Social Darwinism is the theory that human beings have a natural tendency to compete and that the strong will overcome the weak. The name comes from its association with Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) biological theories of evolution and natural selection. Like many social theories that attempt to explain human behavior, Social Darwinism can best be seen on a continuum; that is, the application of the ideas in actual practice range between extremes, some well-intentioned and others discriminatory. Generally, the label of “Social Darwinism” is not a positive one, though there have been some prominent defenders and the principles still present themselves in contemporary socioeconomic theory.
It is misleading to reduce all of the ideas that were advanced by Charles Darwin to a single theory of “Darwinism.” Through the biological study of humans and other animals, he drew several conclusions, including that organisms in the world are constantly evolving, have descended from common ancestry, and abide by a natural selection process that considers genetically inherited traits and adaptation to the environment. It is equally misleading to presume that Social Darwinism is a deliberate extension of his theories. Social Darwinism was not developed by Darwin himself, but represents the social attitudes of many people from his time, especially the decades following the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. The common aspect between Darwin’s work and Social Darwinism is natural selection.
The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (18201903) in the years before Darwin’s fame developed a theory of social evolution whereby the best form of society is one where individualism prevails. Spencer, not Darwin, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he applied this concept to human beings and societies, not just to particular plant and animal species. For humans to prevail in nature, the society must be as strong as it can be; this leaves no room for weak members. If this theory is descriptive, it observes that this is the state of nature and attempts to explain what happens on its own. Spencer, however, used the theory prescriptively; that is, he endorsed the application of eliminating the weakest links as a theory of ethics. What is morally right, in this view, is what advances the species as a whole. Society is strengthened when composed of the strongest individuals. Those too weak to fend for themselves, those who suffer from illness or disability, even those who find themselves in disadvantaged social circumstances such as poverty would best serve humankind if left behind. Spencer extended this principle to a liberalist political view that valued the rights of individuals over government power. He was influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who proposed that environmentally inspired human traits were transferred from parents to children during their own lifetimes through the theory he called the “inheritance of acquired traits.”
Most noted for his support of social contract theory, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) similarly emphasized the importance of the individual. For Hobbes, human beings are naturally self-interested. Every action and decision is based upon what will ultimately serve the best interests of the individual. Society is a collection of individuals who agree to give up some of their personal rights and liberties in order to benefit all individuals within the group. In agreeing to abide by social laws, each citizen agrees to a “contract.” In addition, Hobbes proposed that without government, humans would compete against one another in a brutal “state of nature” not unlike the struggle Social Darwinists claim to be natural. Hobbes was rebuffed by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who asserted that good and bad behavior are both attributable to one’s civilization, an emphasis of nurture over nature that would present itself again over the next centuries. Spencer nevertheless recognized the self-interested human nature that Hobbes observed but placed it in evolutionary terms. The most effective contract would be with oneself and representative of those interests to the point of disregarding the weaker members of society. Spencer believed that this is the way of nature: that the strong will survive through competition and by disregarding, rather than helping, the weak.
Like Hobbes, the English mathematician, minister, and economic theorist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) believed that individual restraint could serve to benefit society. He saw this less through social contract, however, than through individual commitment to avoiding vice, such as excessive reproduction (he advocated abstinence). The betterment of the world’s human population could only arrive by limiting its growth. In fact, Malthus predicted that overpopulation would lead to increased demands for resources that society would be unable to produce. A shortage of food, in particular, would result, he claimed, as the population needs outgrew the supply, and the weakest members of society would die of starvation. To avoid famine, civilization would regress to subsistence level with an emphasis on agriculture— producing just enough food to survive—in what has come to be known as a “Malthusian catastrophe.” There is a balance that must be maintained in nature. The evolutionary cycle of society offers a means of controlling human excess and weakness of will.
