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Social Darwinism

by on May 16, 2020

Social Darwinism

by Marco M. Pardi

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply.

In a galaxy long ago and far away a boy experienced primary and secondary school under the tutelage of cloistered Ursuline nuns and monks of the Brothers of the Holy Cross. Among the lessons they imparted to him the one which recurred most often was: The most meaningful and long lasting lessons are those which arise from excruciatingly painful mistakes. No pain, no gain?

Later, as a grown man, he looked back at life through that principle and decided he must have learned a great deal. And chief among that learning was the realization that there are no mistakes and there is no justification for claiming credit.

As with other discoveries, it didn’t take long for someone to borrow a principle from biology and attempt to apply it to sociology. But it was actually Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the term Darwinism, and Emilie Gautier who originally used the phrase social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer originated the phrase Survival of the fittest. Darwin himself would have rejected the latter two phrases, especially since fittest came to be measured as closer to the White Race and the cultural and economic characteristics thereof. In fact, Darwin’s concept of fit was purely biological: Fitness was measured by reproductive capability and environmental adaptation, not individual strength or the size of one’s bank account. Nonetheless, social Darwinism was quite popular throughout the latter 19 century and early 20th, falling from grace only after the exposure of the horrendous Nazi eugenics (eu – good; genics – genetic structure).

Although social Darwinism is now rarely mentioned in intelligent company, the feelings still prevail in some subcultures and even in some Western religions. Social and economic success is viewed by some as proof of “God’s” approval, much the same as military success in slaughtering another population meant “God was on our side”. And, it lives on in some forms of entertainment such as the “Darwin Awards”, publicizing stupid acts which end in disaster for the participants.

But what about those lessons? I recall bridling at authority figures seeking to control my behavior and saying, “Let me make my own mistakes”. Yet as a parent I certainly wanted to prevent negative outcomes for my child, but I also saw undue protection, insulation from reality, as a negative form of parenting. How could I distinguish between a behavior that could result in a sore bottom from falling versus a behavior which could result in a broken neck? When do I agree to remove the training wheels from the bicycle? At what point do I assert my experience based judgment and intervene? And how well could I defend my assertion of caution if I had only presumptions of danger, not factual experience of negative results?

Somewhat later I observed a form of threat that was immediately effective. While working in a Sexually Transmitted Infections public health clinic in a very rough part of a huge city part of my duties included translating for the physicians working there and for the patients. As patients checked in they were given a number so as to protect their privacy. Usually, I would step into the waiting room and call out three numbers so these individuals could come forward for me to draw blood from them. But one afternoon our Vietnamese physician, a rather severe looking man, stepped into the waiting room with me and called out three numbers. No one moved. He called again, and received only surly looks. The physician then turned to me and loudly said, “Rett dem die. Rett dem aww die” and turned back into the examining rooms. I was almost knocked down by the three bodies rushing in after us. Later, in that and other similar clinics in the early years of HIV I sat with patients and explained to them that their HIV positive results meant they could engage in only safe sex or they would transmit an incurable, non-treatable and almost certainly fatal disease to someone. I signed that counseling session into their medical records. And, I saw them return again and again to be treated for gonorrhea, a certain indicator they had engaged in unsafe sex. I doubt any of them told their partner of their disease status before engaging in sexual contact.

I’ve also read of judges ordering young reckless drivers to spend a number of hours in a hospital emergency room and/or the morgue. Recalling the hour in the Air Force doing required – for all personnel – viewing of such films as Slaughter on the Highways, a particularly graphic film, I can’t say it had much if any effect on how I drove my sports car. My main concern was repair costs, not safety.

So I began to wonder. Just what does it take to get someone to understand the potential seriousness of their choices? Do I have rights and responsibilities, and how far do they extend? I recall thinking, Let the stupid go on killing themselves. A kind of social Darwinism. I remember the saying that, in democracies, people get the government they deserve. The 2016 presidential election was a clear example of what happens when otherwise intelligent people decide to sit out an election and hand off the choice to “the other guy”. It’s like assuming your sexual partner has been forthright with you, or that the driver of the car you are in is mindful of highway safety. You become collateral damage.

