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What’s Good for the Goose. . . : Labor and the Theory of Evolution

In the late 19th century, William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned academic sociologist, applied Darwin’s scientific ideas of evolution to the social sphere to produce his theory of the economic survival of the fittest. Sumner’s writings justified government inaction in the face of vast social dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and the periodic economic depressions that accompanied it. Critics of the new industrial order rejected the rigid “laws” propounded by Sumner and other conservative social scientists. They countered with their own laws of social development based on alternative readings of nature and science. Some labor thinkers proposed a sort of working-class social Darwinism, which turned the ideas of conservatives on their head. This 1893 piece from the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine offered a sharp retort to those who preached a hands-off, Darwinian approach to “helping” the laboring masses cope with economic dislocations caused by industrialization.


In writing of evolution there is no purpose to investigate or criticize Darwinism relating to “man’s place in nature.” We take man’s place in nature as it stands to-day regardless of his creation. His remote ancestors may have been apes or tadpoles, or, he may have been created as the Bible proclaims. In any case there has been going forward in processes of evolution a steady unfolding of mental powers, whatever may be said of man’s early physical endowment. It is quite possible that in the processes of evolution, man has lost in physical strength and gained in mental vigor. . . . The evolution of intellectual power is consequent upon education, which is the great unfolding force. Hence, it follows, that those who command the largest educational advantages control those of inferior opportunities. To equalize these opportunities is the great purpose of the American free school system, to secure all mind evolution, the unfolding of its powers, so that the humblest citizen may become a thinker and be prepared to maintain his independence in all conflicts that may arise between contending classes.

In commerce, in finance, in industries and in labor the processes of evolution are challenging the attention of men of thought. Intelligent workingmen are profoundly interested in these wonderful exhibitions. They behold new forces in operation and are studying with intense concern to ascertain in what regard the contribute to their well being.

In the evolution of business affairs, they behold the concentration of wealth and the power which wealth confers in the hands of the few. They behold the machine everywhere taking the place of men. Unable to counteract such processes of evolution, even if they were desirous of doing so, they inquire with ever increasing solicitude, what must the end be? What, if anything, is evolution contributing to the welfare of those who toil?. . .

Labor organizations are also the fruits of evolution, and it is just here that comes into view the theory of survival. In evolution as it relates to animals and plants, the strongest survive, the weak go to the wall—disappear—sometimes styled “the survival of the fittest” but always the strongest. It must be granted that when large mind forces are in alliance with wealth, immense strength is developed, and as against ignorance and poverty, the latter must succumb, except incidentally and spasmodically, as in the early days of the French Revolution.

But when the eye surveys the field of organized labor, the fact comes into view that evolution has already accomplished wonders for those who toil. The labor mind as a whole has unfolded to an extent productive of amazement. Grasping every problem that relates to its welfare it is accomplishing results along the line of its active forces, that bear the stamp of practical wisdom, and in the discussion of the fittest, or, the strongest, labor is developing staying qualities which are creating anxiety in the ranks of those who have believed themselves to be the favorites of evolution.. . .

We unhesitatingly declare that such are some of the advantages that have come to labor by virtue of evolution, and quite as unhesitatingly do we aver that up to this day labor fails to comprehend, scarcely in any measure whatever, what emancipating blessings evolution has conferred upon it. It not only does not put forth its hand to grasp and utilize its inheritance of power, but wedded to jealousies and selfishness, courts defeat and prefers degeneracy to independence.

If this debasement were universal, we should say that evolution, going forward during all the centuries, had accomplished nothing whatever for labor. But fortunately, such soul inferiority is not universal, nor yet a distinguishing feature in labor affairs of the period. Evolution has not simply unfolded the intellectual powers of the plutocratic class. It has laid its redeeming hand upon millions who toil and now, by rights divine they are organizing—a movement preceded by thought and carried forward by thought, to be crushed out only when Gabriel or some other commissioned herald proclaims that the pendulum of time has made its last vibration.

But there is a demand for still further evolution in the world of labor. While the armies of labor are divided, and are under the leadership of men who from any base ambition hold their positions to promote selfish ends and aims, plutocrats and their wealth will rule. With such men, evolution has no significance beyond the boundary line of their own mercenary meanness. But they cannot resist the silent, ceaseless law of evolution.. . .The labor world, if evolution proceeds—and go forward it must, for such is the law—will unify upon all questions where rights are involved.. . .

Source: Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, January 1893, 6–9.

See Also:"The Rich Are Good-Natured": William Graham Sumner Defends the Wealthy
Ode to the Odious: A Poet Ridicules Laissez-Faire