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Against Social Darwinism

Erich Ulrich von Weizsacker | 02.05.2003 03:27

"The conquest of Africa and large parts of Asia by invading European forces was not morally justified by anything. Only peace is morally justified. .Today social Darwinism appears in the guise of Anglo-Saxon capitalism..The interests of the environment and future generations must be protected..Ecology and pure market ideology are in conflict

Against Social Darwinism

Ecological-evolutionary reflections

By Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker

[This address at the 1999 German Evangelical church day is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker is an SPD (Socialist party in Germany) member of the German Bundestag.]

In this address, I will focus on social Darwinism, a dreadful and widespread mentality. Social Darwinism and war endanger the future.

The last three months was the quarter of the Kosovo war. This war still hangs over us like an evil dark shadow whenever gruesome details come to light.

Every war is always a lesson in “social Darwinism”. Usually one wins. But everyone is also a loser. The winner is in no way always the one with the better morals. Serbian leaders certainly didn’t have morality on their side. Outcomes were often reversed in the history of wars and the morally better lost. Thus the Indians were defeated, deceived, expelled and murdered in North- and South America by the European invaders.

The conquest of Africa and large parts of Asia by invading European forces was not morally justified by anything. Only peace is morally justified. The climax of the immoral conquests, slave trade and other deeply reprehensible acts by Europeans, was reached in the 19th century. The 19th century was also the century of Charles Darwin, the great British naturalist who explained the course of evolution. I will first speak about him. Then I will turn to the social misunderstandings that Darwin triggers again and again. Under this combative term “social Darwinism”, the “strong” in society have sought justification for policies benefiting them in the present and damaging the weak and future generations. Today social Darwinism mainly appears in the guise of Anglo-Saxon capitalism…

Darwin: a Conscientious Biologist

In Darwin’s time around 1840, a great diversity of fossilized animal- and plant remnants was known. Even before Darwin, researchers like Goethe tried to understand the origin of life in the primeval age. However Darwin offered a conclusive explanation. He identified “natural selection” as the determinative power of evolution. The neck of the giraffe was long enough to reach the leaves of the tall trees. A woodpecker that could strike the bark with its powerful beak to catch insects and create nests in the trunk flourishes in the forest. Male deer, lions and chaffinch that prevail in the conflict with others have more offspring than the inferior.

Nevertheless natural selection does not only exist in conflict. Good camouflage, good brood, cooperation or “symbiosis” with other animals or plants are just as important. When an insect species learns to skillfully reach the nectar of a blossoming plant, this is good for the insect and its offspring. A benefit also arises for the plant since it can pass along flower pollen to the insect as a blind passenger. Natural selection often leads to a co-evolution of plants and animals and to mutual advantages.

This capability for symbiosis and cooperation is often crucial for survival, not sheer power or the ability to manage with cold weather and meager food. This was the superiority of the weak little warm breeders over the gigantic saurians when the Cretaceous period ended with a climatic shock of coldness. Darwin emphasized the elegant specializations. On the Galapolos islands, 1000 kilometers from the South American mainland, he found finches that he never saw before. Later analysis of the bird songs in London showed him the most astonishing specializations unknown on the continent. The absence of parrots, woodpeckers, ants and vampires allowed the offspring of the finches to survive. The evolution in specializations was long developed to perfection on the mainland by other species.

For Darwin, these finches were the proof for the theory of natural selection. The island position protected the finches from a competition that they could only have lost. The enforcement of competition of everyone against everyone else in every place on earth was not Darwin’s idea. However this is sold as the essence of evolution by many economists appealing to Darwin’s selection principle.

Social Darwinism

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was immediately one of the great themes in imperial Victorian England. A large part of Darwin’s tremendous fame was connected with his second great work, the book about the origin of species. Humans had to derive from ancestors that were not humans, the apes or monkeys. Otherwise persons would not exist. Humans did not originate from dragonflies, seahorses or horses through a hardly genial evolutionary dynamic. Darwin was known as the man who said humans came from apes.

This was not shocking for enlightened minds. Darwin was a hero to whoever felt modern and openly opposed the hardened clergy of that age. Still disaster was imminent. For the modern scientifically enlightened person, Darwin was claimed for opposing other positions of the church like carative charity. All of a sudden the scientific enlightenment adopted the political idea that progress among people is driven by natural selection. In short, whoever was modern pleaded for the elbow society. This was practiced in the unfair struggle against Indians, Africans and Asians.

Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, simplified and brutalized Darwin’s biological ideas. Haeckel’s language and thinking are absolutely nauseating from a contemporary perspective. “The cruel and merciless `struggle for life’ raging everywhere in living nature, this ceaseless and inexorable competition of all living things, is an undeniable fact. Only the select minority of the favored diligent can happily survive this rivalry while the great majority of competitors must necessarily die miserably.”

Even if Haeckel claimed to be a scientist and not a politician, his words were politically intended. Haeckel declared very explicitly that Darwinism was not compatible with socialism. The root for the brilliantly frightening philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche lies in Haeckel’s horrific ideas. “One should honor the fate that says to the weak `Die’”.

Similar voices resounded in England, the original land of the selection theory. The transfer of Darwinism to an assumed struggle for life was accomplished by Herbert Spencer. Originally a journalist with the Economist, Spencer had read Darwin and understood him in part. He recognized that the higher evolution of organisms since Darwin could not be explained without outward interventions.

Spencer agitated politically that all interferences in society and in its natural selection should end. The struggle for life would select the best. When he saw thousands languishing and perishing in the slums of New York, Spencer wrote that he had been the privileged observer of an evolution process. This was an extreme form of social Darwinism. Spencer developed a hatred for the state and the church that meddled in the charitable acts of evolution. At most, the state should protect the selection process, Spencer said. With Ernst Haeckel, he was one of the stepfathers of all later forms of social Darwinism.

The Bible is actually a contrast program to social Darwinism. “The meek shall inherit the earth”, we read in the Sermon on the Mount. My biology experience tells me that tyrannosaurs and sable-tooth tigers disappeared while ringworms, symbiotic intestinal bacteria and well-camouflaged night crawlers multiplied a million-fold relatively undisturbed. More sense of reality appears in the Sermon on the Mount than in the pithy sayings of the social Darwinists Haeckel and Spencer.

Three forms of social Darwinism deserve our special attention: eugenics, Nazi ideology and the economic liberalism opposing the welfare state.

Eugenics is closely related to social Darwinism. Alongside Spencer, A. R. Wallace laid the foundation that anticipated Darwin’s treatise on natural selection. Wallace wrote that natural selection did not work in favor of morality and the intelligence since the mediocre or those with less morality and intelligence survived and reproduced best.

This fear that the decent and intelligent would increase less than the miserable masses pervades the whole modern history of humanity. Today many are frightened that people in developing countries may multiply more quickly than people in industrial countries. That Germans increased far more quickly than Indians or Egyptians a hundred years ago is repressed. Are Germans superior to Indians or Egyptians in morals or intelligence because we have more cars and more money?

However this may be, the rampant biological growth of the destitute was a widespread worry in Victorian England. This growth was discussed with moral categories. Jane Clapperton and Francis Galton, the creators of the word eugenics, made a political program out of the analyses of the different rates of reproduction. Ms. Clapperton called their idea of “higher genetic development or eugenics”. “The blood of the race is not contaminated by moral sickness”, she said in her pamphlet on the ideal society that pretended to be prophetic. “The social guardians will not be careless as to the happiness of future generations. As a result, the criminal will be forcibly prevented from reproducing his dissolute brood… The purified blood and the unmixed quality in the veins of the Brits will enable this race to rise far above the present level of natural morals.”

Francis Galton’s opinion that eugenics involved morals, character and intelligence gained greater notoriety than Ms. Clapperton. “Natural selection is based on surplus production and mass destruction. Eugenics insists that no more individuals be set in the world than can be well-supplied individuals of the best descent.”

In the glorification of eugenics, this is presented as civilized progress against blind nature. This idea has emerged again and again in different forms, today in advertising for genetic interventions to prevent hereditary defects.

While the idea may be fascinating, the germ of the criminal also lies here. Who decides over good and evil? Which genes are desired? What is allowed the person? Who protects diversity? How can we protect diversity from the tyranny of fashion, money and health insurances? I don’t have a responsible answer to all these questions. Rejecting the delusion or madness of eugenics is the conclusion that I draw.

The Seductive Nazi Ideology

One particular criminal form of this madness is painfully conscious to Germans: national socialist “racial hygiene”, the second form of social Darwinism. Whoever spoke about the human struggle for life had two possibilities: either this was a struggle of individuals or families against each other or it was a struggle of the biological races.

