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Social Darwinism


Social Darwinism arose in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was an intellectual movement associated with the theory of evolution in general but was principally derived from the works of Charles Darwin (18091882), especially his Origin of Species (1859).

Five major questions are raised by the extension of Darwin's theories to the human sphere.

1. To what extent was Darwin's theory simply a reflection of the thinking and prejudices of his day?

2. What does "struggle" actually entail? And what exactly are these "human capacities"?

3. What have been the continuing effects of this movement?

4. What are the differences between the natural and social sciences and how do these disciplines relate to each other?

5. How can Social Darwinism be developed?

Darwinism: A Product of Society?

Darwin argued that biological laws affect all living beings. Population growth takes place within limited resources. This leads to a struggle for survival, with particular physical and mental capacities conferring advantages to some individuals and not others. These traits are selected for, reproduced, and inherited, resulting in new species emerging and others being eliminated.

Darwinism and Social Darwinism need to be placed in context for two reasons. First, many of the ideas that are conventionally linked to Darwinism were well established before The Origin of Species (1859). Herbert Spencer (18201903) was the dominant British philosopher of the late nineteenth century, and he, more than Darwin, made evolution the dominant discourse of that era. Similarly, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (17441829), who explained variation and diversification of life as a product of acquired characteristics, was expounding his ideas in the early decades of the nineteenth century. His views greatly influenced Spencer, and they were developed by Darwin, especially in The Descent of Man (1871).

Second, Darwinism as a science was itself influenced by its social context, specifically by British industrial capitalism at the heart of a global empire. The struggle for survival in the context of limited resources, with some organisms or species surviving and others not, mirrored mid-nineteenth-century society back on to the nonhuman world.

However, the fact that Darwinism was a product of its era does not make it useless for understanding how species have evolved. This point was well made by Karl Marx in his correspondence with Friedrich Engels.

Meanwhile, influential propagators of Social Darwinism made highly controversial parallels between the species of the natural world and different groups of humans. Nonwhites, women, and the working class apparently did not have the requisite physical and mental capacities to thrive in the modern world.

Human Nature and the Struggle for Survival

There are three connected issues here. What is human nature? How fixed and transmissible is it? How does human nature relate to modern society?

Commentators imbue "human nature" with the qualities that best fit their philosophical and political predilections. Writing in the early twentieth century, for example, the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (18421921) argued that all species are collectively oriented. The struggle for existence is actually composed of individuals collaborating. Indeed, the rise of capitalism had wrecked this essential human nature, a circumstance to be reversed by an anarchist society. In contrast, Fabian socialists, such as Sidney Webb (18591947) and Beatrice Webb (18581943), argued that people can easily be individualistic and competitive. They therefore envisaged a form of social engineering that would override these propensities. Individual actions "must sooner or later be checked by the whole, lest the whole perish through the error of its member" (cited in Hawkins, p. 165). Meanwhile, William Sumner (18401910) and others in the United States celebrated possessive individualism, arguing that "the progress of civilisation depends on the selection process; and that depends upon the workings of unrestricted competition" (quoted in Hofstadter, p. 57).

Social Darwinism has relied heavily on the idea of "traits" or "characteristics" that are seen as determining whether an organism, a "race," or even a nation survives and satisfactorily breeds. This issue is especially important when considering eugenics, the deliberate selection of people with particular traits and their discouragement from breeding through forms of social control. Darwin's own writings, especially The Descent, express anxiety about biological decline stemming "the weak members of civilised society" not only propagating their kind but, as a result of medical and charitable intervention, leading to "the degeneration of a domestic race" (Darwin, 1901, p. 206).

The issue was to arise forcibly with Darwin's cousin Francis Galton (18221911) and his colleague Karl Pearson (18571936). In Hereditary Genius, Galton studied family trees over a period of two hundred years and argued that a disproportionately large number of distinguished jurists, politicians, military commanders, scientists, poets, painters, and musicians were blood relatives. He concluded that it would be "quite practical to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations" (quoted in Kevles, p. 4). His young colleague Pearson attempted to measure mental capacities and claimed on a statistical basis, one appealing to scientific method, that these capacities were indeed passed on between generations.

Marx on Evolutionism as a Social Construct

In a letter to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx argued that the theory outlined in The Origin of Species is a construction of human society used to understand nature. "It is remarkable how Darwin recognises in beasts and plants his English society with its 'inventions' and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence'" (Dickens, 2000, p. 29). But Marx had a great deal of respect for Darwin. Despite using metaphor, Darwin's theory referred to real, important processes. It needed incorporating into Marx and Engels's understanding of human society. "Although developed in the crude English fashion, this is the book which, in the field of natural history, provides the basis for our views."

