Darwin and Spencer in the Middle East

It is a common argument by those who are opposed to evolution's implication for religious belief to label Darwin as a social Darwinist and a racist. Adrian Desmond and James Moore's book Darwin's Sacred Cause has gone a long way towards dispelling any claims that Darwin sought to justify black inferiority (in fact, as they show, countering such arguments was an important part of Darwin's work). However, the claim that Darwin inspired social Darwinism is a persistent argument and those that proffer it will stoop to any level in order to discredit him. As I pointed out in my series Deconstructing Social Darwinism, the political theory is incredibly inconsistent but the central tenets were formed by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin. Darwin himself largely eschewed politics and economics and felt that Spencer had misconstrued his ideas for his own political ends. However, despite how frequently this fact has been presented the erroneous argument continues to appear over and over again.

Religious fundamentalists such as Jonathan Wells or Harun Yahya (whose book blaming Darwin for Hitler, Stalin, Mao, hemorrhoids, long lines at Starbucks and other terrible evils can be seen in the image above) are well known for this line of thought. However, the latest attempt to label Darwin with this brush is Richard Weikart, an historian at California State University, Stanislaus in his article Was Darwin or Spencer the father of laissez-faire social Darwinism? in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Weikart's argument is very poorly constructed, as you would expect of someone who works for the Intelligent Design think tank The Discovery Institute and who wrote a book blaming Darwin for Hitler's ideas on eugenics and genocide (a book so powerfully argued that it took a single blog post to refute it). Rather than point out the poor scholarship in his own article I thought it would be more illuminating to look at a case study that offers a novel way of determining whose ideas were interpreted as social Darwinian and whose were viewed as neutral science. I recently discovered such a case study in the form of a PhD dissertation by an historian of Middle Eastern science Marwa Elshakry.

In 2003 Elshakry (currently an assistant professor at Harvard University) published her dissertation at Princeton entitled "Darwin's Legacy in the Arab East: Science, Religion and Politics, 1870-1914." As she points out, Darwin's ideas were discussed widely in the latter part of the nineteenth century (something that refutes the idea that evolutionary ideas are incompatible in a region where Islam has such a strong presence). While Darwin's On the Origin of Species wouldn't be translated in full until well into the twentieth century, many of his other writings, including The Descent of Man, had an Arabic version as early as 1876. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, it was Herbert Spencer who dominated the discussion as far as social Darwinism was concerned.

As Elshakry demonstrates, the primary means by which people learned of Darwin and Spencer's ideas were not from the authors themselves, but from popular commentaries about their works (just as most people learn about new scientific findings today from blogs and news stories rather than reading the original scientific publication). A case in point is Elshakry's analysis of al-muqtataf (The Digest), a science monthly that first appeared in Beirut and was distributed to towns in Syria and Egypt, and later to Cairo, beginning in May 1876.

The goal of the journal was intimately tied up with a rising Arab nationalism and a mixture of both envy and resentment concerning Western power in the region:

Science, the editors stressed, is the key to industry, and industry the key to success of nations. The journal published on scores of scientific and industrial topics as well as on engineering, agricultural, medical and technical problems. The journal also sought to arouse enthusiasm for the applied sciences (p. 86).

Al-muqtataf covered a range of scientific topics and in a single issue could be found a rebuttal of magic, the technologies of blood transfusion, as well as how to grow long, luxurious hair. Unsurprisingly for the time period, Darwin and his science was also a frequent topic of discussion.

According to Elshakry, the earliest discussions of Darwin in al-muqtataf focused on the conflict between human evolution and creationism, however, later articles emphasized the explanations of Darwin's science as he described it. This approach was distinct from how Spencer and social Darwinism were discussed in the same journal. For example, the 1882 article "madhab darwin" [Darwin's School of Thought], accurately portrayed the difference between Darwin's theory of natural selection and Lamarck's use-inheritance theory:

'Darwin's theory does not require that all things progress as Lamarck's does,' they wrote, 'and it does not make progression based on the body's will, but on natural selection and the struggle for life' (pp. 46-7).

Discussions of Darwin in al-muqtataf focused exclusively on either his science of natural selection or its implications for morality and religion. However, once al-muqtataf moved to British-occupied Egypt the magazine took a different approach as the editors frequently encountered the functionaries of Western imperialism.

Thus after 1882 the British occupation of Egypt altered the context in which these ideas were debated-and received. Borrowing from the writings of Spencer in particular, al-muqtataf and others championed new ideas of progress in the language of social Darwinism (p. 89).

And further:

As the centre of the debate moved from Beirut to British--occupied Egypt, its terms of reference shifted too. . . The political implications of their scientific journalism were underscored by their own move towards social Darwinism and their worship of Spencer. In their hands, science became associated with British rule, Western domination and Victorian self-reliance and individualism (p. 326).