German national socialism prescribed this interpretation of the struggle of races. Racist Darwinian pamphlets circulated long before Hitler. Biological flaws and delusions did not end the nightmare of racist ideology. Rather it was a morally abominable conduct, the mass murder and the criminal offensive war that led Hitler Germany and its social Darwinian racist ideology to ruin. Hitler and his henchmen were cynically consistent when they proclaimed toward the end of the war that a race that didn’t win this battle wasn’t worthy of surviving.

The Historical Victory of Anglo-Saxon Ideas

The end of the Second World War was not only the end of racist German social Darwinism. This was also the most important victory in the triumphal worldwide procession of Anglo-Saxon thought. This Anglo-Saxon thinking can be best described in the wicked antithesis of Werner Sombart. Sombart contrasted the virtues of “watchmen” with the vices of the “traders”. The watchmen were the moral guardians, the people, the state and the church. The traders were those who thought only of despicable money and profitably sold what others created in the sweat of their brows. Sombart’s caricatured criticism of capitalism had a strong influence on the national socialists and was used notoriously as a weapon to discredit Jews identified with the contemptible motives of traders. Americans and the English were insulted as people of trade.

In 1945, these traders conquered over a certain kind of watchmen. The victory was ideologically total. The post-war era can be described as the time of the triumphal American procession. The economic principle prevailed internationally, first in the West. This can be studied in western Europe’s gradual development. A great adversary still existed: communism, a system of “watchmen” in Werner Sombart’s sense.

This watchman type also conquered in 1989/90. Since then, the traders have had the upper hand. This lasted only two years until 1992 when Jane Jacobs took up Sombart’s caricatured antithesis with opposite signs. For Jacobs, the victory of the traders was historically inevitable and morally justified. For her, the traders were the good and the watchmen were the evil. The traders were stylized as absolutely peaceful. They face one another in an unarmed competition that simply decides the best. In contrast, the watchmen were allied with the sinister powers. One time they were corrupt popes, another time Nazis and another time Islamic fundamentalists always using the state to implement their moralizing theories, sometimes with force of arms,

In reality, Jane Jacobs produced a moralizing caricature. A powerful moralizing spread during the continuous triumphal procession of the traders and Anglo-Saxon thinking. The traders with their kind of morals made the state submit. They demanded that the freedom of trade be enforced with state force of arms… The submission of the state under the law of the traders enabled capital to move unhindered across all continents and produced a “positional competition” for the most favorable investment conditions. Only the state that submits to the laws of capital and its desires for multiplication can win this positional competition.

Representatives of capital use a touching way of speaking for this subjugation. They say capital is “timid like a deer”. With the slightest bureaucratic or fiscal dissonance, capital becomes afraid and migrates elsewhere. This fairy tale language of the supposedly peaceable traders makes the matter incredible to me by veiling the explosive social-political facts. The distance between rich and poor enlarges. The taxes on capital interests are much lower than the taxes on profits from human labor.

What is sinister in the victory of Anglo-Saxon thinking is its disguised social Darwinism. Free competition is also a system of “natural selection”. Those who emphasize this selection mechanism are superior in the competition of systems and states. On the other hand, social policy, legal care and environmental conditions usually act as competitive disadvantages in courting the timid deer capital.

I do not deny that attracting mobile capital does much that is good, helps remove bureaucratic encrustations and brings fresh wind in the land. Still I do not believe that the competition of positions automatically enables the good systems to conquer over the bad breeding the best of all systems. That is the fairy tale world of Anglo-Saxon social Darwinians in modern economic guise.

US: The Victory of the Strong is the Victory of the Good

The good against the bad, the strong against the weak and the market against the state are recurring figures in the US. American friends struggle courageously against these figures. The black-white construct dominates political life in the US. In narratives and the media, the sheriff is the victor on the battlefield in the Wild West. As the strong, the sheriff represents the good. Whether the sheriff is strong because he is good or whether he is good because he is strong is not completely clear according to the drama of wild west films. This uncertainty comes from the time of the wars of conquest against the Indians when it was said: “A good Indian is a dead Indian.” The sheriff reflects biological Darwinism. The diligent identified afterwards was the one who survived. With the optimistic assumption that life essentially goes upwards in the course of evolution, one is tempted to say that the sheriff was good because he remained on the battlefield as the victor.

The uneasy question is raised about morals in war, particularly when democracy is involved.

What is true for Wild West films has a powerful actuality in the countless animated cartoons to which American and increasingly European children are exposed through television with its very fast picture sequences. Anxiously or joyfully, children identify with the stronger one. Afterwards with gameboy or computer games, the children themselves are the stronger ones with mighty cannons against the well-armed invaders from outer space. Lives are forfeited. Then Game Over is heard. Were the invaders the good ones at the end?

