The Free Market and the ‘Survival of the Fittest’

Biological Darwinism “Social Darwinism” was a doctrine that was popular in the last part of the nineteenth century. It started from a simplified version of the theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin (hence the name) and Wallace, namely that life is a competitive struggle...

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Biological Darwinism

“Social Darwinism” was a doctrine that was popular in the last part of the nineteenth century. It started from a simplified version of the theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin (hence the name) and Wallace, namely that life is a competitive struggle for survival in which the fittest survive and the least fit perish. As the ‘fit’ are superior to the ‘unfit’ and every generation is descended from the ‘fitter’ members of the previous generation, this leads to constant improvement and is indeed the mechanism of progress. The belief in automatic progress as a law of nature was older than Darwin, but Darwinism was considered to have explained how it worked. It was held that it was because life was a competitive struggle in which the fittest survived, that progress was automatic and inevitable.

‘Darwinism’ related to the process of biological evolution and the selection of biologically inherited characteristics. Social Darwinism moved away from this, and that is the main point, but before we get to that, it is worth noting that the simplified version of Darwinism set out above is not quite an accurate reflection of what Darwin said, and is very far from being how we understand evolution today. There are three points.

First of all the fossil record, as we now have it, simply does not reflect the steady progress postulated by Darwinism. Biological change seems to happen sporadically during particular eras when changes are, in terms of geological time, quite rapid, while for very long periods almost no change takes place. This has been called ‘punctuated equilibrium’. Normally, and for very long periods all, or nearly all species are in equilibrium and do not change much, but the record is ‘punctuated’ with occasional eras when very many changes happen quite rapidly.

These findings are not compatible with the idea that the engine of change is competitive struggle or the survival of the fittest, for that is a constant process and would produce the kind of steady change which Darwin himself believed in. It would appear that most of the time ‘the survival of the fittest’ is conservative in its effects, suppressing change, and that the changes are brought about by some extraneous force, most probably change of climate.

This brings us to the second point, one that was made nearly a hundred years ago by Eugene Marais, the Afrikaans poet who was also a remarkable naturalist. The struggle for survival is not only, and perhaps not mainly, competitive. It is also a struggle against a potentially hostile and always merciless inanimate environment. If the environment changes, some survive, some perish, depending not on any competition but on how capable they are of adapting to their new circumstances, in which those less fit before may suddenly be more fit now.

The last point brings us to the third issue – that we are not entitled automatically to call change progress. ‘Progress’ implies that things are getting better, which in its turn implies a norm of quality, and where does that come from? The fittest survive. Fittest for what? Fittest to survive. If the environment in which they had to survive was constant we would at least be able to postulate an ever-improving adaptation to the environment, but if the environment is subject to catastrophic changes, even that does not apply. From time to time a new ball game is initiated, and the process of adaptation has to start again.

Finally we have to note that if survival is our criterion of excellence (and what other criterion can there be if the whole process is driven simply by blind survival?), then the fossil record does not support the view that the latest is always the best. To take one recent finding which illustrates the point: A million years ago the most common species of buck in South Africa was the Impala. Since then more than twenty new species have evolved, more than ten of these have become extinct, and the commonest buck in South Africa is – the Impala!

The Problems of Social Darwinism

These are the problems of biological Darwinism. The problems of Social Darwinism are different. First of all one must be clear that Social Darwinism really did exist. For many years now nobody has upheld it and it has been used as a straw man for the purpose of attacking capitalism, which has been alleged by its enemies to embody Social Darwinism. However, in the nineteenth century there really were Social Darwinists, the most eminent in Britain was Herbert Spencer, who both preached the doctrine and praised capitalism as providing what the doctrine showed to be necessary. This is not the only time in history that capitalism has been gravely damaged by those who thought they were its friends.

The Social Darwinists contended that human society was also an arena for struggle for survival in which the fittest survived, or if it was not, it ought to be. This process, if left to itself, brought about improvement. Insofar as human society was organised to help the unfit to survive, this was wrong and should be stopped as it retarded progress and could, if taken far enough, lead to the deterioration of the human species. Moderate Social Darwinists contented themselves with grumbling that the poor reproduced themselves faster than the rich (which, in fact, seems to suggest that the poor were in fact ‘fitter’ than the rich, but few people took that point), but the extremists, including Herbert Spencer, denounced all forms of provision for the unfortunate whether public or private, socially harmful; according to Herbert Spencer the unsuccessful should die. If they did not die before they reproduced (which was first prize) their children should die too.

