All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1973

Evolution and Liberty

Mr. Cooney is a free-lance writer recently graduated from the University of Nevada.

When, on July 1, 1858, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented their paper on the origin of species before London’s Linnean Society, they could have had but little inkling of the revolution in thought they were fomenting. Of course, a theory of the origin of man outside the accepted religious belief of man as a divine creation was sure to provoke a new clash, in a war centuries old, between science and religion. Then too, the assumptions of science up to that time would have to be modified—or abandoned — to fit the new knowledge. This much Darwin could have divined. But could he have known the effect his theories were to have on fields as distant from biologic science as political philosophy and economics? Could he have known the uses — or misuses — to which his theories would be put in those fields?

In truth, Darwin’s discoveries were very influential in both of these areas. For proof of that, one need look no further than the school of social and political thinkers known to us as the Social Darwinists. To these men, the Darwinian hypothesis was a galvanizing axiom. Darwin had found in the struggle for existence a biological foundation for competition among and between men, and in the survival of the fittest a justification for laissez-faire. Here, felt the libertarian spirits of the Social Darwinists, was the definitive answer to all socialistic and reformist agitators. Lockean liberalism was thereby wedded — as we shall see, not entirely compatibly — to the findings of modern science.

Nowhere were the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of this union more apparent than in the writings of the chief American Social Darwinist, in many ways the Social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner. So thoroughly did Sumner dominate Social Darwinist thinking from the middle 1880′s to 1900, so completely did he represent the movement as theoretician, expositor, and publicist, that his work, a few books and numberless essays and newspaper articles, offers a kind of proving ground for the truth or falsity of Social Darwinist doctrine.

Sociology and the Scientific Study of Society

Sumner began his adult life as an ordained minister. He had, however, a great interest in sociology, then a fledgling science. After reading Herbert Spencer’s Study of Sociology and Principles of Sociology, he became convinced of the need for studying society as the biologist studied plants, animals, or any other organisms, within the framework of fixed and immutable laws.

The first of these is evolution. The slow and steady process which brings a new species of animal into being is at work all the time in society, working toward a new social organization. Man has no control over the designs of Nature, nor should he. “Reforms” aimed at “improving” the plan of Nature are doomed to well-deserved failure.

Then comes competition. Animals compete for food or territory, and man competes with man for the necessities of life.

Next comes the survival of the fittest. Certain animals survive because of their superior strength, cunning, or adaptability. They are Nature’s favored. So it is too in human society. The fittest are those best qualified by natural aptitude, intelligence, or economic strength to survive the struggle for existence with Nature and with other men. Liberty and laissez-faire are demanded, not because of natural rights, which Sumner scorns as specious, but because they alone allow the free play of evolution and competition, and insure the survival of the fittest.

At times it is difficult to disentangle one thread of Sumner’s argument from the other, so interwoven are the two, evolutionary and libertarian. Here he is, for instance, in his book What Social Classes Owe To Each Other, speaking on the reasons why state-charity, that popular socialist nostrum, should be disallowed:

Certain ills belong to the hardships of human life. They are natural. They are part of the struggle with nature for existence. We cannot blame our fellow-men for our share of these.

As we can see, the evolutionary-naturalistic argument is the dominant one in this passage. Elsewhere though, the libertarian holds sway, as in this excerpt from the same book:

… if his fellow-men, either individually… or in a mass, impinge upon him otherwise than to surround him with neutral conditions of security, they must do so under the strictest responsibility to justify themselves. Jealousy and prejudice against all such interferences are high political virtues in a free man. It is not at all the function of the State to make man happy.

Taking these two passages together they seem to say this: Each man must wring from Nature what his capacities and his liberty will permit. To interfere with this struggle and with the dictates of Nature is anti-Nature, anti-liberty, and finally, anti-civilization.

For Sumner sees the end-product of such meddling as nothing less than the destruction of society. The following extract from his essay, “The Challenge of Facts,” draws freely on the vocabulary of the evolutionist:

Nature is entirely neutral; she submits to him who most energetically and resolutely assails her. She grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without any regard to other considerations of any kind. If then, there be liberty, men get from her just in proportion to their works… If we do not like it, and if we try to amend it, there is only one way in which we can do it. We can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better… We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty… we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.

Few passages in the whole Social Darwinist canon show the unique junction of evolutionary and libertarian concepts as sharply as this one does.

If the struggle for existence proceeds without interference from the State or any other agency, then men will receive from Nature what is their due. Private property, therefore, is simply the reward of the struggle. No impediments may be placed in the way of getting and keeping property. Liberty and property are complimentary. Sumner says:

The condition for the complete and regular action of the force of competition is liberty. Liberty means the security given to each man that, if he employs his energies to sustain the struggle on behalf of himself and those he cares for, he shall dispose of the product exclusively as he chooses… it is the definition of justice that each shall enjoy the fruit of his own labor and self-denial, and of injustice that the idle and industrious, the self-indulgent and the self-denying, shall share equally in the product.

To sum up the main points of Sumnerian Social Darwinism: Evolution determines the social structure. Interference with evolution is presumptuous folly, especially inimical if it includes interference with the law of competition and the struggle for existence. Such interference will favor the worst members of the community at the expense of the better. Eventually, private property will be destroyed, and with it justice, liberty, and civilization.

