Biology and Evolutionary Social Theory in the early and mid 19th Century
While efforts to understand the process of social change during the Enlightenment were envisioned as a form of “social Newtonism”, evolutionary social theory in the early and mid-19th century increasingly looked to Naturalism as its model science. At the same time, Empiricism, and the closely related Positivism of August Compte, continued to be the dominant influences on philosophy of science. Herbert Spenser however, was a partial exception to both trends. Though individuals such as Compte and Spenser are identified as founders of Sociology, while others such as EB Tylor and Henry Lewis Morgan are more often associated with Anthropology, the disciplinary boundaries were unclear and the emerging social science of the era was envisioned as both interdisciplinary and evolutionary. Despite multiple shortcomings, the evolutionary social theory of the early and mid 19th century contributed significantly to our understanding of human social evolution as well as the problems of modern industrial society. While Political Economy was still envisioned as evolutionary by Thomas Malthus, by the middle of the 19th century it emerged as a distinctive discipline with a distinctive method, owed to the views of Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. It was in this intellectual milieu that Darwin wrote The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Though original, Darwin’s contribution, as well as that of Wallace, was to synthesize and refine both the theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for evolution and to recapitulate those arguments in a theoretically coherent explanation for evolution based on the principles of gradualism, variation and natural selection leading to a branching pattern of speciation. Though social evolutionism, both prior to and after Darwin is often given the label of “Social Darwinism”, it is more accurate to apply the labels “Social Lamarckism” or “Spencerism”, to those who argued for naturalizing laissez faire. Yet at the same time, arguments for social evolutionism were equally likely to influence those who argued against laissez faire. Darwin’s arguments, especially in Descent, reflected the biases of his era. but It is a mistake to view Darwin as having formulated the basis for a new ethics or philosophy which broke with generally accepted Enlightenment ideals bout human equality. To the contrary, his views on the evolution of an ethical sense owed an interesting debt to Adam Smith. Darwin is unique amongst prominent 19th century figures in that he never systematically addressed the relationship between biological and social evolution. Taken as a whole, Darwin was a conventional Whig, a position which embodied multiple shortcomings and contradictions. Nevertheless, Darwin’s theories were not just biologized Smithism but were genuine contributions to biology. Furthermore, Darwin’s contributions had profound ramifications for both the philosophy of science and social theory. Similarly, the ramifications of his theory of gradual, step by step evolution as a consequence of variation and natural selection eliminated the basis for theorizing based on concepts such as entelechy, vitalism and teleology. Darwin’s contributions represent a culmination of the Natural Philosophy of the Scottish and French Enlightenment.