Social Darwinism

views updated Jun 08 2018


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 .


Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1901. Originally published in 1871.

. 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

Social Darwinism

views updated May 17 2018


Social Darwinism is the theory that individual human beings, social groups, and entire ethnic groups are subject in their societies to the same laws of natural selection that govern the survival and evolution of plants and animals in nature. Just as natural selection eliminates weak, sick, impaired, and maladapted individuals of plant and animal species, so it weeds out weak people and races. Social Darwinism is most closely associated with Herbert Spencer, a biologist, sociologist, and philosopher born in England on 27 April 1820, at the height of British industrialism. Although a sickly child and often a physically and mentally frail adult, Herbert Spencer was the only one of nine children to survive infancy. Schooled at home, Spencer would eventually spend ten years as a railroad engineer, during which time he began writing in his free hours. With a particular aptitude for science and math, Spencer's intelligent and inquisitive nature would land him in the company of many nineteenth-century intellectuals, and for some time he was engaged to the Victorian writer George Eliot (1819–1880), author of The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch.

Spencer's intense interest in human behavior focused on elements that comprise any society, including family structure and reproduction, language, education, labor, economic success, political organization, morality, and artistic expression. Early in his career he attempted to explain the natural historic progression of social organization from the individual human being to the family unit, the clan affiliation, the tribal association, and the national identity. Spencer argued that in their natural progression from simple familial units to complex groups, social organizations, like all organisms, become increasingly complicated and therefore are forced to reform not simply by affiliation but by function. For Spencer it logically followed that as social structures become more complex and functionally organized, class hierarchies will form and reform over time, valuing some functions more highly than others. Spencer also saw one crucial difference between social organisms and biological ones: while parts of a biological organism form a unified and concrete whole, different social organisms are free and relatively dispersed. While parts of a biological organism exist to benefit the whole, Spencer argued that the whole social organism exists for the benefit of the individual.

Because Spencer's primary theoretical premise was that all things progress toward a synthetic and functional organization, the British philosopher's ideas, which became far more popular and influential in the United States than in England, covered many scientific and sociological areas that he felt interacted dynamically. Moreover, his "Development Hypothesis" (1852) argues, as implied above, in favor of an evolutionary explanation for human development preceding Charles Darwin's own evolutionary text (On the Origin of Species, 1859) by seven years. The "Development Hypothesis" was instrumental in presenting Spencer's evolutionary explanation for human development, but its basis in the ideology of inheritance outlined by the early French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), which holds that individuals change and adapt to their physical surroundings and that this adaptation passes to their offspring, makes it a dated and obsolete text. Spencer's related essay, "A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility," also published in 1852, would prove instrumental in the formation of new ideas regarding economic success and social expectations in Europe and even more sweepingly in America. This essay argues that people who invest less energy into reproduction and more into education ultimately prove more economically and socially successful than those who produce more offspring. Consequently those families with fewer and more educated and refined children become the "select" citizens of their generation while those families who produce more prodigiously land squarely at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. This application of the evolutionary process to social organization comprises the essence of Social Darwinism.

Spencer was articulating the facts as he saw them, placing no blame on the poor and uneducated for failure to restrict reproduction and therefore become more economically and socially successful. However, a type of cultural primitivism and economic inferiority stigmatized the large poor family, particularly when Spencer's ideas were embraced by an increasingly wealthy and capitalistic American audience. Effectively the misinterpretation and misapplication of Spencer's evolutionary theories in the form of American Social Darwinism often resulted in the increased misery of the very individuals the sociologist wished to assist. Even as Spencer advocated the abolition of the poor laws in Britain, his theories of success and social selectivity (as in "survival of the fittest") were being used in America to support the eugenics movement that wished to limit the rights of the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally and physically infirm in order for America to progress more rapidly into a civilized and economically successful society.


While many were involved in popularizing ideas about inherited genetic traits, human evolution and progress, and the close association of genetics and behavior, few were more important than the American zoologist Charles Davenport (1866–1944). Davenport was another curious intellect whose interests spanned the entirety of human society. His early biological focus was human evolution, and he spent the first years of his scientific career tracing human characteristics through genealogical surveys of virtually everyone he met. Although Davenport's initial premise was that most physical and psychological traits could be attributed to inheritance, his notions of nationality complicated his theory. Like many of his scientific predecessors and peers, Davenport disfavored individuals whose bloodlines originated in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. His basis for attributing negative behaviors and characteristics to these groups was a quantitative survey of the populations of asylums, penitentiaries, and ghettos, as well as his own personal surveys. This data was compiled and analyzed by Davenport after he helped establish a eugenics laboratory, the Station for Experimental Evolution, at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, in 1904 with the funding of the Carnegie Institution.

While Davenport had a keen mind, he seemingly did not recognize the shortcomings of his scientific processes and data. Although his accumulation of quantitative information proved helpful in calculating rates of genetic variation, his attribution of amorality and criminality to those of foreign birth or lower class origins was evidence of his failure to prevent philosophy and ethnocentricity from entering his laboratory. For instance, he "believed that the influx of people from southeastern Europe would make Americans darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, . . . more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality" (Caudill, p. 105). Unfortunately the scientific community and the public shared Davenport's shortsightedness regarding his findings.