The Laws of Nature

Sumner obviously believed that liberty and evolution are synonymous. But are they? Sumner perceived society as being ruled by the laws of Nature. Man remains an animal, subject to the whims of Nature. He may try to avoid his fate, to postpone or deflect it, but in the end he must accept it. Nature is the master, man the servant. No conceivable amount of man-made laws can alter the fact.

No amount of interference will stay the great tide of evolution from rolling on to the goal it has set for itself.

Certainly such a deterministic view comprises a forceful case against hasty legislative meddling, but it also has serious implications for human liberty. If we agree on the inevitability of evolution, we must further agree that all human effort — which is man using his liberty — is useless, unless it is in accord with Nature’s plan. But being mere men, we cannot know what that plan is. Nature conceals her intentions.

Suppose, as Marx believed, the arrival-point of history is the socialized state, the so-called “inevitability” of communism. Does this mean we should bow our heads for the yoke of statism because evolution has ordered us to do it? Is it not futile to oppose socialism if evolution wills socialism? Conversely, is it not superfluous to oppose socialistic laws if evolution will destroy them anyway? More, what assurances have we that evolution will not bring socialism in spite of our labors? Truthfully, we have none. Yet we can still oppose socialism as destructive of freedom without resorting to the position that it is counter-evolutionary. We can hope evolution moves toward freedom, and we can work to the attainment of that end through the medium of our free will — something such evolutionary predestination refuses to recognize.

A thoroughgoing determinism has the secondary consequence of rendering moral judgments practically meaningless. Men who are the victims of blind natural forces beyond their control cannot be held answerable for their actions, either good or bad. In fact, words like “good,” “bad,” “guilty,” and “innocent” are drained of all significance. No system of justice or morality is possible unless one supposes a man is accountable for what he may do. The assumption of this is the essence of libertarianism, just as absolving a man of responsibility is the essence of statism.

Determinism makes for inconsistency in one who sees life in the stark moral terms Sumner did. The theological training he received earlier in life colored his thinking long after he had abandoned preaching and taken up the gospel of evolution. He divided society into two halves, each illustrating a moral absolute, both mutually exclusive. The virtuous he identified with the qualities of thrift, honesty, industry, and economic success. The virtueless he identified with the qualities of profligacy, dishonesty, sloth, and economic failure. The virtuous were the “fittest,” the “better” in the struggle for existence. The virtueless were the “unfittest,” the “worse” in the struggle for existence. Socialism would interfere with the natural law of competition and maintain the unfit at the expense of the fit. Often, when discussing this question, Sumner would cite the intrusion on individual liberty almost as an afterthought.

An Oversimplification

One can understand and sympathize with Sumner’s strict dichotomy of society while admitting it is rather too simple. Comparisons between the human and animal world can go so far and no farther. By equating “fitness” and virtue with economic success, Sumner has surely gone too far. There is no evidence that the economically successful are the “fittest,” and the poor the “unfittest,” or that evolution recognizes either as such. We may believe that thrift, industry, and honesty are virtues worthy of praise, but we can never be sure evolution will not favor profligacy, sloth, and dishonesty.

Sumner was curiously pessimistic about man’s ability to influence evolution, and curiously optimistic about the result evolution would produce. And optimistic too that the fittest are necessarily the sentinels of liberty. One can only guess at the number of people who wore with ease the mantle of the “fittest” while simultaneously supporting — against Sumner — high tariffs and protectionism.

With competition, Sumner is on firmer ground, although here once again he falls into traps of his own making. Men do compete, and so do animals. Except as a metaphor, however, the analogy is of little worth. It ignores the vital part contract plays in the relations between men, the combining of interests for common benefit which is a distinctly human invention and which exists nowhere else in Nature. Sumner is doubtless correct that competition permits a full realization of man’s potentialities. Contract, however, keeps competition from being the brutal process, “red in tooth and claw,” that it is in Nature.

Socialist attacks on Social Darwinism were common throughout the 1890′s and early 1900′s. Some of these attacks, it must be admitted, were convincing insofar as they refuted — or tried to refute — the applicability of evolutionary theories to society. Admitting this by no means confirms the validity of socialism, however. Indeed, the refutation of glaring evolutionary presumptions disposes not at all, as some commentators sympathetic to socialism have suggested, of the core of libertarian truth in Social Darwinism. One need not believe, for example, that competition is “natural” to believe that it provides an essential impetus for the improvement of man and society. One need not defend an arbitrary “fittest” to oppose State interferences with the rights of the individual. One need not think it is wrong to meddle with the forces of Nature to support laissez-faire on the conviction that it maximizes freedom.

The mistake the Social Darwinists made was thinking liberty required an external justification, a scientific apologia. In this, they conceded the libertarian defense of capitalism, individual rights, and laissez-faire no longer held currency. They built a new foundation upon the irrelevant and highly dubious base of natural science. By so doing, they weakened the very thing they sought to sustain. They ceased being libertarians and began being evolutionists. If we can successfully distinguish evolution from liberty, we can save the Social Darwinists from themselves. Then, perhaps, they will cease being evolutionists and begin again to be libertarians. Liberty will emerge the stronger for it.