We know the expected pattern: the right objects to the theory of evolution, and a secular/left world stands by science. But it has not always been thus. Evolution has been employed to defend some fairly conservative social theories over the past century and a half, while the left’s own use of evolutionary theory has at times been as mystical as the thinking of the creationists.
Almost from the moment Darwin’s On the Origin of Species reached the public (150 years ago this November), though, people have been trying to squeeze more out of the story of evolution, to make it reveal purpose and teleology in the universe. The results haven’t always fit easily into the contemporary right-left political spectrum.
Take the Victorians: today, they’re sometimes deployed as the very symbols of sexual repression and capitalist callousness, yet they made a receptive audience for evolutionary theory precisely because they believed in Progress. They had seen incredible advances in their own lifetimes — industry, electricity, steam engines, rising literacy (indeed, for all the praise the twentieth century heaped on itself, it couldn’t compare to the progress seen in the nineteenth century, when Westerners went from living much like medieval peasants to living with the telegraph and trolley car). But was Progress, in retrospect, a left-wing or right-wing impulse? For Hegel (to some extent) and for Marx (more obviously) it was a left-wing impulse, and one that was often described in quasi-mystical terms. Hegel saw social change as God’s dialectical way of making Reason manifest in the development of the world, and George Bernard Shaw later took social change as evidence of an elan vital, or “life force,” pushing humanity toward a glorious, socialist, religion-free destiny. (That blend of Progressivism and mysticism spawned movements like theosophy and is echoed to this day in New Age and hippie rhetoric.)
So are today’s right-wing critics of Darwin correct? Was Darwin part of a left-wing triad, a kindred spirit of Marx and Freud, pushing humanity forward toward an illusory self-knowledge and breaking the bonds of traditional morality in the process? Well, not quite. For it is increasingly clear that Darwin had some conservative implications — and conservative effects.
The chief exponent of Progress in the nineteenth century, political theorist Herbert Spencer, believed the idea of evolution applied to more than biology. Spencer also believed in laissez-faire capitalism and “the right to ignore the state,” what would today be called libertarianism (all this was fairly mainstream thinking in the Victorian era — today’s political writers can only dream of achieving the popularity and acceptance that Spencer did with volumes such as Social Statics).
For proposing that biological change over time was analogous to cultural change over time, Spencer is now remembered as the quintessential Social Darwinist. That label has been enough for some to paint Spencer as a defender of the rapacious and powerful against the weak and impoverished. But while Spencer believed in capitalism, individualism, and the cultural superiority of the West — hardly a set of a views that would qualify him as a leftist today — he saw those principles as winners precisely because they tended to foster peace, prosperity, freedom, and voluntary interaction, not violence and oppression. Contrary to the image the public has today of Social Darwinists as exterminators of the weak, Spencer predicted that societies relying on authoritarianism and force would tend to collapse and, as it were, be weeded out of the political genepool.
In a way, the collapse of Soviet Communism 130 years later was more accurately predicted by Spencer than by Hegel, though Hegel’s dialectical thinking got renewed attention when Communism imploded, while Spencer wallows in obscurity. Conservatives, instead of gloating that Marx is dead and Darwin will be next, should be rushing to embrace Social Darwinism. But if conservatives fail to see that the Darwinists are in some sense on their side, postmodernist lit-crit types are beginning to see the connection, and on some campuses, left-wing professors have in recent years been expressing doubts about the validity of evolution precisely because it strikes them as too convenient an ideological fit with the prevailing attitudes of the (hated) Victorian era. If left-wing students begin protesting when assigned Darwin or Spencer, perhaps conservatives will finally, reflexively, give these thinkers a sympathetic re-reading.