Darwin: Descent of Man

Readings for this week:
Charles Darwin: On Primeval and Civilized Societies from Descent of Man
Charles Darwin: The Fuegians, from Journal of the Beagle
Herbert Spencer: On Society as an Organism, from Principles of Sociology.

Guide to the readings this week:
Darwin on "primitive" and "civilized" societies
Darwin on the Fuegians and the problem of racial hierarchy
Spencer on society as an "organism"
Study questions for this unit.

This week we'll look at the problem of the evolution of societies. We saw in the last section how a debate over evolution and ethics immediately arose, focusing on whether evolution could be extended beyond its original scope of biology to include ethics. Similarly, there arose as debate over whether evolution could be extended to encompass the history of societies - that is to say, to explain how societies grow, develop, mature, decline, and perhaps even disappear.

Darwin on "primitive" and "civilized" society

The problem is determine whether societies evolve, acting in this way like organisms (or in Spencer's terminology, "superorganisms") or whether societies have historical dynamics that are unrelated to the phases of an organism. In this week's selections, I am going to focus on what Darwin and Spencer had to say on this matter; their views though distinct were related, and stand opposed to "standard" views of social science -- such as those of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons which are considered as foundational for much of modern sociology and the study of societies.

The text from Darwin is another chapter of Descent of Man, Ch. 5: On The Development Of The Intellectual And Moral Faculties During Primeval And Civilised Times. This chapter is key to understanding Darwin's view of how natural selection has been applied in "primitive" times and in "modern" times. Darwin, like all Victorian writers in the 19th century, used the term "primitive" to describe both pre-industrial societies outside Europe that were contemporaneous with industrial England, and early homid societies which preceded all contemporary societies. (This chapter is the chapter immediately following ch. 4 which you read for the section on evolutionary ethics).

Darwin continues to extend the scope of evolution, to both primitive and civilized society (I'll skip the quotation marks, but you should bear in mind the historical context of the terms). Note how he views the application of natural selection (the chief factor of evolution) to primitive societies in a positive way: a tribe which practices mutual aid or solidarity will tend to be more successful in opposition (or conflict) with tribes that do not.

Yet in the immediately following section, Darwin bemoans the misapplication of natural selection to civilized societies. In particular, he highlights the situation where the bravest and most determined men go off to war -- to be maimed and killed -- leaving the less brave and less active at home -- to have children (thereby increasing their biological "fitness", which is measured by number of progeny). In the worst case situation, not only are the feeble-minded and misfit protected, but the lower classes reproduce at a higher rate than the upper class. Darwin is concerned that this will lead to a "dumbed-down" society, and opens the way for considerations of a type now known as "social Darwinist".

Darwin is faced with a dilemma: natural selection when applied to primitive groups successfully selects for tribes that are more fit; but in civilized society, social measures have protected the weak and the unfit, threatening the viability of the society. Yet according to his view, society has evolved from primitive to civilized. Darwin never resolves the dilemma, and leaves an ambiguous (at best) legacy to his successors. Those that become known as "social Darwinists" tend to opposte social welfare and other protective measures, while a handful (like Kropotkin) who interpret Darwin as advocating cooperation, are concerned only with the ill effects of the state upon natural society.

Darwin on the Fuegians and the problem of racial hierarchy.

Darwin's views on "primitive" society is best illustrated in his chapter on the Fuegians from his Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle. Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle had on a previous voyage brought with him to England three South American "natives" from Tierra del Fuega (hence: Fuegians), whom he dressed and trained as proper Englishmen and women upon their arrival; they were even, once properly dressed, presented to the Queen. These three were on board the Beagle when Darwin joined the ship, and Darwin recounts in the chapter how they acted once brought back to their homeland: they threw away the European clothes they had worn and rejoined their compatriots in native dress.

Fitzroy was disgusted by their "reversion" to a primitive state, after all his efforts to "civilize" them. This confirmed his view of the hierarchy of races as fixed and immutable. In other words, there was a hierarchy of races: with Europeans at the apex, and black Africans at the base, with American "Indians" in the middle (along with Asians), and moreover, this hierarchy was unchangeable: those "uncivilized" would always be so and could not move up the ladder to assume European (and supposedly "higher") qualities.

In the terminology of Steven Jay Gould, Darwin believed in a "moveable hierarchy", where lower races could move up in level of civilization if provided the appropriate conditions of material wealth and education. Darwin's view, though characterized by racial thinking and in particular, racial hierarchical thinking, was liberal in comparison to that of Fitzroy: for Darwin, whole races, if provided favorable circumstances, could improve; while for Fitzroy, this simply could not occur. This parallels a debate over slavery which Darwin and Fitzroy had during the voyage of the Beagle: Fitzroy defended it as moral and inevitable, while Darwin was disgusted by its inhumanity and violence.

This same debate was played out with respect to women: Darwin argued that women, if educated like men, could equal them in achievements, though he never advocated (like John Stuart Mill) that this actually be done on a wide scale. In their "natural" conditions of wives and mothers, Darwin did not expect their achievements to be of the level of those of men; while conservatives of that epoch believed that even individual women could not be educated. We can therefore distinguish three attitudes towards race and gender:

This debate continues today under many forms and guises, to which has been added a "relativist" position that rejects any talk of hierarchies, and considers each society in the context of its adaptation (or not) to its local environment, rejecting comparisons of "higher" and "lower".

Spencer on society as an "organism"

In concluding this module, I have chosen two short chapters from Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology concerning the analogy between society and an organism. If evolution is to be applied to societies, then societies must be "something like" an organism in order to evolve. Spencer, who had previously distinguished three realms of evolution -- the inorganic (physical and chemical), the organic (biological and psychological ) and the superorganic (social and ethical) -- now considers this latter in its analogical relationship to the biological.

The metaphor of "society as an organism" (or for that matter, as a "superorganism") is needed if the evolution of society is to make sense. For those who reject this metaphor or analogy, the study of society (social science) is a study of social structures and processes which are unrelated or independent of an evolutionary process.

Spencer adds to this the following claim: that society proceeds from what he terms the "militant" (war-like) state of competition of all against all (social Darwinian in emphasis) to a higher "industrial" state, where peaceful cooperation is the basis for social relations amongst those who have survived the "war of all against all" of militant society. Spencer's model of simple, linear social evolution from lower (militant) to higher (industrial) society was quite popular in the second half of the 19th century, both in England and America. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I shattered the illusion of peaceful cooperation among the "higher" Europeans, who then proceded to slaughter each other in prodiguous quantities. Spencer, whose reputation had been so high in the period before 1900, nearly disappears from view after 1920, consigned to the status of one of the "founders" of sociology, but no longer considered a guide to the development of societies.

In short, the notion of "evolution of society" is problematic for both Darwin -- the tension between natural selection operating properly in primitive societies, but not in civilized ones -- and for Spencer -- the failure of European society to go from militant to industrial states and its reversion to the former state of affairs during the Great War.

This does, however, form an important part of the social context for the controversy over evolution and creationism, with which we will complete the course in the following weeks.

Study Questions

(1) What does Darwin mean by "primitive" and "civilized" societies?
(2) How does he feel that natural selection applies differently to each?
(3) How does Darwin analyze the situation of the Fuegians, both when in England and when home in South America?
(4) What does Spencer mean by "society as an organism"?