Drawing upon the work of the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel, Davenport used Experiments with Plant Hybrids (1866), with its insistence on environmental influences on plant behavior and their subsequent impact on plant offspring, as corroboration of his own findings regarding environmental impact on humans and their offspring. Davenport's incorporation of Mendelian genetics and theories of inheritance in tandem with his misinterpretation of Spencerian Social Darwinism laid the groundwork for the American sociologist's arguments against immigration and in favor of the sterilization of the physically and mentally infirm and the lobotomization of the criminally insane. His shallowly researched scientific arguments formed the foundation for the eugenics movement in America and went unchallenged for decades.

The scientific association between "bad blood" and criminal behavior, mental inferiority, insanity, and amorality paved the way for legislation limiting the rights of minorities, immigrants, convicts, and the infirm and was likewise responsible for the government's policies regarding adoption. It also inspired the imagination of a public increasingly interested in evolving into the most prosperous and civilized society on Earth. Inaccuracies, prejudices, and personal preferences would govern the eugenics movement and the beliefs, however faulty, of much of the American public about ethnicity, inherited genetic traits, and human behavior well into the twentieth century.


While numerous ideas inspired by Spencer's Social Darwinism resulted in negative experiences for American minorities, not everyone who read Spencer's theories applied or interpreted them so pessimistically. Some social scientists, philosophers, and cultural critics viewed Spencer's ideas as new ways to approach and ultimately eradicate old social problems, which was ostensibly Spencer's purpose. One such optimistic cultural voice was the journalist and political economist Henry George (1839–1897), who asserted that social and economic evolution could be achieved through a restructured economy based on a single governing tax. George's essay "That We Might All Be Rich," published in 1883, argued that there was no need for poverty to persist. George outlined basic human needs and desires and explained how fair distribution of goods and services, accompanied by fair taxation, would instigate an economy that could provide for all.

While many who read George's ideas regarded the possible eradication of poverty as utopian, there were some who shared his desire for and belief in a more egalitarian social order in America. Among these economic progressivists was the American realist Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose story "Under the Lion's Paw" from Main-Travelled Roads (1891) illustrates the struggle of small individual farms faced with ruthless land speculators and rural hardship. Garland's fictional text undermines the pastoral myth of rural life and demonstrates the need for a more equitable social and economic order in which the enterprise of hardworking farmers would be rewarded.


While Garland was inspired by a desire for social and economic change, other writers focused more on simply observing American life, and this observation was often done through a Social Darwinian lens. Perhaps the most important of these American realists was William Dean Howells (1837–1920), whose prolific works document late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century life in scrupulous detail. In 1865 Howells took a position as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. While in this position and later as editor he began to exercise great influence on American taste in literature and culture by including works in the Atlantic by Mark Twain, Henry James, and other realists.

As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells also helped to introduce numerous European writers and thinkers to American readers, most prominently the French journalist, novelist, and critic Émile Zola (1840–1902), whose naturalistic fiction often condemned Victorian cultural values. Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels (1871–1893) portrays the struggles of the Parisian poor, prostitution, and the depravity and injustice rife within the mining industry. Interestingly, while Howells asserted the importance of Zola's absolute realism in his portrayal of Victorian life, the American critic avoided sordid and explicit scenes in his own works. In fact in his collection of articles on American fiction and culture Howells argued that the presence of detailed scenes of depravity and sexuality had no place in American realism as they would detract from more important thematic elements.

Howells's criticism of graphic depravity in works of fiction illustrates the conflicted nature of his relationship with Social Darwinism and other late-nineteenth-century social theories. Even as Howells strove mightily to represent reality as he saw it and to advocate reality in the fiction of his contemporaries, his Victorian sensibilities insisted on propriety and etiquette. While he recognized and appreciated the vulgarity that often accompanied everyday life and its habits, he felt strongly that depravity, like purity, was not the norm of American life; far more commonplace were work, courtship, marriage, birth, and death. Howells also agreed that humans were evolving into a more civilized and socially cultured species that engaged less and less in "low living." Realists should concern themselves therefore with observing more consistent elements of social behaviors, as Howells did, such as ritualized courtship and marriage (Their Wedding Journey, 1872; A Chance Acquaintance, 1873), the focus on and consequence of accumulating wealth (The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885; A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889), and the increasing social problems related to divorce (A Modern Instance, 1882). Virtually all of Howells's thirty-eight novels turned his keenly observant eye to the evolving social scene in America; these works, along with more than sixty other books in varying genres both chronicled and influenced American life.


While less prolific and influential than Howells, the American journalist and fiction writer Harold Frederic (1856–1898) was certainly influenced by contemporary theories such as Social Darwinism as evidenced by the topical nature of many of his fictional plots. Although he wrote numerous novels and over 1,500 newspaper articles, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) was considered to be his masterpiece. Inspired initially by the conflict Frederic noted between Irish Catholics and Protestants, the novel ultimately questions the tenets of both organized religion and science as its main character seeks solace in an idealized work that does not exist. Instead Theron Ware realizes too late that the world around him is often hostile, squalid, and tragic.