But the influential Herbert Spencer envisaged "human nature" as flexible and transformed over time. "Primitive man" was immoral, irrational, mendacious, and aggressive. A number of groups (including children, women, inferior social ranks, and tribal cultures) remain arrested in a prehistoric state, although they could be civilized during their individual lives. Social evolution, Spencer argued, is generally progressive. It has consisted of a steady improvement of a primitive state of affairs. Individualism, morality, and voluntary association (qualities Spencer approved of) had developed in modern society, one in which people could start caring for one another.

The idea of inborn characteristics generating success has remained influential since the days of Galton and Pearson. It was made prominent in the late twentieth century with the suggestion by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that success in modern society depends on people's inbuilt ability to handle information. In modern society the successful are those with advanced mental capacities. Meanwhile unsuccessful people with low intelligence are interbreeding to produce a rapidly increasing underclass. Society is again envisaged as "natural," class structure being a product of inborn characteristics. Robert Plomin and others supporting the work of Herrnstein and Murray are searching for a genetic basis to intelligence.

The issue of a fixed, heritable, possibly genetically based human nature remains highly controversial. In contrast, there is a rapidly growing literature showing that early parenting and schooling are especially important in determining both mental and physical "fitness" (Dickens, 2004). Perhaps the most important defining "trait" of human beings is their flexibility, their capacity to adapt to many different circumstances.

As regards the relationship between human nature and modern society, a recurrent theme was established by Graham Wallas (18581932), another Fabian socialist. Writing in 1908, he asked, "Why should we expect a social organisation to endure, which has been formed in a moment of time by human beings, whose bodies and minds are the result of age-long selection under far different conditions?" (quoted in Hawkins, p. 64). The implication is that human nature was established during the earliest years of human evolution but is inappropriate for, or even destructive to, modern society.

This is a position developed later by "evolutionary psychology." Again using the idea of a genetically based human nature, the suggestion is that humanity's principle predispositions were established while the species evolved on the savannah. The modern mind remains a "neural computer," one "driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments, such as food, sex, safety, parenthood, friendship, status and knowledge" (Pinker, p. 524). Male philandering, female coyness, and even aesthetic predispositions were genetically embedded in humanity during that era. These theories are also proving highly controversial (Rose and Rose).

Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and the Modern Era

Social Darwinism, and particularly its extension to eugenics, has had a continuing, often evil, impact on modern society. The Nazi Holocaust killed over 5 million Jews and sterilized at least 375,000 supposedly "inadequate" people. This was all in the name of a "science" of eugenics, one deeming Jews and others to be biologically inferior to the Aryan race. These programs were the horrific climax to an extreme eugenic movement that swept through much of the Western world during the first third of the twentieth century.

While Jews were the targets of eugenics in Europe, black people were made victims of this movement in the United States. Intelligence quotient (or IQ) tests purported to show that they were inherently inferior, a conclusion that greatly hindered the extension of educational opportunities beyond the white population. And it has become clear that in Sweden, a society often held up as a model of social democracy, thousands of misfits, deviants, gypsies, and others were sterilized as late as the 1960s. This was an attempt to make a pure, socially responsible breed of human being. Eugenics still finds echoes in the early twenty-first century. Yet eugenics has no serious credibility as a science. Not only are there no proven connections between innate biological characteristics and human behavior, but there is no such thing as a pure race"Jewish," "black," "white," or otherwise. Migration and inter-marriage have meant that biological characteristics have become fully combined.

Problems of Direction, Progress, and Teleology

Social Darwinism has often implied that evolution is developing in a linear and progressive way. Furthermore it may be fulfilling some long-term purpose. These themes have a long history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), writing in the early part of the nineteenth century, remains among the best-known advocates of the argument that history is marching toward a definite end, one in which human beings will finally recognize and fulfill themselves as human beings. A similar argument informed early evolutionary thought. In the mid-nineteenth century Robert Chambers (18021871) combined a notion of linearity and progress with one of teleology or underlying purpose. The fossil record shows, he argued, that invertebrates developed into fish, fish developed into reptiles, and the latter evolved into mammals. In due course the process culminated with "man." Furthermore these developments signify "progress," the transition from basic animals to humanity being seen as a generally beneficial development. Finally, Chambers argued that the advance toward humanity was the unfolding of a divine purpose. The law of progress was created by God.

Karl Pearson on Inheriting of Mental Capacities

"We inherit our parents' tempers, our parents' conscientiousness, shyness and ability, even as we inherit their stature, forearm and span" (quoted in Kevles, p. 32).