But does that really sink in? We’ve come to the point on this planet where we are reaching the incurable, even un-treatable level of damage to our ecosystem. The incomprehensible greed of a numerically tiny portion of the American population is abusing (I’ll spare you the metaphor) all life as we know it on this planet. I’m aware that, following my lengthy rants about the environment, some readers of my columns have found other things to do. I will say, however, I have challenged officials from the White House on down to the local level to answer my question of: Why should I not seek their indictment on charges of Reckless Endangerment. Were I to print the responses I’ve received I could paper the inside of my house.

But I’m speaking not only for my daughter and my grandchildren but for all life on this planet, including humans too stupid to act on their own behalf. “Rett dem die” is a social Darwinist fantasy. If it were only them I could entertain the notion. But our dishonest partners in this life and the glibly careless, thrill seeking drivers of our economic rape of life on this planet are killing more than themselves.

Over these past few years I admit to having thoughts of just keeping quiet, letting ignorance and stupidity cull the herd. I’ve thought that only a major cataclysm, if even that, will change any behaviors. Unfortunately, like the lights coming up on a stage, the full awareness of all that would be harmed by a cataclysm brought on the by the ignorance or stupidity of a few simply overwhelms any resolve I may have had to remain quiet.

There are those who endeavor to still my voice and the voices and efforts of others like me, but we will force them out onto the field under their true colors: Greed, Avarice, and Gluttony. MAGA. Make America Gag Again. Maybe this time we’ll actually vomit out these toxins.

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  1. Elizabeth Martinez permalink

    Marco, thank you for your post. You mentioned your sports car and it reminded me of the day I rode with you at lunchtime to a restaurant. Do you still drive fast?


  2. Thanks, Liz. I’m not sure which of my cars we used, but now I drive like the grandpa I am. I’ve learned new words and gestures in Atlanta traffic.


  3. From Ray: Thanks Marco – always enjoy your blogs. Nobody wished for this pandemic but maybe some good will come out of it if only people would open their eyes, hearts and minds. I fear America is heading for a very nasty fall – so it will have a huge opportunity to get it right next time.

    The irony of somebody coming to your highest office promising greatness but without the faintest clue of what that means must be painful.

    How can you be great when you are divided? And America has not been more divided since the civil war. And nobody is more dedicated to division that Trump. I could go on – but I’m sure anyone could fill in the blanks. Keep up the good work and keep your voice loud and strong. You know you are not alone.


  4. Thank you, Ray. We likely have not hit bottom yet. And I suspect this November could be quite violent. Most of us have observed harsh lessons in the making, and it is never satisfying. I’m reminded of Tricia Nixon’s statement about the death penalty: “That oughta’ teach ’em”. I just wonder how much more it will take.


  5. Dana permalink

    Marco, I can’t help but think of the “pandemic anxiety” I’ve felt at work over the past few months.  Not anxiety over my own health – but the health of the customers crowding into the store and that of my co-workers.  For at least two months I’ve tried to lead by example, wearing a mask even though it’s abject misery for me regardless of the material used.  I’ve raced around disinfecting carts and baskets between customers, constantly worried I might have missed one.  I lie in bed at night after every shift wondering if I did enough.

    And yet even during lockdown countless people admitted they were “just browsing” or bored at home.  I’ve had numerous moments wondering why In bother continuing with best practices – some that haven’t been a requirement of my job.  Even today as the number of cases and the death toll continues to rise in Georgia, I fight being silently angry at the stupidity around me.  Yet I know that failing to care for everyone potentially affects all of us. So I can’t be apathetic – at least not in my actions.  

    As for other areas, we can’t cease our efforts as activists.  If I had more time I’d do more, but I’m truly grateful for those like you who dedicate so much time and effort to critical causes.  Always remember even if you feel so few are reading, responding or listening today, your voice is here forever. 


    • Thank you, Dana. I do worry about you developing empathy exhaustion, most importantly for the effects it could have on you. In times like these it’s also hard to fight the feeling of being intellectually superior to so many others, and the tendency to generalize that more than is justified. Others are on their own paths; we can speak out when we can, but it’s always a challenge to not cross the line.


      • Dana permalink

        Marco, thanks for your wisdom. I think I did struggle with empathy exhaustion in the beginning, but I’m not very familiar with that.

        Agreed about the feelings of superiority. No room for that – those feelings only increase frustration.


