Science & The Bible: Social Darwinism

Last week our topic was on Evolution and the Problem of Evil. This week the discussion will be on something a little more personal and relevant, which is if we apply the idea of evolution to human society.


This week’s reading will be Exodus 21-23, Deuteronomy 1-6 (RSV), Francis Galton’s, Hereditary Genius (2nd edition, pp. 1-49, 336-376), Herbert Spencer’s, “Progress: Its Law and Cause” in Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects (pp. 153-197). Questions to be discussed below.

  1. What is the Law of Progress according to Spencer? What are its implications? How does it relate to the idea of evolution by natural selection? How does it differ from it? What does it owe to the teleological argument?
  2. On what basis could Spencer’s Law of Progress be critiqued? What sorts of evidence might be invoked to challenge it?
  3. Describe the similarities between the approaches of Spencer and Galton toward the evaluation of human individuals and social groups. What have they taken from Darwin? What have they added to him?
  4. How else might the differences in populations that Galton observes be explained?
  5. What are the ethical implications of Galton’s project? How does this way of evaluating human worth compare with the biblical examples in the readings for this week?

“Every active force produces more than one changeevery cause produces more than one effect.”

Herbert Spencer, “Progress: Its Law and Cause”

Spencer’s Law of Progress suggests that there is a multiplication of results whenever there is a cause – a change which initiates a growing complication of things.

For example, the invention of the locomotive engine has generated new and more specialized occupations, different ways of doing business and trade, and rendered the social organism more heterogeneous.

Essentially, this is the idea from Darwin’s Origin of Species, except Spencer speaks in terms of human society as an organism – the same way that he treats the universe, geological formations, and climate. He extends the comparison to language and syntax structures, and vocabulary as heterogeneous grunts trying to express meaning; painting, sculpture, and art as differentiated polito-religious decorations; and music, dance, and poetry as differentiated forms of rhythm.

I would critique the Law of Progress by saying that while evolution by natural selection comes about by chance, in society we evolve by a different agenda, since we have the faculty of choice. Because we operate not only with a desire to survive (and therefore evolve), but also with values of sympathy and care for other individuals. Yes, there are theoretically many responses to a stimulus or situation, but because humans have developed morals, it is common, and typical to “choose” something even if there is more than one option.

“I feel convinced that no man can achieve a very high reputation without being gifted with very high abilities; and I trust…that few who possess these very high abilities can fail in achieving eminence.”

Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius

Galton observes that within a population there are many classes – some who include people who are born with a higher affinity for intellectual achievement and who naturally rise in the ranks of society. It’s not necessarily that the society that evolves as a whole, but those descended from these eminent individuals are also observed to be brighter and well gifted.

Happily, he doesn’t compare the lowest barbarian to the highest Englishman. Instead, he uses his method “regression to the mean” to measure “mediocrity”.

Any human would object to being measured by a number, listed in a table, and compared to his or her peers. The whole of Exodus 21-23 talks about the idea of equality – an eye for an eye -or rather, fairness – one should not take advantage of the poor. So now the question is how to advance human society as a whole without sacrificing the rights and privileges of the individual.

Let’s continue the discussion in the comments section! Thank you so much for reading!


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