According to Spencer, capitalism was the ideal system, provided it was not spoilt by public provisions like the Poor Law (which he denounced) or private charity. It was competitive. The winners become wealthy, the losers become poor, the most complete losers become destitute, and if only silly people would not interfere, would die. This would bring about progress.

Literal-Minded Darwinists’ Preference: Warfare and Killing

We should note in passing that the Social Darwinists had problems with other more literal-minded Darwinists of whom the American novelist Jack London was an example. These people contended that capitalism was a horrible deviation from the proper struggle for survival, which was physical. In a ‘natural’ society constant warfare and killing would select fine, big, strong, physically healthy specimens (like Jack London) whereas capitalism, contrary to nature, brought to prominence weedy specimens like Rockefeller and JP Morgan.

This view is completely self-contradictory. If you want to rely on natural selection, then whatever is, is right. ‘Nature’ has deemed cockroaches, termites and oysters to be very fit indeed because they have survived, almost unchanged, for hundreds of millions of years, which is a great deal more than can be said for homo sapiens. If Rockefeller does better than Jack London, that is how it is. What he has is ‘fitter’ than what Jack London has. If, however, you want to impose your own rational or moral criteria of what is good (London is better than Rockefeller) then you can no longer invoke natural selection. You are asking for an ‘artificial’ society, which is what you are complaining about.

The fact is, of course, that since human beings are intelligent and foresighted there can be no ‘natural’ orders of human society, if by that we mean one in the formation of which human judgement and wishes have played no part. While no human society has ever been entirely constructed as a blue-print planned by a few people, all societies have evolved through the interaction of rational human beings with each other. This is human nature, so this is natural.

Where Herbert Spencer Gets it Right

Herbert Spencer’s position did not suffer from this weakness. He would have had no difficulty with the idea that he was talking about progress in strictly human terms; things getting better in the opinion of those most directly affected. Capitalism is a system where people compete to promote their own self-interest by serving the needs of others. Those who succeed are those who serve the needs of others most successfully, in the opinion of the people who are served. So, as the fittest prevail, the needs of all are served more and more successfully, more and more people get what they want, and that is progress.

So far this analysis is correct, except that the last statement is disputable. It runs into the criticism of those (quite numerous) people who believe that people should not have what they want; they should have what other people say is good for them. The trouble with capitalism, these people say, is that it does give people what they want, so it gives rise to phenomena like pop music and Elvis Presley whereas socialism creates real art, like piles of bricks in the Tate Gallery. There is no ultimate answer to this complaint except to ask, what is it that entitles some people to tell other people what is good for them, who the ‘some people’ are to be, and how are they to be selected? Nobody has ever answered these questions satisfactorily either.

So far, Herbert Spencer’s position is fine, but we now come to the two points on which it is not fine. Built into it are two assumptions which are false, and which render it completely invalid.

The Poor Aren’t ‘Losers’

The first assumption is that the poor, or even the destitute, in a capitalist society represent the losers in competition. This is false. First of all, as we have pointed out in another essay, capitalist competition does not strictly speaking, produce losers. Secondly, normally in a capitalist society the poorest people are in fact newcomers who have come from a worse environment in order to better themselves – in the process showing a considerable degree of ‘fitness’. The recent migrant into Greater Johannesburg from the Northern Province, into Cape Town from the Transkei, into the United States from Mexico, or, in Herbert Spencer’s Britain, into Glasgow from the Highlands of Scotland, is not a loser.

The Fallacy of Collectivist Determinism

The second point is far more fundamental. Darwinism is about the selection of inherited characteristics and for Social Darwinism to have any validity we have to believe that the differences in behaviour which make the difference between success and failure, as between individuals, as between groups, as between nations, depend to an important extent on inherited characteristics. Spencer would have believed this, as did a great many people in his time. It was the belief out of which ideas of racism flowed.

