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Darwinism and Populism

Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of the Species and 1871 The Descent of Man suggested the natural survival of the fittest, strongest, and most competent among living creatures of all sorts, and humanity’s evolution from apes or similar creatures. This landmark treatise permeated every arena of national thought—particularly in the victorious, economically-expansive Union states of the North—including the social, from the 1860s onward.

Social Darwinism grew so omnipotent that many of the greatest captains of business and industry claimed a “conservative” version of it, even while organizations representing the most poverty-ridden farmers and laborers did a “reform” version. According to historian Clarence B. Carson, the conservative version sought to blend the elements of a vigorous free enterprise system, lack of government intrusion into the economy, the “survival of the fittest” philosophy, and the evolutionary progress toward advanced forms of all things.

Legendary American industrial magnate John D. Rockefeller said, “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out a law of nature and a law of God.”

After Andrew Carnegie read Darwin and Spencer, “the light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I found the truth of evolution…while the law may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest.”

Carnegie’s words led toward an ironic, pessimistic, and disturbing specter—that evolutionary “progress” guides itself, without direction from God or mankind. A fellow “conservative Darwinist” proponent, Yale economist William Graham Sumner, said as much: “The great stream of time and earthly things will sweep on just the same in spite of us…the tide will not be changed by us. It will swallow up both us and our experiments.”

What did Sumner suppose should people attempt to influence the process of naturalistic evolution? ”We can only by interfering with it produce the survival of the unfittest.”

Thus losing the allegiance toward and hope in the God of the Bible tended to shift one’s raison de etre from glorifying God to oneself, and loosed that person from the duty to help others. The fruits of this philosophy, practiced amidst the burgeoning American Industrial Revolution, led to the bitter conditions, earlier mentioned, that produced its antithesis, Reform Darwinism.

Sociologist Lester Frank Ward and others urged what they considered that brilliant product of naturalistic evolution—the human mind—to seek civil legislation, informed by the latest in sociological thought, to correct social injustices and inequities through such means as the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. That familiar-sounding elixir helped steer the American body politic toward its now-familiar course of creeping socialism, or government control of the means and disposition of production. Then, as now, the barrels of federal guns would enforce the reforms.


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