No, I am not playing Jeopardy, I’m considering the phrase Barack Obama used to characterize the recent House budget proposal. I thought I had a good idea of what he meant: survival of the fittest, applied to human endeavors.
I learned a lot more from an article in a New York Times opinionater blog post written by Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia. In his article, “The Taint of ‘Social Darwinism,’” Kitcher credits the birth of the concept to 19th century philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who first talked of “survival of the fittest.” The phrase was never used to describe evolution but survival in the human jungle. Kitcher characterizes the Social Darwinist view:
“Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons.” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/the-taint-of-social-darwinism/?src=me&ref=genera
I can’t help thinking of Charles Dickens’ London, where “the fittest” is the pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge.
One not so grand irony is that many of our latter day Social Darwinists were born into wealth and opportunity, while truly self-made men and women, like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, understand the value and necessity of supportive social structures. In Kitcher’s words, “Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.”
I urge everyone who has a stake in this debate – meaning all of us – to give Philip Kitcher’s article a read.