      • Dana permalink

        Marco, thanks for your wisdom. I think I did struggle with empathy exhaustion in the beginning, but I’m not very familiar with that.

        Agreed about the feelings of superiority. No room for that – those feelings only increase frustration.


  6. Julie permalink

    Hi Marco! I do apologise for my absence, life getting in the way of connecting with you and enjoying your heartfelt talented writing. I feel everyone has different views on responsibility, in relation to warning, teaching and correcting others. I err on the side of being brutally honest, as feel this, in most circumstances, has the best outcome in the end, as far as getting the message across in whatever that may be… Living your life as an example, as much as possible, is a good start, however we are all born with our own personalities and gifts and it can be hard to know where that line is. For example some people have a natural affinity to just do the right thing and be aware of others, others have no thought at all about others needs. Unfortunately, we can only do/say what we believe to be the right thing as some individuals will not see it no matter how much we lead by example or try to make them aware. I note I find this is a personal challenge in my life in dealing with people like that, trying to not let it affect me. I believe in those instances, those people, unfortunately do learn the hard way, even if it does take their life, that’s just how it is supposed to be. Good topic though, love the way you think 😊


    • Thank you, Julie. We’ve missed you. Knowing how much you enjoy your motorcycle, I do wonder about your safety. In my experience it’s usually not the motorcyclist at fault when there is an adverse event. And that is my greatest concern: the collateral damage that occurs when someone else is careless in what they do. To me, that is one of the greatest dangers facing us in life as we up the stakes every day in our tenuous relationship with our environment.

      I see you often on facebook and vicariously enjoy the wonderful travels and good times you have.


      • Julie permalink

        Thanks Marco, that’s so lovely to be missed, don’t worry about the motorbike, I take my chances and as a pillian passenger have complete trust in my very experienced hubby. As for future travels, all on hold in this current pandemic, however my son is getting married in October in the country about 6 hours away so will enjoy that break then. Take care of yourself xo


  7. Rarely have I been so frightened for the survival of my fellow human beings. It is not the pandemic which shakes me, but the actions and attitudes of so many around me. Wearing non-medical masks is a bit like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing jugular, but anything is better than nothing. So many rush to re-open our country when, in my not-so-humble opinion, it is just too soon to do so. I get the financial reasoning and even the social desire, but it feels like a political ploy, and in the end is likely to do more harm than good. If you ask me (and you certainly didn’t), I think the monkeys have taken over the zoo.


    • Thank you, Rose. While I share your concern for the welfare of others, especially the children who must pay for the mistakes of their elders, I also have feelings of “Rett dem die” when I see in-your-face stupidity paraded in front of me daily. And, as you know, I greatly extend my concern to all life on this planet, which has diminished by as much as 60% since 1970. I want to step in and put the training wheels on the bicycles, like it or not. And I know I will be confronted by armed dunces asserting their “God given” right to be stupid.


  8. Steve permalink

    I always find what you say worth reading whether I weigh in or not. I think we need people asking questions of our choices always and it’s great you exert so much effort to hold people accountable. I agree with the sentiment I’ve seen in the past- with your experience and knowledge you could create a great podcast. It would be an opportunity to ask questions of decision makers in a public forum. Better yet, it could be used to bring in like minded individuals to workshop and implement local program ideas for change.

    A lot of your readers might be put off or roll their eyes when I bring up rap personality, Killer Mike. He is a bigger than life character with lyrics I certainly avoid playing around my kids. That said, if you look at all the ways he is continually using his fame and experiences to build connections with individuals to help develop ideas and programs for the people of Atlanta to better themselves, it is very impressive.

    Effecting world change would be amazing but, I think it starts locally with the people with the experience and skills to shape it. You certainly have what it takes.


    • Thank you, Steve. Your comments are very encouraging. I have been asked about doing podcasts. And, I’ve done some with Jamie Butler,( a woman I am very fortunate in knowing. Unfortunately, my home situation would not support a podcast venue. This blog is read in a great variety of countries, though only a select few provide comments. I do not know why this is the case.

      I’m unfamiliar with Killer Mike, but he sounds interesting.


      • Steve permalink

        Those who have Netflix can see him make a run at social experiments in Trigger Warning with Killer Mike. He’s a likable big hearted character for someone nicknamed Killer.


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