Darwin resisted all three supposed tendencies. He saw evolution as open-ended and capable of diverging or branching in any number of directions. How, or whether, a species survives depends on the environment it encounters. Darwin certainly denied that it was directed toward some predetermined, God-given, goal. On the other hand, his understanding of "progress" was also colored by the dominant views of his day. Witness his assertion that the European white race represented a major advance over other "races" or that men are more capable of rational thought than women. Men, he argued, had developed this capacity when they had to hunt and protect their families in the earliest stages of evolution.

T. H. Huxley (18251895), Darwin's contemporary and great publicist, offered a related analysis. He argued that women's capacities excluded their full involvement in science. Their levels of intelligence rendered them largely unable to handle abstract ideas. Here again a supposed "science" is used to legitimate power relations. Social relations are envisaged as a product of nature, and nature is immutable.

As regards humanity as a whole, Darwin proposed a progressive model of evolution that conferred superiority on humans while remaining consistent with his general theory. In The Descent of Man he argued that humanity had separated itself from apes as a wholly unique way of adapting to life in the ancestral forests. Early human beings had adopted an upright posture in this kind of environment. Unlike the apes, who needed their hands for locomotion, early humans' hands were freed up to hunt and make tools. This freeing up, Darwin argued, led to the development of advanced human intelligence and dominion over nature.

Nevertheless, the views of writers such as Chambers rather than Darwin were those that prevailed in the making of Social Darwinism, the idea of an open-ended, undirected form of evolution finding little or no support. Similarly, the idea of a linear progression toward some kind of ideal solution was especially influential in evolutionary anthropology.

Notions of "progress" and direction remain important in early-twenty-first-century social and political science, albeit in muted and perhaps less-teleological forms. There often remains, for example, an implicit suggestion that there is just one way in which societies can evolve. It is toward liberal democracy, with individual fulfillment being obtained via democracy and the market. Pursuing such an end remains, for some, a divinely inspired mission. Such arguments are controversial since they do not recognize that societies, their politics, and religions may also branch off in their own, perhaps unique directions.

Evolution and Society: Ways Forward

Social Darwinism therefore has a distinctly checkered history. A "science" that concludes that nonwhites, working-class people, and women are biologically unable to succeed is nowadays likely to encounter ridicule and outright hostility. Sociobiology, the forerunner of evolutionary psychology, has run into similar controversy. It suggested that genes and the reproduction of genes into future generations is the primary mechanism informing the behavior of humans and other animals. Sexuality and gender inequalities are largely governed by genes, and there is little that can be done to change inherited nature (Wilson).

But there remains much potential value in alternative forms of Social Darwinism. One important contemporary application of evolutionary thought to human society is to use evolution primarily as a metaphor or analogy. Jürgen Habermas, for example, envisages society as similar to a natural organism, one with highly differentiated parts, one that is self-maintaining and capable of selecting alternative strategies. This has echoes in the analogies between society and nature made by, for example, Herbert Spencer. But Habermas uses the organic metaphor not as a means of developing laws supposedly applying to both humans and nonhumans. Rather, evolution and biology are being used as heuristic devices. They are deployed as a means of understanding how contemporary society develops and changes.

Evolutionary analogies are used in other fields. "Evolutionary economics," for example, treats the competition of firms as analogous to the struggle for survival in the nonhuman world. And a popular understanding of technological change also uses evolutionary analogies, some technologies succeeding over others in a competitive process.

Analogies and metaphors of this kind are helpful in developing new insights. But they do not address the main difficulties of early Social Darwinism. Two central questions remain. In what sense is society "natural"? How are the insights of the social and natural sciences to be combined?

Darwin and Wallace on Gender Differences

Darwin wrote that "the chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man's attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up, than can womenwhether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, merely the use of the senses of the hands" (quoted in Richards, p. 119). Alfred Wallace (18231913), the codiscoverer of the theory of evolution, argued that if women were freed from financial dependence on men, their mental potentials would soon become fully realized. They would be "regenerators of the entire race" (quoted in Stack, p. 29).

A useful first step in developing a modern "Social Darwinism" would be to recognize different levels of generality. Evolutionary processes and tendencies operate at a general level and over immense periods of time. Biological evolution has left human beings with developmental tendencies and needs stemming from their remarkably long periods of infancy. But precisely how these tendencies and needs are realized crucially depends on the contingent circumstances that they encounter. Early parenting as well as experience at school and work deeply affect cognitive abilities and levels of health, and these are all highly variable over time and between different societies.

