Social Darwinism Emerges and Is Used to Justify Imperialism, Racism, and Conservative Economic and Social Policies

views updated

Social Darwinism Emerges and Is Used to Justify Imperialism, Racism, and Conservative Economic and Social Policies


Social Darwinism was a sociological theory popular in late nineteenth-century Europe and the United States. It merged Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection and Herbert Spencer's sociological theories to justify imperialism, racism, and laissez-faire (i.e. conservative) social and economic policies. Social Darwinists argued that individuals and groups, just like plants and animals, competed with one another for success in life. They used this assertion to justify the status quo by claiming that the individuals or groups of individuals at the top of social, economic, or political hierarchies belonged there, as they had competed against others and had proven themselves best adapted. Any social or political intervention that weakened the existing hierarchy, they argued, would undermine the natural order.


Darwin's theory of natural selection and the subsequent arguments by social Darwinists were based heavily on the work of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an early nineteenth-century British clergyman who wrote Principles of Population. Malthus predicted that food resources increased arithmetically while human populations, unchecked by war, disease, or famine, increased geometrically. The disparity between resources and population meant a constant struggle among members of a given population for scarce resources. Darwin (1809-1882) applied the Malthusian principle to the natural world and posited his theory of natural selection. In Origin of Species (1859) he argued that the scarcity of natural resources led to competition among individuals, which he called "the struggle for survival." Through this competition, the best-adapted members of a given population were most likely to be successful, reproduce, and pass their beneficial adaptations on to their offspring. Poorly adapted members, he asserted, probably would not survive and therefore would not pass their lower quality traits to the next generation.

Social Darwinists argued on the basis of Darwin's theory of natural selection that the best adapted humans naturally rose to the top of social, political, and economic strata. Therefore, they argued, those members at the top of society, either by virtue of hard work or birth, were the best-adapted citizens. They used this rationale to argue against welfare policies that would help the poor by redistributing resources from the most fit members to the least fit, which they claimed would violate the natural order and allow the perpetuation of less fit members. Darwin himself did not promote social Darwinism and probably would have opposed many of the claims of social Darwinists.

Social Darwinism was the product of late nineteenth-century economic and political expansion. As the European and American upper class sought to extend its economic and political power, it employed scientific explanations to justify the increasingly obvious gap between rich and poor. The social Darwinists' reliance on natural laws allowed social, political, and scientific leaders to dismiss those who sought to redistribute wealth and power by claiming that reformers were violating the natural hierarchy. By extending their arguments to address entire nations, some social Darwinists justified imperialism on the basis that the imperial powers were naturally superior and their control over other nations was in the best interest of human evolution. The increasing public interest and respect for the sciences also contributed to the success of social Darwinism, as policies that had the stamp of scientific legitimacy were accepted as above political interest or influence.


While Darwin coined the term "struggle for survival," it was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who invented and popularized the concept of "survival of the fittest," and Spencer is widely considered the chief proponent of social Darwinism. Spencer's synthesis of evolutionary thought with sociology, psychology, and philosophy provided the stamp of scientific justification to the social and political leaders who sought to preserve the status quo and promote unrestrained competition. Originally trained as an engineer, Spencer developed an increasing interest in the natural and social sciences and proposed theories that linked them under the umbrella of evolution. He believed that biological evolution had brought about human intellect, which in turn produced society. Therefore, he argued, human intellect and social activities were products of biological evolution, and all three operated on natural laws. His work was a clear reflection of English industrialism, which was dedicated to promoting competition, exploitation, and struggle in the human social realm. He asserted that all aspects of life, be it human, plant, or animal life, were guided by the constant struggle in which the weak were subjugated by the strong. However undesirable humanitarians might find this process, he argued, it was the natural order of things and could not be altered by charity, welfare policies, or legislative actions.

Spencer was well known in Europe, but he was especially popular in the United States because his work provided Americans with a scientific justification for free competition, which was widely recognized as the most effective path to economic progress. Between the 1860s and 1900, Americans purchased more than 350,000 copies of Spencer's books, and his influence on late-nineteenth century figures such as Henry James, John Dewey, and Josiah Royce was significant. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was one of America's most prominent followers of Spencer and popularized social Darwinism in America. He called Spencer his "teacher" and visited him in England. In 1882 Spencer arrived in the United States for a widely publicized tour that brought together American writers, scientists, politicians, theologians, and businessmen around the doctrines of social Darwinism.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a Yale sociologist, was another prominent American social Darwinist. In What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other, Sumner argued against governmental and private charity attempts to improve the conditions of the lower classes. Like Spencer, Sumner believed that society evolved and operated in a deterministic fashion and any attempt to alter social hierarchies was doomed to failure. Using his authority as a scientist, Sumner legitimated aggressive competitive practices of American businessmen by declaring their activities to be the source of human evolutionary progress.

The best known American opponent of social Darwinism was Lester Ward (1841-1913), a paleontologist and one of the founders of sociology in America. Ward argued against the social Darwinists' natural justifications for the status quo and posited the theory of telesis, or planned social evolution. While social Darwinists focused on the role of competition in the natural and social worlds, Ward highlighted the importance of cooperation and marshaled historical evidence against Sumner to argue that human progress was the product of cooperative activities and intelligence, not merciless competition. He used this analysis to urge social and political leaders to adopt measures deliberately aimed at social improvement.

By the turn of the century social Darwinists were attacked and their credibility undermined by reform Darwinists, who used the same scientific theories about the natural world to uphold opposite conclusions about society. Reform Darwinists asserted that the scientific knowledge of evolution allowed social and political leaders to intervene in the natural order to better the human condition. Using Darwin's theory of natural selection and Gregor Mendel's recently rediscovered theories of inheritance, reform Darwinists argued that humans could control their own evolutionary destiny by adopting interventionist policies such as public sanitation and eugenics.

Individuals who have been labeled "social Darwinists" did not use the term to describe themselves. Reform Darwinists and other critics of laissez-faire economic policies invented the label in the early twentieth century as a derogatory term to describe their opponents' position. In doing so, they highlighted the influence of Darwin's theory of natural selection on social and political activities by emphasizing the social Darwinists' use of Darwin's work. More recent historians have emphasized the social influences that went into Darwin's theories, such as the nineteenth-century British tendency to emphasize competition and overlook cooperation and altruism in the natural world. Taken together, the work of early and late twentieth-century scholars illustrates the reciprocal influence between science and society, as social concerns affected the development of evolutionary theory and then that evolutionary theory influenced later social developments.


Further Reading


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

Degler, Carl. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945.

Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904.

Spencer, Herbert. Principles of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.

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

Ward, Lester Frank. Dynamic Sociology; or, Applied Social Science as Based upon Statistical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883.

Young, Robert. "Herbert Spencer: and 'Inevitable' Progress." In Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Society, edited by Gordon Marsden. London: Longman, 1990.


Young, Robert. "Charles Darwin: Man and Metaphor."Science as Culture 5 (1989): 71-86.

About this article

Social Darwinism Emerges and Is Used to Justify Imperialism, Racism, and Conservative Economic and Social Policies

Updated About content Print Article