One issue tied inextricably to the Spencerian concepts at the heart of Social Darwinism is that of race equality, yet it is an issue too often absent from the texts of many American writers. Ironically, many realists, insistent as they were that fiction should reflect real life, omitted virtually any discussion of race except as a peripheral element of their plots. However, occupying a rather solitary position in late-nineteenth-century fiction, stood Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932), the educated, financially successful, and professionally developed African American author whose best-known work is the collection of short stories The Conjure Woman (1899). The stories reflect the influence of African American folktales, songs, and trickster stories and use dialect and other devices to depict a realistic vision.

While Chesnutt's short stories are still popular, less well known are his novels, which more clearly articulate his desire for racial equality and widespread opportunities for African Americans. At the heart of Chesnutt's novels The House behind the Cedars (1900), a text addressing the need felt by many African Americans to "pass" as white, and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), inspired by the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot of 1898, are the same Georgian economic principles extracted from Spencer's evolutionary theories. Although nearly forgotten today, these novels of Chesnutt's were the most dynamic works of fiction that had then been undertaken by an African American writer.


When Henry George articulated his economic theory, based as it was on Spencerian evolution, many writers began to address the role of women and their contribution to economic prosperity in the form of home labor. No one presented this concept more vividly for an American audience than Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930) in her superb short story "The Revolt of 'Mother'" from A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). In the story Freeman's long-suffering "Mother" finally takes a stand against her hardworking but self-absorbed husband, "Father." After forty years of being promised a new home, the neglected Sarah Penn moves her children and belongings into the beautiful new barn that her husband builds in the place that he so long assured her the new house would be.

At once meek and devoted yet canny and self-assured, Sarah sees how women have been restricted, repressed, and impaired. While her husband daily leads a full, prosperous, and satisfying life, she is less valued than the horses. She tells her daughter, "You ain't found out yet we're women-folks. . . . You ain't seen enough of men-folks yet." Then she adds ironically,

One of these days you'll find it out, an' then you'll know that we know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an' how we'd ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence, an' not complain of what they do any more than we do of the weather. (Pp. 123–124)

Perhaps because it is written with such wry good humor, Freeman's story is often overlooked as an important portrayal of the oppressed and repressed condition of women alongside the economic value of their work.

Unlike Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) did not rely on Henry George's economic schema; instead in 1898 she published her own, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, which demonstrates how the economic dominance of men and the restriction of women to domestic labors had impaired not only the social evolution of women but of society in general. Because men alone had been the thinkers, artists, inventors, scientists, politicians, and businesspeople, all of these realms had been deprived of the skills, ideas, and personalities of at least half the members of the species. Although primarily known for her story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892), in which the main character is physically restrained and prevented from writing by her husband following the birth of their child, Gilman's economic treatise is considered her master-work; it informed all of her later writing and is still cited as an important contribution to the women's movement. Gilman's utopian novel Herland (1915) might be viewed as a kind of wish fulfillment that envisions a society devoid of men where the environment is pristine, the customs simple, and the people moral, peaceful, and productive.


Like Howells and other American realists, Henry James (1843–1916) chronicled the behavior and values of nineteenth-century society; however, unlike his American contemporaries, James set many of his novels in Europe, where he lived for many years. With their detailed accounts of manners, courtship, intrigue, and social climbing, James's novels are among the most popular and widely read works in the American canon. Often at the heart of his early stories is the young and naive American faced with the old and sophisticated European. This theme reflects James's ideas of essential national characters. Europe was old, cynical, highly structured, and politically divided, whereas America was young, optimistic, progressive, and united. The cultural difference was vast and led to fascinating fictional possibilities.

The novel that perhaps most clearly addresses the cultural naïveté of the nouveau riche American in Europe is The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which the main character, Isabel Archer, gains sudden wealth from an unexpected inheritance. As was common for marriageable women, the socially conscious Isabel travels to Europe where she is duped into marrying a middle-aged man by an older and much wiser woman, Madame Merle. Forsaking love for social gain, Isabel becomes the prototype for the class-conscious and upwardly mobile American woman. Like other works by James, such as Daisy Miller (1878), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903), The Portrait of a Lady presents a tangled web of social expectations, financial obligations, family ties, economic success, and personal happiness. Marriage, from James's viewpoint, appears to be more a form of strategic positioning than a step toward personal fulfillment. Also worthy of note is the relative absence of children in the Jamesian novel; while numerous characters have one child, very few have more. This fact alone seems to support James's incorporation of Spencer's economic hypothesis regarding population and financial success; and the relative absence of children in the novels of numerous writers is a lasting reminder of Social Darwinism's important influence on American fiction.

The fascinating rise of scientific theory, social science, philosophy, and progressivism known as Social Darwinism had great impact on all of the arts, but it is most obvious and easily recognizable in the literary works of American realism, saturated as they are with social and economic observation and commentary. The texts of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Charles Chesnutt, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Wilkins Freeman provide a few examples of literature's response to this persistent trend in American thought and culture. It is safe to claim that most works of fiction created in America between 1870 and 1920 were influenced, to varying degrees, by the evolutionary principles articulated by Herbert Spencer and others who gave voice to the turbulent and dynamic culture of a rising world power.

