History

In Defense of Herbert Spencer

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When the second sentence of your essay begins with the phrase "in the interests of historical accuracy," everything that follows really should be historically accurate. Unfortunately for readers of The New York Times, Columbia University philosophy professor Philip Kitcher fails to deliver on his own promise.

Writing in yesterday's Times, Kitcher uses President Barack Obama's recent description of the Republican budget plan as "thinly-veiled Social Darwinism" to offer his own "historically accurate" take on what Social Darwinism is all about. According to Kitcher, the whole ugly business is the fault of Herbert Spencer, a classical liberal thinker "whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read." Kitcher continues:

Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, "red in tooth and claw" — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American "robber barons," found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand .

Kitcher, like so many of Spencer's other lazy critics, appears not to have understood what Spencer actually wrote. Yes, Spencer coined the potent phrase "survival of the fittest," which Charles Darwin later added to the fifth edition of his Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer did not mean brute force or ruthlessness. In Spencer's view, human society was evolving from a "militant" state, which was characterized by violence and coercion, to an "industrial" one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. So not only did Spencer think labor unions could be a useful check on the "harsh and cruel conduct" of employers, he also believed "the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other" to be a necessary and proper element of true liberalism. Indeed, Spencer devoted 10 chapters in his Principles of Ethics to spelling out the importance of "Positive Beneficience," or private charity. So much for not taking "steps to protect the weak."

There are other reasons to still admire Spencer and his work today, including his pioneering support for feminism and women's equality and his principled anti-imperialism (in 1881 Spencer even invited Charles Darwin to join him in supporting Britain's new Anti-Aggression League, which Darwin politely declined.) For more on how this libertarian individualist became smeared as one history's greatest monsters, check out my 2008 article "The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer."

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  1. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest…

    Oh go fuck yourself.

    1. To continue where you left off Joe,
      “…in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.

    2. Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction too.

      Got that far and then it was obvious this was some ill informed partisan ranting against his favorite strawman.

  2. I don’t suppose Herbert Spencer is as widely read as J.K. Rowling or whomever, but I remember reading excerpts from him in both high school and college. It’s not like he’s some forgotten philosopher libertarians are dredging up from nowhere.

  3. I am, in all cases, a Spencerian. I don’t know why he’s demonized so much- excepting from the viewpoint of ignorance.

    1. He’s demonized because he wasn’t a Democrat.

  4. “Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand.”

    This is a nice touch–in case any of Kitcher’s readers thought he might actually be advancing independent thoughts of his own rather than the party line.

    1. How many adolescents could struggle through any of Rand’s writings? Hell, I was in my thirties, and I still had to slog through them.

      1. I’ve never read them.

      2. My AP English teacher assigned The Foutainhead to us in high school. Easiest assignment of the year. Read a Cliff’s notes for the story, read the courtroom speech, done.

        1. Eh, I don’t know if that would work.

          Ultimately I think The Fountainhead is actually about Peter Keating, and not about Roark at all.

          I’m not sure if that would come out in a Cliff Notes summary.

          1. Ultimately I think The Fountainhead is actually about Peter Keating, and not about Roark at all.

            Is that really in question?

            Roark is there as the measuring stick, so that Keating can hold himself up to an ideal, and see that he is lacking.

        2. Read The Foutainhead as a high school senior in the late spring. Realized I had no absences for the year, and remembering how stupid my friend Geoffry looked going up to get his perfect attendance award, I called in sick one day and stayed home to read it.

      3. As long as admirers of Rand’s ideas are “adolscents,” may be begin referring to progressive views as
        “infantile?”

        1. It fits. Most progressive ideology is simply butt-hurt whining about the fact that life isn’t fair. You’re right, it isn’t. So fucking what? Grow up and deal.

          1. You’re right, it isn’t. So fucking what

            “So, let’s grow our numbers, gain positions of power, and then we can enforce Fairness with violence funded with other people’s stuff, preferably the people who don’t agree with us.”

            1. “Sounds Fair to me.”
              -Scumbagratfuck#2 responding to Scumbagratfuck#1

        2. It’s funny that the majority of people who say or write about Objectivists and / or libertarians as children have a political philosophy that it the exact same as a infant’s.

          It wants things, it doesn’t care where they come from, and it will scream constantly until it gets them.

    2. “just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand”

      Ah, yes. The douchebag gang sign.

  5. Anyone who compares Spencer to Rand really should not hold tenure to teach philosophy.

    Spencer saw the end game of human social evolution as ending the distinction between a selfish and selfless act. In other words, not only did he favor “voluntary cooperation”, but he saw societies marked by widespread collective cooperation as efficient and as Darwinistically advantaged, and longingly looked forward to a time when we would all move into the utopia by occupying neat little social Skinner boxes.

