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Vol. IX • 1987

The Captains of Industry: Our Darwinian Legacy
Ralph E. Ancil

Because industrial development has a major effect on the utilization of natural resources and the quality of the environment, the attitudes of the captains of industry are important.

Richard Hofstadter has shown that the leading 19th century industrialists subscribed to Social Darwinism which entailed a hostile view of the environment: man vs. nature. But what did this belief mean to the great industrialists in terms of business and industry? To Andrew Carnegie it meant at least progress:

The struggle for life against a hostile environment and the death of the weak was thought by some to be not only a law of nature, but a law of God with its analog in business. Thus John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said in a Sunday School class:  

Note that he relies on evolutionary dogma, not Scripture, to make his point.

Railroad executive Chauncy Depew asserted that the guests of the great dinners and public banquets of New York City represented the survival of the fittest of all who came in search of fortune. They were the ones with superior abilities. Likewise railroad magnate James J. Hill defended the railroad companies by saying their fortunes were determined according to the law of survival of the fittest.3

Generally speaking, Hofstadter4 notes, Spencer's success came because he told the "guardians" of American society what they wanted to hear. In order to resist the many reformist groups such as Grangers, trade unionists, socialists, etc., the advocates of status quo required a theoretical answer. The straightforward application of Darwinian evolution as defined by Herbert Spencer provided that justification. It brought with it a "paralysis of the will to reform"5 and allowed injustice to continue in the name of evolution.

However, the ruthlessness of this attitude and its relation to Darwinian concepts of evolution did not go unnoticed and uncriticized. Charles S. Pierce also indicated that these concepts were widely received because the age was favourably disposed to them. It was. he said, a "philosophy of greed" because Darwin taught progress occurs through the "animal's ruthless greed".6 George Bernard Shaw commented:  

The historian Stearns8 writes that the 19th century liberals, characteristic of the American middle class, accepted the idea of progress as an axiom of human society, a fact that led them easily and often thoughtlessly into 'Social Darwinism'. Darwin's biological theories of natural selection, of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest dovetailed beautifully into Liberalism's belief in individualism, private enterprise, Laissez-faire, and progress, and seemed to give scientific justification to the liberals' political, economic and social program.

And Lester Frank Ward, a disciple of Spencer, once remarked that he was inclined to agree with the British philosopher Carlyle's description of Darwinism as a 'gospel of dirt'.9

Leading industrialists, then, welcomed Social Darwinism because the ruthlessness envisioned in nature justified their own business practices and accumulated wealth. Just as man struggled against a hostile natural environment, so too businessmen had to struggle against a hostile artificial environment in industry. In other words, greed, the short-sighted desire for material wealth and immediate gratification, was supposedly the way of nature and of true progress.

Since the Renaissance, non-Christian, secular ideas had grown significantly. By the nineteenth century, western society had become sufficiently materialistic and mechanistic to accept the Darwinian concept of evolution. It was received by the intellectuals of academia, prompted by the literary naturalists, and applied economically and politically by the captains of industry in the form of Social Darwinism. The message was also carried by Herbert Spencer, whose influence was profound, and others to the common man.

This concept of evolution portrayed nature as a complex of impersonal, ruthless, cruel forces against which man must struggle to carve out his existence. In the artificial environments of businesses and cities, this hostility to nature included a hostility to one's neighbor. Death and wastefulness were perceived as necessary elements in the progress of evolution. There was little room to see the environment as a fragile, delicate system in need of industrial man's solicitous care. Nature was, in fact, the opponent.

There was also another, less obvious message to Darwinian evolutionism. Darwin had helped to "ungod" the universe as indicated by Gillespie.10 Everything could be explained, seemingly, in naturalistic terms. yet, if there were no God. did anything really matter? Without meaning, or coherency in life, there was only despair. Such purposelessness in a hostile environment would sooner induce opportunism and environmental exploitation rather than concern or care.

Writing of when this meaninglessness of Darwinism was recognized one source observes:

Furthermore, by stressing the animality of man and the importance of race and species, the worth and dignity of the individual were lessened. Morals and values were viewed as hypocritical facades imposed on his "lower" nature. Let the individual do whatever he wanted, in the end it did not really matter. Of course, the concept of evolution as expressed by Darwin could be interpreted variously, but Spencer's Social Darwinism was the least interpretative.

It was a simple, straightforward application of the struggle for survival of the fittest, of evolution by natural selection: "nature red in tooth and claw." It is important to emphasize that this connection of man's alleged animal ancestry and the moral and ethical consequences of social Darwinism did not come from any interpreter but from Darwin himself. The brutal struggle aspects were the essence of Darwinism12 In fact only after concerted attacks from logicians, philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals was this jungle version finally abandoned.13 By that time, however, the pattern of industrial development and social attitudes and expectations had become radically and permanently changed, a pattern of which we today are the inheritors.

It is extremely difficult to believe that a philosophy which viewed the environment as hostile, life as meaningless, and the individual as a worthless imp, could be embraced without having serious environmental consequences. If there is such a thing as an environmentally destructive attitude, then evolutionists must turn to their own intellectual backyard to find it. The 19th century Darwinian concept of evolution, crystallizing and catalyzing pre-existing secular notions, is the philosophical basis for our modern environmental problems.


1 Hofstadter, Richard; 1959; Social Darwinism in American Thought George Braziller; New York.
2 Ibid, p. 45.
3 Ibid, p. 44-45.
4 Ibid, p. 46.
5 Ibid, p. 47.
6 Russett, Cynthia Eagle; 1976; Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response 1965-1972 H.W Freeman and Company; San Francisco; p.64.
7 Hedtke, Randall; 1981; "The Episteme Is the Theory"; Creation Research Society Quarterly; vol.18, no.1, June; pp. 9-10.
8 Stearns, Raymond P.; 1961; Pageant of Europe; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc; New York p. 453.
9 Russett, op. cit., p. 108.
10 Gillespie, N.C.; 1979: Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation; the University of Chicago Press; Chicago: p.15.
11 Trilling, Lionel and Bloom, Harold; 1973; Victorian Prose and Poerry; Oxford University Press; New York, London, and Toronto; p.11.
12 Russett, op. cit., p. 19.
13 Ibid, p. 211.

"The Captains of Industry: Our Darwinian Legacy"
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