See alsoThe Conjure Woman; Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce; Darwinism; Feminism; Main-Travelled Roads; The Marrow of Tradition; A New England Nun and Other Stories;The Portrait of a Lady; Realism; Reform; Scientific Materialism; Success; Wealth; "The Yellow Wall-Paper"


Primary Works

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1879. Reprint, London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. A New England Nun and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. First published under the name Mary E. Wilkins. Reprinted in A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, edited by Mary R. Reichardt, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Spencer, Herbert. "Developmental Hypothesis." Essay Scientific, Political and Speculative. London: Williams and Norgate, 1891.

Secondary Works

Caudill, Edward. "Social Darwinism: Adapting Evolution to Society." In his Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

Fleming, Donald. "Social Darwinism." In Paths of American Thought, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Morton White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Gowaty, Patricia, ed. Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev. ed. New York: Braziller, 1959.

Young, H. Peyton. Individual Strategy and Social Structure: An Evolutionary Theory of Institutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Deirdre Ray

Social Darwinism

views updated May 23 2018

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. ]


Bellah, Robert N. 1964 Religious Evolution. American Sociological Review 29:358-374.

Childe, V. Gordon 1951 Social Evolution. New York: Schumann.

Conn, Herbert W. 1914 Social Heredity and Social Evolution: The Other Side of Eugenics. New York: Abingdon.

Darwin, Charles (1859) 1964 On the Origin of Species. Facsimile edition. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Univ. Press.

Darwin, Charles (1871) 1930 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2d ed. , rev. & enl. New York: Appleton.

Durkheim, Emile (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, III. : Free Press. First published as De la division du travail social.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. 1964 Social Change, Differentiation, and Evolution. American Sociological Review 29:375-386.

Hofstadter, Richard (1944) 1959 Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev. ed. New York: Braziller.

Huxley, Thomas H. (1865)1964 Emancipation: Black and White. Pages 64-71 in Thomas H. Huxley, Science and Education. New York: Philosophical Library.

Huxley, Thomas H. (1886-1894) 1929 Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays. New York: Appleton.

Irvine, William 1955 Apes, Angels, and Victorians: The Story of Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kidd, Benjamin (1894) 1915 Social Evolution. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan.

Parsons, TALCOTT 1964 Evolutionary Universals in Society. American Sociological Review 29:339-357.

Sahlins, Marshall D. ; and Service, Elman R. (editors) 1960 Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Spencer, Herbert (1862) 1958 First Principles. New York: DeWitt Revolving Fund.

Sumner, William Graham (1883) 1952 What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Caldwell, Ohio: Caxton.

Ward, Lester F. (1883) 1926 Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science, as Based Upon Statical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

Ward, Lester 1885 Moral and Material Progress Contrasted. Anthropological Society of Washington, Transactions 3:121-136.

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

Social Darwinism

views updated May 23 2018


Social Darwinism was a prominent ideology in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that emerged when biologists and social thinkers tried to apply the biological theories of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) to human society. Social Darwinists believed that humans were subject to scientific laws, including Darwinian natural selection and the struggle for existence. They viewed human competition as a beneficent force bringing progress. However serious differences emerged among those who tried to formulate social theories based on Darwinism. One of the most controversial disputes among social Darwinists was whether humans should model their societies on nature or use scientific knowledge to vanquish nature. Specifically the question was whether humans should sharpen or soften the struggle for existence. Though most social Darwinists never admitted it, this fundamental question was not tractable scientifically, but depended on one's ethical perspective, because Darwinian processes could not predict future outcomes nor provide moral guidance. Not all Darwinists embraced social Darwinism, of course, and some promoted eugenics as a way to evade the human struggle for existence.

From Malthus to Darwin

Tracing the origins of social Darwinism is complicated, because many ideas associated with social Darwinism—such as laissez-faire economics, militarism, and racism—predated Darwin and influenced the formulation of his biological theory. Probably the most important of the forerunners of social Darwinism was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766—1834), whose population principle claimed that human populations tend to expand faster than the food supply. This population imbalance, according to Malthus, inevitably produces human misery, famine, and death. Darwin forthrightly incorporated Malthus's ideas, along with other concepts from nineteenth-century economics, into his biological theory. However he also gave a new twist to Malthus that would be important in the rise of social Darwinism. While Malthus considered the human misery caused by overpopulation entirely harmful and lamentable (though inevitable), Darwin construed it as beneficial and progressive, because it drove the evolutionary process, producing new species. The rise of Darwinian theory in the late-nineteenth century gave greater currency to Malthus's ideas, which became prominent in social Darwinist circles.

Darwin was clearly a social Darwinist, because he believed that the Malthusian population principle demonstrated the necessity of a struggle for existence among humans, leading to competition both within and between human societies. However these two levels of competition could work at cross-purposes, presenting Darwin (and other social Darwinists) with a dilemma. Which was more important: individual or group competition? Most social Darwinists—including Darwin—insisted that both operated simultaneously, though they did not always agree on which was more important. Darwin believed that individual competition among humans manifested itself primarily as peaceful economic competition, while group competition often brought warfare and racial conflict.