    1. … he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition.

      The author thinks this is a bad thing? Take the example of the NCAA tournament: it is the “fierce competition” that creates the excitement. First of all, the top teams in the country are selected, and pitted against each other. The competition can make marginal teams play above their talent. The competition can expose talented teams weaknesses. Each round tempers the winning team, ultimately resulting in the championship game where both teams are playing their best ball. Certainly there is a winner and a loser, and the winning team deserves the glory. But even the losing team was elevated to heights it would not have achieved without entering this competition.

  6. I’d offer up a couple of observations in defense my own personal libertarianism as not being the social Darwinism that most people think of–regardless of whether their perceptions of real social Darwinism are historically accurate.

    1) Altruism is a result of natural selection.

    If there were no instances of altruism in the natural world, that would be an interesting argument in favor of God. If altruism didn’t come to us by way of natural selection, then where did it come from?

    There are examples of altruism in the natural world. There are animals that watch out for predators while others of the same species forage. The watchers cry out from the periphery when predators approach, thus bringing attention to themselves.

    Furthermore, it has been reported that female bonobos will shun males who refuse to share with the rest of the group. If that isn’t natural selection for altruism, I don’t know what is.

    Given these observations and more, most people’s understanding of “survival of the fittest” needs to be amended–if being the “fittest” sometimes requires one to behave altruistically.

    1. That or maybe it is evidence that bonobos like to share. There are also lots of instances in nature where males eat the young of other males. Is infanticide the product of natural selection too?

      Sorry Ken, but you are telling us a fairytale and putting scientific gloss on it.

      1. It’s not a fairy tale.

        I suspect you may be one of those people who would like to think that the absence of altruism in the natural world suggests that there’s a creator God who loves us.

        It might make you feel better to realize that just because altruism is a result of natural selection, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no creator God.

        But altruism existing in the natural world is not a fairy tale.

        I googled this up quickly from Stanford:

        http://plato.stanford.edu/entr…..iological/

        Have fun with it.

        1. It’s not fucking altruism if an organism propagates its genes by helping its siblings while failing to pass on its own offspring, if the net result is more of that organism’s genes in the gene pool.

          And for social insects, it is not altruism if a worker ant fails to reproduce because the queen ant uses chemical controls to sterilize her daughters and turn them into zombies working on her behalf.

          Calling non-altruistic acts “altruism” because the researcher hasn’t looked deeply enough into what is going on isn’t an argument for the existence of “altruism”, it’s an argument that the researcher isn’t very good at their job.

          1. Again, you seem to be arguing that altruism is impossible, not that the altruistic behavior we’re talking about didn’t result from natural selection.

            It’s only an altruistic sacrifice if it as made without caring about the beneficiary? If I care more about homeless people than I do about my Sunday, so I spend my Sunday feeding homeless people, according to your definition, I’m not behaving altruistically?

            Out of curiosity, can you point to a legitimately altruistic act by your definition? Given your definition, I’m not sure you can.

            1. It’s only an altruistic sacrifice if it as made without caring about the beneficiary? If I care more about homeless people than I do about my Sunday, so I spend my Sunday feeding homeless people, according to your definition, I’m not behaving altruistically?

              Out of curiosity, can you point to a legitimately altruistic act by your definition? Given your definition, I’m not sure you can.

              Hmmm, if you spend your Sundays feeding homeless people, and you receive a sense of gratitude from doing so, and further by doing so you wind up enhancing your chances of getting to fuck some young woman who you had your eye on who works there, that is arguably selfishness masquerading as altruism.

              Now, if you performed the same act grudgingly and resentfully because you felt a religious obligation to do so, because Jeebus told you to do so, that would be altruism.

              And, as mentioned below, a childless soldier throwing themself on a grenade to save the lives of biologically unrelated comrades is certainly altruism — and a bad idea from a biological, reproductive perspective.

              1. The only motivation is self-motivation which is driven by self-interest.

                People who get warm fuzzy feelings from helping other people are still acting according to their self-interest.

        2. No. I am one of those people who thinks that evolutionary psychology is an utter and complete crock of shit that involves people making up stories to explain things without any reason to believe their stories are any better than any other story.

          It has nothing to do with God Ken. So what, altruism exists in some places in the natural world. So does infanticide and cannibalism. Who cares? If either were the product of evolution, it would be in our genes. And if it were in our genes, everyone would have it. Altruism wouldn’t be a matter of choice or free will, we would just do it in the same way we breath or have hair on our heads and not all over our bodies.

