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Social Darwinism is a term used to describe a range of political ideologies which are held to be compatible with the concept that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution of biological traits in a population by natural selection can also be applied to competition between humansocieties or groups within a society. Initially expressed in the writings of English philosopher and author Herbert Spencer, and those of William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinism became popular in the late 19th century and continued in popularity until at least the end of World War II. The ideology did not necessarily reflect Darwin's views, and though he did introduce Spencer's term of "survival of the fittest" as an alternative phrase for "natural selection" in the 5th edition of The Origin of Species, he subsequently rejected it in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). In all cases, the ideology of Social Darwinism should be distinguished from the scientific theory of evolution developed in The Origins of Species (1859).

The term "Social Darwinism" itself was only coined in 1944, when the American historian Richard Hofstadter published a book entitled Social Darwinism in American Thought. Historically, proponents of Social Darwinism have used the theory to justify social inequality as being meritocratic. At various times it has also been used to justify laissez-faire capitalism, racism or imperialism.

Social Darwinism is closely tied to earlier conceptions of unilineal evolution which were common until at least the second part of the 20th century. Those who endorsed these views, however, may disagree on political choices. Some believe "natural selection", which they claim is a principle valid as much in evolution of the animal kingdom as in human societies, can be consciously affected by human beings. Those who take this view believe that governments should implement policies that would guide human evolution in a positive direction. The specific policies supported by such Social Darwinists vary greatly, from eugenics and compulsory sterilization to laissez-faire, free markets and governmental non-intervention in the economy.

However, other Social Darwinists argue that human beings cannot control their evolution any more than animals can, and that governments and their policies, like all other aspects of human society, are themselves subject to evolution rather than being able to control it. Therefore, they do not recommend any political policies; in their view, it is inevitable that human societies will select those policies that are most beneficial to their evolution. These Social Darwinists promote a kind of passive acceptance of any social or political change, because they believe all such changes are driven by evolution.


Darwinism and theories of social change

Further information: social evolution  and Unilineal evolution

Theories of social evolution and cultural evolution are common in European thought. The Enlightenment thinkers who preceded Darwin, such as Hegel, often argued that societies progressed through stages of increasing development. Earlier thinkers also emphasized conflict as an inherent feature of social life. Thomas Hobbes' 17th century portrayal of the state of nature seems analogous to the competition for natural resources described by Darwin. Social Darwinism is distinct from other theories of social change because of the way it draws Darwin's distinctive ideas from the field of biology into social studies.

Darwin's unique discussion of evolution was distinct in several ways from these previous works: Darwin argued that humans were shaped by biological laws in the same way as other animals, particularly by the pressure put on individuals by population growth, emphasizing the natural over the supernatural in human development. Unlike Hobbes, he believed that this pressure allowed individuals with certain physical and mental traits to succeed more frequently than others, and that these traits accumulated in the population over time to allow the emergence of a new species.

However, Darwin felt that 'social instincts' such as 'sympathy' and 'moral sentiments' also evolved through natural selection, and that these resulted in the strengthening of societies in which they occurred, so much so that he wrote about it in Descent of Man:[1] Thus it seems Darwin did believe that social phenomena were shaped by natural selection.

Theorists and Sources of Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer.

Despite the fact that Social Darwinism bears Darwin's name and Darwin's works were widely read by Social Darwinists, the theory also draws on the work of many authors, including Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. Darwin distanced himself from social darwinism in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

Herbert Spencer's ideas, like that of evolutionary 'progressivism', stemmed from his reading of Thomas Malthus, and his later theories were influenced by those of Darwin. However Spencer's major work, Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857) was released two years before the publication of Darwin's Origin Of Species, and First Principles was printed in 1860. In regards to social institutions, there is a good case that Spencer's writings might be classified as 'Social Darwinism'. He argues that the individual (rather than the collectivity) is the unit of analysis that evolves, that evolution takes place through natural selection, and that it affects social as well as biological phenomena.

In many ways Spencer's theory of 'cosmic evolution' has much more in common with the works of Lamarck and August Comte's positivism work than Darwin. Darwin's theory is concerned with population, while Spencer's deals with the way an individual's motives influence humanity. Darwin's theory is probabilistic, i.e., based on changes in the environment that sooner or later influence the change of individuals, but do not have any single, specific goal. Spencer's is deterministic (the evolution of human society is the only logical consequence of its previous stage), fatalistic (it cannot be influenced by human actions), single path (it travels a single path, cannot skip any stages or change them) and progressively finalistic (there is a final, perfect society that will be eventually reached). Darwin's theory does not equal progress, except in the sense that the new, evolved species will be better suited to their changing environment. Spencer's theory introduces the concept of social progress — the new, evolved society is always better than the past.


Thomas Malthus.