The theories of Hobbes and Malthus are considered the predecessors to Social Darwinism. They influenced both Darwin and Spencer; Darwin himself accredited Malthus with inspiring On the Origin of Species. Successors have endorsed similar philosophies in more of a social application than Darwin’s biological account of human evolution. The American entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) hosted Spencer in a visit to the United States and implemented the ideas of Social Darwinism into his extensive philanthropic projects (by the time of his death, he had donated over $350 million). While Carnegie was not above providing financial assistance to others—in fact, he believed that those with wealth had an obligation to support their societies—he was selective in choosing the recipients. In his 1900 book, The Gospel of Wealth, he expressed the Social Darwinist idea that money should be used for cultural enrichment rather than charitable handouts to the poor. Most of his public projects provided services for the intellectual growth of individuals, such as libraries, music halls, and institutions of higher education. He insisted on local accountability and maintenance of these projects, and his approach would be recognized today as a merit-based, rather than entitlement, system. The individual was responsible for his or her education. Carnegie encouraged access to tools for growth, but only those with the desire to improve their own lives would truly benefit.
This same principle—that individuals should be responsible for their own welfare and accomplishments—is associated with the laissez-faire political theory, where the government intrudes as little possible and leaves individuals to their own resources. This concept is applied in economics, social policy, and ethics; any behavior is acceptable until it infringes on the rights or welfare of others. Economically, the motivation is to inspire accountability, and this is the driving force behind capitalism. Critics complain that Social Darwinism can lead, however, to economic exploitation and class divisions. The wealthy become wealthier by profiting from the work of the labor force. Because the working poor need money, they work menial, sometimes dangerous jobs, for excessive hours and with substandard benefits. Strong individuals achieve further success, while those who are weak remain in the working class. Social Darwinism claims this is not a bad thing, that unfavorable finances are motivation for self-empowerment, and that those who do not rise above disadvantage do not deserve to enjoy the benefits of the higher classes.
Because labor distinctions are often drawn along ethnic lines—with minority populations working low-wage jobs—there is potential for discrimination that follows racial lines. The National Socialist Party that rose in Germany before World War II began with the hope for a unified Germany and economic prosperity for workers amidst industrial and technological change. A poor economy, however, was blamed on minorities and foreigners, particularly Jewish immigrants who did not share German ancestry. In a vivid display of Social Darwinism taken to an extreme, the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) sought to improve German society by first ejecting, then eliminating, what were considered to be inferior races. The Jewish people were considered so weak, so low among the classes of humans, as to be no more valuable than animals. Social Darwinism here provided justification for seizing property, imprisoning without cause, using humans involuntarily as test subjects in gruesome mutilations and medical experiments, and ultimately exterminating approximately 6 million human beings. This was done with the intention of weeding out the weak, the members of society considered an obstacle to the progress of German culture and the master human race that was destined to rule the world.
Racist ideas were not uncommon to American thought in the late 19th century, with intellectuals such as John Fiske (1842-1901) and Darwin himself publicly endorsing racial supremacy. Fiske said that the domination of British and American Caucasians over the rest of the world, be it civilized or what was understood as “barbaric” at that time, attested to the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. Darwin believed that women were inferior to men and that Blacks (or African Americans) were among the least evolutionarily developed human beings. Social Darwinists frequently referenced this assertion when defending the application of their theory to justify racism, including later Nazi efforts to advance the perfect race and Jim Crow laws that endorsed discrimination through segregation in the southern United States through the 1960s, 100 years following the official end to slavery in this country.
Racial purification is only one possible end of eugenics, the term Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), gave to the concept of improving human society through reproductive controls. Galton was a pioneer in studies on hereditary traits, researching genetic patterns in traits such as fingerprints. Eugenics is from the Greek word eugenav, which means “wellborn.” In its least controversial forms, this could mean choosing partners for procreation who have particular desirable traits, such as strength, health, and intelligence. It becomes more questionable when individuals and then groups of people are categorically denied the right to reproduce, such as through the sterilization of mental patients. Social Darwinism, in seeking to eliminate the weaker members from the gene pool, justifies denying these individuals the right to reproduce. A healthy society would be free of disease. If certain diseases, temperaments, and even work ethic and productivity habits are determined to be heritable traits, then denying these traits from being passed on to future generations would be toward the improvement of the society as a whole. If the weak are destined to be eliminated through natural selection regardless, then actions toward this end are neither contrary to nature nor outside of the right of stronger individuals to impose. The evolutionary account of human development places people within the animal kingdom biologically. Humans are not outside of nature. People are agents who can act and make decisions according to their own will, but anything we do is within the bounds of nature, regardless. Social Darwinism sees eugenics as simply hastening the inevitable natural selection process.