          1. This isn’t about psychology. It’s about behavior.

            I’m not talking about what animals think. I’m talking about what they do.

            If either were the product of evolution, it would be in our genes.

            This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the question. We’re talking about “social Darwinism”. We’re talking about how cultures evolve. There are things like taboos that are adaptive–people who believe in certain taboos out-survived those that didn’t in certain contexts. Religious beliefs can be adaptive. I believe we have a social adaptation called “individual rights”, which is ultimately a social adaptation–and makes our society flourish.

            Half of anthropology is not physical anthropology; it’s the cultural anthropology: it’s about the evolution of culture and society. These cultural and social aspects are manipulated by our competitors and our environment, just like our genes are…

            Seeing altruism arise within the context of evolutionary biology is certainly indicative that altruism resulted from “survival of the fittest” in other words. It may have helped us send our genes on down the line, but no one’s saying the social adaptions themselves are transmitted by way of our genes.

            1. And that is just a fairy tale Ken. There was nothing altruistic about early societies unless you confuse tribalism with altruism. For most of history people didn’t even look at outsiders as full human beings or anything approaching members of their own groups.

              Sure, people who work together and are dedicated and sufficiently brutal towards outsiders tend to do well. But that is hardly an endorsement of alltruism.

              This crap about freedom and rights always triumphing is nothing but a cockamamie Libertarian creation myth.

              1. John, don’t you realize that this completely and utterly contradicts other statements you make at other times about the economic inefficiency of communism?

                It’s either/or, man.

                Systems that recognize individual autonomy, allow property rights, and provide a rule of law allowing for market institutions are either more economically efficient than collectivist systems, or they aren’t.

                And if they are, it’s foolish to say that the West triumphed over totalitarian political collectivism “by accident” or “by luck”.

                1. Sure, they are more economically efficient, at least in the west. But so what? Economic efficiency isn’t the only thing that it takes to survive.

                  The West triumphed because it was willing to take the resources it had and use them to kill other people in defense or in conquest. It is that simple. Without the desire to organize and kill in defense, no civilization, no matter how wonderful and efficient will survive contact with a civilization that is willing to kill.

                  You guys love economic efficiency. Well I do to. It is great. But only great as long as someone doesn’t come along and burn the place to the ground.

                  The Arabs of medieval Baghdad were a hell of a lot more advanced, free and efficient than the Mongols. But all that did them absolutely no good when the Mongols showed up.

                  The West won because it had superior military power, period. True their economic efficiency helped in that. But it was the power that won not the economics.

          2. Actually you are wrong here.

            Our genes are not a straight jacket, they define the realm of possibilities for us but do not lock us into predetermined outcomes.

            My Genetic code made it possible for me to grow to a height of 6’2″, however they did not ordain that I would do so, Poor diet, health, needs for differing levels of physical activity, stress levels both in the womb and while growing and dozens of other factors all will impact how tall I eventually grow to. It is possible that under slightly different circumstances I could have ended up being 6’4″ and others where I only grew to 5’8″ but there is likely no scenario where I grew to a height of 7′ or only 5′.

            Similarly with psychology, our genes do not make us altruistic, or cannabilistic or infanticidal, they give (or fail to give) us the capacity to generate those traits. Whether or not we do so is entirely determined by environment which is in turn influenced by our cultural norms.

        3. Even to take your example of bonobos. Your assuming that every behavior any animal does is the product of some kind of evolutionary process. That is not even what evolution says. Lots of animals have characteristics and behaviors that are superfluous to survival. You don’t need to be the best, you only need to be good enough to make it.

          So the fact that some creature acts in an altruistic manner does not mean that those actions necessarily contributed to or were necessary for its evolutionary success. It may just be some random behavior that developed that either made no difference or didn’t hurt the species enough to keep it from surviving.

          1. And don’t forget the role luck plays.

            Consider two ponds, side-by-side. One has developed some very advanced aquatic life, the other, not so much. But the meteor that slams into the first pond doesn’t give a shit that it is destroying the better pond creatures and permitting the lesser pond creatures to carry on.

            1. Exactly. Indeed that is one of the criticisms of crude intelligent design theory. Animals are not perfectly designed. They are built just well enough to survive and procreate.

        4. And one other thing, if altruism is the product of our genes developed via evolution, then isn’t sexual behavior the same? I mean if there is anything that is driven by evolution it is our desire to mate and procreate. That is the whole point of it isn’t it?

          So if that is, then how are homosexuals not some kind of genetic or evolutionary freaks?

