Social Darwinism as a Religion for the Rich


JD Phillips LCSW


If you are not already familiar with the philosophy we call social Darwinism, the Wikipedia page looks like a quick read. And if you do, don’t miss the part about it’s alleged connection to satanism. I will define Social Darwinism here with a casual everyday example.

Social Darwinism popped up around the end of the nineteenth century. Herbert Spencer was big in bringing it to America, and it caught on with the very rich because it justified inequality. Remember, this was the time of the great robber barons. There was no income tax. A very few rich folks had most of the money, like today. The rich had a guilt problem. Well, here comes Herbert Spencer who says: Look at nature. Look at the animal kingdom. It’s survival of the fittest out there. Competition makes the species stronger. People are like that too. Rich people deserve to be rich because they are superior. Poor people should not be helped because that would allow them to reproduce more and our species would soon become overrun with bad genes. For a rich person to help a poor person would actually be to hurt the poor person because it would prolong their suffering, much like giving booze to an alcoholic. Before you laugh, compare this philosophy to trickle down economics. Compare it to plain old capitalism.

Now for my everyday example. In 1988 I moved from Chicago to Red Bud Illinois. I rented an old farm house in the country. The place had been an old dairy farm. It had quite a few wild cats. The landlord, who was a farmer, warned me not to feed the cats. I fed them anyway, and soon the cat population skyrocketed. I tried taking the more popular females to the vet for a little surgical birth control, but that had little effect and the landlord preached social Darwinism to me. “Look here Chicago, you can’t feed the cats because feeding them hurts them. The population of cats can’t exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land. They need to eat the field mice and nothing else. If you start feeding them, you can’t stop, or there will be a big die off. You don’t do them any favors by feeding them. Nature isn’t fair.” Social Darwinism for cats.

The problem with social Darwinism is that it commits a naturalistic fallacy. It makes the mistake of going from an IS to an AUGHT. Just because it’s dog eat dog out there in nature, it does not follow that we aught to treat people that way. When the farmer said that nature isn’t fair, I said, “Nature isn’t fair, it’s up to us to make it fair.” I quoted Kate Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEEN. “Nature is what we are put on this earth to rise above.” He didn’t get it. Social Darwinism is a flawed philosophy, but being a flawed philosophy doesn’t keep it from being attractive to the very rich. And like any religion or belief system, the believers need lots of other people to believe it too, or they begin to lose faith. That’s why the rich spend so much money selling social Darwinism to the rest of us. They call it free market capitalism, but it’s social Darwinism. They think they are selling it to us, but they are really selling it to themselves. The part where they are actually helping the poor by NOT helping them makes them feel so good about themselves that they get a little blinded by the light.

I had a undergraduate double major in psychology and sociology. It was the late 1970s and I did not foresee that the impending Reagan revolution would last so long. When we studied social Darwinism we saw it as an extinct rationalization for inequality that had been debunked by decades of progressive ridicule. Social Darwinism was a spoof, a trick that the rich and powerful used to brush off uneducated folks who complained about inequality. We were sure that the rich knew it was false. I understood that it was a tempting rationalization to a person with money while others were born into grinding poverty, but I could never bring myself to accept the idea that an educated person could actually adopt Social Darwinism as a philosophy of life. Even in graduate school, where I studied social work and national social welfare policy, we saw Social Darwinism as something nobody believed anymore.

My strategy for most of my life when persuading the rich to get off of some of that money and throw a bone to the social safety net involved the assumption that it was all about the money, and not about ideology, let alone a weak ideology like social Darwinism. I assumed that those of us on the progressive left would find a way to make the redistribution of wealth so small and painless, while still providing a strong safety net, that the rich would write a check and walk on feeling like saints. The strategy was to make the safety net efficient by using creative thinking and technology. It didn’t work. No matter how efficient we got, they didn’t budge. The rich got richer from the 1980s on, until we reached a point of wealth inequality that rivaled the period just before the Great Depression. At that point I considered the possibility that the 1% actually believed in Social Darwinism passionately, like a religion. How could they be so gullible. They were cutting their own throats. Even Bismark, the old German emperor knew that you had to provide some kind of safety net to the poor or the level of inequality would eventually grow so large that it would explode and bring down the regime.

The behavior of the rich in the US in the 1980s did not make sense to me unless I changed one of my fundamental premisses. It all made sense if and only if the rich actually believed in Social Darwinism like an actual religious ideology. But, to be blunt, how could they be so stupid. The answer lies in new evidence we have from the science of brain physiology. This is a little tricky, so I will go slow.

Researchers have been putting people in MRI scanners and watching changes in blood flow while the subjects are confronted with facts that directly contradict some of their core political beliefs. The subject fills out a form before going in that asks them about what they believe. For example: The subject is asked what political party is responsible for running up the deficit with public sector spending. The subject checks the box next to the democrats and then goes in. The researcher watches what happens in the brain when the subject is told that he is wrong, and that the republicans are way ahead of the democrats on deficit expansion. There is a lot more to this than I am covering here, but the scans have revealed something shocking to people like me, who believed that humans used rational thinking to choose their political belief systems.

