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Defending the Faith: Korihor and 'Social Darwinism'

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

The term "Social Darwinism" was coined in Europe in 1877 in order to stigmatize various social theories then emerging in England and the United States. Popularized in North America after 1944 by historian Richard Hofstadter, it's been applied, fairly or not, to such writers as Herbert Spencer, Darwin's cousin Francis Galton (the founder of the "eugenics" movement to breed better humans) and Thomas Malthus. Apparently never used by actual "Social Darwinists," it was certainly not used by Charles Darwin himself, though he may have been sympathetic to the ideas it labels.

The core of "Social Darwinism" is applying evolutionary biology — most notably, the idea of "survival of the fittest" (a phrase coined by Spencer, not by Darwin) — to sociology, economics and politics, on the assumption that social progress will result from conflict between groups and individuals as superior out-competes inferior.

There is obvious truth to this. Economic competition in free markets — weeding out noncompetitive firms and unsatisfactory products — has proven astoundingly efficient at allocating resources and producing ever greater levels of general prosperity.

Laissez-faire capitalism is one thing, however. It's quite another to argue that, for the benefit of society, the weak, the sick and the poor should not be helped.

There's a scene from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in which, having been invited to make a holiday donation for the poor, Ebenezer Scrooge cites the prisons and public workhouses and declares that "Those who are badly off must go there." But, objects another man, "Many would rather die than go there." To which Scrooge coldly replies that, "If they would rather die, then let them do it and decrease the surplus population."

Probably not Scrooge's finest hour.

But "Social Darwinist" ideas have also fueled, or been accused of fueling, "scientific" racism, imperialism, forced sterilization and even euthanasia, and, worst of all, fascism and Nazism. Particularly since the atrocities of the Third Reich, "Social Darwinism" has typically been regarded as pejorative, essentially an insult.

It's therefore of interest to see, in the Book of Mormon's Korihor, a kind of archetypal "Social Darwinist." His story, recounted in Alma 30, was published to the world nearly 50 years before the term was coined and almost 30 years before Darwin's pivotal book "On the Origin of Species."

Korihor denied both that Christ would come and that there was life after death, and yet, somewhat inconsistently, claimed that nobody can foresee the future. Rather in the style of Sigmund Freud, who wouldn't be born until 1856, he denounced Nephite religious beliefs (the "foolish traditions of your fathers") as "the effect of a frenzied mind" and "derangement." Denying that "atonement" for sins was even possible — it's unclear that Korihor granted the existence of "sin" at all — he accused the priests and prophets of the Nephites of seeking "to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to (your) words." Their intent, he claimed, was "that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges."

It's a critique curiously reminiscent of Marxism, though Karl Marx was only 12 years old when the Book of Mormon came from the press in Palmyra.

Strikingly, Korihor also declared that "every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime."

Ultimately, having been cursed with an inability to speak in answer to his request for a miraculous sign, Korihor, who had previously made his living by means of his "great swelling words," "was cast out, and went about from house to house begging for his food." And then, one day, begging among a renegade group of Nephite dissenters, "as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead."

It was a strikingly appropriate end for a man who had preached pitiless survival of the fittest.

"And thus," the Book of Mormon concludes its narrative about Korihor, "we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell."

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.

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