          1. So if that is, then how are homosexuals not some kind of genetic or evolutionary freaks?

            Let’s, entirely hypothetically for the sake of argument, say that a certain gene sequence makes a male individual in which it expresses itself more creative. Let’s say that in some male individual this gene winds up in, it makes them more attractive to women, and they have more offspring. And in other males it winds up in, it makes them more likely to turn out gay if the fetus is exposed to certain chemicals during gestation. The net result is that this gene may persist in a gene pool because sometimes it enhances reproductive fitness and sometimes it results in no offspring at all, and the two (or more) outcomes tug in opposite directions.

            1. I won’t claim to be an expert on genetics, but if we assume that there’s genetic material on the X chromosome that makes women sexually attracted to men, why wouldn’t we expect that gene to express itself occasionally in the x chromosome that women pass to their sons?

              I don’t believe something like sexuality will ever be neatly separated into only genetic components, but if physical attraction to men is something with a genetic component, I don’t see why mothers couldn’t pass that component on to their sons by way of the x chromosome.

              I also don’t understand why this subject has come up within the context of this discussion. Is someone trying to suggest that none our behaviors or proclivities have any genetic components?

              Why?

            2. Humans are weak. We have no natural weapons or armor and by all rights we should be primarily a prey species.

              2 things seperate us, our ability to plan and our ability to cooperate in a group setting.

              See in a prehistoric environment even prime specimens of the proto human species would not have survived alone, simply too many predators and accidents waiting to happen. However in a group setting we can band together to suppliment each others weaknesses and become stronger than our constituent parts.

              However there is a problem. A Hunter Gatherer society that had more than 50% females could never survive and even 50% females would have been problematic because for the females being the 2nd or 3rd wife to the chief is preferable to being the only wife of the weakest male.

              This means that in order for the tribe to survive there needed to be a mechanism for having a handful of male hunters whose prospects of ever finding a female to mate with were basically non existant but who were still an integral part of the group.

              Tribes who had a certain percentage of their males born capable of being sexually satisfied by other males then became more successful than those who did not by being able to support a larger number of hunters while maintaining a stable ratio of males to females and hence the genes allowing for homosexuality as a recessive trait entered into the species.

              Sure those cavemen who were gay did not pass on their own genes, but their brothers were far more likely to

    2. Furthermore, it has been reported that female bonobos will shun males who refuse to share with the rest of the group. If that isn’t natural selection for altruism, I don’t know what is.

      You do realize that bonobos are almost extinct, yeah? Natural selection is driving that species off the planet.

      And, you need to look a little closer at what is going on, and how it is characterized. Perhaps the female bonobos are shunning males who don’t share food with THEM, and the sharing with the group is the males trying to make out with all the females. The confirmation bias of lefty researchers who want to find examples of prog values among animals can be a bitch.

      Finally, it isn’t altruism if a male shares food with the expectation of getting pussy — and if the price demanded for that pussy is sharing with the female he desires and all HER relatives (and not “the group”), that is an example of both the male and the female in question behaving non-altruistically.

      1. Finally, it isn’t altruism if a male shares food with the expectation of getting pussy — and if the price demanded for that pussy is sharing with the female he desires and all HER relatives (and not “the group”), that is an example of both the male and the female in question behaving non-altruistically.

        So it can’t be altruism if the actor wants to make the self-sacrifice because he cares about what he’s sacrificing for?

        This is the egoist position, isn’t it? Mother Theresa isn’t really altruistic if she’s sacrificing because it makes her feel good or because she thinks it’ll get her into heaven?

        I think you’re confusing a couple of different questions here. One of them is whether altruism is a result of natural selection, and the other is whether altruism is impossible.

        A soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his friends isn’t really behaving altruistically becasue he cares more about his friends than he cares about himself?

        You seem to be saying, in other words, that altruism is impossible. I’m not addressing that argument here; I’m asking you to consider: what we talk about when we’re talking about altruism, is that a result of “survival of the fittest” or isn’t it?

        1. Re: Ken Shultz,

          So it can’t be altruism if the actor wants to make the self-sacrifice because he cares about what he’s sacrificing for?

          Tne motivations are irrelevant. The fact is that altruism is in itself a decision – YOU decide to be altruistic. Animals, on the other hand, do not make decisions, they react based on instinct, which means you cannot explain their behavior as being altruistic since behavior and decision are contradictory concepts.

          1. How are instincts derived?

            Do you think they come from Jesus?

            1. Re: Ken Schulz,

              How are instincts derived?

              You mean how does instinctive behaviors appear?