The idea is an old one and has been held by many people in many cultures. People, whether as nations or as parts of a nation, a ‘class’, who are doing particularly well at any time have often, perhaps always liked to assure themselves that their success will last by claiming that they owe it to a fundamental, inherited, biological superiority, so that they are as different from other people as lions are different from jackals, and therefore are sure to prevail. The ancient Greeks had such a belief about themselves, Aristotle saying that all non-Greeks were incapable of the ‘good life’. The ruling orders in the Middle Ages had such a belief about themselves, not as a nation but as a class. The Chinese had such a belief at various times in history, as had many British in the nineteenth century and many Germans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One can readily understand why people wanted to believe such things, but unfortunately for them, and very fortunately for humanity, they were wrong. History is full of the stories of people preening themselves on their inherited superiority to others, who later (not always much later) equalled or surpassed them; the ancient Greeks, conquered first by the “semi-barbarian” Macedonians, then by the wholly barbarian Romans; the Romans who were quite willing to acknowledge the civilisation of the Greeks and Egyptians, and even of the Babylonians and Persians, writing off the Germans (including the ancestors of the English) as irredeemable savages; the Chinese preening themselves on their superiority to both the Europeans and the Japanese; the Europeans sure of their superiority to the Japanese; Japanese and Chinese alike through the centuries, writing off the Koreans as hopelessly stupid and lazy. Perhaps the most remarkable of all was the Englishman in the nineteenth century who said that the United States could never amount to anything because it had been populated by “the defeated classes of the defeated nations of Europe”. The statement was perfectly true. It had been, but that fact did not prevent it from becoming the richest and most powerful country in the world, and also, for a considerable time, the world’s main source of both scientific and technological innovation.

The biological, or racist, interpretation of the source of progress and achievement in human affairs is not tenable. It is simply not supported by the facts. The other great set of facts which contradicts it is all the records of the massive difference in achievement of people of the same ethnic origin (and with the same cultural background) under different social systems; East and West Germany between 1945 and 1990, North and South Korea, the Irish in America and the Irish in Ireland, Indians in Britain (or in South Africa), and Indians in India, and so on and on.

Learning From Others

The only conclusion which is in accordance with the facts is that we are looking not at genetically inherited characteristics but at learnt behaviour, and that all people can learn. This is not to deny that there are big differences between individuals in their ability to invent and innovate, but there is no reason to suppose that such individuals are commoner in some populations than in others. What is true is that such individuals are encouraged and helped in some cultures and persecuted and kept down in others, so that we see invention and innovation flowering in Italy at one time, in Holland at another, then in Britain (especially Scotland), then in Germany, the United States, Japan, then Korea. Where next? But even if some nations did not produce many innovators, they could still learn from others. Germany, the United States and Japan each went through a period when their progress was based mainly on applying the discoveries of others. In fact, each in turn became great discoverers but if they had not they could still have progressed very far.

It is important to remember that even the most innovative and successful nations have learnt far more from other people than they invented for themselves. An American space shot depends on mathematics originated in ancient Babylon and developed in Greece, in the Arab world, in Italy, France, England and Germany. It depends on a system of numerals coming from India via Arabia, and an alphabet from the Lebanon. It could hardly happen without paper, invented in China, where also, explosives and rockets were invented.

Newton said, “If we have seen further than our predecessors it is because we stood on the shoulders of giants”. This is true of all innovators, even the greatest, whether in science, technology, the arts, or anywhere else. The innovator takes a huge mass of already existing knowledge and technique (including such things as mathematics) and makes quite a small addition which opens up a major new possibility.

It follows that the other great thing that is necessary for material progress, apart from a social system that allows, encourages and rewards initiative and innovation, is access to the mass of knowledge that has been generated in the rest of the world. Any nation, or small group of nations which was forced by isolation to invent everything for itself was bound to fall behind those who could draw on the whole world, and this fact is quite sufficient to account for the relative backwardness of Africa South of the Sahara in past history.


So Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism was just wrong. In biological evolution there is nothing that the losers can do. A zebra cannot decide that the answer to its problem is horns, or a bat that what it needs is feathers, but the Mediaeval Europeans could decide that the Arabic numerals (the ones that we use today) were better than their own (the old roman numerals, XII, etc) and adopt them. If they had not done so, modern mathematics and therefore modern science and therefore modern technology could never have developed in Europe. Peter the Great of Russia could and did decide that the way that the Dutch built ships was better than the way the Russians did, and arranged for the Russians to learn ship-building in Holland. The Japanese decided to copy all sorts of things from Europe and America, some of which they later improved on, and so on.

Progress does not require that the unfortunate and unsuccessful should perish. If we want a materialist (as distinct from a humanitarian) reason why the unfortunates should not be allowed to perish, we can find it in saying that everybody can still learn and so come to make a contribution. Capitalists in particular do not want anybody to perish since the more people there are that they can employ (and the healthier these people are) the better is it for them.

