Andrew Carnegie and Social Darwinism

Andrew Carnegie seems to have been influenced by Social Darwinism, as witnessed by this quote:

While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.

– Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), “Wealth,” in the North American Review, June 1889.

Carnegie was not alone.  Ever since Darwin (or at least ever since Herbert Spencer) great numbers of people have misinterpreted evolution in much the way Carnegie did.  I wonder why that’s so?  What is it about evolution that is so difficult for people to understand?

For instance: Why is it so seemingly difficult for Carnegie and others to grasp there is no such thing as “progress” in evolution?

Or, again:  What is it with this peculiar notion that the “fittest” members of society are always the one’s on top?

One could go on. It is easy to mine Carnegie’s quote for misunderstandings of evolution.  But the larger question still looms: Why are so many people befuddled by evolution?  Is the theory really that difficult to understand?

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4 thoughts on “Andrew Carnegie and Social Darwinism

  1. I think many people view the human species as the most highly evolved on the planet (a belief also mirrored in religious commands to dominate, subdue, and rule over the earth). The evolutionary mechanism itself generates biodiversity to protect the community of life from total extinction, but when these preconceived notions of human superiority are combined with the theory, you end up with dangerous hybrids such as social Darwinism.

  2. @ DOF: That’s an interesting link! I wonder if indeed guilt motivated his later philanthropy?

    @ Jacob: I suspect many people don’t understand the importance of human diversity in protecting our own species from extinction.

  3. I’m not sure it’s so much a misunderstanding of evolution as an appropriation of its terms for one’s own self-serving ends.

    Then there’s the idea of “fitness.” If fitness means greediest, leasted concerned about others, meanest, sneakiest — words that would have described Carnegie accurately for most of his life — then you could say he had a point.

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