Another important plank of social Darwinism that Darwin propagated was human inequality. Natural selection could only function if there were significant differences between organisms. Also, in order to make their theory of human evolution more plausible, Darwinists had to emphasize the tremendous diversity within the human species, while showing the proximity of humans to other species. This led them to stress the differences between races, and the proximity of "primitive" races to primates. Darwin specifically claimed that "savage" races were biologically inferior to Europeans. He believed their intellectual prowess was far below that of Europeans, and because he considered moral character a hereditary trait, he also accused them of being biologically inferior in their moral character.

In most of his writings Darwin confined himself to describing the process of human evolution. However at times he became prescriptive, proposing public policy based on his theory. He generally supported laissez-faire economics, because it would promote competition among individuals, allowing the "fittest" to succeed. In a private letter he expressed concern that labor unions were deleterious, because they opposed individual competition. He also used his theory to justify national and racial competition, which was reflected in British and other European attempts to dominate the globe through imperialism. In The Descent of Man Darwin stated, "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races" (Darwin 1981, vol. 1, p. 201). Darwin, however, did make it clear that despite his view that wars have played a crucial role in human evolution, he hoped they would cease in the future.

Classic Social Darwinism

While justifying and supporting human competition as biologically beneficial, Darwin did not believe that the human struggle for existence was completely ruthless. He thought that human morality—which he explained as a product of the struggle for existence—tempered the struggle, at least within societies. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), whom Darwin and many of his contemporaries considered a great philosopher, but whose star has waned since, likewise argued that ethics was the pinnacle of human evolution. However, like Darwin, he thought that too much altruism would be detrimental to humanity, because it would diminish human competition.

Spencer's role in the development of social Darwinism has been hotly debated, because before Darwin published his theory, Spencer already believed in biological evolution and embraced a competitive ethos and laissez-faire economics. However Spencer's pre-Darwinian ideas about evolution were shaped by Lamarckism, which taught that organisms passed acquired traits on to their offspring. Spencer's pre-Darwinian view of competition was not really social Darwinism. After 1859 Spencer integrated natural selection and the struggle for existence into his social views, thus espousing a form of social Darwinism. Like Darwin, he did not think the human struggle for existence had to be violent. On the contrary, he thought the struggle was becoming more and more peaceful as society progressed.

Not all social Darwinists thought warfare was becoming obsolete, as Spencer did. William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), a prominent American sociologist who pioneered social applications of Darwinism, claimed that Darwinism proved the inevitability of war. He even stated that "nothing but might has ever made right" (Hawkins 1997, p. 117), a position that Darwin rejected, but that several social Darwinists embraced. Even so, Sumner advised avoiding war if possible, so he was far from being a rabid militarist. However some social Darwinists, including the German general Friedrich von Bernhardi (1849–1930), author of the best-selling book, Germany and the Coming War (1912), used social Darwinism to promote militarism.

Racial competition was an even more prominent and widespread theme in social Darwinist thought than was national competition. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the leading Darwinian biologist in Germany in the late-nineteenth century, was even more racist than Darwin. He argued that the distinctions between the human races were so great that humans should be divided into twelve separate species, which he placed in four separate genera. These races, he claimed, were in a competitive conflict that would only end with the extermination of the least fit races. Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909), a law professor at the University of Graz in Austria, published one of the most extensive treatments of this theory in The Racial Struggle (1883), a term that became popular among social Darwinists in the 1890s and first decades of the twentieth century. Gumplowicz did not consider races a biological entity at all, however, as did most later racial thinkers, but rather he stressed their cultural construction. Nonetheless he argued that races are locked in an ineluctable Darwinian struggle for existence, and he believed that the ethnic conflicts within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were part of this universal struggle.

Another influential social Darwinist in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries who emphasized the racial struggle for existence was Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936), who exerted greater influence in Germany than in his native France. Lapouge was worried that certain "inferior" European races were displacing the "superior" forms. He wanted to supplement the racial struggle with eugenics. He hoped to replace the slogan of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, fraternity—with a more "scientific" triad—determinism, inequality, and selection. He warned in 1887, "In the next century people will be slaughtered by the millions for the sake of one or two degrees on the cephalic index [i.e., cranial measurements]. ... the superior races will substitute themselves by force for the human groups retarded in evolution, and the last sentimentalists will witness the copious extermination of entire peoples" (Hecht 2000, p. 287).

Social Darwinist racism also found much support in Britain and the United States. Walter Bagehot (1826–1877), one of the first writers in Britain to apply Darwinism to politics, thought racial competition was a blessing to the human race, stimulating progress. He asserted that even though some races may not accept the superiority of the European race, "we need not take account of the mistaken ideas of unfit men and beaten races" (Hawkins 1997, p. 70). Karl Pearson (1857–1936), a leading British biologist, wanted to mitigate individual competition to increase national and racial vitality. He promoted eugenics as a way to give the British a competitive advantage in the racial struggle, and he supported the extermination of other races to make room for British settlement. In 1916 Madison Grant (1865–1937), a well-connected lawyer who served as president of the New York Zoological Society, published The Passing of the Great White Race. The preface to his book was written by one of the leading scientists of his time, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857–1935), who was both a professor at Columbia University and president of the American Museum of Natural History. In his book Grant proposed using immigration restrictions and eugenics to restore the vitality of the "Great White Race," which was threatened with biological decline. Pearson and Grant were by no means idiosyncratic in supporting eugenics within their countries to strengthen their nation or race to compete successfully in the wider national or racial struggle for existence.

