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Beasts In The Jungle
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
In the last decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, the doctrines of social Darwinism were subjected to a furious attack. William James, for instance, deplored Spencer’s “dry school-master temperament … his preference for cheap makeshifts in argument, his lack of education even in mechanical principles, and in general the vagueness of all his fundamental ideas, his whole system wooden, as if knocked together out of cracked hemlock boards.” Spencer’s high-sounding jargon might have impressed James’s contemporaries, but to James it was nothing but wind. Evolution as interpreted by Spencer, James charged, mocking the Englishman’s sometimes impenetrable prose, “is a change from a nohowish untalkaboutable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in general talkaboutable not-all-alikeness by continuous sticktogetherations and somethingelseifications.”
The social reformer Henry George had a different criticism. Spencer, George said, was “like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and others artificially loaded with lead.”
The American sociologist Lester Ward launched a fierce attack upon the assumption that lay at the heart of social Darwinism—the assumption that life in the state of nature parallels life in society. “Man and society are not … under the influence of the great dynamic laws that control the rest of the animal world.… If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through the protection of the weak.”
What about the survival of the fittest through a process of natural selection? Look at any cultivated garden, Ward suggested, or look at progress in agriculture. “Wherever competition is wholly removed … great strides are immediately made by the form thus protected, and it soon outstrips all those that depend upon competition.…”
The trouble with the social Darwinists, Ward concluded, was that they knew nothing about biology. In an attack on a book by the foremost American proponent of social Darwinism (Yale professor William Graham Sumner), Ward wrote, “The whole book is based on the fundamental error that the favors of this world are distributed entirely according to merit.… Those who have survived simply prove their fitness to survive; and the fact which all biologists understand, viz., that fitness to survive is something wholly distinct from real superiority, is, of course, ignored by the author because he is not a biologist, as all sociologists should be.”
Half a century ago, social Darwinism seemed dead. In Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), the historian Richard Hofstadter concluded his chapter about William Graham Sumner with the comment that “natural selection in the realm of ideas has taken its toll upon his life work,” and he concluded his chapter about Lester Ward with the comment that “his greatest accomplishment was as a critic of intellectual systems, once pervasive and powerful, which have long since crumbled and been forgotten.” Whatever the course of future social philosophy, Hofstadter wrote, it is generally accepted that “such biological ideas as the ‘survival of the fittest’… are utterly useless in attempting to understand society.”
The survival of the fittest is a concept that tends to enchant the fit, who often seem to feel a special duty to carefully explain its charm to the rest of us.
The competition of ideas in the intellectual jungle is not to be confused, however, with the competition of men and women in the business jungle. In the world of American business, how did we get from a jungle to a zoo?
We began by locking up the lions. By the early years of the twentieth century, it had become apparent that if we left them to their own devices, the most ferocious lions would devour all their competitors. Then they would grow fat. Anyone who understands the role of free enterprise in a market economy understands that we’re all better off if we’ve got a lot of hungry lions competing for the privilege of serving our needs, rather than a few fat lions lounging in the sun.
Louis Brandeis made the key point in an essay written in 1912: ‘The right of competition must be limited in order to preserve it. For excesses of competition lead to monopoly, as excesses of liberty lead to absolutism.…”
In The New Freedom , Woodrow Wilson made the same point in language that echoed the language of social Darwinism but not its conclusions: “American industry is not free, as once it was free.… The man with only a little capital is finding it … more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.”
But that was 1914. Where are we now? I would argue that the beasts who roamed the American business jungle late in the nineteenth century founded organizations that have become the domain, a century later, not of beasts but of comfortably domesticated bureaucrats. Thirty years have passed since William Whyte described this new breed in his study The Organization Man . Today when we hear someone say, “It’s a jungle out there,” we know that we’re probably listening not to a corporate executive but to the owner of a small business or to a salesman stuck in the kind of job that destroyed Willy Loman.