A rigorous dualism between "society" and "nature" was maintained by early Social Darwinism, women and nonwhites being allocated to the category of "nature," for example, and European men being allocated to "culture." This kind of dichotomy is full of dangerous implications but can be overcome if evolution and biology are envisaged as bequeathing potentials and tendencies that can be realized in different ways by the kinds of society encountered.

Social Darwinism attempted, often in crude, premature, and dangerous ways, to link insights from the social and natural sciences. But there remain exciting possibilities for developing new, more complex, nuanced, and transdisciplinary ways of linking the social and biological sciences. These are likely to throw important new light on the nature and well-being of humans as they interact with one another and their environment.

See also Eugenics ; Evolution .


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. The Origin of Species. London: John Murray, 1859.

Dickens, Peter. Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory. Buckingham, U.K., and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000.

. Society and Nature: Changing Our Environment, Changing Ourselves. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2004.

Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 18601945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1983. First published in 1944.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. London: Freedom Press, 1987. First published in 1902.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Allen Land/Penguin, 1997.

Plomin, Robert, John DeFries, and Ian Craig, eds. Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2002.

Richards, Evelleen. "Redrawing the Boundaries: Darwinian Science and Victorian Women Intellectuals." In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Bernard Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Rose, Hilary, and Steven Rose, eds. Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Stack, David. The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859 1914. Cheltenham, U.K.: New Clarion Press, 2003.

Wilson, Edward. Sociobiology: The Abridged Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Peter Dickens

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Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism

Darwin and natural selection

Derivation of social Darwinism

Counteracting influences

Contemporary social evolutionism


Social Darwinism was a short-lived theory of social evolution, vigorously discussed in America, which rationalized and justified the harsh facts of social stratification in an attempt to reconcile them with the prevalent ideology of equalitarianism. The emergence of social Darwinism was perhaps the most visible effect on the social sciences of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

The influential social Darwinists of their age whose names are still to be reckoned with are Herbert Spencer, 1820-1903, and, later, Walter Bagehot, 1826-1877, in England and William Graham Sumner, 1840-1910, in America. Others (Benjamin Kidd, 1858-1916; Gustav Ratzenhofer, 1842-1904; Ludwig Gumplowicz, 1838-1909; Franklin H. Giddings, 1855-1931; and Thomas Nixon Carver, 1865-1961) are now little more than names, like social Darwinism itself.

Spencer and Sumner, however, were not only ethical evolutionists but also major contributors to the development of social science theory. Spencer, the fierce supporter of individualism and the contract theory of social order, also developed a theory relating environmental adaptation to social order and individual morality. Sumner, the social Darwinist advocate of class stratification, is remembered not for his laissez-faire economics but for his conception of mores and folkways. The positive contributions to the social sciences which stem from the conceptual clarity of these powerful intellects emerged, as it were, in spite of their ideological frame of reference. Social Darwinism, then, rested not only on a body of accepted scientific facts but equally on a corpus of values. Today these values are called conservative, but in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century they were called liberal, laissez-faire, or individualistic. Analytically, the facts to which the social Darwinists appealed can be isolated from their values.

Social Darwinism will be understood here as the convergence of certain social scientific facts with a corpus of “conservative” values. Within the social sciences this convergence was tested and found faulty, but outside the social sciences it still exists as a belief, however vaguely articulated, that is used to justify some very widespread political and economic activities.

Darwin and natural selection

Darwin consciously limited his discussion to biological phenomena, in contrast to Herbert Spencer (1862), who included the stars as well as human society in his universal evolution. The Origin of Species contains four major arguments: that new species appear; that these new species have evolved from older species; that the evolution of species is the result of natural selection; and that natural selection depends upon variations and the maintenance of variation in spite of the tendency of natural selection to eliminate “unfit “variants. Darwin describes the process of natural selection as follows:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. ([1859] 1964, p. 5)

Darwin had several important predecessors, including Thomas Robert Malthus, Carolus Linnaeus, and Charles Lyell (for a review of the important influences on Darwin’s thought, see Irvine 1955); and of course, Alfred Russel Wallace reached similar conclusions independently. However, in spite of the fact that Darwin’s arguments were not new, the impact of his work was immense. The Origin of Species, carefully reasoned and ponderously detailed, found ready acceptance among many who, while not primarily interested in biology, were looking for principles of social order amid the turbulent social changes of their period. The arguments that new species do appear and that they have evolved from older species were essentially descriptive statements in terms of which it was possible to organize the existing data on the occurrence and geographical spread of morphologically related species. These arguments were therefore relatively uncontroversial. For social Darwinists the social analogue of these statements—that whole societies, as well as some of their parts, evolvewas also acceptable, mainly because it involved at most a theoretical commitment to orderly social change. The arguments concerning natural selection and variations, on the other hand, are primarily explanations. Both the meaning and the importance they gave to these explanations separated the social Darwinists not only from completely opposing schools of social thought but also from many who believed in some form of social evolution. Accordingly, Darwin’s major assumptions in this area will be described in greater detail.