Conflicting Perspectives

One of the striking things about nineteenth-century social Darwinism was the variety of political positions that could use social Darwinist arguments to buttress their positions. British liberals—like Darwin—could use the theory to support laissez-faire economics and imperialism. But some non-Marxian socialists thought social Darwinism was on their side. For example, the physician Ludwig Büchner (1824–1899), one of the earliest and most famous Darwinian popularizers in Germany, argued that individual competition was essential for human advancement. However, he denied that the capitalist system was best in promoting competition. Capitalism, he thought, skewed the struggle for existence, because those who inherited capital would have an unfair advantage over those from poor families. Büchner suggested eliminating the inheritance of capital to level the playing field, so one's biological traits and abilities would be the only factors determining success or failure. Similar arguments were advanced by prominent Fabian socialists in Britain, such as Sidney Webb (1859–1947), and by the Labour Party leader, Ramsey MacDonald (1866–1937), who both promoted their socialist ideas as the logical outcome of Darwinian theory.

Though appropriated by scholars and politicians embracing a wide variety of political positions, social Darwinism would have its greatest impact on the world stage through the political power exerted by a fanatical social Darwinist whose racist brand of social Darwinism would drive him to unleash World War II in Europe. In Mein Kampf (1925–1927) Adolf Hitler argued that racial competition was a part of the universal struggle for existence, which destroys the weak and unfit. Hitler believed that morality consisted in cooperating with nature in destroying the weak, so the healthy, "superior" individuals could triumph.

Social Darwinism declined in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and not only because of its association with the Nazis. Biological explanations for human behavior gave way in the mid-twentieth century to environmental explanations. Behaviorism dominated psychology in the 1950s, cultural relativism dominated anthropology, and Marxism and other non-Marxist forms of economic and environmental determinism displaced biological determinism in the social sciences. By the 1960s biological determinism had almost completely disappeared from serious scholarly work. After Richard Hofstadter wrote the first major historical work titled Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), the term social Darwinism was generally used disparagingly.

In the 1970s a new movement within the scientific community emerged that reinvigorated biological determinism. Edward O. Wilson provoked intense controversy with the publication of his book, Sociobiology (1975). Many accused Wilson of resurrecting social Darwinism, but he and supporting colleagues denied the charge. Indeed Wilson did embrace some of the positions of earlier social Darwinists (for example, his stress on biological determinism, the importance of Darwinian selection on human behavior, and so on), but he did not embrace the crude nationalism and racialism that Hofstadter identified as leading characteristics of social Darwinism.


SEE ALSO Christian Perspectives;Darwin, Charles;Dominance;Eugenics;Holocaust;Population;Race;Sociobiology;Spencer, Herbert.


Bannister, Robert. (1979). Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Bannister challenges Hofstadter's thesis by claiming that the influence of social Darwinism was minimal. His unconvincing argument is that social Darwinism was merely a straw man created by progressives who opposed a competitive ethos.

Clark, Linda. (1984). Social Darwinism in France. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Clark's work shows the varieties of social Darwinism in France, especially emphasizing what she calls reform Darwinism.

Darwin, Charles. (1981). Descent Of Man. 2 Vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Degler, Carl N. (1991). In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press. Degler provides an excellent survey of the nature-nurture debate in the human sciences in the twentieth-century United States, focusing especially on the role of Darwinism in this debate. He is sympathetic to the rise of sociobiology.

Hawkins, Mike. (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. This is the best single volume on social Darwinism available. Hawkins provides in-depth analysis of key social Darwinist thinkers in various countries.

Hecht, Jennifer Michael. (2000). "Vacher De Lapouge and the Rise of Nazi Science." Journal of the History of Ideas 61 (2000): 285–304.

Hofstadter, Richard. (1955). Social Darwinism in American Thought, revised edition. Boston: Beacon Press. This is the pioneering work that introduced the term social Darwinism into historical discourse. While providing excellent explanations and examples of social Darwinism, he wrongly equated it with conservative political thought.

Jones, Greta. (1980). Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between Biological and Social Theory. Sussex, UK: Harvester. Jones shows the prominence (and variety) of social Darwinist thought in Britain during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Weikart, Richard. (2004). From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. This work shows the impact of Darwinism on ethical and moral thought in Germany during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It explores eugenics, euthanasia, racism, militarism, and the impact of Darwinism on Hitler's thought.

Wilson, Edward O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. This is the classic work by a Harvard biologist that brought sociobiology into prominence in the late twentieth century.

Weindling, Paul. (1989). Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A long chapter on social Darwinism in Germany shows the predominance of political liberalism in social Darwinist discourse. Much of the rest of the book examines eugenics.

Young, Robert. (1985). "Darwinism Is Social." In The Darwinian Heritage, ed. David Kohn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Young cogently explains how social thought impacted Darwin and influenced the formulation and expression of his theory.