Institutions and Ideas Perish, Not People

However, Darwinism does have something to teach us about social and economic progress once we realise that the things that compete and are selected as fit or unfit by competition are not people (people adapt and learn) but institutions, systems and ideas. The socio-economic systems of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were selected out and perished, just like apartheid. The same thing is happening on a small scale all the time and everywhere. Different systems and technologies compete; the better prevail and the less good are abandoned, companies succeed and companies fail, as do products. Competition, both on a large and on a small scale is constantly both providing the incentive for innovation and sorting out the successful innovation from the unsuccessful, providing in fact for the survival of the fittest, that is for those which meet our needs most effectively.

There is something here that we can learn from Spencer. He deplored intervention to prevent the unfit from perishing. He was wrong, not because he had mistaken the connection between competition, selection and progress, but because he had mistaken who and what it is that is competing. It is indeed wrong for governments to intervene, as they constantly do, to prevent the perishing not of ‘unsuccessful’ individuals but of unsuccessful companies, industries and activities. To prop up unsuccessful industries by means of tariff protection or subsidies or by suppressing competition (often the real purpose of nationalisation) is damaging to progress, and while it would be rash to say that these things can never be justified in any circumstances, the presumption is always strongly against them, and when they are done they must be clear and unambiguous temporary measures (nationalisation which in its nature is permanent can never be sensible) aimed at smoothing a process of change, never at preventing it.

Capitalist Consumerism

We must be clear that in the process which we are discussing we are not talking about ‘natural selection’ in the strict sense, that is selection by blind natural forces, which raises the serious question why whatever they produce should be regarded as progress. We are talking about selection by intelligent acting human beings. In capitalist competition people compete to serve the needs of customers, whether by supplying products or by supplying services. The customers decide which of the alternatives offered to them are ‘fit’ and which are not. Progress means that the wishes of people are met more satisfactorily than before, in the opinion of the people themselves.

The competition of social and political systems operates in the same way, though less efficiently because of the constant use of force and fraud to prevent free choice. Nevertheless the systems are ‘offered’ to people to serve their needs, and the people eventually decide whether they are fit or not. The history of the Soviet Union shows that even the most horrendous and sustained use of violence and deceit cannot prevent the process from prevailing eventually.

Don’t Reward Those Who Refuse to Adapt

There is a last point to be made. There is, as we have seen, no objection to caring for the unfortunate, but there is every objection to rewarding those who refuse to adapt. Not only progress but also survival in a world that is constantly changing depends above all on the willingness and ability to adapt. What we need for progress is that the innovators should be free to innovate; that they should have to compete to show that their innovation is worthwhile; that those whose innovations are chosen should reap a reward; and that the mass of people who are not innovators should follow, or imitate the successful innovators. If we want to prevent progress, all we have to do is to take away the reward of the innovators and ‘redistribute’ it to those who prefer not to adapt. Quite a lot of societies in the past have done this and have been fairly successful in preventing progress. Is that what we want to do?

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “The Fallacy of Social Darwinism” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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  1. Tim Crowe Reply

    Although I’ve really enjoyed the O’Dowd pieces that have been republished recently, this one from 1999 is not one of his finest.

    First, he uses Herbert Spencer’s interpretation of Darwinian Natural Selection as “survival of the fittest” [coined by Spencer not Darwin]. Spencer was arguably the
    leading polymath (philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, political theorist) in the latter 19th Century. His fundamental goal was to uncover universal natural law identified with progressive development toward some ultimate perfection that determined both biological evolution and that of the human mind, culture, society, politics and economics. With regard to the former, he placed primary emphasis
    on biological competition between individuals, populations and species in which
    the ‘one’ interacts with the ‘other’ to the others’ disadvantage, e.g. through
    direct (even ‘kill-or-be-killed’) interference or indirect, differential exploitation of critical resources.

    Darwin, on the other hand, viewed natural selection as, at best, a short-term goal-seeking process mediated by lower survival of the relatively unfit, with “fitness” measured as number of offspring that survive to breed. In addition to competition, this could mean when two individual organisms or species live under the same environmental conditions, one can fare better than the other without interacting in any way.

    Darwin also never advocated that evolution,even that driven by strong natural selection, was progressive, ‘seeking’ or leading to some form of perfection. Under the ‘right’ circumstances, evolution can be retrogressive, e.g.resulting in the loss of limbs in snakes, flight in birds and eyes in cave-welling organisms.

