Brainstorm: Why does Social Darwinism still exist?

Neya Thanikachalam, Web Editor

THANIKACHALAM: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Neya Thanikachalam. Welcome to Brainstorm, a podcast looking into scientific facts and fiction and the reasons why we believe in them. Today, we’re taking a look at evolution and Social Darwinism.

So Charles Darwin. Most of us know him as the guy who came up with the Theory of Evolution, which is a standard part of the science curriculum around the world. But what exactly does it tell us?

SAGEMAN: Basically the way the argument works is that through successive generations, those variations within individuals which confer the best adapted advantage to them will be selected in the reproductive process.

The offspring that have the best characteristics are the ones that are going to be slightly favored in the competition to survive.

THANIKACHALAM: That was Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor Brad Sageman. He teaches a course on evolution and Darwin, and he was breaking down natural selection, the process that allows the evolution of life to happen.

Natural selection is the basis of evolution. What it means is that different traits or characteristics are selected to pass down through future generations because they’re advantageous. So let’s take a trait like big eyes that help with sight and finding food. Basically all the big-eyed animals are more likely to survive because they have an easier time getting food. Since they’re more likely to survive, the big-eyed animals are more likely to reproduce than their smaller-eyed counterparts. As generations pass, the offspring with the big eye genes will survive and pass down those genes for big eyes to their offspring until the majority of the population has that trait.

In 1859, Darwin proposed that through natural selection, species would evolve to be better adapted to their environment or even lead to a new species. The Theory of Evolution transformed the field of science, but not everyone was a fan of his discovery.

SAGEMAN: There was a prevalence of a belief that everything was a product of the Divine creator, and that all the beauty we saw in nature was a reflection of God’s design.Darwin was so controversial when he first published this idea because people immediately got the significance that there’s no need for God in a world that has natural selection. You can get all the diversity of the natural world just by letting the clock roll forward over millions of years.

THANIKACHALAM: But over time, as the world became more secularized and the scientific process became more established, the theory took hold. But some people thought that science was just proving what they thought about human society.

The idea of eugenics, or so-called “selective breeding,” was actually coined by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton in 1883. He said we needed to quote “raise the present miserably low standard of the human race” by quote “breeding the best of the best.” Seems like a great guy.

SAGEMAN: Because could be so broadly construed, you can’t pick out one different type of group and say, “Well, that would be the best adapt that are the most fit.” Fitness is defined by each set of circumstances. And it’s a vagary of human history that it’s ended up the way it has. 

THANIKACHALAM: What he means is that it’s just a coincidence that human history played out the way it did. It’s kind of like eugenicists took concepts associated with evolution like “survival of the fittest” and “strong dominate the weak” and twisted them. This idea of using Darwinist principles in a social context is called Social Darwinism. Oftentimes, people use this to justify why different cultures or traditions are quote “inferior” to their own. But that’s illogical, according to Anthropology Professor Erin Waxenbaum. 

WAXENBAUM: One is not born knowing a particular language and one particular religion or particular culture, all of that is learned as a product of your society. So using the idea of Darwinism and natural selection to apply to social status, welfare, government support, things like that, in the same way that it applies to natural phenomena, just doesn’t make any biological sense.

THANIKACHALAM: It might seem like eugenics are a thing of the past, but not too long ago, the death of Indian women in 2014 made international news. They died after being sterilized at a government-run camp. In Peru, from 1996 to 2000, over 200,000 indigenous women were forcibly sterilized under the regime of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who’s now in jail for human rights violations and corruption. There are countless other examples of modern-day eugenics, both abroad and closer to home.

Last year, Northwestern came under fire for allowing Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa to come to campus as a guest scholar. Earlier in his career, he had published articles with titles like “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?” and “What’s wrong with Muslims?” Many Northwestern students tried to get Kanazawa off campus, but he was allowed to stay. All the University did was reaffirm that they were quote “firmly committed to diversity, equity and inclusion” and promised to be more careful when vetting future guest scholars.