Darwinism, Social

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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

Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism

The term Darwinism refers most centrally to the theory of natural selection, according to which only the fittest species in organic nature survive, whereas the unfit become extinct. The extension of these ideas to social thought is known as Social Darwinism.

The application of models of evolution to human societies long preceded the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, however. Already in the eighteenth century, historians influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment—including William Robertson and Adam Smith—had constructed a universal vision of history in which all societies advanced through four stages (from hunter-gathering to commercial society) as they progressed from "rudeness to refinement." This theory of development by stages influenced European notions of progress and of civilization among non-Europeans: peoples engaged in trade were held to be superior to those who relied exclusively on agriculture while the latter, in turn, were considered more advanced than subsistence hunter-gatherers.

In the early nineteenth century, the notion that world history and human society proceeded in evolutionary stages was purveyed in the works of Auguste Comte, G. W. F. Hegel, and Karl Marx, each of whom searched for general laws that underpinned social change. Unlike later theorists, these earlier political writers had a universal outlook that did not exclude non-European peoples from following the road already taken by European nations. By the time of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), however, this optimism had given way to a bleaker, Malthusian conception of competition between human beings for the scarce resources required for subsistence. In the late nineteenth century, this notion became linked directly to imperialism. It provided a framework for understanding the rise and decline of nations and enlivened competition among European nations.

Spencer—who coined the term survival of the fittest several years before Darwin set forth his theory—developed an all-encompassing conception of human society and relations based on evolutionary principles. His conviction that a general law for all processes of the earth could be formulated led him to apply the biologic scheme of evolution to society. The principles of social change must be the same, he supposed, as those of the universe at large. Although Spencer clung to outdated scientific ideas, such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's debunked thesis concerning the inheritance of acquired characteristics, it would be inaccurate to argue that he corrupted Darwin's pristine scientific ideas. Many of Darwin's ideas emerged from the social context in which he lived. As Marx noted, "it is remarkable how Darwin recognizes in beasts and plants his English society with its divisions of labor, competition, [and] opening up of new markets" (Dickens 2000, p. 29).

Spencer's ideas about selection also were born from his political beliefs: He repudiated government interference with the "natural," unimpeded growth of society. He maintained that society was evolving toward increasing freedom for individuals and so held that government intervention should be kept to a minimum. This belief led him to oppose all state aid to the poor, a group he maintained were unfit and should be eliminated. Spencer viewed state intervention to ameliorate their condition as the "artificial preservation of those least able to take care of themselves." As Spencer wrote, "the whole effort of Nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better" (Hofstadter 1955, p. 41). Although he personally was against colonization and the European rivalry this activity engendered, Spencer's ideas were catalysts for a generation of influential writers on international relations and empire. Social Darwinism played a key role both in imperial rivalry among European states and in the justification of empire over non-European peoples. Social Darwinistic arguments about the struggle to be the "fittest" were utilized to justify rising military expenditure, to press for increased national efficiency, and to promote certain types of government. For example, Walter Bagehot harnessed biology to defend liberal democracy in the 1870s. Emphasizing cultural rather than individual selection, he sought to prove that the institutions and practice of liberal democracy were the guarantor of evolutionary progress. "In every particular state in the world," Bagehot wrote in Physics and Politics (1872), "those nations which are the strongest tend to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peculiarities the strongest tend to be the best" (Baumgart 1982, p. 84). In 1886 the Russian sociologist Jacques Novikov defined the foreign policy of a state as "the art of pursuing the struggle for existence among social organisms." War, in this view, was a determinant of the "fittest" nation: Karl Pearson claimed that should war cease, "mankind will no longer progress," for "there will be nothing to check the fertility of inferior stock, [and] the relentless law of heredity will not be controlled and guided by natural selection" (Baumgart 1982, p. 87).

Darwinism was put at the service of imperialism, as a new instrument in the hands of theorists of race and civilizational struggle. Competition with other European states urged the securing of colonies to prevent raw material, land, and potential markets from being seized by rapacious rivals. In Theodore Roosevelt's "The Strenuous Life" (1899), the future American president warned against the possibility of elimination in an international struggle for existence. America, he said, could not shrink from "hard contests" for empire or else the "bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world" (Hofstadter 1955, p. 180). Successful imperial ventures thus were perceived to indicate the vitality, and hence "fitness," of a nation.

Social Darwinism also proved to be a justification for the subjugation of non-European peoples, who were deemed less "fit" than Europeans. Nature, theorists argued, intended the rule of superior European nations over inferior colonial races. Racial arguments permeated the language of adherents of Social Darwinism as well. The French political leader Jules Ferry (1832–1893) explicitly argued that "the superior races have rights over the inferior races" (Baumgart 1982, p. 89). After World War I, the mandate and trusteeship system set up by the victors over much of the colonized world utilized arguments that derived from Social Darwinism. In 1922 Baron F. D. Lugard argued that the British Empire had a "dual mandate" in tropical dependencies "unsuited for white settlement," calling for the "advancement of the subject races" and "the development of [the territories'] material resources for the benefit of mankind." He insisted that indigenous populations were benefiting from "the influx of manufactured goods and the substitution of law and order for the methods of barbarism" (Lugard 1922, pp. 616-618). Social Darwinism thus lent a pseudoscientific veneer to colonial subjugation and bolstered the alleged civilizing mission of Europeans to non-Europeans.

