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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 Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944. Despite the title’s 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 evolution—the natural rise of organisms from primitive beginnings to sophisticated life-forms, including humans—reflected 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 Darwin’s 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.
The Nineteenth Century
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 Spencer’s view, the only way to guarantee progress.
Superficially Spencer’s worldview seemed like a logical application of Charles Darwin’s 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.
Spencer’s 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 Scottishborn 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. Darwin’s 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.
The Twentieth Century
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 world’s ills—poverty, disease, violence—persisted. 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 Darwin’s 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 Henry’s 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 Darwin’s great German champion Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), were significant. There may be truth in this last claim. Certainly, passages in Hitler’s 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 anti-Semitism 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.
The Twenty-First Century
In the twenty-first century, Social Darwinism continues to influence public debate. Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist 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.
- 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.
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