TOLANI: I’m not really sure what happened there, but I think everyone agrees that it was a huge misstep. The University would agree it’s a misstep, that department would agree it’s misstep.

THANIKACHALAM: That’s Weinberg senior Serena Tolani. She’s a neuroscience major and global health minor, so she’s pretty familiar with Darwinian concepts. Something she often takes into consideration in her studies is ethical researching, which was especially relevant when Kanazawa was on campus. Another thing to consider is who is doing the research. People in power tend to be those schooled in Western thought, and that can often skew their perspectives, especially when they’re researching people with a culture different from their own.

TOLANI: Western intervention in general can be problematic. What always hits me the most is how intentionally well-designed work can always have unintentional consequences that can really skew the results.

THANIKACHALAM: This is also very important to Waxenbaum. As an anthropologist, she is familiar with the ethical standards associated with her profession, which centers around the study of humans. For cultural anthropologists who research traditions and practices that are very different from their own, this is even more important.

WAXENBAUM: Anthropologists generally are interested in all aspects of humaneness, so they are interested in better understanding other groups ideally without having prejudices against others. Cultural relativity, the idea of being able to suspend one’s personal judgment and perception of differences in another group to better understand their culture and context and environment is an idea that’s discussed in anthropology a lot. But I would not say that every anthropologist is perfect in terms of displaying and producing cultural relativity. I would say it’s the objective because if you’re sort of tainting or judging another culture relative to your own, you’re not able to get a full appreciation of how that tradition or symbol or method is best understood within the context of that culture.

A lot of the origin of racism in different areas of the world is just a product of lack of understanding or lack of openness. Humans in general are a very visual species, and we really tend to focus on what we see in the superficial without appreciating even biologically where those differences may stem from.

THANIKACHALAM: And oftentimes, this could be the cause for people believing that racial superiority could be proved by Darwinist theories. However, Waxenbaum said that she thinks that this can be prevented if people try to understand scientific methods and fact.

WAXENBAUM: It’s sort of a natural inclination that comes from what a scientist objective is — to better understand the natural world and produce that information disseminated to others. Some people’s background or culture or religious ideology might preclude them from ever appreciating certain aspects of scientific inquiry. I wouldn’t necessarily say a scientist’s job is to beat that information into someone that’s not open to that perspective. But being able to try to explain it or present the data in a way that might be more accepting to others. It’s what scientists inherently strive to do.

TOLANI: I think it would be better if everyone did more scientific reading, but  it’s very difficult to get into. It’s a difficult format to read. I don’t know if you’ve ever read a scientific paper, but it’s really dense. So you get a couple sentences in, and you’re like, “Where am I?” And then suddenly you lose. You just keep reading, but you’re not understanding any of the words you’re reading. And then I’m like I might as well start over.

THANIKACHALAM: Sometimes, a lack of scientific literacy or a lack of understanding scientific concepts is what causes misinterpretations like the ones that led to a belief in Social Darwinism.

WAXENBAUM: I don’t think students know a lot about what Darwin is. They’ve heard the name and they appreciate sort of a connection with evolution. But I don’t think they are well-versed in the nuts and bolts. A lot of people hear the word science or even hear the word genetics or biology evolution and inherently have this wall of separation of “that’s just too hard, and that’s not for me.” But a lot of basic biological principles, and especially evolutionary principles, are pretty accessible, once we have sort of the open mind space to access it and learn a little bit more.

The lack of understanding about the basic components of biology allows people to just sort of take whatever understanding that’s put upon them or presented to them without being able to get a more complete picture of the grand scope of how that fits into the greater scheme of biology.

TOLANI: People tend to just put scientists in a corner and not really interact with science on a day to day basis like they do with economics or like they do with other industries.

THANIKACHALAM: OK, so one way we can increase our scientific literacy is by listening to this podcast, which will come out every other Friday. That’s it for this week. This is BrainStorm, and we’ll see you in the next episode. This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @neyachalam

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