Social Darwinism is the theory that human societies obey the same process of natural selection that Charles Darwin identified in the natural world. Applying the idea of “the survival of the fittest” to society, politics, and economics, social Darwinists argue that the wealthy or strong succeed under conditions of fair competition because they are better adapted to their environments, and that the poor or weak therefore have no legitimate claim to government protection. Social Darwinism was especially popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although the term itself was typically used by its opponents rather than its advocates. While it had strong proponents on both sides of the Atlantic—most notably, Herbert Spencer and Walter Bagehot in England and Edward L. Youmans and William Graham Sumner in America—it was particularly influential in America where it was used to justify laissez-faire economics during the Gilded Age.
Despite the name, social Darwinism is most closely associated with the work of Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” nine years before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). Charles Darwin’s own remarks on the application of his theory to human society are infrequent and tentative, although he was influenced by Thomas Malthus’s argument that population growth was ultimately limited by food supply and that a struggle for existence naturally resulted whenever the former outstripped the latter. Herbert Spencer developed the social implications that many assumed were implicit in evolutionary biology and attempted to build the principles of evolution into coherent theory encompassing biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics. The popular association of this theory with Charles Darwin, however, gave it a veneer of scientific validity that masked its significant diversions from Darwin’s theory. While Darwin’s theory of natural selection was based on empirical observation, the social Darwinism of Spencer and others was largely deductive and unquestioningly grounded its ethical and normative conclusions in claims about nature. Thus, although Darwinian evolution suggests that a particular characteristic or species flourishes simply because it is better adapted to a particular environment, social Darwinists understood fittest to mean best in a sense that reflected their preexisting normative commitments.
Social Darwinism was most commonly linked to conservative arguments justifying laissez-faire capitalism and minimal conceptions of the state. Social Darwinists argued that the accumulation of wealth demonstrated successful adaptation to the laws of economic competition and that assistance to the poor only preserved those who lacked the industriousness, intelligence, and self-control to succeed on their own. Therefore, efforts at social reform and state intervention in the economy (through poor laws, social reform programs, business regulation, and the like) violated natural economic laws and interfered with the progress of society by protecting its least successful members. Drawing on Darwin’s observations, thinkers like Francis Galton argued that intelligence and mental qualities were heritable in the same way as physical characteristics; laws and institutions that preserved “inferior” individuals, he cautioned, ran the risk of degrading human populations. Applied to the genetic makeup of human populations, social Darwinist arguments could thus be used to justify eugenics and “social hygiene” programs. Similar arguments explaining competition between, rather than within, societies and wedded to assumptions of western cultural and biological supremacy were used to justify imperialism and colonialism.
Despite its initial appeal, critiques of social Darwinism developed early. One line of criticism questioned its scientific basis and emphasized its non-Darwinian features. Social Darwinists, for example, tended to conflate individuals and species as the primary unit of analysis, overlooked Darwin’s insistence that adaptation could occur through cooperation as well as competition, and wrongly equated evolution with progress. Another line of criticism questioned the conclusions that social Darwinists drew from the “struggle for existence” in human society. Reform Darwinists like Henry George and Lester Ward insisted that the laws discovered through the social sciences, like the laws discovered through the physical sciences, allowed humans to shape rather than be mastered by their conditions. Because natural selection made no normative assumptions about the particular environment within which the process of adaptation occurred, Reform Darwinists argued that social and political institutions could restructure environments in ways that would facilitate human happiness.
The popularity of social Darwinism declined throughout the twentieth century as new conceptions of the scope and responsibilities of the state developed, and as knowledge of biology and culture increased. However, many see a revival of social Darwinist thought in the development of sociobiology since the mid-1970s.
- Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1979.
- Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Penguin, 1982.
- Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1992.
- Spencer, Herbert. The Man versus the State. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2003.
- Social Statics: Or,The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1969.
- Sumner,William Graham. What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2003.