Christmas Day… Boxing Day… why not keep up the holiday cheer with Beagle Day? On 27 December 1831, Charles Darwin set sail on HMS Beagle out of Plymouth Harbor, and promptly got seasick. Which is worth mentioning because Darwin has become more than a man to us. As Lewis Mumford wrote, “he is like some great earth-god mingling with his own creations.” We hold him responsible for much — too much. Darwin and his -ism did much less than we think. Especially, and for the love of Mike, would people please stop writing about “social Darwinism”?

It’s a cliché of the history paper that during the industrial era, misery and suffering stalked the land: Infernal mills sent vile plumes up to cloud the skies. Steam machines sank their filthy limbs into the earth to draw forth its riches. Steel rails and tractor furrows bound nature to the unyielding grid of reason, enslaved to the god of profit. The grimy, poverty-struck, and disease-ridden hordes of humanity scuttled along in service to these mighty apparatus and the lords of plutocracy, who in their comfort surveyed this war of a few against everything and pronounced it good: “survival of the fittest,” they said; “natural selection.” It will all end up well, because social Darwinism said. Bad Charles Darwin!

But it ain’t so, for at least two reasons. First, Darwin himself understood Darwinism to prescribe no such policy. Why? Because he noticed, if you haven’t, that let to run on its own, natural selection often leads to the elimination of species that had for a time been well adapted to their environments. Darwinism predicts no progress to a happier future and so, Darwin wrote, you shouldn’t expect to ride it anywhere good: “if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

Second, the contrary idea, that unchecked exploitation of the weak would lead to a better tomorrow, actually predated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — as one of its principal authors, Herbert Spencer, was keen to point out. It was Spencer who recommended “the mercy of severity,” who claimed “the well-being of existing humanity [is] secured by that same beneficent, though severe discipline, to which the animate creation at large is subject: a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good,” and who mildly noted that “The forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of individual suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way, with the same sternness that they exterminate beasts of prey and herds of useless ruminants. Be he human being, or be he brute, the hindrance must be got rid of,” all in Social Statics, which appeared in 1850, nine years before On the Origin of Species, and whose policy recommendations included the elimination of the Poor Laws, the Sanitary Laws, and any other institutions that permitted disobedient imperfections (also known as unfortunate human beings) to thrive. It was the optimistic Spencer, the Spencer who assured everyone that present misery led to future perfection, whom the heartless lionized. “The American nation will be a long time in evolving its ultimate form…. but … its ultimate form will be high,” he declared.1

Well, so what, you may ask. So “social Darwinism” really should be called “social Spencerism.” It’s all just names, right? No. It’s about the substantial difference between faith and reason. When we defame Darwin as the author of a vicious doctrine that underwrites the mistreatment of our fellows, we not only libel a decent person who went out and got sick on the Beagle for our betterment, we perpetuate the worst part of anti-Darwinist polemics: the idea that Darwinism licenses amorality and heartlessness. Darwin made himself as clear as he could on this point: it is precisely the idea that natural selection predicts no necessary good outcome that presses us to behave better than our brute urges. It is Spencer’s great and comforting lie that perfection awaits if only we can countenance savagery now, which lets us smile and smile and see murder done in our names.

1The discussion here owes almost entirely to the brilliant Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought, in which Bannister points out that although the later Spencer was more pessimistic, it was not the later Spencer whom laissez-faire promoters admired.

There’s also an excellent point to be made as Frank Sulloway does with respect to the finches that it was the idea of natural selection that led to Darwin’s ability to understand his Beagle evidence — not the Beagle evidence that led Darwin to develop the idea of natural selection.