Spencer's work also served to renew interest in the work of Malthus. While Malthus's work does not itself qualify as Social Darwinism, his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, was incredibly popular and widely read by Social Darwinists. In that book, for example, the author argued that as an increasing population would normally outgrow its food supply, this would result in the starvation of the weakest and a Malthusian catastrophe. According to Michael Ruse, Darwin read Malthus' famous Essay on a Principle of Population in 1838, four years after Malthus' death. Malthus himself anticipated the Social Darwinists in suggesting that charity could exacerbate social problems. Another of these social interpretations of Darwin's biological views, later known as eugenics, was put forth by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, in 1865 and 1869. Galton argued that just as physical traits were clearly inherited among generations of people, so could be said for mental qualities (genius and talent). Galton argued that social mores needed to change so that heredity was a conscious decision, in order to avoid over-breeding by "less fit" members of society and the under-breeding of the "more fit" ones.

Francis Galton.

In Galton's view, social institutions such as welfare and insane asylums were allowing "inferior" humans to survive and reproduce at levels faster than the more "superior" humans in respectable society, and if corrections were not soon taken, society would be awash with "inferiors." Darwin read his cousin's work with interest, and devoted sections of Descent of Man to discussion of Galton's theories. Neither Galton nor Darwin, though, advocated any eugenic policies such as those which would be undertaken in the early 20th century, as government coercion of any form was very much against their political opinions.

Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy addressed the question of artificial selection, but it was built against Darwinian theories of natural selection. His point of view on sickness and health, in particular, opposed him to the concept of biological "adaptation", forged by Spencer's "fitness". He criticized both Haeckel, Spencer and Darwin, sometimes under the same banner. Nietzsche thought that, in specific cases, sickness was necessary and even helpful [2]. Thus, he wrote:

Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it. Something similar also happens in the individual. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one-eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race.[3]

The publication of Ernst Haeckel's best-selling Welträtsel ('Riddle of the Universe') in 1899 brought Social Darwinism and earlier ideas of "racial hygiene" to a very wide audience, and is recapitulation theory became famous. This lead to the formation of the Monist League in 1904 with many prominent citizens among its members, including the Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald. By 1909 it had a membership of some six thousand people.

The simpler aspects of Social Darwinism followed the earlier Malthusian ideas that humans, especially males, need competition in their lives in order to survive in the future, and that the poor should have to provide for themselves and not be given any aid, although most Social Darwinists of the early twentieth century supported better working conditions and salaries, thus giving the poor a better chance to provide for themselves and distinguishing those who are capable of succeeding from those who are poor out of laziness, weakness, or inferiority. Darwin also believed that males are superior to females,[How to reference and link to summary or text] which can be attached to Social Darwinist theory.

Social Darwinism and Race

Further information: Racism  and Scientific racism

Tied to Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the idea of racial superiority and competition. Although a simple racial view of Social Darwinism was that the white nations had to civilize the savage colored nations of the world, there were other more complicated ones. Darwin's theories of evolution were used to distinguish differences between the races of man based on genetic branching and natural selection. Genetic branching is the process that occurs in all species, including humans, in which groups of a species become separated from one another, each developing their own genetic characteristics different from other groups. It is because of genetic branching that we today have the human races or human populations. Popular at the time was the idea that the Nordic race of Northern Europe was superior because it evolved in a cold climate, forcing it to develop advanced survival skills that it later applied in modern times by being expansionist and adventurous. Natural selection was also thought to have worked at a faster pace in the frigid north, eliminating the weak and unintelligent more thoroughly than it did in warm climates such as Africa. Nordicists reasoned that if animals adapted to their own climates, both physically and mentally, then humans did as well. These ideas were wholly supported by the leading anthropologists and psychologists of the day, including the esteemed biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, an early defender of Darwin's theories, for which he was nicknamed "Darwin's Bulldog", and the influential psychologist William McDougall.

A simpler racial attitude based on Social Darwinism is the belief that races just need to be aggressive in order to survive. Darwin's theory of natural selection clearly saw each individual and species as being in a constant struggle for existence, with the best fitted prospering and less well suited tending to diminish in numbers, gradually leading to extinction. This was modified in Social Darwinism into the belief that throughout history it was the weak species and races that died out or were exterminated, with the White race regarded as the greatest race because it had an attitude of superiority and a will to conquer. The White man had conquered the savages in some places and in other places had simply wiped them out, as the Americans had done on their continent and the British had done in New Zealand and Australia. It was the White race, the race that had created the great Western Civilization, that deserved to survive from the viewpoint of "survival of the fittest", but in the modern world the White race was falling victim to inner politics while the yellow and brown hordes of Asia were building up their strength in preparation to overthrow the White man's domination of the globe. Many believed that it was only a matter of time before the White race and its Western culture were supplanted by "inferior" races and cultures. These ideas were supported by many influential men in the early twentieth century, including the American journalist Lothrop Stoddard in his book "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy" and later the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh believed that the White nations should keep technological advances, especially aviation, to themselves for their own advantage.

Influence of Social Darwinists


Social Darwinism enjoyed widespread popularity in some European circles, particularly among German and British intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Competition for empire encouraged increasing militarization and the division of the world into colonial spheres of influence. The interpretation of Social Darwinism then emphasized competition between species and races, rather than cooperation.