              Through natural selection. What does this have to do with the contention that the concept of “altruism” is being badly applied when describing an instinctive behavior?

        2. I think you’re confusing a couple of different questions here. One of them is whether altruism is a result of natural selection, and the other is whether altruism is impossible.

          A soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his friends isn’t really behaving altruistically becasue he cares more about his friends than he cares about himself?

          You seem to be saying, in other words, that altruism is impossible.

          No, altruism is certainly possible — and the word means different things in different contexts. A young childless soldier in battle throwing him or herself on a grenade to save the lives of biologically unrelated comrades is unequivocally behaving altruistically — and is acting in ways that will drive his or her gene frequencies lower in the gene pool. That is not an adaptive trait.

          A father, on the other hand, who is near the end of his reproductive span, throwing his body on a grenade to save the life of his daughter who is in her reproductive prime, is behaving the opposite of altruistically from a strict biological standpoint, but his actions might be characterized as “altruism” by leftists unfamiliar with the biological meaning of the word, or trying to make an argument by conflating the different meanings.

          And, a trait that is sometimes fatal and non-beneficial for a particular individual — that is altruistic behavior individually — might persist in the gene pool because that same gene is used by other individuals for their biological fitness.

          1. A young childless soldier in battle throwing him or herself on a grenade to save the lives of biologically unrelated comrades is unequivocally behaving altruistically — and is acting in ways that will drive his or her gene frequencies lower in the gene pool. That is not an adaptive trait.

            I disagree that it’s not adaptive.

            Other things being equal…

            I strongly suspect that a society featuring warriors who are willing to put themselves in harms way will out survive societies that don’t prominently feature such warriors.

            Other things being equal, I suspect groups of warriors that feature individuals who will willingly sacrifice themselves for their fellow warriors? Will outperform opposing societies that don’t feature such warriors.

            1. You are confusing two kinds of evolution — social evolution and biological evolution. A social evolution that promotes statism might persist for a while by the society promoting selfless acts of altruism in war, and inducing young men to delusionally sacrifice themself for the state. Thus, the state would survive and reproduce its social meme by harming the reproductive fitness of young men — and, in the long run, resulting in reproductive pressure for having more young men in the gene pool who abhore statism and the altruistic sacrifices it demands.

            2. Other things being equal, I suspect groups of warriors that feature individuals who will willingly sacrifice themselves for their fellow warriors?

              Not really.

              Those types of individual heroic events usually have just about nothing to do with the outcome in war, even quite primitive types of war that rely on individual prowess.

              The side that wins is usually the side that can best organize its human and technical resources.

              Alexander didn’t beat the Persians because his men threw themselves on grenades. He won because his guys were better at standing in a straight line, and because Macedon and Greece were better at metallurgy than Persia and as a result his men were better armed and armored, and because his military doctrine was superior.

              Other things are never equal. Ever.

              1. Ceteris is never paribus? Damn. No wonder it’s so hard to do experimental economics.

        3. No Ken, you are dreaming up a story to explain why some people desire to do good. That is all you are doing. You are just creating a myth.

        4. Mother Theresa isn’t really altruistic if she’s sacrificing because it makes her feel good or because she thinks it’ll get her into heaven?

          Or afraid of going to hell.

          A soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his friends isn’t really behaving altruistically becasue he cares more about his friends than he cares about himself?

          I suspect that soldiers that throw themselves on grenades are in a position where they are going to die anyway, so best option is to save as many genetic relatives as you can, perhaps they will take care of your family.

      2. Re: Protefeed,

        The biggest problem with the use of the concept of altruism to explain certain observed behaviors is the fact that altruism itself is a decision – an action with a purpose, and not a behavior.

        1. Well, depends on whether you are using the strict biological meaning of that term or not.

          Animals or plants incapable of conscious thoughts can behave in ways that can be characterized as altruistic or not, depending on whether that behaviors enhance their gene’s biological fitness.

          Human behaviors can be based on a decision, or can be an instinctive reaction not mediated by the cerebral cortex.

          From the biological definition, whether or not something is altruistic is determined statistically or via post-mortem analysis, regardless of the thoughts in the mind of the individual doing the behavior.

          So, if someone reacting emotionally to a particular act of others characterizes it as altruistic, it may well be so from the definition of “altruism” they are working off, and also from the POV of the individual acting, but when that behavior is cynically and coldly examined by biologists trying to determine if the behavior actually impaired the individual’s genetic fitness in the gene pool, they might come to different conclusions than the lay perception.

          1. Re: Protefeed,

            Well, depends on whether you are using the strict biological meaning of that term or not.

