Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bernard Shaw and Social Darwinism

   Shaw used his long preface to Back to Methuselah to criticize Dawrin's theory of evolution, saying among other things that it was a reduction of beauty and honour. Honour is an interesting word to use since it implies that the notion of survival of the fittest is the best phrase that Darwin could have used to explain the law of nature. But what Shaw fails to mention is that in the context of The Origin of Species Darwin used this phrase to explain that species survive if they are able to slowly, over a prolonged period of time, adapt to best suit the environment that they exist in within the greater realm of Nature. In this way, Darwin is agreeing with Pope's view that "Nature to all things fix'd the Limits fit" and that no species is able to overcome Nature. Humans, however, have been able to create their own artificial environments of urban and rural areas and to prosper within these created environments. However, we know that we can never become the master of Nature because we know that Nature is too wild and powerful to tame, since She still has the power to destroy our homes and cities through floods and earthquakes.

   Shaw is correct in his criticism that Darwin is applying his Whig political affiliation to his theory of evolution and not the other way round. Yes, Shaw is reading Darwin through his own Fabian views and applying a political criticism to a scientific theory. However, Shaw was also a believer in Social Darwinism in that he agreed with eugenics. In Act V of his play, he writes of how his characters in this new long-lived scientific future, all those children who are not deemed to be wholly perfect by the Ancients are murdered on the spot. Had Shaw been a true Socialist then he would not have been a believer in eugenics or a racist. Those who believe in Social Darwinism are twisting the words of Darwin's theory in order to support their own personal beliefs, much like the Neo-Darwinists are doing, rather then by looking for facts to support their own theories.

  Social Darwinism goes against the notion of survival of the fittest, because it supports the belief that humans have some sort of claim to be the superior species on the planet because of what we have been able to create. This is not the case, since we have merely evolved differently than other species have. Sharks have the ability to regrow their teeth and are in that way superior to humans, but we don't hear of a group of sharks advocating their form of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism does go against Darwin because it takes Nature into our own hands and forcing the evolution of our species to go in the direction that a small group of people deem to be the "correct" way. Shaw advocates in his play that humans have the ability to use our intelligence to be able to live longer and that eventually humans will separate and the short-lives will eventually die out because society does not need them anymore. We are living longer at the beginning of this century then ever before but this is not due to our intelligence, it is due to the slow improvement of our diets that has been happening since the Industrial Revolution. If, as Shaw argues, the survival of the fittest means that humans with the highest level of intelligence will be able to live the longest simply by willing themselves to live longer, then why did Mozart die when he was 35, aside from the fact that he had never read Shaw's play.

By: Jennifer Jarvis

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