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Misunderstanding evolution: a historian's perspective on Social Darwinism

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So Emily and I have been talking about how natural selection, Darwin's theory of evolution, has differed from some of the ways that people have interpreted evolution over time, and specifically, was interested in this group known as the Social Darwinists, who were mostly a group of sociologists and other sort of public policy-makers who were trying to apply Darwin's theories to how the world should be ordered, and how races should relate to each other, classes should relate to each other, basically how this idea of evolution could be used to explain the world around them in a social way. So, Emily, you were explaining to me how natural selection actually works. - [Voiceover] So just as like a quick recap on whether that natural selection works in biological populations, is that there's some variation in the population that's heritable, meaning that it's in the organism's genes and it can be passed on to offspring, and if that variation affects how well the organism can survive and reproduce. So, if it affects how many offspring it's able to leave behind in the next generation, then it's possible for certain traits that are well-suited to the organism's immediate environment to become more and more common in the population over generations. So that's kind of the idea of natural selection in a nutshell. - [Voiceover] And we also talked about the fact that there's no such thing as one race or one organism being more evolved than another organism because we've all been evolving this whole time. So what I'd like to do now is just to talk about some of the ways that the sociologists of this time kind of mis-applied Darwin's theories, and just get your opinions on how what they were saying actually relates with how Biology really works. So, Herbert Spencer was a sociologist from England. He's actually the person who coined the term "survival of the fittest", which I think is interesting. So it wasn't Darwin who coined this term but rather, Spencer. And I think what was animating people like Spencer and other Social Darwinists in this time was just to say, "Why are some people "in a better social position than others?" So, why are some people poor versus rich, why do African-Americans or people from colonized nations have a worse situation in the world than people in civilized nations, or "civilized," kind of in air quotes, from that time period? And what Spencer said was, "Oh, this must be Darwinism." Right, it must be that people who are wealthy are better adapted to their environment; they're more evolved than people who are poor. So I think this idea of difference between the classes was one of the first animations behind the idea of Social Darwinism. So, is there any way that that actually relates to how Biology explains Darwinism? - [Voiceover] I mean, I think that that's really a case of an idea from Biology being not very accurately applied to society. You know, I think that there is probably a strong motivation for someone in Spencer's position to want to explain things in that way because that would justify inaction on his part and sort of say that this is acceptable because it's "natural". And, you know, I think that it's really not a very scientific or even an investigative perspective. I think that it was sort of an effort to fit something, sort of a round peg in a square hole, so to speak. - [Voiceover] Yeah, it's interesting. As I've been learning more about this, I've noticed that people in general seem to take up one of these explanations for like how the universe works, and then try to apply it to everything, even if it might not necessarily apply. So I think your word "inaction" here is really accurate because one of the things that Spencer is just wondering about is like, "Should the government do something "for people who are poor, "for people who are in a bad position?" And he basically says, "No," 'cause his idea is that if the government helps them, then you're interfering with this survival of the fittest, and that those sorts of people should naturally be bred out of the populace to make our other race more evolved. So is there any truth into this idea that you could make the human race more evolved by breeding out certain parts of it? - [Voiceover] My tendency would be to say that any program designed to reduce variation in a biological population is probably not going to be beneficial for that population. So that's kind of a broad statement but if you look at factors that make endangered species endangered, one of the big ones is that they have very low genetic variation in their gene pool. And that means that harmful gene versions are more likely to come together in the same individuals, so it's more likely for there to be genetic defects or genetic disorders. In general, a high level of variation is an indicator of a healthy population and a low level of variation, or any population where you have intensive inbreeding of similar individuals, that's gonna be a population that's probably less healthy. - [Voiceover] Interesting, because there's this very popular movement in the United States and then moving on to places like Germany, where we see this very strongly in the Holocaust of eugenics, right? The idea that you can make your race and your country more evolved, more fit, this survival of the fittest, by breeding out certain things that are termed "undesirable." - [Voiceover] I mean, in terms of long-term population survival from a biological standpoint, I don't see how that could be beneficial. I mean, you never know what's down the road. You never know if there's a new infectious disease that's gonna show up and who's gonna be resistant to it. Somebody who has genetic variation, that doesn't matter right now, but you don't know who that's gonna be. So it's that sort of general principle applies that the reason variation is great, is it prepares a population to deal with an uncertain future. - [Voiceover] This is so interesting to me because I think you see this a lot in history, because people in some ways here, there are very much confusing culture for Biology, because in many cases, they're saying that traits that they see as culturally undesirable, you know, looking through the eyes of white supremacy and sort of this racial and cultural supremacy of people from England, from the United States, from Western Europe, you know, they're looking around them and they see people who are different from them, and they ascribe that to a kind of biological inferiority when, in fact, it's just a cultural difference. - [Voiceover] I think that that's a very good way to state it; I think that there's just a big conflation here of cultural and biological, and applying ideas that might be great for one in a place where they're not actually as well-suited. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and I think that one thing that also interests me about this is the way that things like eugenics are used as justifications, and using Darwinism as a justification for not helping certain people, for saying, "Oh, you're less evolved; "you belong at the bottom of the social scale, "and if I help you, then I'm not helping us "evolve as a race," with also kind of a flip-side of saying, "Oh, we must help certain cultures "become more civilized." And you see that a lot in the era of colonialism, which is also big in the Gilded Age. It's kind of becoming a world event in the Gilded Age as England begins to take colonies in India, and Africa, and other nations do the same. One of the justifications that they're giving is "These people are less civilized than us. "They're less evolved than us, "and so we have to help them. "It's the white man's burden," a phrase by Rudyard Kipling, to help these other races evolve. - [Voiceover] Yeah, that's a very definite conflation of biological and social, I mean, teaching people to behave in a different way does not affect their biology. That was actually one of Spencer's misconceptions. He was an adherent of Lamarckian evolution which would suggest that if you gain a trait during your lifetime, you will biologically and genetically pass it on to your offspring and you may pass it on to your offspring by teaching them something, but genetic traits that are acquired during your life, you don't pass those on. You actually don't generally inherit-- - [Voiceover] They are acquired genetic traits. - [Voiceover] Yeah, exactly. So I think that that definitely reflects the confusion in terms of what biological evolution is and how it works mechanistically. - [Voiceover] I think if there's anything for us to take away from this, it's that one, there's no such thing as one person being more evolved than another person, or one race being more evolved than another race. I think there's actually not much of a biological basis for the concept of race, to start with, since human beings are biologically 99.9% the same. - [Voiceover] Yeah, I mean, from everything that I've seen, race is really something that people have come up with in an effort to categorize the world around them, but it's not actually reflected very meaningfully in people's genetics. You know, there are certain very superficial physical traits that are inherited, that we define as "race", but if you actually look at the genomes of the people who belong to a particular racial group, that is socially defined, there's a huge amount of variation there, and there's much more variation within what we would consider a race, than there are differences that separate races. Basically, it's a pretty arbitrary way to categorize people.