The most extreme form of Social Darwinism was eugenics. Proponents of eugenics claimed that particular racial or social groups were naturally superior, and sought the enactment of laws that would control human heredity by forbidding marriage between people of different races and restricting the reproductive activities of people they considered unworthy, such as criminals and the mentally ill. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Nazis drew on such extreme precepts of Social Darwinism in their attempt to create an idealized Aryan race, an effort that culminated in the Holocaust and the brutal deaths of millions of Jews, Roma (gypsies), and members of other groups considered inferior by the Nazis.

see also Imperialism, Liberal Theories of; Imperialism, Marxist Theories of.


Ballantyne, Tony. "Empire, Knowledge, and Culture: From Proto-Globalization to Modern Globalization." In Globalization in World History, edited by A. G. Hopkins. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Bannister, Robert C. "Social Darwinism." In Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004. Available from

Baumgart, Winfried. Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880–1914. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Jones, Greta. Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between Biological and Social Theory. Sussex, U.K.: Harvester, 1980.

Lugard, F. D. The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. London and Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1922.

Semmel, Bernard. Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895–1914. London: Allen and Unwin, 1960.

Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics. London: J. Chapman, 1851.

Spencer, Herbert. Study of Sociology. London: King, 1873.

Sweet, William. "Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)." In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by James Fieser. Available from

Wiltshire, David. The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Social Darwinism

views updated May 23 2018


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 .

Social Darwinism

views updated May 23 2018

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism can be defined either strictly, with reference to theories of social and cultural change implied by the theory of natural selection developed by Darwin, or loosely, as that distinct family of historical theories that claim to be theories of social and cultural change logically entailed by Darwinian theory. Historical social Darwinism, which emerged in the late nineteenth century and continues in some forms today, exploited ambiguities in Darwinian concepts such as struggle and development in advancing social theories that defended ethnic, racial, class, and gender inequality as necessary aspects of a wider conflict from which a technically and morally advanced humanity would emerge. It mattered little to social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner that Darwin himself used the phrase "struggle for survival" metaphorically to describe all that organisms do in order to reproduce successfully. He utilized terms such as development and evolution in ways that resisted the imputation of progress or improvement. Nevertheless, in the United States, social Darwinist theories and an associated eugenics movement grew steadily in the deteriorating racial environment that characterized the final decades of the 1800s and the early 1900s.

The meaning of Darwin for social theory has been a matter of controversy from its earliest days, as can be seen in the debates between figures like Thomas Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Huxley argued that biology implied a Hobbesian, atomistic conception of individuals in society. Kropotkin posited to the contrary—the central implication of Darwinism was that sociality, trust, and mutual aid are the sustaining characteristics of humankind's behavioral repertoire. One can easily find in such controversy the echoes of previous lasting debates in Western political and social theory. Nonetheless, feeding off justifications for conquest that long predated Darwin, social Darwinists claimed to extend Darwin's theories into the realm of politics and society, as if such issues had been settled. In the early twenty-first century, however, no reputable school of evolutionary biology or psychology maintains that a theory of social Darwinism in the strict sense would endorse the conclusions of historical social Darwinism, especially its tendency to rationalize conflict and conquest. It is not too much to say as a historical matter that social Darwinism was neither Darwinist, nor particularly social. Its point was never to promote scientific discussion of the complex implications natural selection offers in providing resources for social and political thought. Instead, it has tended merely to use Darwinism as a rationale for existing forms of exploitation and their extension, especially but not exclusively in support of racism and genocide.

The list of atrocities defended on supposedly Darwinian grounds might fill several pages. Social Darwinist theories have been invoked in the United States in support of everything from laissez faire policies of tariff and trade to African slavery and genocide against the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. Richard Hofstadter has suggested that such rationalizations have been effective in the United States in part because of the fatalism and scientism they promote. By teaching children that other lifestyles are destined to vanish, atrocity is rendered palatable and elevated from obvious injustice to high historical tragedy. This scientization of history at the center of social Darwinism is most obvious in the eugenics movement, which was much more popular in the United States in the early 1900s than in Germany. A line connects interpreters of Spencer, like the sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909), with the rise of Anglo-Saxonism in the United States and the global eugenics movement. Nazi eugenics drew on an already well-established and well-rooted phenomena. But social Darwinism and similar theories have reportedly been used by apologists to defend genocidal Japanese actions in China, Italian actions in in Ethiopia, and Australian policies toward Native peoples.

SEE ALSO Eugenics; Racism


Friedlander, Henry (1997). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1980). Ever since Darwin. New York: Penguin.

Hofstadter, Richard (1964). Social Darwinism in American Thought, revised edition. Boston: Beacon Press.

Singer, Peter (2000). A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Peter Amato

Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism See DARWINISM.

Darwinism, Social

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Darwinism, Social

See Evolution, Biocultural; Sociobiology

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