            There’s no “strict biological” meaning unless we’re talking about ignorant biologists.

            However, one could use the term “pseudo-altruistic” to describe the behavior, as it would be much more accurate.

            Human behaviors can be based on a decision,

            They would not thus be “behaviors,” P. They would be “purposeful actions.”

      3. You do realize that bonobos are almost extinct, yeah? Natural selection is driving that species off the planet.

        Do you realize that if there is an instinctive adaptation for altruism and humanity has inherited it, then both we and the bonobos inherited it from a common ancestor?

        Think about it.

        Oh, and if bonobos are practically extinct, why are they threatened? If it’s because of another more highly evolved competitor for their space and resources (say homo sapiens), then for all you know, it may be that they lost out to their competitors because they were less altruistically evolved than we are.

    3. Re: Ken Shultz,

      There are examples of altruism in the natural world. There are animals that watch out for predators while others of the same species forage.

      And you being a veritable Dr. Doolittle and having the ability to poll these animals to learn what they think about their decisions, you thus come up with such a conclusion rather
      than the more likely explanation: that those species that live in groups but do not watch for predators died off a long time ago, leaving only those that instinctively divide their labor to watch for predators or forage.

      1. Further, to prove the case for altruism, you have to show that the genes of the animals serving as lookouts are not being propagated via kin selection or other such non-altruistic methods of natural selection.

        To be truly altruistic, an individual has to behave in a way that lowers the chance of their genes being reduced in the gene pool — and even a little thought would show that such altruism would tend to be driven out of said gene pool over hundreds of generations.

  7. Point #2

    2) The highest social adaptation, in my opinion, is the individual right. When most people think about social Darwinism, they think individuals have the right to be eaten by predators larger, stronger, faster than themselves. Libertarians who espouse individual rights fly in the face of that conception of survival of the fittest.

    The history of the 20th century demonstrates this. The societies which featured individual rights more prominently triumphed over their adversaries, and those societies which made a virtue of ignoring individual rights (Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union) ended up on the ash heap of history, which is to say they had to adapt.

    Anyone who confuses libertarians, the champions of individual rights, with the idea that the weak should be consumed by the strong, as most people imagine social Darwinism to hold, is beyond me. We may think that societies that respect individual rights are fitter than those that don’t, but that isn’t generally accounted for in most people’s conception of social Darwinism.

    1. Ken, it’s obvious you’re just one of those Republican Social Darwinist apologists trying to brainwashed the clean, already brainwashed unbrainwashed liberal children of America. Please take your heathen beliefs elsewhere.

    2. There is nothing to say that the free societies necessarily had to triumph. In fact, there are plenty of counter examples where the bad guys won. And moreover, those conflicts were often pretty close run things. And they didn’t turn out so well for large sections of the globe. I think the residents of China and North Korea might disagree with you that freedom always triumphs over oppression.

      1. WWII turned on such close things as Rommel not charging into the Dunkirk beachhead with the tanks under his command. And the “winners” of WWII included the non-free Communist regimes of the Soviets and the Chinese.

        1. They all had their ups and downs–just like in natural selection.

          In the 20th Century, the team with the most economic power won. That happened to be the most capitalistic team (the United States) most of the time–because we respected people’s property rights.

          The Chinese communists didn’t win World War II against the Japanese. That’s Chinese Communist propaganda. The United States beat the Japanese out of China, mostly; the Chinese communists subsequently took power away from the nationalists after the Japanese had lost the war.

          You may have noticed that the Chinese communists had to adapt at the end of the 20th century to feature respect for individual rights more prominently for their economy to thrive. They’re still not big on civil rights, but owning nice stuff is no longer a criminal offense.

          Still, there are ups and downs for everyone. And we’re talking about the fruition of long term trends over a relatively short period of time (the 20th Century). Times of conflict make the attributes really stand out as to what’s beneficial and what’s not.

          Just like nothing tells you about a gazelle’s defense against a lion attack like watching the way it survives the conflict.

          1. I am sorry Ken. But that is just rediculous. There is nothing to say that freedom will always equal economic power. And further, there is nothing to say that a truly dedicated totalitarian society can’t triumph over a free society even if it doesn’t generate the same amount of wealth.

            That whole post is just bunk. You might as well be writing children’ books.

            1. Wow, John.

              You’re even more economically illiterate than I thought.

              1. You assume everyone in every society is homo economicus. It isn’t that simple sarcasmic. Some people take advantage of their freedom to be lazy bums or to form tribes to kill outsiders. Some societies even like it that way. It takes more than freedom to have a successful economy. It takes a bit of culture too.

