In “The Origin of the Species” (1859), Charles Darwin defined natural selection, by which species evolve, as a result of a “struggle for existence.” Due to population pressure and limited resources, groups of animals and plants compete to adapt to specific ecological niches. “Social Darwinists” misinterpreted this to be an endorsement of brutal human rivalry, slavery and economic “survival of the fittest.” Andrew Carnegie, for example, concluded that multimillionaires must be the “fittest” while the poor and oppressed were “unfit” and deserved their place on the bottom. Tragically this attitude of Social Darwinism has returned recently.
Darwin himself explicitly rejected this cruel “Social Darwinism” as based on a misunderstanding. “Fitness,” he said, was a purely relativistic concept, relative to a particular environmental niche. Some fish were the fittest for underwater life; some birds fittest for tropical forests, ants for underground life. Similarly, with various human cultures in various bio-regions; there is no absolute “fittest.” In addition, Darwin said that the “struggle for existence” included “cooperation and co-adaptation” to strengthen survival. In other words, a group that worked together cooperatively had a better chance of surviving and flourishing.
In “The Descent of Man” (1872), Darwin emphasized that the “instinct of sympathy” (by which he means empathy) binds groups together in mutual aid. Indeed, human beings have proliferated and prevailed primarily because of cooperation skills, love and empathy, beginning with paleolithic hunting bands and gathering groups. “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best.” Darwin thought the great challenge to the human race was to expand this empathic consciousness to all human groups and even all sentient beings. Can we expand our empathy and compassion universally to all others? This rational development of morality, Darwin argued, leads to “the greatest happiness” of all.
Darwin himself was a kind and sensitive person. When I was doing research for my Ph.D. dissertation on his theories, I visited his modest house in the little village of Down, south of London. There I learned that during his decades of research and writing he worked with the villagers to create funds for the farmers and workers who became sick and for those who had retired. He was a compassionate and caring community member despite his life-long poor health.
Darwin adamantly opposed slavery and racism on the grounds that there was only one single human species, all descended from common ancestors. Walking through the rain forests of South America, Darwin felt a “hurricane of joy” in the majesty and unity of all life. He ends “The Origin of the Species” with this beautiful and hopeful scientific vision: “There is grandeur in this view of life … that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Edgewood College in Madison specializing in the philosophy of peace and ethics interpreted as the quest for a good life. He lives in Dodgeville and offers his musings in this space on a rotating basis. He can be reached at email@example.com.