Socialism and Modern Science Enrico Ferri 1900


The third and last part of the argument of Haeckel is correct if applied solely to the purely biological and Darwinian domain, but its starting point is false if it is intended to apply it to the social domain and to turn it into an objection against socialism.

It is said the struggle for existence assures the survival of the fittest; it therefore causes an aristocratic, hierarchic gradation of selected individuals – a continuous progress – and not the democratic leveling of socialism.

Here again, let us begin by accurately ascertaining the nature of this famous natural selection which results from the struggle for existence.

The expression which Haeckel uses and which, moreover, is in current use, “survival of the best or of the best fitted,” ought to be corrected. We must suppress the adjective best. This is simply a persisting relic of that teleology which used to see in Nature and history a premeditated goal to be reached by means of a process of continuous amelioration or progress.

Darwinism, on the contrary, and still more the theory of universal evolution, has completely banished the notion of final causes from modern scientific thought and from the interpretation of natural phenomena. Evolution consists both of involution and dissolution. It may be true, and indeed it is true, that by comparing the two extremes of the path traversed by humanity we find that there has really been a true progress, an improvement taking it all in all; but, in any case, progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but, as Goethe has said, a spiral with rhythms of progress and of retrogression, of evolution and of dissolution.

Every cycle of evolution, in the individual life as in the collective life, bears within it the germs of the corresponding cycle of dissolution; and, inversely, the latter, by the decay of the form already worn out, prepares in the eternal laboratory new evolutions and new forms of life.

It is thus that in the world of human society every phase of civilization bears within it and is constantly developing the germs of its own dissolution from which issues a new phase of civilization – which will be more or less different from its predecessor in geographical situation and range – in the eternal rhythm of living humanity. The ancient hieratic civilizations of the Orient decay, and through their dissolution they give birth to the Graeco-Roman world, which in turn is followed by the feudal and aristocratic civilization of Central Europe; it also decays and disintegrates through its own excesses, like the preceding civilizations, and it is replaced by the bourgeois civilization which has reached its culminating point in the Anglo-Saxon world. But it is already experiencing the first tremors of the fever of dissolution, while from its womb there emerges and is developing the socialist civilization which will flourish over a vaster domain than that of any of the civilizations which have preceded it.[20]

Hence it is not correct to assert that the natural selection caused by the struggle for existence assures the survival of the best; in fact, it assures the survival of the best fitted.

This is a very great difference, alike in natural Darwinism and in social Darwinism.

The struggle for existence necessarily causes the survival of the individuals best fitted for the environment and the particular historical period in which they live.

In the natural, biological domain, the free play of natural (cosmiques) forces and conditions causes a progressive advance or ascent of living forms, from the microbe up to Man.

In human society, on the contrary, that is to say, in the super-organic evolution of Herbert Spencer, the intervention of other forces and the occurrence of other conditions sometimes causes a retrograde selection which always assures the survival of those who are best fitted for a given environment at a given time, but the controlling principle of this selection is in turn affected by the vicious conditions – if they are vicious – of the environment.

Here we are dealing with the question of “social selection,” or rather “social selections,” for there is more than one kind of social selection. By starting from this idea – not clearly comprehended – some writers, both socialists and non-socialists, have come to deny that the Darwinian theories have any application to human society.

It is known, indeed, that in the contemporaneous civilized world natural selection is injuriously interfered with by military selection, by matrimonial selection, and, above all, by economic selection.[21]

The temporary celibacy imposed upon soldiers certainly has a deplorable effect upon the human race. It is the young men who on account of comparatively poor physical constitutions are excused from military service, who marry the first, while the healthier individuals are condemned to a transitory sterility, and in the great cities run the risk of contagion from syphilis which unfortunately has permanent effects.

Marriage also, corrupted as it is in the existent society by economic considerations, is ordinarily in practice a sort of retrogressive sexual selection. Women who are true degenerates, but who have good dowries or “prospects,” readily find husbands on the marriage market, while the most robust women of the people or of the middle class who have no dowries are condemned to the sterility of compulsory old-maiddom or to surrender themselves to a more or less gilded prostitution.[22]

It is indisputable that the present economic conditions exercise an influence upon all the social relations of men. The monopoly of wealth assures to its possessor the victory in the struggle for existence. Rich people, even though they are less robust, have longer lives than those who are ill-fed. The day-and-night-work, under inhuman conditions, imposed upon grown men, and the still more baleful labor imposed upon women and children by modern capitalism causes a constant deterioration in the biological conditions of the toiling masses.[23]

In addition to all these we must not forget the moral selection – which is really immoral or retrograde – made at present by capitalism in its struggle with the proletariat, and which favors the survival of those with servile characters, while it persecutes and strives to suppress all those who are strong in character, and all who do not seem disposed to tamely submit to the yoke of the present economic order.[24]

The first impression which springs from the recognition of these facts is that the Darwinian law of natural selection does not hold good in human society – in short, is inapplicable to human society.

I have maintained, and I do maintain, on the contrary, in the first place, that these various kinds of retrograde social selection are not in contradiction with the Darwinian law, and that, moreover, they serve as the material for an argument in favor of socialism. Nothing but socialism, in fact, can make this inexorable law of natural selection work more beneficently.

As a matter of fact, the Darwinian law does not cause the “survival of the best,” but simply the “survival of the fittest.”

It is obvious that the forms of degeneracy produced by the divers kinds of social selection and notably by the present economic organization merely promote, indeed, and with growing efficiency, the survival of those best fitted for this very economic organization.

If the victors in the struggle for existence are the worst and the weakest, this does not mean that the Darwinian law does not hold good; it means simply that the environment is corrupt (and corrupting), and that those who survive are precisely those who are the fittest for this corrupt environment.

