The following article provides a summary of social Darwinism. Despite the fact that it is an often used and recognizable term, social Darwinism is nonetheless difficult to define. This difficulty arises because social Darwinism has little to do with Charles Darwin or his theory of evolution; rather, social Darwinists appropriated Darwin's ideas to justify social and political ends. Darwin's ideas were appropriated to justify competing ends, so that those lumped under the general label "social Darwinists" defended capitalism and socialism, cooperation and competition. Also, the term "social Darwinism" was applied by historians retrospectively, and some would argue, incorrectly. Within this framework, the article presents Darwin's theory of evolution, the work of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner (most often identified as the leading social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century), and the eugenics movement and Nazi Holocaust, which represent two extreme examples of the misuse of science for political gain. The article concludes by discussing how social Darwinism's abuse of science discouraged scholarship on the relationship between biology and human behavior.
Keywords Capitalism; Competition; Cooperation; Eugenics; Natural Selection; Survival of the Fittest
Social Darwinism is a widely recognized term, both within academia and without, and yet it is not easily defined. As Caudill writes, "For a concept that seems so familiar to so many… the meaning of the term 'Social Darwinism' is strangely elusive" (1997, p. 64). It is elusive for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it has almost nothing to do with Charles Darwin or his theory of natural selection. Secondly, it has been associated with a large variety of "schools of thought," some contradictory, so that in the end it has been difficult to develop a single, definitive definition. Finally, social Darwinism is a term that has been applied by historians retrospectively, to describe the ideas of philosophers and sociologists who themselves never identified as social Darwinists. And yet, despite its elusiveness, it was also one of the most influential movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Indeed, Ryan describes it as a "controversial and complex intellectual and cultural phenomenon that sent shock waves through Western, particularly American society, that still reverberate today" (1999, p. ix).
A logical place to begin an exploration of social Darwinism is with the name itself. As Stephen T. Asma explains, "it should be immediately noted that Social Darwinism…had almost nothing to do with Darwin but everything to do with Herbert Spencer" (1933, p. 10). What is known as social Darwinism, he argues, should really be referred to as "social Spencerism" (Asma, 19933, p. 11). But Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin's; other scholars like Douglas Allchin suggest the defining tenet of social Darwinism—the idea that humans are subject to the same natural laws of competition and individualism as other life forms—predated both Darwin and Spencer (2007). Similarities to Thomas Hobbes's view of man as inherently selfish, and Thomas R. Malthus's notion that limited resources breed competition, suggest to Allchin that social Darwinism should be called "Hobbism or Malthusianism" (2007, p. 114). In the United States, sociologist and Yale professor William Graham Sumner was the most visible defender of social Darwinism; described as Spencer's "American deputy," however, few historians have offered "Sumnerism" as a more appropriate name.
Yet, if Darwin, Spencer, and Sumner are the three central characters to social Darwinism, then it is important to understand the perspective from which each contributed to the dialogue. For Darwin and Spencer, especially, the study of evolution was of primary importance. Spencer, however, studied it as a philosopher, writing without an academic appointment of any kind, communicating his ideas largely through the popular press (Caudill, 1997). Darwin, on the other hand, studied evolution as a biologist, and he was widely accepted in the scientific community. Indeed, Spencer went to great (often unsuccessful) lengths to distinguish himself from Darwin and resented the notoriety Darwin received. At the same time, Darwin was wary of Spencer's extension of evolutionary principles to the realm of the sociological, and he found his writing unnecessarily obtuse (Asma, 1993; Caudill, 1997). If Darwin and Spencer were academics, then Sumner, albeit a professor, was a practitioner at heart. He continually looked for ways to put theory into practice, especially with regard to social policy on immigration, poverty, taxes, and education. In the end, however, Sumner's writings and policies—and to some degree Spencer's as well—contained very few traces of Darwin's ideas (Hodgson, 2004). As Tilman explains, Spencer and Sumner "made careers out of exploiting" the ideas of Darwin (2001, p. ix). Understanding how their ideas differ from one another is the first step in unraveling social Darwinism.
With the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin became the first to explain the mechanism by which evolution took place. This mechanism—or Darwin’s theory of natural selection—became the defining signature of his work. Specifically, Darwin argued that plants and animals, in all their variety, had evolved to their present form because of three principles: all organisms reproduce; each organism within a given species differs slightly from all others; and all organisms compete for survival (Degler, 1991). Darwin argued that those organisms that are best able to adapt to a changing environment would outbreed others; over time, adjustments to the environment might lead to the development of a new species altogether.
The idea of natural selection has often been compared to the process that a breeder of horses might follow, intentionally selecting those individual animals displaying the most desired traits for breeding. But natural selection differs in one significant respect. That is, the breeder exercises intention and purpose, whereas nature has no goal in mind at all. As Carl N. Degler explains, "the immense diversity of living organisms resulted, according to Darwin, not from a plan of purpose but from the accidents of history, from those changes in climate, weather, geology, and food supply, or the increase or decrease in the presence of enemies to which an animal or plant might be subjected" (1991, p. 6). Importantly, by discrediting the notion of purpose, Darwin also indirectly undermined the Old Testament story of God’s creation of the world.
Missing from Darwin's first publication was any mention of how natural selection applied to human beings (Degler, 1991). His second publication, The Descent of Man, (1871) however, was devoted entirely to establishing the connection between humans and other animals. As Degler (1991) writes, Darwin's intention—as evidenced in notebooks produced long before either publication— "was [always] to demonstrate the application of natural selection to human evolution" (p. 12). Does this alone, however, qualify Darwin as a social Darwinist? Most scholars, like Allchin (2007) respond with a resounding no. Others, however, see traces of “social Spencerism” in Darwin's writing (Caudill, 1997; Degler, 1991). "It is quite true that scattered throughout the Descent of Man are passages suggesting that Darwin believed the principle of survival of the fittest justified as well as explained the social hierarchy in human affairs. Darwin, in sum, was hardly free from the accoutrements of social Darwinism" (Degler, 1991, p. 11). If there were only traces of social Darwinism in Darwin's work, what form would his work have taken if social Darwinist tenets were more prominent?
The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer
Arguably, the most defining characteristic of social Darwinism is its extension of Darwinist principles into the social sciences. Importantly, however, such extensions were made less on the basis of any sound, empirical evidence and more as a way of justifying previously held social and political beliefs. Rick Tilman writes, "Charles Darwin's…The Origin of Species, although a treatise of enormous scientific value, was sufficiently ambiguous as to lend itself to various political and sociological interpretations" (2001, p. ix). Allchin argues the point more passionately. Social Darwinism, he writes, "defames science, especially Darwinian concepts, by portraying an ill-informed cultural interpretation of science as an extension of science itself" (2007, p. 115).
Although social Darwinists such as Spencer and Sumner have largely been discredited, it was precisely their appeal to science that gave them credibility and acceptance in the first place. Indeed, Spencer coined the term "survival of the fittest" to describe the process whereby those organisms best able to adapt to the environment outlive and outbreed others. Several years later, after the first publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin incorporated the phrase into his own work. Shared terminology such as this led...
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