powerful corporations are given clear precedence over the basic needs of general populations. Likewise, in workplaces and in homes, we witness how the strong exert their dominance over the weak. Sadly, although our intellect and spirit might make it otherwise, we have ignominiously submitted ourselves and our societies to the base shackles of the natural world and its heartless ways.

One might imagine that, chastised by the repudiation and defeat of its erstwhile racist doctrines, certain Christian leaders might finally purge their theology of any trace of the suggestion of social Darwinism. Predictably, however, this has not been the case.

Quite simply, social Darwinism, or a perspective similar to it in certain aspects, appeals to two classes of people, those who are in a position of power and wish to retain and broaden that power, and those who feel that they are entitled to power because of their own inherent superiority. Actually, once the latter group attains power, it becomes a member of the former group.

Quite naturally, those who wish to exercise power will want to belong to a religious group or denomination that encourages them in their ambitious pursuits. In their churches, they are told that if they develop a close and trusting relationship with God, they will be strengthened in every way. This divine strengthening through prayer and devotion will allow them to prosper professionally, and by means of career advancement, they will rise to positions of authority over other men and women.

Those who attain professional success through dedicated religious practices are often quite understandably conservative in their views. For example, if they have beaten others in competitive situations and have prospered as a consequence, they will be in favor of unrestrained competition. If they have worked hard and advanced thanks to their own resourceful efforts, they may be opposed to government assistance for those who struggle in our society, since increased taxes take away from their bottom line and if they are self-employed can thus potentially reduce their profit margins. If the private sector of the economy has been very good to them, they may have little patience or sympathy for those who advocate more government control in certain areas for the benefit of the less fortunate.

Of course, we have all heard the arguments in favor of unfettered capitalism and supposedly enlightened self-interest versus the concept of a social contract with the state and the vision of government as a protector and caretaker of the people. Most of us understand that the complete absence of real competition in the world of commerce would force inferior goods and services upon the public, as happened in the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, whereas unbridled capitalism would lead to the ruthless monopolization of industries and to a similar degradation of goods and services. Evidently, there should be a middle way between these two extremes.

Unfortunately, much of contemporary Christian thought amounts to an indirect endorsement of social Darwinism, since it so clearly favors the idea of mostly unrestricted commerce. Likewise, the idea of the United States as world dominator is rooted in ideas eerily similar to that of the concept of the survival of the fittest.

To sum up this kind of thinking in a nutshell, one might say that if you are a true Christian and have put all of your faith in God and in Jesus Christ, you will be given authority over others and rise to the top, and since the United States of America is a truly Christian nation, it is superior, and must be given authority over other nations.

At least in theory, non-white Americans are invited to embrace this philosophy, but unsurprisingly, relatively few of them do. Most non-white Americans know better. Nonetheless, give anyone, white or not, a taste of competitive success, and that can change. It's human nature for us to defend our success and accomplishments and to desire more of the same, especially when success in this world seems like a harbinger of eternal glory. Who wouldn't want to believe that God has rewarded us in this life as a sign that we'll be recompensed in the hereafter as well? After all, when you're on a roll, you're on a roll, right? And you wouldn't want the loser under your feet to eat at your conscience too much while you're making plans for your mansion in the clouds. You're not a ferocious beast in a jungle, but a God-fearing Christian, right?

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...