A television station beloved by American youngsters alternates mostly military high tech and animal films in which the struggle for life is very obvious and primitive. Precision American missiles are now in great demand. In animal films, lions are very popular when they tear the weakest sucklings from the zebra herd… The book “The Egoistic Gene” by Richard Hawkins that made popular the stepchild murder rare in the animal world was an absolute hit in the Anglo-Saxon area.

That dolphins support sick members of the species and wolves minimize conflict with gestures of humility has little resonance in Anglo-Saxon journalism. American kschool children and newspaper readers hardly learn that refined mechanisms exist in nature to protect diversity, the weak and strange odd sorts. Genetic mutations are produced one after another. Mutants are usually recessive. Remaining largely invisible, they are protected from the grasp of selection and often can spread over millions of years.

Many barriers help to protect the less forceful with the welcome effect that a great diversity of options exists in cases of great environmental changes. When strange sorts survive and do not disappear through instant selection, this is good for evolution.

A systematic pessimistic anthropology underlies the Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism with its basic optimistic assumption about the increasing improvement of the world. This derives from Thomas Hobbes 350 years ago. Hobbes’ pessimistic anthropology is quoted in liberal economic circles. What Hobbes concluded from his anthropology, that a strong state is necessary, is largely repressed in these circles. An “everyone-against-everyone” liberalism without the state corrective in favor of the weaker is structurally unstable.

The contempt for the state, above all the welfare state, that is widespread in America has a high cost. There are twenty times as many victims of murder and manslaughter with guns in the US compared to Germany. This is not very surprising when guns are in every house, cannon duels resound in computer games and the right of the stronger is emphasized in school and television. This is hardly exemplary.

When market economy theory is reproached as oriented in social Darwinism, one hears that the goal of market competition isn’t to bring people to death. Thus the reproach fades into empty space. However when the strong defeats the weak, great social unhappiness is usually produced among the losers. Losers are the poorest of the poor in developing countries. Hundreds of thousands die miserably like the slum dwellers of New York at the time of Herbert Spencer.

The Environment is Weakest Today

Strong and weak persons depend on our natural foundations of life. This is easily forgotten in the heated political and social discussion. The weakest link in the globalized market economy is always nature. Nature has no purchasing power and no votes to bestow.

The purely anthropocentric interpretation of the economy and competition must be overcome. Emphasizing the strength of the human species to use its powers until food rivals are expelled or eradicated and the foundations of life are completely consumed would be a horrible misunderstanding of Darwinism.

Nevertheless the purist market economy ideology in its core contains this appeal. This ideology is infatuated with the modern economic success of the stronger. That nature and resources are ransacked until they become scarce is right and in order according to this ideology of the victory of the stronger over the weaker. Just before it becomes critical, the market would receive the necessary signals of scarcity that could stop this ransacking.

The present American living standard is defended by this ideology, not only the free market. Withy great pathos, president George Bush declared on his departure for the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro: the “American way of life” is not an issue or object of negotiation. That the American way of life cannot be extended to three, six or ten billion people simply doesn’t enter American discussions on the earth summit, protection of the atmosphere or biological diversity.

The US delegation behaves just as arrogantly on protection of the atmosphere and protection of biological diversity. On biological security in the case of genetically modified organisms, the American delegation declares all national precautionary measures to be trade barriers.

Ecology and the purist market economy are incompatible. Whoever constantly discredits the state as a bureaucratic trade barrier undermines the only authori8ty that still has the power to enforce protection of nature and her resources against the selfish exploitative claims of the private sector. The pure market ideology denies the right to exist of future generations.

In Darwin’s sense, this is the crass antithesis to diligence. Ability can never only refer to present individuals from a carefully argued Darwinian biology. Rather ability is first proven in the continuous generational succession. The discounting or devaluation of future values common in the economy is absurd from the perspective of a good Darwinism.


Chuirch day addresses do not call to struggle against the market economy. The market economy and liberal democracy are undoubtedly better than the bureaucratic socialism of past days, let alone the criminal aberrations of national socialism. We have no choice other than to seek solutions with acknowledgment of the market economy and its superiority.

Enlightenment stands at the beginning of the free society, enlightenment about the disastrous side effects of an ideology that began as enlightenment.