At least when I went to college, what we got was a life changing exposure to the ideas of the enlightenment. Rational thinking started with Aristotle who gave us formal logic. Socrates was a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates was mortal. Rational thinking allowed people to think for themselves and freed them from blind obedience to the church etc. in the middle ages. The enlightenment was the major influence on the founding fathers, and is at the core of the U.S. constitution. (Sorry tea party folks) Not only were we taught that rational thinking was superior to what came before it, we were taught that rational thinking is natural to every person, even if they had never been to the university. Even if a person had never been taught anything about rational thought, they just naturally made use of it when they were being persuaded. The brain scans debunked this.

People are NOT hard wired to reason. We are not hard wired for what philosophers call consistent thinking. We ARE hard wired to make excuses for what we already believe, even when confronted with clear and convincing evidence that we are wrong. And worse than that, after we find some weak mental excuse for not changing our position, the brain actually squirts out a little shot of feel good juice to reward us for finding the excuse. We get a little shot of endorphin, a brain chemical that acts like a shot of cocaine, dopamine etc.

It gets worse. The advertising folks who sell us everything from cigarettes to republican candidates know this stuff cold. They have think tanks and psychologists and neurologists on board. Brainwashing is an industry. I studied social psychology as an undergraduate, but I never saw the stuff again until I read about the history and methods of advertising. It was all there. The experimental psychologists sold out to the advertising industry.

The father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, was a nephew of Sigmund Freud. The advertisers have sold Social Darwinism so well that it has become a religion, a carefully crafted religion that is designed to graft on to other religions without displacing them. A rational person who is a Christian would have a problem grafting social Darwinism onto a Christian belief system, but the advertisers get it done because they know that the human brain is NOT hard wired to be rational. They can graft ideas that contradict each other together in the minds of unsuspecting political consumers. They can sell the idea that big government is bad, right next to the idea that the government should stop you from getting birth control. They can sell a bad war for empire right next to a pitch to go to church and love Jesus.

When you point out that Jesus would never go to war, the subject’s brain starts to feel cognitive dissonance, an unpleasant feeling that two of his/her beliefs contradict each other. This is what a rational person is going for when arguing with someone they are trying to persuade. But what happens then is not what a rational person expects. Instead of searching for the truth, the irrational brain looks for the easiest way to account for the discrepancy without changing already held beliefs. It doesn’t matter if the new excuse is a good one, only that it’s good enough to give you some kind of assured feeling that you don’t have to change your mind. “Let’s see…this guy says Jesus wouldn’t vote for a war…he’s an anti-war liberal….he must be a communist…communists are atheists…therefore I’m the one with Jesus and he’s against Jesus.” Big shot of endorphin.

We are masters of deluding ourselves. We are lazy thinkers, and the advertisers know how to sucker us. We are not hardwired to think for ourselves, we are hardwired to follow the leader, that is until we take Professor Kennard’s logic class at Illinois State in the late 1970s. This guy even taught formal logic in philosophy 101. The non-majors hated that. He made them do it and told them that it was the most valuable skill they would ever learn. He was right. He taught us to take political arguments apart and dissect them with a scalpel. I wonder what he would say about the new brain research. It’s here, and it’s ugly. Now what should we do about it.

I do not agree with the political strategists who recommend that the democrats get up to speed on the technology of dirty tricks. I don’t want to hire the same hucksters to sell the left. The left should sell itself by simply running on the record. Carl Rove is laughing now. I think the 1% knows it has to cheat to win, and I think that justice is coming up fast on the 1%. The republican party has overreached. The Tea Party runs it now. They are so far out on the radical right that they can’t win a national election. They have the house of representatives only because they gerrymandered a bunch of republican districts from the last census, but that only lasts ten years. We have about six more years until the next census, and the democrats will regain control of a lot of those gerrymandered states.

So now you know that the human brain is hardwired to be easily led. At least now you don’t have to pull your hair out when your uncle can’t see the contradiction in being a republican while running a labor union. And remember, not even rational people change their mind on the spot. All you have to do when you are trying to change a mind is plant a little seed. The person you are trying to convince will turn it over and over in their mind until they find a way of adjusting their beliefs to fit the facts, and they will do it in a way that let’s them believe that it was their idea all along.




  1. Identify appeals to social Darwinism AS social Darwinism. Trickle down economics, stories about welfare queens, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps rhetoric, appeals for labor to be competitive in a brutal global economy, just about anything that is a republican talking point can be reduced to social Darwinism. Expose it, call it what it is, and state your opposition.
  2. Direct people to this paper while assuring them that you do not include them in the ranks of the deluded. Even better: Delete this line and print it for them.
  3. If you are lucky enough to be arguing with a fundamentalist Christian, politely explain that you may have missed the part in the Bible where Jesus throws the poor under the bus in order to help them. If you are a Christian then tell them that social Darwinism is against your religion. It is.
  4. Stress the point that it is no disgrace to be fooled by advertising professionals. These people are very skilled. They even sold us cigarettes.
  5. Teach your children that when somebody throws a political pitch at them that is based on emotionally charged images, and not on a rational argument, then the pitch probably doesn’t survive a rational analysis. School them in how advertising works. Encourage them to read about the history of rational thinking.