Survival and inheritance

Behavior upon which natural selection depends is conceived by Darwin as a struggle among individuals for environmentally limited resources. Accordingly, any organism that obtains enough of these resources to survive and reproduce itself is of a superior order, since it could have survived only at the expense of other organisms that had failed in their struggle for a share of the same limited resources. In short, the natural relationship between organisms and groups of organisms is one of competition for survival. The favored organism will pass on to the next generation, by the “principle of inheritance,” that quality which enabled it to survive. The process of inheritance is therefore crucial to the whole theory; without it, natural selection would have no developmental implications.

But where does the new favorable quality which is to be inherited come from? Without Mendelian genetic theory (Mendel’s first paper on plant hybridization was not published until 1865 and not appreciated until much later), Darwin did not see that breeding itself was the major source of variation. Rather, he suggested two possible sources. One was the direct action of the environment on the organism—for example, the sun producing a sun tan or better food producing a stronger body. In this explanation we see a rudimentary theory of the inheritance of acquired traits. His other explanation is that the conditions of life work “indefinitely” on the reproductive system to produce “endless slight peculiarities which distinguish the individuals of the same species, and which cannot be accounted for by inheritance “(Darwin 1859, p. 16 in Modern Library edition). In this explanation we see the germ of Mendelian theory. The critical points to be noticed are that inheritance and variety in both explanations are seen as antithetical and that the source of variety is the action of the environment.

Derivation of social Darwinism

If we take these explanations seriously and if we are interested in the development of superior human organisms, then the theory of social Darwinism emerges as follows. We can de-emphasize the problem of the source of variations by emphasizing natural selection; regardless of the source of variations, the less fit varieties will be eliminated or subordinated, and the more fit will be maintained. This presupposes natural inequalities among individuals, which result in a stratified social organization, which is also “natural.” If moral attributes are biological facts and if the measure of morality is the control of property, then it is “natural” that propertied individuals should exist at the expense of the propertyless; further, the social structure must be stratified according to “natural” principles. Since inheritance does not involve variation, it follows that in a “natural” and, therefore, presumably good society, the system of social stratification should be perpetuated.

This kind of reasoning leads to a curious notion of the evolutionary process. Once we accept certain qualities as being inherently more conducive to survival—that is, once we cease to take variations seriously—then we can conceive of evolution only as proceeding along predetermined lines: it is a closed system. The following quotation from Sumner is a classic example of this type of thinking.

The men who have not done their duty in this world never can be equal to those who have done their duty. . . . They may, then, be classified in reference to these facts. Such classes always will exist; no other social distinctions can endure. . . . The class distinctions simply result from the different degrees of success with which men have availed themselves of the chances which were presented to them. Instead of endeavoring to redistribute the acquisitions which have been made between the existing classes, our aim should be to increase, multiply, and extend the chances. . . . Such expansion is no guarantee of equality. On the contrary, if there be liberty, some will profit by the chances eagerly and some will neglect them altogether. Therefore, the greater the chances the more unequal will be the fortune of these two sets of men. So it ought to be, in all justice and right reason. . . . If we can expand the chances we can count on a general and steady growth of civilization and advancement of society by and through its best members. ([1883] 1952, pp. 144-145)

In this chain of reasoning, biological evolutionary processes have become infused with “conservative” ideology. This ideology confuses freedom in general with the freedom to accumulate property and finds justice in the unequal distribution of wealth. As an intellectual strategy, it is intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to nonconformity; its theoretical structure is deductive, and its theories are not open to modification.