                If you think man can be perfected if only he is left alone, you are a lot more than an economic illiterate. You are a complete illiterate living in a fantasy world.

                1. Set up the straw men and knock them down! Go John! Woo hoo!

                  1. Sure, get caught with your ass showing and then back track. I said there was nothing that says freedom always equals economic power. You called me economically illiterate for thinking that. I call you a complete illiterate for thinking freedom is the only ingredient necessary for economic prosperity.

                    If you don’t like the straw man being burned, don’t build it.

                    1. Thanks for the encore!
                      Superb straw man slaying!
                      I especially liked the overalls!
                      The red scarf was a nice touch as well!
                      Go John!

                    2. I’ll give you a hint, John.

                      When you use words like “always” and “only”, you are setting up a straw man.

                    3. Also, phrases like “you assume” and “you think” are almost always indicators that a straw man is about to be slain.

                2. Yes, it takes freedom, property rights, and a respect for prosperity.

                  And it takes a healthy understanding of how to stop bad guys who want to kill you and take your stuff to have a free society for more than three or four days. Turns out that that free, wealthy societies are capable of creating tools of destruction that rival things you find in science fiction.

    3. 2) The highest social adaptation, in my opinion, is the individual right.

      Which don’t apply to the states, or something.

    4. As someone else pointed out a few days ago, if progressives like Obama detest social Darwinism, that must mean they embrace social creationism.

    5. Good comment, Ken. Individual rights are entirely about protecting the weak AGAINST the strong. Both weak individuals against strong ones, and individuals against larger groups.
      Individual rights hold that all people are equal, and must be afforded equal treatment by the law.

      The problem with the social welfare state is not that it protects the weak, it is that it violates the rights of some individuals in order to provide material benefits to others.

      While it’s true that many libertarians are objectivists and/or may practice a philosophy of personal egoism, when done within a framework of individual rights, pursuing one’s self-interest is channeled into non-coercive productive activities such as innovation and productivity.

      Both self-interest and altruism are part of human nature. But having a system that depends upon the altruistic instinct to guide policy is misguided. Libertarianism works because it assumes the worst, that everyone will be self-interested, and sets up a system of rights that prevent people from oppressing eachother. Socialism fails because it assumes people are altruistic and counts on that to run a system where power is centralized, and as soon as that isn’t case and a self-interested person takes over you end up with a dictatorship.

      The system in which the weak are best protected from the strong is a decentraized one with a strong system of protections for individuals, and a fair court system that enforces those rights equally.

  8. Somebody throw up the Bastiat quote again. Because we don’t advocate the government providing charity, that means we don’t want it done at all.

    1. At your service.

      A Confusion of Terms

      Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

      We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
      http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html

      1. A different Bastiat quote but saying the same thing.

        But, by an inference as false as it is unjust, do you know what the economists are now accused of? When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves. Thus, if we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in religious matters, we are atheists. If we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in education, then we hate enlightenment. If we say that the state should not give, by taxation, an artificial value to land or to some branch of industry, then we are the enemies of property and of labor. If we think that the state should not subsidize artists, we are barbarians who judge the arts useless.

      2. The most interesting (but by no means surprising) thing about that quote is that, in Bastiat’s time, socialists were apparently big on state religion.

        1. I blame Marx and his whole opiate of the masses for changing that. But it is an interesting observation that religion was part of the progressive program at the time.

  9. he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest ? most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth ? will succeed in a fierce competition

    Well, no. Evolution, whether of the human genome or of cultures, produces things that WORK, in the sense of replicating their essence. Noble traits don’t get replicated if they don’t contribute to the survival and replication of the individual’s DNA, or the culture’s memes. An illiterate living in a trailer park with 10 kids is more “fit” in a Darwinian sense than a wise, noble pair of Yuppies with one kid.

    And that competition can be soft and gentle rather than fierce, especially sexual selection — if men value a lovely, sweet tempered woman over a ruthless killer, then the fierce person can be the loser in the competition.

    1. And an illiterate with a gun who is willing to use it, is more “fit” than a PHD with no ability to defend himself.

      1. An illiterate with a gun is going to last about twenty minutes in a free society. He might kill a couple people, but he’s going to find his ass in prison for the rest of his life really, really quickly, where it turns out it’s really hard to reproduce, and which makes a lot of other illiterates think twice about going down to the local college campus for a shooting rampage. Our society selects against sociopathic behavior.

  10. I made the mistake of clicking over and reading the comments to the NYT piece.

    1. There are a couple of things you neverdo: you never go full retard, and you never read comments on an NYT article. It’s a rookie mistake, and you hate to see it.