United States

Spencer proved to be an incredibly popular figure in the 1870s, particularly in the United States. Authors such as Edward Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, and other thinkers of the gilded age all developed theories of Social Darwinism as a result of their exposure to Spencer (as well as Darwin).

Sumner abandoned Social Darwinism by the mid 1880s, and some contemporary historians do not believe that Sumner ever actually believed in Social Darwinism.[4] The great majority of American businessmen rejected the anti-philanthropic implications of the theory. Instead they gave millions to build schools, colleges, hospitals, art institutes, parks and many other institutions. Andrew Carnegie, who admired Spencer, was the leading philanthopist in the world (1890-1920), and a major leader against imperialism and warfare.

HG Wells was heavily influenced by darwinist thought, and novelist Jack London wrote stories of survival that incorporate his views on Social Darwinism[5].

Criticisms and controversies

Some socialists allege that capitalists used Social Darwinism to justify laissez-faire capitalism and social inequality. Others have used it to justify a variety of beliefs such as racialism or imperialism. Many used Social Darwinism crudely to argue against any sort of universal morality or any sort of altruism.

At its most extreme, some pre-twentieth century doctrines subsequently described as Social Darwinism appear to anticipate eugenics and the race doctrines of Nazism. Critics, particularly proponents of creationism, have frequently tried to link evolution, Charles Darwin and Social Darwinism in the public mind with racialism, imperialism and eugenics, making the accusation that Social Darwinism became one of the pillars of Fascism and Nazi ideology, and that the consequences of the application of Social Darwinist policies by Nazi Germany created a very strong popular backlash against the theory.[6] Such criticisms are sometimes applied (and misapplied) to any other political or scientific theory that resembles Social Darwinism, for example criticisms levelled at evolutionary psychology (which had a conversely, Jewish origin). Another example is recent scholarship that portrays Ernst Haeckel's Monist League as a mystical progenitor of the Völkisch movement and, ultimately, of the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler. Scholars opposed to this interpretation, however, have pointed out that the Monists were freethinkers who opposed all forms of mysticism, and that their organizations were immediately banned following the Nazi takeover in 1933 because of their association with a wide variety of progressive causes including feminism, pacifism, human rights, and early gay liberation movements.[7]

Similarly, capitalist economics, especially laissez-faire economics, is attacked by some socialists by equating it to Social Darwinism because it is premised on the idea of natural scarcity, also the starting point of Social Darwinism, and because it is often interpreted to involve a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity.

However, there were few "Social Darwinists" after the 1880s who advocated capitalism and laissez-faire. Most of them demanded a strong government that would intervene in the economy or society to weed out inferiors. They did not believe the marketplace could do that. For example, Ludwig von Mises, an advocate of laissez-faire, argued in his book Human Action that Social Darwinism contradicts the principles of liberalism.

Social Darwinist theory itself does not necessarily engender a political position: some Social Darwinists would argue for the inevitability of progress, while others emphasise the potential for the degeneration of humanity, and some even attempt to enroll Social Darwinism in a reformist politics. Rather, Social Darwinism is an eclectic set of closely interrelated social theories -- much in the way that Existentialism is not one philosophy but a set of closely interrelated philosophical principles.

The key argument is that nature works by survival of the fittest; so does society; those who have survived or flourished did so by natural processes; it is unnatural and inefficient to try and change that through philanthropy. Success or failure is usually dependent on natural traits.

Modern legacy

Social Darwinism as a movement has dwindled in credibility, as evolutionary theory has de-emphasized inter-species competition as well as the importance of violent confrontation in general.


  1. " some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world."Descent of Man, chapter 6 ISBN 1573921769
  2. Barbara Stiegler, Nietzsche et la biologie, PUF, 2001, p.90. ISBN 2130507425. See, for ex., Genealogy of Morals, III, 13 here
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, §224 here
  4. "A careful reading of the theories of Sumner and Spencer exonerates them from the centure-old charge of social Darwinism in the strict sense of the word. They did not themselves advocate the application of Darwin's theory of natural selection." The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology
  5. "Borrowing from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Social Darwisnists believed that societies, as do organisms evolve over time. Nature then determined that the strong survive and the weak perish. In Jack London's case, he thought that certain favored races were destined for survival, mainly those that could preserve themselves while supplanting others, as in the case of the Whire race." The philosophy of Jack London
  6. The Creationist ministry Answers in Genesis is especially known for these sorts of claims. The most respected academic who advocates such views is Richard Weikart, a historian at California State University, Stanislaus and a fellow at the Discovery Institute.
  7. Weikart, Richard (2002). ""Evolutionäre Aufklärung"? Zur Geschichte des Monistenbundes". Wissenschaft, Politik und Öffentlichkeit: von der Wiener Moderne bis zur Gegenwart: 131-48, Wien: WUV-Universitätsverlag. ISBN 3-85114-664-6. 

See also

Secondary sources

Primary sources

External links

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