Counteracting influences

The social Darwinists found the idea of natural selection appealing because they were already conservative by persuasion; variation did not interest them except insofar as it resulted in the elimination or subordination of the less fit and so helped to bolster their notion of a “natural” system of social stratification. Other social evolutionists, such as Lester Ward (1883; 1885) and T. H. Huxley (1865; 1886-1894) found the social implications of natural selection more problematic. As men of science, they accepted the idea of natural inequalities; at the same time, they were social reformers. Their solution to this dilemma was that inequalities were to be tolerated for the time being but should be eliminated gradually by artificial selection. Society should take the responsibility of supporting its less fit members; at the same time, it should discourage the less fit from reproducing. In other words, they wished to modify the struggle for existence. Their ideological dilemma, which stems from the confusion of property rights with civil rights, had its counterpart in their scientific dilemma of how to reconcile natural selection with the existence of variations.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, social Darwinism was ebbing as a movement within the social sciences. This was the result of several developments. First, on the ideological side, natural selection was no longer considered a legitimate justification for social action; the biological and the ethical spheres of human behavior were coming to be regarded as distinct. Moreover, a number of social philosophers and sociologists, among whom Emile Durkheim (1893) was outstanding, had begun to clarify the relation of the individual to society, replacing the theory of contract, with its emphasis on property values, by a theory of norms. The great questions of individual freedom and social responsibility had never been so much alive; the old laissez-faire individualism began to lose its title to morality (Hofstadter 1944).

Evolution, too, was under attack, as comparative ethnographic data showed that, even if social evolution was universal, it was not clear that all societies evolved in the same way or at the same rate. Henceforth, the unilineal version of evolutionary theory could be saved only if one argued, in every instance, that traits which did not fit the evolutionary scheme were either survivals of an earlier stage or prefigurations of a new one. This line of thought has now been largely abandoned; it should not be confused with the later, far more sophisticated position of the cultural evolutionists (see, for instance, White 1959), who refer the concept of evolution to the development of society in general.

The failure of unilinear evolutionary schemes to fit ethnographic facts and the failure of social Darwinists to establish a universal evolution of morality as they understood it suggested either that their emphasis on natural selection to the exclusion of variations was wrong, that their conception of morality was too narrow, or both. In the biological realm, the relation between inheritance and variations was clarified with the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws; the origin of varieties was seen precisely in that mechanism which was thought to perpetuate established inequalities. Further, learned or acquired characteristics were analytically distinguished from genetic potentialities (Conn 1914); thus, the supposedly factual basis of social Darwinism was further undermined, and it fell into scientific disrepute.

Contemporary social evolutionism

Social Darwinism in its classic form is now only of historical interest to social scientists, although it still has some popular appeal, especially in the United States. Evolutionary theory, however, has undergone a renewal since the early 1950s and has proved its scientific usefulness in the study of such topics as the emergence of new nations (Eisenstadt 1964) and the development of religions (Bellah 1964). There have also been attempts to formulate evolutionary universals for society in general (Sahlins & Service 1960; Parsons 1964); such universals are used to formulate problems and organize data and are modified when the data become dissonant with the type. In short, social evolutionism has become a systematic approach to the study of social change; its interests are as much descriptive as explanatory, and it no longer seeks to account for all social change by means of a few principles.

The work of V. Gordon Childe is an outstanding example of this method. In his Social Evolution (1951), he finds in history both sequence (savagery, barbarism, and civilization) and process (ecological adjustment through technology). Technological efficiency and the division of labor are the dimensions of progress and are marked in time by the stratigraphic record of archeology. But Childe’s analogies to the biological theory of evolution are of the loosest sort; indeed, he explicitly states that he finds the biological model inadequate for describing the historical processes of convergence and assimilation (ibid. , p. 163).

Thus, even if biological Darwinism is no longer of direct relevance for the social sciences, its heritage includes some very basic concepts and methods. The concept of society as a functional unity is one; the emphasis on systematic cross-cultural comparison is another. And the ideological excesses of social Darwinism still have a kind of cautionary value.

Sol Tax AND Larry S. Krucoff

[See alsoCooperation; Evolution, article onSocial Evolution; Genetics; and the biographies ofBage-hot; Carver; Darwin; Giddings; Gumplowicz; Ratzenhofer; Spencer; Sumner. ]


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White, Leslie A. 1959 The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Darwinism, Social

Darwinism, Social





Social Darwinism is a philosophical, economic, social, and scientific movement that claims that the way society functions is, and ought to be, a reflection of the methods and movements of biological evolution. The term is generally applied to thinkers from around 1850 to the end of the nineteenth century, although the term itself was not popularized until the publication of Richard Hofstadters Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944. Despite the titles reference to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), most scholars think that his fellow English evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a far more influential figure in Britain and America.

Postulated links between society and biology are as old as evolutionary thinking. In the early eighteenth century, evolutionists such as Denis Diderot (1713-1784) saw biological evolutionthe natural rise of organisms from primitive beginnings to sophisticated life-forms, including humansreflected in the rise of societies. European evolutionists believed societies evolved in the same way organisms did, rising from the savages of Africa and other barbaric (i.e. non-European) parts of the world to the supremely civilized peoples of western Europe. At the end of the eighteenth century, later evolutionists, including Charles Darwins grandfather Erasmus, likewise saw society as a mirror of what happens in the world of organisms, and like everyone else they happily conflated the way things are with the way things ought to be. Progress was the backbone of evolutionary thinking from the simple to the complex, from the less desirable to the more desirable, from the monad to the man (in the language of the day)and the way that things had been was taken as a guide to the way that things ought to be, then and in the future.


