Charles Darwin and modern politics


With his head under my kitchen sink last week, talking politics and using tools I had never seen, Keith the plumber said, "My daughter stood up in class and told her eighth grade school teacher, 'I'll read your assignments on Darwinism, ace your tests, but I won't believe it!'" It's interesting that Keith mentioned this exchange because there's an important link between Charles Darwin and today's national politics.

In his latest book, Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence, Bradley Watson describes how "social Darwinism" birthed modern-day politics, jurisprudence, and the Progressive Movement. Social Darwinism is a belief system that applies Darwinian evolution theory to political theory and action. For social Darwinists, according to Watson, "Darwin comes to be understood less as a biologist and more as a political philosopher or political scientist rejecting old modes and orders."

For social Darwinists, the state is like an organism that is always evolving. The state must be forever in the process of change to survive and thrive. And moral-political truth is not a permanent thing. It too is always changing and "relative to one's moment in History," writes Watson. "Change in itself becomes the end, and it is always preferable to its opposite."

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The progressives would argue that change is life. Governing by founding principles and truths is decay and even a "death wish." They believe that bailing out Wall Street, Detroit, the welfare programs of the 1930s and '60s, federal healthcare programs, etc., are stimuli breathing life into the founders' dead Constitution.

In addition to social Darwinism, the other critical element of the progressive movement is philosophical pragmatism. Combining social Darwinism and pragmatism forms post-1920s progressivism. Watson acknowledges "it is possible to draw a sharp distinction between the two thought systems." Yet he adds, "In other ways it is easy to see the convergence of the two philosophical systems."

If social Darwinism is the intellectual engine of modern progressivism, Watson, a critic of progressivism, sees pragmatism as its fuel: "While pragmatism has much in common with earlier empiricism, it is purer in its . . . concentration on action and power . . . and the pragmatist understanding of what works is linked to the inevitability of change and growth."

In the father of modern public education, John Dewey, we find one of the first modern progressives because his work powerfully blended social Darwinism and pragmatism. "It is in Dewey that social Darwinism and pragmatism become an intellectual political force to be reckoned with," writes Watson. Grove City College political science professor Michael Coulter said, "Dewey's desire to use education for social change is part of the reason why Americans are so dissatisfied with public education." Indeed, thinking the political route of social change was "frustratingly slow," Dewey, according to Henry Edmondson, thought "using education to change the world is far more efficient." I think Dewey would be thrilled to see Obama's breathtaking pace of progressive change in the political realm today.

"The problems of our politics are not merely the result of the last election or the last few elections," Coulter said. "Intellectual movements like social Darwinism set us adrift from founding principles and lead us to a government taking on new roles every day in order to 'save us.' Only when we understand the deeper disease will we not see the symptoms as the biggest problem."

I have a feeling that Keith the plumber's daughter understands.

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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