In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In it, Darwin convincingly argued that all species evolved by adapting through an ongoing struggle for survival. The book is considered one of the most influential in the natural sciences. However, Darwin’s influence would go well beyond the biological. Shortly after the Origin of Species publication, people began speculating on the social implication of Darwin’s theories.
“Social Darwinism,” a term for various social theories allegedly based on Darwin’s work, described individuals and societies competing for limited resources where the fittest survived and reproduced. These theories provided intellectual fodder for racism, imperialism, militarism, political and economic conservatism, and misguided public health practices.
What is Natural Selection? In other blogs, we go into more detail about Darwin’s theories. For now, here is a 5-point synopsis of natural selection.
- More species exist than their environments can sustain.
- As a consequence of 1, all species are in a perpetual struggle for survival.
- Individual members of each possess variations or traits.
- Those with favourable traits survive and reproduce, passing on these traits.
- Over generations, as traits pass, species evolve to survive in their environment—those who don’t perish.
Origin of Species focused on plants and animals and did not address human evolution. However, social theorists enthusiastically applied Darwinian biological concepts to human society, identifying societies as individuals competing in a struggle leading to the evolution and improvement of nations, classes, and races.
Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer. The notion of competition between individuals and groups as inevitable and necessary predated Darwin and increasingly pervaded the 19th century. Adam Smith advocated an economic model based on competition and minimal state intervention in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776). In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798),Thomas Malthus, a clergyman, argued that people competed as populations outstripped limited resources – food, land, wealth. Some, of course, would fall, but the strongest would survive. This competition, he insisted, led to social betterment, so state or private efforts to alleviate poverty were against nature. Perhaps the strongest advocate of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, who coined “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology (1864). The term helped bring attention to Darwin’s work and led to more applications to human society, including race, politics, economics, and medical practice like eugenics and euthanasia.
Politics, Social Inequality, Economics. Conservatives, concerned with the rising population of lower classes, cited natural selection as justification for refraining from poor relief in towns and cities. Malthus and Spencer, two vehement individualists, insisted that poverty arose from flawed character and that state support for the poor contradicted the rules of nature and weakened society. Similarly, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie justified low wages and laissez-faire business practices that exploited weakness. In The Gospel of Wealth (1900), Carnegie applauded “the concentration of business, industrial, and commercial, in the hands of a few and the competition to the progress of the race.” (4)
Race and Imperialism.Jacque Barzun writes that “The 19C was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races” and “taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements.” (577). Social Darwinism offered “scientific” support for racial categories that hardened in the latter part of the 19th century. Theorists applied Social Darwinist principles to nations. Nationalists and imperialists appealed to social Darwinism to explain and justify colonial control of inferior ethnic groups and races, offering a rationale for displacement, unfair laws and even genocide. For example, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace supported European expansion at the expense of the “savage” and “inferior” indigenous peoples in the Americas and other continents. Karl Pearson argued that the higher state of civilization arose racial struggle and the resulting survival of the physical and mentally fittest race. (Perry, 594)
An Infamous Legacy. Social Darwinism extended into the 20th century carrying its flawed reasoning and destructive implications with it. Eugenics, founded by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, inspired the sterilization and euthanizing of people deemed “unfit” – the mentally ill, criminals, developmental delayed, and people of colour – in countries like Canada, the United States, and especially Germany. Marvin Perry contends that “The Social Darwinist notion of the struggle of the races for survival became a core doctrine of the Nazi Party after World War 1 and provided the scientific and ethical justification for genocide. (596). Social Darwinist theories began to wane by the middle of the 20th century, mainly as Nazi atrocities realized many of the morbid implications of Social Darwinist thinking, including sterilization and, of course, the Holocaust.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth. New York: Century, 1900.
Hofstader, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1955.
Koch, H.W. ed. The Origins of the First World War. New York: Taplinger, 1972.
Olson, Richard, ed., Science as Metaphor. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1971.
Perry, Marvin. Ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.