In the middle of the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer began his dizzying rise to fame and influence, casting a spell over Victorian Britain and much of the rest of the world that lasted until Queen Victoria died in 1901. Spencer was explicit in his belief that the patterns of society were reflected in the ways of biological development; indeed for him they were all part of one world-encompassing process, a process that was perpetually pushing upward, until the human species emerged at the top. Spencer was a liberal in the old-fashioned sense of disliking state interference and (particularly in his early years) he endorsed a strong program of laissez-faire, believing that the government should stay out of everything: the economy, education, welfare, even the provision of lighthouses to guide ships to harbor. This was, in Spencers view, the only way to guarantee progress.

Superficially Spencers worldview seemed like a logical application of Charles Darwins theory of evolution, presented in his On the Origin of Species in 1859. There Darwin argued that an ongoing, bloody struggle for existence leads to natural selection, the motive force behind organic change, what Darwin called descent with modification. Social Darwinism sees a direct corollary between struggle in the biological world and struggle in the social world, with winners moving upward to success and losers eliminated: losing organisms fail to reproduce, losing firms go bust, losing people starve.

In reality, things are a bit more complex. Darwin himself was reluctant to draw a parallel between biological and social evolution. He certainly did believe that certain peoples were superior to others: typically Victorian, he believed the English were superior to other Europeans, and Europeans were superior to everyone else; but he also approved strongly of moves to ameliorate the woes of the less successful. Spencer himself held views far more complex than his legend gives him credit for. In many respects, he saw struggle between peoples as stupid and not at all conducive to progress. He was strongly against militarism and presciently believed the end-of-the-century arms race between Britain and Germany, as each country built everbigger battle ships, to be absolute madness.

Spencers followers were equally complex, especially those in America. Some, like sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), seem at times to be outdoing the master in prescribing brutal socioeconomic systems, but most held more sophisticated views. The great Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was an ardent Spencerian, but his understanding focused (perhaps unsurprisingly) more on celebrating the worth of the successful than the inadequacy of the unsuccessful. To this end, he became a major philanthropist, funding public libraries in America and elsewhere in the world. His hope was that these institutions would be places where the poor-but-gifted could, through reading and education, rise up in the social scale.

Victorian thinkers took a variety of different routes in the name of evolution. Darwins fellow evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a lifelong socialist. Taking the opposite tack from Spencer, he used biology to justify a state welfare system. In his view the evolutionary struggle was between groups, not individuals; therefore people within the same society should band together and help each other. Russian prince and anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921) came from a tradition which saw a struggle less between people as individuals than between organisms and their environment. He therefore believed that biologically all organisms have a sense of caring, an urge to mutual aid, directed toward members of their own species; politically he translated this into anarchism.


Social Darwinism fell out of fashion by the beginning of the twentieth century. A belief in progress, fundamental to the idea that biology was mirrored in the social world, had declined. It became apparent that despite advances in science and industry the worlds illspoverty, disease, violencepersisted. The First World War made the optimism of the nineteenth century seem almost obscene. Coupled with this, more and more people saw something fallacious about equating evolution with behavior. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), an English biologist and advocate of Darwins theories, was eloquent on this subject, pointing out that what is moral often requires us to deny our animal heritage and go in a direction contrary to our evolved inclinations.

Nevertheless the ideas of Social Darwinian persisted, if not by that or any other name, transformed to suit the biology and social demands of the twentieth century. Julian Huxley (1887-1975), Thomas Henrys grandson (and the older brother of Aldous, the novelist) believed that biology provides a guide to life showing that progress is a rule that runs through the world, from the living to the social and cultural. He had faith in the power of science and technology; arguing that true progress comes only when the state harnesses its energies and intelligence and uses them for the common good. He considered the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had brought power to millions of people, a paradigmatic example of progress in action.

There was a darker side to Social Darwinism. It has been implicated in the rise of National Socialism, and some think that evolutionary ideas, particularly as promoted by Darwins great German champion Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), were significant. There may be truth in this last claim. Certainly, passages in Hitlers Mein Kampf (1925) seem to be taken directly from popular accounts of Darwinism as applied to society in On the Origin of Species. But the history of German antiSemitism is too complex for a straight causal connection to be made. Apart from anything else, the Nazis hated the evolutionary idea that all humans are descended from monkeys and that biologically Aryans and Jews are not much different.


