In comments on Darwinist Hero and on his blog, Ed has been very indignant about the purported connections between Darwin and Hitler and between Darwin and Stalin. I assume he would not be so offended about the connection between Darwin and Mao, since that is more explicit in Mao’s writings.
I have said that the connection is not causal, but rather memelike. Also, human psychology is not deterministic, in that people tend to find reasons for their beliefs after they have already formed them; moreover, most people are pragmatic in how they choose their rationalizations, insofar as they attempt to optimize rationalizations to suit their particular situation and objectives.
My understanding of memes comes not from Dawkins himself, but from Robert Anton Wilson. A meme is an idea that is basically independent from its creator, and so tends to replicate and mutate according to cultural conditions, regardless of its creator’s intentions. One idea that most nineteenth-century thinkers were fixated on was positivism, in the sense it was used by Auguste Comte. Positivism proposes that for a given system, such as the world we live in, all variables can be isolated and their characteristics defined, using a scientific method.
If humans are defined as creatures evolved from animals, and animals can be understood in detail (the assumption being that they are more readily studied in a reductionistic manner), then it would follow that humans can be understood by ruthlessly experimenting on animals. This also leads to the conclusion that all human thought and culture can be understood as the product of an evolutionary process extending back in time through animals to the first lifeform. Since humans had arguably been trying to understand human thought and behavior for thousands of years without producing a reliable mechanistic model, this appeared to be a clever way to derive such a model.
Charles Darwin provided an important impetus to this effort by proposing an explanation for the persistence of certain traits within a population as a consequence of interactions between each organism’s ancestors and their environment, along with the capacity of the ancestors to reproduce and pass on such traits. He declined to be drawn into theorizing about anything other than purely biological mechanisms; however, his idea of a mechanistic process that would differentiate groups of organisms and enable only certain ones to succeed was too compelling for his contemporaries to leave the meme alone, leading to the development of “social Darwinism.”
Herbert Spencer famously expanded on the idea of biological evolution by proposing that what any particular individual knows apart from social knowledge was inherited biologically. Furthermore, he expected that evolutionary processes would work on human populations in the same way as animal populations, differentiating groups and enabling certain traits to persist in subsequent generations within groups.
Walter Bagehot went a little further, stating that the grouping effect was normative and essential for the survival of individual humans. Furthermore, Bagehot believed that the most successful groups were compact, coherent, disciplined, and homogeneous, and thus most likely to propagate. The traits of organisms in the successful groups were not merely “more fit,” but were qualitatively “better.” Bagehot considered religion to be the greatest contributor to social cohesion, and also decided that religion itself evolved into better forms. He considered the most highly evolved groups in the nineteenth century to be the relatively liberal limited democracies of Europe, with their “enlightened” Christianity.
Ludwig Gumplowicz went even further than Bagehot, promoting the outright necessity of the modern state for the survival of the individual. Society had evolved to the point where small groups, by themselves, could not ensure survival, and so the individual owed his entire existence to the state. The state itself, however, was too unwieldy to function autonomously; it required the direction of a small group of authoritarian rulers.
From here, it is easy to see how a national socialist view of society could have developed by the early twentieth century. By a similar route, applying Darwinian theory to human populations, Francis Galton and Karl Pearson helped develop the idea of eugenics as a method of improving traits within groups. The eugenicists specifically denied that humanity could ever improve except by eliminating the propagation of undesirable traits; that is, they had no concept of social evolution apart from biological determinism. However, they had very vague ideas of how populations differentiated, and they used the term “race” only loosely. It was up to racialists such as Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain to identify the significant groupings in terms of “racial characteristics” and to associate certain characteristics with qualitatively better social traits. The writings of these last two were wildly popular in German translation in the early twentieth century, leading directly to the ideas of Hans Gunther (the official anthropologist of the Nazi Party), Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz.
I’m sure that Ed would mostly quarrel with the link between Charles Darwin and “social Darwinism.” Since Darwin couldn’t control the meme after he let it go, it doesn’t really matter what Darwin thought about social Darwinism, or what Nazis thought about Darwin. What is more significant is the materialistic, reductionistic, positivistic viewpoint shared by most “liberal” and “scientific” thinkers that all human behavior can be explained by reference to the process of biological natural selection on human populations. Not only can it be explained in this way, but the “correct” behaviors and traits are also determined by their justification in the narrative of evolution.
The only difference between nineteenth-century social Darwinists and contemporary progressive liberals is that the modern liberals have regressed in their logic. They no longer believe that evolutionary processes act to differentiate human subpopulations in terms of socially desirable traits. Instead they state that the traits they personally prefer, including ideals that are unique to the religious culture that their more “aware” late-twentieth-century culture purportedly “evolved” beyond, were naturally selected for over a period of 100,000 years. Everything, of course, is justified if it can be derived from a consensus among myopic specialists and inserted into a fictitious narrative about how humans evolved.
No, the real problem is not with poor Mr. Darwin. The real problem is with the misguided modern-day people acting in his name, fervently pushing on everyone else their superstitions about how Science must dictate the correct thoughts and behaviors of everyone.