The anthropocentric way of looking at things is completely inadequate whether the free enterprise or the social-political anti-free enterprise orientation. This is part of enlightenment. When we think within the scope of the market economy, we must demand that the prices on the market at least approximately mirror the ecological truth. Everyone knows that modern prices for oil and gas essentially reflect the sheer overexploitation costs occurring with progressive exploitative technology. The market must be guided with taxes in the interests of the environment and future generations.

This is obviously not enough. Whoever speaks about a fair free trade must admit that uncontrolled exploitation cannot continue and should be punished according to the anti-dumping rules. The World Trade Organization (WTO) must devise and respect rules referring to environmental and resource protection.

International agreements on environmental- and social policy are vital. That Americans bitterly oppose this course may not dissuade us. A growing worldwide approval of our European way is clear. Opposition to the pure market ideology always had the upper hand in democratic elections over the last years. In his new book, George Soros, the most successful speculator of all time, says financial markets are inherently unstable and international rules for capital are imperative.

Perhaps it is time to proclaim and realize a “Rhine capitalism” instead of an Anglo-Saxon capitalism by utilizing this insight and the new political majorities. While this term doesn’t come from Germany but from the French political scientist Michel Albert, it refers to the German social market economy developed by Alfred Muller-Armack and Ludwig Erhard. Rhine capitalism is characterized by the timid deer of money, social peace, reliability, a good state guaranteed education, an infrastructure and a large buyers’ market. In addition, the ecological crisis necessitates a re-orientation of technical progress.

The technical progress that long insisted on rationalizing away labor must concentrate in the future on more considerate use of nature, that is rationalizing away energy- and material consumption. Efficiency in using energy and materials can be improved by a factor of four. Whoever promotes this efficiency should be rewarded, not punished. This is a powerful reason for the ecological tax reform that gradually makes the factor nature consumption more expensive and human labor cheaper.

The churches could seek the ideological confrontation with the social Darwinian tendencies of economic doctrine. The 1997 social declaration of evangelical and catholic bishops was a landmark. The church must take a clear position for the defense of the environment and the rights of posterity and where necessary confront market ideologists.

All of you, ladies and gentlemen, can share in the enlightenment work. Support the church where it is courageous. Become involved in associations and parties. Loudly confess that Christianity is in conflict with a social Darwinian elbow society.


Social Darwinism

[This article is translated from the German in the historical lexicon on the World Wide Web,  http://www.sn1.childhs/externe/protect/texts/D17431.html.]

Social Darwinism is a doctrine arising in the 1870s according to which every community functions according to the same natural laws as described by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. The capable prevail against the less capable in human society in the course of history. Only the strongest survives in the struggle for life declares Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest”. This idea is expanded in the conflict between nation states. That the most powerful nations will ultimately conquer in the struggle for life served as a biological legitimation for imperialism (colonialism).

The natural philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and the racist hygenicist Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940) were German protagonists of this theory. Social Darwinism developed the Darwinian struggle for life into a comprehensive social hygienic program that viewed the ruin of the socially inferior or incompetent as necessary and justified. Social Darwinians turned against the state support of poor sectors of the population because this invalidates natural selection. At the same time, they urged a reproduction prohibition on the so-called hereditarily inferior so people would not degenerate across the generations (eugenics).

Social Darwinian thought did not only appear in right-wing circles at the beginning of the 20th century. In Switzerland, the socialist Auguste Forel was one of the most passionate defenders of S. He deplored humane relations with the weak and proposed sterilization of inferior creatures. The psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler saw medical care and support of the poor as an offense against the Darwinian principle of selection. During the 1st World War, the anthropologist Otto Schlaginhaufen grappled with the question whether war as a breeder promoted the advance of the efficient by stamping out the weak or whether war decimates the efficient. The physician Eugen Bircher and Ernst Laur, the secretary of the Swiss Farmers association represented social Darwinian thought on the political stage. The association propagated a mixture of S. and blood and soil ideology. S. also appeared in literary and journalistic works.

Without being named explicitly, social Darwinian orientations in Switzerland in the 20th century served as a basis for the racist struggle waged by the rightwing against so-called foreign control (xenophobia or hostility to foreigners). The argument had clear characteristics of anti-semitism where it was directed against Jewish immigrants. In its core, S. was always used as a scientifically garnished weapon in the struggle against the working class movement. Later it was one of the ideological foundations for the social-political and eugenic measures in national socialism. `Social Darwinian’ ideas emerged in the discussions around genetic engineering and sporadically among fundamentalist representatives of the ecology movement.


Erich Ulrich von Weizsacker
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