Books on Science and Religion #18: Social Darwinism and the Descent of Man

Books on Science and Religion #18: Social Darwinism and the Descent of Man

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Oct 5, 2014

In 1871, emboldened by the success of On the Origin of Species and having more to say on the topic of evolution, Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. According to Wikipedia:

Darwin applies evolutionary theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection, a form of biological adaptation distinct from, yet interconnected with, natural selection. The book discusses many related issues, including evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, differences between human races, differences between sexes, the dominant role of women in choosing mating partners, and the relevance of the evolutionary theory to society. 

descent of manIn recent blogs, we have been looking at Darwinism, scientism, and social Darwinism through the lens of the book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Richard Olson. Olson non-polemically defines scientism as “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context of the study of the natural world … into the study of humans and their social institutions.” He defines social Darwinism as an “appeal to evolutionary arguments, whether Lamarckian of Darwinian in tone and whether focused on individual or group dynamics, to argue on behalf of any social policy.”

Olson emphasizes that there were “sweeping theories of evolution that incorporated the idea that evolution extended fully to human physical and mental developments as well as to societal change well before Charles Darwin published anything on evolution.” These were politically influential and had influence on government policy as early as ten years before Darwin’s participation. But, he emphasizes, “Darwin’s work gradually eclipsed all prior investigations of evolution in term of their impact upon scientistic social theorizing”. The Descent of Man was Darwin’s opportunity to weigh in on the continuing dialogue 12 years after publication of the Origin of the Species, especially with regards to humans and the evolution of groups.

Evolution GraphicDarwin as a Darwinist

There is much in the Descent of Man to admire. Darwin endorses the oneness of humanity (in opposition to many other evolutionary thinkers). He introduces ideas about sexual selection and group selection as major mechanisms for evolutionary development. Perhaps most importantly of all, he argues that humans are the end result of evolutionary processes that led through the animal world. These ideas are of great scientific importance and were backed up by Darwin’s legendary explanatory thoroughness. They justly deserve to be honored.

But Darwin was also a “true believer” in the broader non-scientific explanatory power of evolutionary theory and engaged in scientism and social Darwinism as defined above (although it is likely he mistook his speculations as scientific in character). It is in light of these engagements that we must understand other aspects of The Descent of Man, including the claims below.

Man is Not Distinct from the Animals

Darwin’s introduces The Descent of Man as follows:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

Wikipedia summarizes Darwin’s argument as follows:

Darwin in a treeDarwin’s approach to arguing for the evolution of human beings is to outline how similar human beings are to other animals. He begins by using anatomical similarities, focusing on body structure, embryology, and “rudimentary organs” that presumably were useful in one of man’s “pre-existing” forms. He then moves on to argue for the similarity of mental characteristics.

[He asserts] that human character traits and mental characteristics are inherited the same as physical characteristics, and argues against the mind/body distinction for the purposes of evolutionary theory. From this Darwin then provides evidence for similar mental powers and characteristics in certain animals, focusing especially on apes, monkeys, and dogs for his analogies for love, cleverness, religion, kindness, and altruism.

He concludes on this point that “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

It is hard to pin down Darwin on whether or not he thinks man is merely an animal. In so many other areas, Darwin is willing to grant that new species exist when there are gaps and intervening big changes between two distinct groups. He seems to have been unable to think this way about the difference between man and the animals.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of the modern evolutionary synthesis, had no such trouble. His view is that

there is between humans and the other primates a difference in degree that becomes a difference in kind once a critical threshold is passed. What distinguishes man from other primates is the size and complexity of the human brain—a difference in degree—but once the human brain reached a critical level of size and complexity, there emerged mental capacities that other animals do not have—a difference in kind. Dobzhansky maintains: “Human self-awareness obviously differs greatly from any rudiments of mind that may be present in nonhuman animals. The magnitude of the difference makes it a difference in kind, and not one of degree.” He explains, “Quantitative differences may grow large enough to become qualitative.” (Arnhart, Larry. Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls. 3rd Ed,)

Women are Inferior to Men

Much of the Descent of Man was based on Darwin’s new theory of sexual selection. One of his claims is that his theory shows women to be inferior intellectually, thereby eliminating the need for higher education for women and preventing their being advantageously involved in political life.