Biology and Culture
Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary because they radically altered the way most sciences proceeded from that point forward. They also were taken as an affront to many who were religious, because human evolution seems to conflict with creationism, the belief that humans were designed by the intelligent being recognized as God. Many critics reduced Darwinism to a theory that failed to distinguish humans from apes. In fact, his main claim was that animals, including humans, had evolved, based upon the biological evidence he had collected through fossils.
Social Darwinism looked to biological features as an explanation for social behavior. If it was natural for only the best-suited traits to be passed on to off-spring—or even for one species of plant or animal to eliminate another—then it was also natural for the best-adapted humans to survive, thrive, and dominate the weaker members, who were naturally destined to die off. Inheritable traits were determined to be the cause of physical conditions, good and bad, through the theory that is called “genetic determinism.” Developmental theories were inspired, some more legitimate than others. Phrenology mistakenly attempted to identify criminal behavior according to the shape of the human head. Psychology justly looked to neural connections in the brain to explain emotional and affective states.
Anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) reemphasized the cultural component of social research, however, encouraging science not to disregard the historical aspects of the human experience individuals and societies cannot be explained purely in terms of biological features or evolution. Rather, Boas and successors noted the extent to which individuals are affected by their environment, and society by the actions of the individuals. Boas’s approach advocated the abandonment of one’s own bias when studying other cultures. In this regard, it is the opposite of the Social Darwinist trend of emphasizing the qualitative differences between individuals and groups of people. The idea of not relying solely on genetics and, rather, recognizing the dynamic influence of culture was shared by the 20th-century behaviorist psychological movement, which observed the ways in which one’s society could profoundly affect, or condition, individual patterns of response.
The 1950s work of James D. Watson (1928-) and Francis Crick (1916-2004) again swung the scientific emphasis back toward Darwin’s biological foundations with their proposal for the double-helix structure of DNA and their studies of the genetic code. Certain human traits, after all, can to an astonishingly intricate degree be attributed to genetic inheritance. With the understanding of genetic structure on the molecular level, medical science now can take a new direction in the path of eugenics: therapeutically altering gene structure to prevent and treat genetic diseases. Where rabid Social Darwinists endorsed a “live and let die” approach to human ailments and frailty, natural biology now has the tools to combat genetic flaws, not just for future generations, but within the individual. Somatic gene therapy in this way treats only the cells recognized as being dysfunctional. Gametic or germline therapy corrects only the hereditary components, thus preventing the particular dysfunction from being spread through reproduction. Opponents claim that gene therapy, particularly gametic therapy, reeks of the ruthless social cleansing practices enacted by early Social Darwinists and proponents of eugenics. There is the threat of a slippery slope, that allowing some forms of genetic manipulation, even with the best of intentions for helping to treat patients who currently suffer from disease, is only steps away from the trail blazed by Nazi scientists and others. Social Darwinism becomes complicated here, with two possible applications to contemporary genetics. If it is natural for society to move toward constant improvement through survival of the best-adapted traits, then perhaps somatic gene therapy is wasteful in the same way that Social Darwinists claimed we should exert neither money nor energy on weak or inferior individuals. To be consistent with this thought, most medical treatment would be equally wasteful, since essentially it gives artificial assistance to people nature is not inclined to favor. At the same time, however, genetic manipulation, particularly gametic, works toward improving overall society by eliminating undesirable traits. Carriers of an affliction would reserve the right to reproduce, but the offending condition would not be passed on to future individuals. An extreme Social Darwinist view might claim nonetheless that disease carriers—treatable or not—do not serve the best interests of future humanity.
- Carnegie, A. (1962). The gospel of wealth and other timely essays. (E. C. Kirkland, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. (Original work published 1900)
- Darwin, C. (1964). On the origin of species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1859)
- Darwin, C. (1997). The descent of man (2nd ed.). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1871)
- Dawkins, R. (1990). The selfish gene (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Degler, C. N. (1992). In search of human nature: The decline and revival of Darwinism in American social thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hofstadter, R. (1944). Social Darwinism in American thought. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Kevles, D. J. (1995). In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Spencer, H. (1967). The evolution of society: Selections from Herbert Spencer’s principles of sociology (R. L. Carneiro, Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.