  11. he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest … will succeed in a fierce competition

    Thinly veiled suggestion that social darwinism = people who hate the “weak” (i.e. poor, less fortunate, etc): check

    Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial.

    Invoking the specter of late 19th century evil industrialist “robber barons” to make sure everyone understands TEH EVUL 1% = social darwinists: check

    some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand

    Implication that only adolescents (and by extension anyone who hasn’t “grown up”) like Ayn Rand: check

    Off-putting, intellectually dishonest, self-satisfied smugness: do I even need to ask?

  12. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the fairy godfather of many modern liberals, John Maynard Keynes, was a proponent of eugenics.

    1. Most people at the time were. At least the cool kids were. Kinda like global warming today.

      After some German dude, I forget his name, took the idea to its logical conclusion, the idea of eugenics ceased to be very popular.

      1. It’s still pretty popular in pockets here and there.

  13. “Kitcher, like so many of Spencer’s other lazy critics, appears not to have understood what Spencer actually wrote.”

    And, I’ll bet, hasn’t read a single thing by Spencer in its entirety.

    1. He doesn’t really need to know anything about him to write about him. He’s writing for the NY Times. As long as what he writes fits the “progressive” narritive than he’s good to go. Being a leftest “intellectual” is the easiest job in the word. That’s why every celeb likes to pretend to be one. They can feel smart without being smart.

  14. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak…

    Seems to me that the operative word here is “foolish”. It leads me to suspect that deep down Kitcher possesses an understanding of Spencer’s actual motivations but is banking on the high likelihood that the average NYT reader does not.

  15. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak[…]

    Kitcher is a mountebank. Spencer never said or suggested anything of the sort. What he did suggest was that the government refrains itself from protecting people from their foolish decisions. Only by sprinkling a liberal dose of intellectual dishonesty could one contrue such suggestion as meaning one should not protect the weak.

    1. Only by sprinkling a liberal dose of intellectual dishonesty could one contrue such suggestion as meaning one should not protect the weak.

      If the government doesn’t protect the weak, who will?

      Since you can’t answer that question with names of specific people and organizations, then I must conclude that the answer is “no one”.

      Thus proving that if something is not done by government, it will not be done at all.

      1. Not to mention one must ignore the fact that whatever the government does do will inevitably make whatever problem they’re trying to solve worse.

        1. Hey now! It’s not their intention to make things worse.

          They’re intentions are all good.

          Doubting their results is questioning their intentions!

          Well intentioned people using force and coercion to solve every problem, real and imagined, are paving the road to hell, even as we speak.

          But at least they have good intentions.

      2. Re: sarcasmic,

        If the government doesn’t protect the weak, who will?

        You’re absolutely right in that Kitcher is implying such through a thinly-veiled appeal to ignorance. Again, the guy is a mountebank.

  16. …just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand.

    Pound fucking sand, Philip Kitchner. Of all the infuriating traits that progressive types carry this is by far one of the worst. It’s this dismissive notion that believing in one’s own capacity for achievement and transcendence is the exclusive domain of juveniles and therefore irrational. I can’t begin to count how many people I’ve met that are afflicted by constant self-doubt that is reinforced by this kind of thinking. As a result, YES WE CAN becomes a political slogan while NO I CAN’T takes root as an individual mantra.

  17. Well, survival of the fittest is a tautology. How can you tell who is the fittest? By seeing who survives.

    Now, you can try to unpack what traits/strategies enable their survival, sure.

    But evolution isn’t even about survival of the fittest. Its about reproduction. A strategy that involves sitting out the mating rituals (which can be quite dangerous) would lead to increased survival, but not reproduction, so it would not be an evolutionary success.

  18. Even when I hear liberals describe social Darwinism, I think “so what?” I’ve never heard a single justification for why businesses that fail to satisfy their customers should continue to control resources, while the entrepreneurs who succeed at delivering what people want and need should be denied them.

    I mean, I don’t hear liberals weeping over the death of Circuit City.

  19. As with “neo-con” and “trickle-down economics,” use of the term “Social Darwinism” is like a sign worn atop the user’s head, with a downward pointing arrow and the words “NO REAL THINKING GOING ON IN HERE.”

    1. Right on!
      But I’d go a bit further and suggest that no article containing the term “social Darwinism” is complete without a sentence to this effect:

      “Social Darwinism” is a strawman made up by the charlatan Richard Hofstadter, for the double purpose of distracting himself and others from the reality of association between fascism/nazism and American progressivism/liberalism, and convincing himself and others that fascism/nazism is actually related to classical liberalism.

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