The third chapter of the book “The Age of American Unreason” written by Susan Jacoby explains the preconditions and consequences of the appearance of social Darwinian theory in the end of 19th century. The recent developments such as the end of Civil War affected the rearrangement of United States of America. It is worth to mention that in general country was rising after years of poverty and depression, it was paid much attention to the level of education and its quality, and the industries were developing very fast. As a result, America got their first millionaires who were skillfully governing the country.
According to Jacoby, the transformation of Darwinian theory was a convenient tool for those who were rich to govern those who were poor. Darwin published his book with an explanation of the theory of evolution where the basic and fundamental idea was “natural selection”. In terms of original Darwinian theory it meant that only individuals who had more strength and power to live survived. However, millionaires who wanted to highlight their supremacy created a social Darwinian theory, which gave a logical explanation of their success. This post-Darwinian Theory, in fact, can be interpreted as following – millionaires were the ones who stand on their two legs, but poor society was the individuals who stayed on the same level of development as animals.
Catholic Church and fundamentalists were trying to protect people from the modern interpretation of the Darwinian theory; however, the power of millionaires was more influential. One thing Jacoby points out is that the majority of exponents of social Darwinian theory were the upper class white Anglo-Saxon protestants who were more or less connected with the church and the basic need was to integrate the theory into religion. Even though there were multiple cases of intellectual critiques of social Darwinism around the turn of the century, none of them reached middle-class Americans. Jacoby claims that at that period of time theory of evolution was undistinguishable from social sciences and religion. Basically, these beliefs were just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to social Darwinism. On the way to building the American society all these beliefs and theories were blended into one.
Jacoby relies on the fact that Americans were very religious since they were brought up according to the Bible canons, however, everything what was surrounding them dictated the opposite. The author of the book gave this a name of “conservative protestant intellectuals as by agnostics”. This paradox was the major stumbling block for the society and, in fact, people did not know whom to believe and what is worth to believe.
Jacoby quotes works of Herbert Spencer, a British-born philosopher. He was one of those who proclaimed that “the only way to ensure that the fittest would triumph in society through a progress of “social selection” equivalent to Darwin’s natural selection” (71). However, Darwin never mentioned anything about social belonging and how it affects evolution and certain individual’s success in terms of wealth of poverty. He only described the steps of evolutions in terms of biology and development of species over the time.
The other significant figure who was promoting post-Darwinian Theory was pastor Beecher. “God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little” (72) Jacoby explains that pastor tried to inculcate Darwinian Theory with the religion in order to manipulate society which was confused in its beliefs. The major idea was that the God is in charge of certain individual’s success or failure. Failure can be evaluated as punishment of endless poverty.
Susan Jacoby also mentions the fact that the race had a big matter in this case. Mostly it concerned black race and how social Darwinians interpreted blacks inferiority. They claimed that black people were descendants of an evolutionary step and that the white race has supremacy. These themes in American society came in handy in the era of rationalisation of racial segregation. However, the church did not completely agree with these claims; the southern Methodists were not comfortable with these sayings of inferiority and supremacy of representatives of human race.
Not only that, but with the rise of social Darwinism, the distinction between real science and pseudoscience got blurred. These conflicts lead to confusion among Americans who sought a reasonable foundation to build their beliefs upon. Jacoby highlights that these themes were not only apparent in 19th century America, however, she states that at that period of time racial discrimination had a certain appeal to those who enslaved a large population of a different race. Basically, she implies that slavery had a huge impact on the early American history and that even though it was abolished in 1865, the moods of racial discrimination dictated the ideas of American society until middle 20th century.
Jacoby concludes the chapter with her thoughts on political impact of these themes. She claims that regardless of political interests of social Darwinists, it is apparent that anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism remained in American society even after social Darwinian theory lost its influence.
- Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.