There are, generally, two ways to explain a phenomenon: you can either describe what or who “brought it about” or you can describe it at a deeper, more fundamental level. These two approaches have sometimes been referred to as the ‘personal cause’ and the ‘non-personal cause,’ respectively. This bifurcation traces its origins back to Aristotle who originally described four distinct types of causes. But we won’t go into that here (instead, check out my post on Aristotle and the Four Causes). For our purposes, we just need to know that there are different ways of explaining a phenomenon and they are not synonymous.
“Another school year is around the corner. Undergraduate biology students will once again take up their textbooks on a quest to explore the intricacies of life. Of course, these students are rarely exposed to a balanced assessment of evolutionary theory, including its empirical challenges.
The Social Darwinist is someone who believes that the Darwinian theory of evolution — i.e. “survival of the fittest” — should be actively applied to people, societies, or nations. To the Social Darwinist, ALL of life is a struggle for survival in which the strongest naturally prosper at the expense of the weak — and it is right and natural that they should do so because that’s just the way things are, and/or natural law is Above Good and Evil.
Such people rarely concede that their chances for survival may have started higher than others due to reasons such as inherited wealth, social prestige, or even dumb luck. They typically state that we, collectively, have become complacent and stupid; they want to remove any trace of “weakness” and “stupidity” from society. It may seem to some that because humans aren’t currently enduring wars or other catastrophic extinction events, evolution in humans has ceased altogether (or at least paused — either one of which is highly problematic). If Social Darwinists do talk about evolution, they are very likely to talk about evolutionary levels and teleological evolution rather than Darwin’s actual theory (which was more of a pass-fail concept). Regardless, it is worth taking a look at the typology of Social Darwinists.
Though I am, by no means or any stretch of the imagination, a fan of Richard Dawkins, I do think that he is often over-vilified. Certainly, his opinions are inflammatory and his antagonism of theists is controversial. But overall, I am sympathetic to his views (even if I think he misses far too many of the finer nuances of his perspective to ever be a capable philosopher). His intelligence and experience as an evolutionary biologist cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand. That is definitively his area of expertise.
But we must also be quite clear: his expertise is NOT philosophy (not even Philosophy of Science by way of proxy). So, while Peter Williams’ commentary may be useful for learning purposes (via negativa), it is ultimately misguided and one cannot help but wonder if he should have devoted his time and efforts to something more substantial…regardless, below is most of the original article from PhilosophyNow where Massimo Pigliucci and several of his graduate students take Williams to task for overstepping his own subject matter expertise and creating more confusion than clarity about several important philosophical topics related to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The only difference is that I’ve italicized the excerpts that I personally found to be most relevant and poignant. Hope you gain something from it too! 😎