The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, Feb. 12, brought back memories of a college course I took in which the topic was “social Darwinism,” a philosophy that exalted dog-eat-dog greed in the name of “survival of the fittest.”

Social Darwinism, we learned in that class, provided a figleaf of “scientific truth” and morality to an era in which 8-year-old boys and girls were forced to toil in the mines and mills while the factory owners were at play on their golf links. Millions of workers slaved 12- to 14-hour days at starvation wages. Measures to alleviate this brutal exploitation were denounced as contrary to the laws of both God and Darwin and, it was alleged, would contribute to a weakening of the human species.

Among the assigned readings in that course was a book by biologist George Gaylord Simpson, “The Meaning of Evolution,” that demolished social Darwinism as a monstrous fraud.

Simpson showed that along with competition, cooperation is an equally important factor in evolution in determining whether a species survives. Indeed, he argued, many species have evolved strategies to reduce competition within their cohort to improve chances of survival. We see evidence of that survival strategy in the human species in the varied social structures that emerged over the ages: family, tribe, trade unions, political parties, grassroots organizations, representative governments. These structures serve as a force for democratic self-rule and a bulwark against barbarism, against the forces of annihilation that pose the gravest risk to human survival.

Years later, a friend introduced to me the writings of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian prince, a founder of anarchism, who rebelled against his aristocratic upbringing and devoted his life to science and revolution. Kropotkin read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and was immensely impressed. Sent on a czarist expedition to Siberia, he spent months searching for evidence to buttress Darwin’s notion of competition as the driving force in nature. But everywhere he looked, he found something else: cooperation. He studied the behavior of ants, honeybees, birds, wild horses and wolves, and concluded that “mutual aid” was the key to their survival.

Returning from Siberia, Kropotkin continued his studies, applying this concept of “mutual aid” to human society. He found proof of cooperation and solidarity in every epoch of human evolution. He focused, for example, on the role of guilds in medieval towns, formed by skilled artisans to defend their mutual interests. These guilds, he argued, were central to the very existence of these towns.

Kropotkin condensed his observations in a book, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” which served as a basis for his theory that the state corrupts and negates the natural inclination of humanity to cooperate. Kropotkin’s gentle book extolling human solidarity provides an antidote to those who reduce anarchism to a crude caricature, “bomb throwers” intent on “smashing the state.”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels also greeted Darwin’s theory of evolution. In a letter to German Communist Ferdinand Lassalle dated Jan. 16, 1861, Marx wrote, “Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history.” But Marx and Engels also debunked social Darwinism. Engels wrote, “The whole Darwinian theory of the ‘struggle for life’ is simply the transference from society to organic nature of the [Thomas] Hobbes theory of ‘Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes [the war of each against all] and of the bourgeois theory of economic competition as well as the Malthusian theory of population.”

Indeed, Darwin, a shy person who sought to avoid controversy, had borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Herbert Spencer, who together with T.H. Huxley contrived social Darwinism to justify exploitation, wars of aggression and racist oppression by British imperialism.

The class structure that dominates modern society is driven by both mutual aid and struggle. The working class is bound together by mutual dependence and solidarity in its struggle against the capitalist class enemy. But Mark and Engels saw this bitter struggle as a temporary stage, not a permanent condition. Workers have the audacity and the hope — to borrow a phrase — for a day when the system of wage exploitation and racist oppression will be abolished and mutual aid is the normative condition of human existence.

Meanwhile, social Darwinism is alive and well. It was present when well-fed Republican politicians sat on their hands during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech the night of Feb. 24. They made their disapproval obvious when Obama hailed passage of SCHIP extending health insurance to13 million more uninsured children. They sat in grim silence when he said his economic recovery package extends jobless benefits and health care coverage for millions of unemployed workers. But they stood and applauded when he called for taxpayer rescue of the banks.

Among the “fittest” species are those that utilize strategies of mutual assistance and solidarity. For humankind, that leads naturally to the idea that all races and nationalities are equal, that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” For millions of working people caught in the deepening economic crisis, it leads to the idea of socialism, a system that upholds the truth that we are all in the same boat together. It is a system that puts human need above profits, that places the means of production in public hands and opens the way for a government “of, by and for the people.”

—– Tim Wheeler ( is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.