In my studies of criminal psychology I have too often had to recognize the fact that in prisons and in the criminal world it is the most cruel or the most cunning criminals who enjoy the fruits of victory; it is just the same in our modern economic individualist system; the victory goes to him who has the fewest scruples; the struggle for existence favors him who is fittest for a world where a man is valued for what he has (no matter how he got it), and not for what he is.

The Darwinian law of natural selection functions then even in human society. The error of those who deny this proposition springs from the fact that they confound the present environment and the present transitory historical era – which are known in history as the bourgeois environment and period, just as the Middle Ages are called feudal – with all history and all humanity, and therefore they fail to see that the disastrous effects of modern, retrograde, social selection are only confirmations of the Darwinian law of the “survival of the fittest.” Popular common sense has long recognized this influence of the surroundings, as is shown by many a common proverb, and its scientific explanation is to be found in the necessary biological relations which exist between a given environment and the individuals who are born, struggle and survive in that environment.

On the other hand, this truth constitutes an unanswerable argument in favor of socialism. By freeing the environment from all the corruptions with which our unbridled economic individualism pollutes it, socialism will necessarily correct the ill effects of natural and social selection. In a physically and morally wholesome environment, the individuals best fitted to it, those who will therefore survive, will be the physically and morally healthy.

In the struggle for existence the victory will then go to him who has the greatest and most prolific physical, intellectual and moral energies. The collectivist economic organization, by assuring to everyone the conditions of existence, will and necessarily must, result in the physical and moral improvement of the human race.

To this some one replies: Suppose we grant that socialism and Darwinian selection may be reconciled, is it not obvious that the survival of the fittest tends to establish an aristocratic gradation of individuals, which is contrary to socialistic leveling?

I have already answered this objection in part by pointing out that socialism will assure to all individuals – instead of as at present only to a privileged few or to society’s heroes – freedom to assert and develop their own individualities. Then in truth the result of the struggle for existence will be the survival of the best and this for the very reason that in a wholesome environment the victory is won by the healthiest individuals. Social Darwinism, then, as a continuation and complement of natural (biological) Darwinism, will result in a selection of the best.

To respond fully to this insistence upon an unlimited aristocratic selection, I must call attention to another natural law which serves to complete that rhythm of action and reaction which results in the equilibrium of life.

To the Darwinian law of natural inequalities we must add another law which is inseparable from it, and which Jacoby, following in the track of the labors of Morel, Lucas, Galton, De Caudole, Ribot, Spencer, Royer, Lombroso, and others, has clearly demonstrated and expounded.

This same Nature, which makes “choice” and aristocratic gradation a condition of vital progress, afterwards restores the equilibrium by a leveling and democratic law.

“From the infinite throng of humanity there emerge individuals, families and races which tend to rise above the common level; painfully climbing the steep heights they reach the summits of power, wealth, intelligence and talent, and, having reached the goal, they are hurled down and disappear in the abysses of insanity and degeneration. Death is the great leveler; by destroying every one who rises above the common herd, it democratizes humanity."[25]

Every one who attempts to create a monopoly of natural forces comes into violent conflict with that supreme law of Nature which has given to all living beings the use and disposal of the natural agents: air and light, water and land.

Everybody who is too much above or too much below the average of humanity – an average which rises with the flux of time, but is absolutely fixed at any given moment of history – does not live and disappears from the stage.

The idiot and the man of genius, the starving wretch and the millionaire, the dwarf and the giant, are so many natural or social monsters, and Nature inexorably blasts them with degeneracy or sterility, no matter whether they be the product of the organic life, or the effect of the social organization.

And so, all families possessing a monopoly of any kind – monopoly of power, of wealth or of talent – are inevitably destined to become in their latest offshoots imbeciles, sterile or suicides, and finally to become extinct. Noble houses, dynasties of sovereigns, descendants of millionaires – all follow the common law which, here again, serves to confirm the inductions – in this sense, equalitarian – of science and of socialism.


20. One of the most characteristic processes of social dissolution is parasitism. MASSART and VANDERVELDE, Parasitism, organic and social. (English translation.) Swan, Sonnenschein & Co., London.

21. BROCA, Les sélections (§ 6. Les sélections sociales) in Mémoires d’ anthropologie, Paris, 1877, III., 205. LAPOUGE, Les sélections sociales, in Revue d’ anthrop., 1887, p. 519. LORIA, Discourse su Carlo Darwin, SIENNE, 1882. VADALA, Darwinismo naturale e Darwinismo sociale, Turin, 1883. BORDIER, La vie des sociétés, Paris, 1887. SERGI, Le degenerazione umane, Milan, 1889, p. 158. BEBEL, Woman in the past, present and future.

22. MAX NORDAU, Conventional Lies of our Civilization. (English trans.) Laird & Lee, Chicago, 1895.

23. While this is shown by all official statistics, it is signally shown by the facts collated by M. Pagliani, the present Director-General of the Bureau of Health in the Interior Department, who has shown that the bodies of the poor are more backward and less developed than those of the rich, and that this difference, though but slightly manifest at birth, becomes greater and greater in after life, i. e. as soon as the influence of the economic conditions makes itself felt in all its inexorable tyranny.

24. TURATI, Selezione servile, in Critica Sociale, June 1, 1894. SERGI, Degenerazione umane, Milan, 1889.

25. JACOBY, Etudes sur la sélection dans ses rapports avec l'hérédité chez l'homme, Paris, 1881, p. 606.

LOMBROSO, L'uomo di genio, 6th edition, Turin, 1894, has developed and complemented this law. This law, so easily forgotten, is neglected by RITCHIE (Darwinism and Politics. London. Sonnenschein, 1891.) in the section called “Does the doctrine of Heredity support Aristocracy?”