The journal's earlier approach of publicizing Darwinian principles then became secondary as they adapted Spencer's social Darwinian message to their local conditions. In nearly identical language to that of Spencer, the editors wrote in 1885 that:

We are . . . but parts (ada) of the larger social organism to which we belong, a mere microscopic globule (karriya) of a larger living organism. Society . . . like biological organisms, exhibit properties of living phenomena, are subject to natural principles and susceptible to its laws of evolution and decline (p. 102).

Prior to this, when discussing natural selection in Darwinian terms, the editors were very clear that evolution does "not require that all things progress." However, when discussed in Spencerian terms evolution and progress were synonymous. It was only in this context that the terms "struggle for existence" or "survival of the fittest" were used in a social Darwinian context. As Elshakry wrote:

Spencer's idea that societies--like species--progressed through a struggle for existence and the 'survival of the fittest'--a term incidentally that Spencer himself coined, and which was only later taken up by Darwin--offered them a powerful tool for presenting to their readers their thoughts on the rise and fall of civilizations. And it was here--in their interventions in the intensely political debates of the time about the reasons for Westem superiority and Eastern backwardness--that al-muqtataf's evolutionist message acquired unmistakable political overtones (pp. 107-8).

Furthermore, this notion of the social organism was interpreted in light of Western power and imperialism:

What is the moral (fawa'id) of Spencer's philosophy for our day and age? That the rational and material progress which Europe and America has attained during the last 50 years . . . are based on numerous laws, some of which aid the discovery or creation of such things as the telegraph, the railroad and vaccinations from diseases (p. 104).

Spencer's social Darwinism, therefore, offered a path towards Arab resurgence by following the perceived path of Western imperialists:

The rise and fall of civilizations--such as those 'glorious Eastern civilizations of the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians and Assyrians,' they wrote, was a natural law of universal progress. . . 'The Arab East may once again be on the road to progress, if we attend to those conditions which allow for it (p. 108).

This case study is extremely revealing. If Darwin's work was already "social" and could be applied to politics with the ease that some authors have suggested, why did the editors of al-muqtataf need to emphasize the sociology of Spencer to pursue their political goals? The discussion of Darwin in this Arabic journal, at least as Elshakry presents it, emphasized his biological ideas and never made a connection between Darwin and the ideas of social Darwinism. While ideologues such as Weikart or Harun Yahya are unlikely to give up in their attempt to tar and feather Darwin with Spencer's philosophy, it's comforting to know that science enthusiasts in the Middle East knew the difference.


ResearchBlogging.orgElshakry, Marwa (2003). Darwin's Legacy in the Arab East: Science, Religion and Politics, 1870-1914 Princeton University D.Phil. Thesis

Weikart, Richard (2009). Was Darwin or Spencer the father of laissez-faire social Darwinism? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71: 20-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2007.06.011


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Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't animal breeding done before Darwin wasn't even born? In other words, wasn't the concept of breeding the best of a particular litter/herd/etc. a concept that was practiced - even before Darwin wrote published "the Origin of Species?" And thus, eugenics was already a concept familiar to people, even before someone gave it a term.

@CW: You're not wrong. As early as Plato's Republic (380 BCE) animal breeding was understood and even applied to human breeding. In his totalitarian vision Plato wrote (Book V):

And if care was not taken in the breeding, your dogs and birds would greatly deteriorate?
Good heavens! my dear friend, I said, what consummate skill will our rulers need if the same principle holds of the human species! . . . [T]he principle has been already laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion.

Religious arguments for eugenics also go back prior to Darwin (see Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part III). I know there are particular Bible quotes that also mention animal breeding but I can't find them just now. Perhaps one of my readers can point them out?

@EMJ: "As early as Plato's Republic (380 BCE) animal breeding was understood and even applied to human breeding."
>> Oh, it was applied even before that. Remember the city-state of Sparta? The Spartans applied a policy of eugenics to their newborns to ensure that only the strongest survive. The "weaker" babies were "discarded". This was happening at least since 650 BCE. And remember, our view of history tends to be Eurocentric, and thus limited. It would be interesting to ask a historian of, say, Ancient Chinese Civilizations whether or not the Chinese practiced eugenics at one point or another in their very long history.

And Plato is despicable, as always. I used to think that Bismarck, Lenin and Machiavelli were monsters... then I read Plato. For a more complete critique, read Carl Sagan's views on Plato.

What drives me crazy is that people think that even if Darwin was a racist or whatever, that that would have any impact on the validity of his ideas. Those of us who accept evolution as both a fact and as an explanatory theory do not follow Darwin as a man or even as a teacher (since evolutionary processes have been shown to be more complex than he thought). I think that creationists attack him because they are used to "looking up" to a person as a person in addition to, or exclusion of the person's ideas, and so they take it personally when skeptic's attack Jesus or god as immoral entities, and they assume we will get as mad if they attack the idea of who Darwin was. Maybe also because they can't really attack his ideas.

Wow, your "deconstructing social darwinism" essay is great! I've printed it out and will re-read it every so often.