    Social Darwinism

    “Social Darwinism” is frequently used to describe Spencer’s (and others’) ideas as
    applied to humanity. Although Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton was an avid social Darwinian, Darwin was not. Galton was another 19th Century polymath. His key contribution to social Darwinism was eugenics, the ‘science’ (named by him) aimed at ‘improving’ the genetic qualities of a human populations through encouraging/requiring individuals deemed particularly ‘fit’ to reproduce, and discouraging/preventing reproduction, even to the extent of marriage prohibitions, forced sterilization and, in the extreme, genocide, of the ‘unfit’. He also introduced the phrase “nature versus nurture”.

    With regard to human social evolution, for Spencer and Galton, the pinnacle of socially Darwinian progression was Western European society. With regard to economics, competition ranges from rapacious, monopolistic Rockefeller-like capitalism to free-market business interaction in which ‘fitness’ is providing a better
    product at a lower cost.

    Back to biological evolution
    O’Dowd then explores gradual vs punctuational modes of evolution. Darwin and most neo-Darwinians (who jokingly refer to punctuationalism as evolution by ‘jerks’) favour gradualism: speciation being the cumulative result of very small changes that build up over geological time. Punctuationalists (who call gradualism evolution by ‘creeps’) maintain that species remain relatively unchanged (due to stabilizing selection) over much of their ‘lives’ and experience rapid change (due to disruptive or directional selection) over a relatively short period when they speciate.

    O’Dowd is mistaken when he suggests that competition is a relatively unimportant “engine of change” under gradualistic evolution. This can occur when a species expands it range into that of another. But that’s another story.

    Back to the competition-free environment
    O’Dowd is correct pointing out the potential effects of catastrophic changes. But, this doesn’t set the adaptive landscape to square one. Although many large species (e.g. cold-blooded dinosaurs) when extinct after the K/T Event. Some of the small one (e.g. warm-blooded mammals and birds) diversified markedly soon after.

    So, even an “ill asteroid” blows somebody good.

    Phylogenetic diversity vs long-term persistence
    Then O’Dowd refers to my colleague Elizabeth Vrba’s research (while she was at the
    Transvaal Museum) on the Impala and an alcelaphine antelopes: sassabies, hartebeests, and wildebeests. In 1984, Liz hypothesized that they were sister
    evolutionary lineages, one with one species the other with 10 extant and a
    similar number of extinct species. She speculated that the Impala didn’t speciate because its ‘all-round’ biological plasticity “got it right” and it didn’t need to. The alcelaphines, on the other hand, are a bunch of evolutionary ‘experiments’, many of which failed. Based on this ‘evo-story’, O’Dowd concludes that the Impala had achieved evolutionary ‘excellence’ because of its long-term persistence, widespread distribution and demographic dominance.

    First, the ‘evo-story’ is wrong. The Impala actually groups evolutionarily with the Klipspringer, Bay Duiker and Suni, and the alcelaphines with the Addax,
    Roan/Sable antelopes and oryxes. Second, another probably more reasonable argument is that the 10 alcelaphines form a phylogenetically and ecological more diverse evolutionary ‘team’ which has ‘solved’ the challenges of Africa better than the ‘plain old’ Impala.

    So, there are no “problems of biological Darwinism” – just different solutions.

    Problems of Social Darwinism
    There are lots of problems of Social Darwinism. The one was Rhodesan/Rockefellerian capitalism; but that is ‘solved’. Today these monopolistic monsters would go to jail. Now we must deal with the clever new guys: Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Nicky Oppenheimer, Johann Rupert, Koos Bekker and, of course, the Guptas and Cyril Ramaphosa. Spencer and his buddies eschew government-sourced
    welfare and would let the very wealthy handle ‘charity’ “to help [some of] the
    unfit to survive”. Investing government funds “could, if taken far enough, lead to the deterioration of the human species”.

    In short, in order to “bring about progress”, the poor losers must die. The downside of this winner-take-all strategy is that some of the ‘losers’ are mega-winners in disguise, if they get the necessary opportunities. The meek, Greeks, indeed almost any human can, inherit the Earth; provided that they have access to knowledge and career trajectories.

    In short, human ‘winners’ don’t breed true; “nurture can overcome nature” and real winners are often ‘losers’ who learn from their and others’ mistakes. This is why human races make no sense and racist losers love social Darwinism and eugenics to shore up their unearned privilege.

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