In the twenty-first century, Social Darwinism continues to influence public debate. Harvard entomologist and socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson has been a leader in arguing that biology must inform social policies. He believes that humans have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with other organisms, and that humans must cherish and promote biodiversity or die as a species. Linking Wilson strongly to the nineteenth century is a belief in progress, in both biology and society. For Wilson, the moral imperative to promote biodiversity flows from a belief that if humans become extinct, the highest life form on the planet will have vanished. He sees this in itself as a bad thing and a reason for action.

Throughout the centuries since its inception, Social Darwinism has meant different things to different people. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? As with most philosophies, that question has no simple answer. In the hands of some, Social Darwinism was a force for good, in other hands much less so. We can say that it was important as a social influence, and its underlying ideas persist today, although they often go by other names.

SEE ALSO Aryans; Darwin, Charles; Hitler, Adolf; Nazism; Sociobiology; Spencer, Herbert


Bannister, Robert C. 1979. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1944. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Richards, Robert J. 1987. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ruse, Michael. 1996. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Michael Ruse

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Social Darwinism


SOCIAL DARWINISM is the application of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to human society. It is usually being applied when phrases like "survival of the fit-test" or "natural selection" are used to explain why some in society prosper while others languish.

Darwin himself remained ambivalent about the social applications of his theory, but three events made it seductive to late-nineteenth-century intellectuals. First, the emergence of huge industrial enterprises deeply divided labor and capital, forcing some to justify increasing social divisions. Second, biblical criticism dislodged Christianity as the central scheme by which people understood their world. And third, the social sciences emerged as an academic discipline proposing to use the lessons of natural science to explain developments in society. Social Darwinism could respond to the needs created by each of these developments, despite perpetual reminders by opponents that Darwin's theory concerned primarily biology, not society.

At the peak of its influence, from roughly 1870 to 1917, two types of Social Darwinism emerged. First, until the 1890s, defenders of laissez-faire capitalism argued that in business as in biology, only the strongest survive. Poverty was the fault of the "unfit"; success was deserved; and, above all, the state should not intervene in natural processes. Charles Francis Adams Jr., president of Union Pacific Railroad, rejected congressional tariffs by saying, "The result of your [tariff] is that you are running in the face of the law of the survival of the fittest."

Among professional social scientists, William Graham Sumner became a famous defender of this sort of individualism. Historians have debated Darwin's influence on Sumner, noting that Sumner also followed philosopher Herbert Spencer, who applied natural selection to organisms and ideas, resulting in an expansive theory of "cosmic evolution." Darwin's natural selection, it seems, appealed to Sumner's individualism while offending his ethics, and one can see a strange reconciliation in Sumner's What Social Classes Owe To Each Other (1883), which can be seen as either dark individualism (as his answer to the title is nothing) or a prescription for broad social improvement.

Sociologist Lester Frank Ward represents a second application of Darwin's theory. Ward argued that Darwin's theory supports the view that humans achieved success by cooperation. A generation of sociologists followed Ward, and by the 1890s, Edward A. Ross had articulated the image of society as a "Darwinian jungle" in need of state-sponsored social control of individuals. He was not alone, and his generation began a vilification of Sumner, labeling him an unfeeling "Social Darwinist."

Yet the belief that Darwin's theory justified social control was not always a benign one. At the height of Jim Crow, it was used to justify racism, as when South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman argued that "the old struggle of survival of the fittest is beginning … and it is not saying too much to predict that the negro must do better or 'move on.'" A bleak fulfillment of this perspective was reached with eugenics, a movement popularized by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who argued that some people should be sterilized to improve civilization's genetic stock. Between 1907 and 1915, twelve states passed sterilization laws.

Debate about Social Darwinism has continued since World War I, although between historians more than policymakers. Since the era of New Deal collectivism, the individualistic use of Social Darwinism has been deployed only as an epithet. Others, however, say the epithet has been wildly overused. Yet despite debate, it remains un-known what Darwin's theory really tells us about societies.


Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. 1979. Paperback ed., Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. This edition includes a valuable new preface.

Bellomy, Donald C. "'Social Darwinism' Revisited." Perspectives in American History new series, 1 (1984): 1–129.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944. The first full story of Social Darwinism.

Sumner, William Graham. What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883.


See alsoEvolutionism ; Individualism ; Sociology .

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Darwinism, Social

Darwinism, Social

See Evolution, Biocultural; Sociobiology

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Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism See DARWINISM.

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