Science Lecture for Unit 44: Applying Darwin's Theory - Social Evolution
The Image of Man
Many people read into Darwin's theory a mechanism for the theory of overpopulation as a cause of war and plague that had proposed a generation before Darwin. Darwin was well aware of Malthus' dire predictions and had cited some of his works. took Darwin's theory of natural selection and Lamarck's sense that evolution led to "better" species, coined the phrase "survival of the fittest", and used it to justify economic competition among individuals, classes, and nations as the natural way in which social evolution occurs. He saw natural selection of human societies as a method by which human communities improve their own societies through elimination by less fit elements. It is Malthus's and Spencer's ideas that Charles Dickens echoes when Ebenezer Scrooge proposes that the poor should die out and decrease the surplus population (in A Christmas Carol). Other proponents of social Darwinism used these theories to justify racism or sexism, claiming that some group of the human population was inherently inferior. The extreme form of this idea is eugenics (originally outlined by Dalton's cousin Francis Dalton), controlling the population by identifying and promoting desirable traits and eliminating reproduction of undesirable traits.
The Study of Man
Another less obvious outcome of Darwin's theories and social Darwinism was the development of scientific disciplines using qualitative and quantitative methods to study human behavior. These drew on traditional areas that had not hitherto been considered "science", such as law, international relations, and political science, and fostered new areas of study in anthropology, economics, education, geography, psychology, sociology, and more recently, information sciences and communication. The major social science disciplines are:
- Anthropology: This is the "study of humanity". Anthropology does have some close ties to evolution theory, depending on fossil evidence to identify human cultural development of cooperative, tool-using societies. Anthropologists often look at linguistic evidence, religious rites, and geographical factors in describing the behavior of distinct groups of people.
- Communication Studies: This studies how humans use symbols to create meaning in their communication with each other, whether face-to-face or through mass media and other forms of transmitting symbols.
- Economics: As a science, this is the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services -- an area that falls within anthropology and under the governance of political science. Micro-economists try to predict large scale human behavior with respect to money and profitability.
- Education: As a science, the term education covers how humans impart knowledge to each other, both practical (skills) and general (judgment, wisdom), all of which of course depends heavily on how humans learn, an area that has strong relationships to biology, neuroscience, and psychology.
- Geography: This is the study of earth's inhabitants in relationship to their geographical location, and classifies cultures in terms of their use of local resources. It differs from geology which considers only the formation of earth's physical features.
- History: Depending on which source you read, history may be a humanities subject or a social science subject; the distinction often depends on how historians use primary source materials to support historical conclusions.
- Information Science: This is the study of the organization of information, its storage, recovery, distribution, and display. The way computers are used (as opposed to designed and developed) is part of information science.
- Law: Laws are systems of rules enforced by institutions such as the Church, governments, schools, etc. Contract law governs relationships where people agree to act in ways that mutually benefit each other. Property law governs use and transfer of real property (land and buildings). Tort law governs situations where someone is trying to recover damages when he or she has been harmed by another. Criminal law covers situations where the harm was intentional. Constitutional law interprets the local government policies.
- Linguistics: This science looks at how humans learn, understand, and use language, and includes syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonetics.
- Political Science: This science classifies political systems and compares them, and includes as a subarea international relations, the actual relationships between states and various non-government organizations, including multinational corporations. Political science often touches on practical aspects of economics and education.
- Psychology: This science studies human activities such as perception, cognition, emotion, personality, behavior, and relationships with other people. Since it focuses on individuals rather than groups or institutions, it is considered a separate science from anthropology, economics, political science, or sociology.
- Sociology: This is the general term used to describe the study of societies and human interactions with an emphasis on gaining understanding of group behaviors in order to drive policy decisions. It looks at why groups form and how identification of group members changes or enforms how they are treated.
Most of the social sciences use statistical methods similar to those we will see developing in thermodynamics and radiation theory. These are based on the concept that while we may not be able to predict individual behavior for a single atom precisely, a large group of atoms will, on the average, behave a certain way under specific conditions. The key difference in applying these methods to groups of people is that like atoms all behave the same way, and presumably don't determine their own course of action. A physical cause always leads to a specific result: atoms can't suddenly chose to act differently on a whim. People, on the other hand, are self-motivated, have complex relationships with their peers, and must be dealt with on an individual basis.
- Would Darwin have agreed that evolution leads to something "better"?
- What are some of the ethical issues raised by eugenics in practice?
- Given your own definition of science, would you consider anthropology, economics, education, psychology, or sociology "sciences"?
- What are the limitations or differences between social sciences (sometimes called "soft" sciences) and the "hard" sciences like chemistry, physics, or biology?
- What ethical considerations arise in performing experiments in the social sciences?
Further Study On your Own (Optional)
- The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy contains an article on Herbert Spencer's theories of Sociology and Utilitarianism. It's worth noting how many of Spencer's own ideas were "read back into" Darwin's theories.
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