200px-Emma_DarwinOlson summarizes Darwin’s view as follows:

[Darwin’s theory] suggested that over time, men were becoming increasingly more intelligent than women, because intelligence is positively selected for by both natural selection and by sexual selection. As a consequence, according to Darwin, in whatever requires “deep thought, reason, or merely the use of the senses and hands,” men are superior to women. It thus made little sense to provide higher education to women, who were generally incapable of meeting the mental demands that advanced education provided, nor did it make sense to allow women to be involved in public political life, which was presumably governed by reason.

Such thinking is merely laughable today.

There is a Need for Eugenics, i.e., the Need to Avoid “Breeding” by the Less Fit Members of Society, and

Darwin, influenced by his cousin Francis Galton who invented the concept, used The Descent of Man to speculate on the need for eugenics:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.

No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Darwin – a rich and privileged member of the British elite with no need to work for a living – thus appears to endorse eugenics, one of the most unfortunate developments of Victorian scientism.

Darwin vs. the Baha’i Faith

The Baha’i views on the topics listed above are sometimes diametrically different than Darwin’s.

Man is Not an Animal

According to the Baha’i writings (see Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution and references therein) man (i.e, humanity) evolved through many stages, but is a unique species:

Therefore, this change of appearance, this evolution of members, this development and growth, even though we admit the reality of growth and progress, does not prevent the species from being original. (Some Answered Questions p.194)

snake and cucumber Consider – is a snake just a cucumber with a propensity for movement and a different diet? Snakes and cucumbers both are the products of evolutionary processes and share some properties, but their substantial differences set them apart. Similar physical appearances (i.e, round, long, and without legs) don’t make them the same.

In the same way, according to the Baha’i writings, physical similarities don’t make humans and animals the same:

Man is not man simply because of bodily attributes. The standard of divine measure and judgment is his intelligence and spirit (Promulgation 184).

It is only physically that man resembles the lower creation, with regard to his intellect he is totally unlike it (Paris Talks 71).

The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. … Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings (Paris Talks 17).

Men-and-Women-Equal-BahaisWomen and Men are Equal

A central teaching of the Baha’i Faith is the equality of women and men, a view quite different from Darwin’s. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, proclaimed “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha visiting in the United States more than 100 years ago said:

The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment.

When the two wings . . . become equivalent in strength, enjoying the same prerogatives, the flight of man will be exceedingly lofty and extraordinary.

The difference with respect to Darwinism and its view that women are inferior couldn’t be greater.

The Baha’i Faith and Eugenics

The Baha’i Faith opposes eugenics (see The Modern Science of Breeding Better People). Referring to the views of those who hold that some people are defective, `Abdu’l-Baha said:

Even though we find a defective branch or leaf upon this tree of humanity or an imperfect blossom, it, nevertheless, belongs to this tree and not to another. Therefore, it is our duty to protect and cultivate this tree until it reaches perfection.

If they are as infants in development, we must minister to them until they attain maturity. … We should never detest and shun them as objectionable and unworthy. We must treat them with honor, respect and kindness; for God has created them.

Eugenics, like several other 19th century products of scientism and materialism, has a sordid history and still exerts a dangerous charm.

Next Blog

In the next blog we talk about how Darwinism fared in Germany where it not only became extraordinarily popular but morphed into what we now call scientific racism. We also trace the rise of theories of degeneracy – the idea that whole societies could undergo physical and intellectual collapse if the unfit were allowed to reproduce. Both of these trends were unforeseen by the pioneers of evolution.


This is the 18th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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