Social Darwinism can be defined either strictly, with reference to theories of social and cultural change implied by the theory of natural selection developed by Darwin, or loosely, as that distinct family of historical theories that claim to be theories of social and cultural change logically entailed by Darwinian theory. Historical social Darwinism, which emerged in the late nineteenth century and continues in some forms today, exploited ambiguities in Darwinian concepts such as struggle and development in advancing social theories that defended ethnic, racial, class, and gender inequality as necessary aspects of a wider conflict from which a technically and morally advanced humanity would emerge. It mattered little to social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner that Darwin himself used the phrase "struggle for survival" metaphorically to describe all that organisms do in order to reproduce successfully. He utilized terms such as development and evolution in ways that resisted the imputation of progress or improvement. Nevertheless, in the United States, social Darwinist theories and an associated eugenics movement grew steadily in the deteriorating racial environment that characterized the final decades of the 1800s and the early 1900s.
The meaning of Darwin for social theory has been a matter of controversy from its earliest days, as can be seen in the debates between figures like Thomas Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Huxley argued that biology implied a Hobbesian, atomistic conception of individuals in society. Kropotkin posited to the contraryhe central implication of Darwinism was that sociality, trust, and mutual aid are the sustaining characteristics of humankind's behavioral repertoire. One can easily find in such controversy the echoes of previous lasting debates in Western political and social theory. Nonetheless, feeding off justifications for conquest that long predated Darwin, social Darwinists claimed to extend Darwin's theories into the realm of politics and society, as if such issues had been settled. In the early twenty-first century, however, no reputable school of evolutionary biology or psychology maintains that a theory of social Darwinism in the strict sense would endorse the conclusions of historical social Darwinism, especially its tendency to rationalize conflict and conquest. It is not too much to say as a historical matter that social Darwinism was neither Darwinist, nor particularly social. Its point was never to promote scientific discussion of the complex implications natural selection offers in providing resources for social and political thought. Instead, it has tended merely to use Darwinism as a rationale for existing forms of exploitation and their extension, especially but not exclusively in support of racism and genocide.
The list of atrocities defended on supposedly Darwinian grounds might fill several pages. Social Darwinist theories have been invoked in the United States in support of everything from laissez faire policies of tariff and trade to African slavery and genocide against the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. Richard Hofstadter has suggested that such rationalizations have been effective in the United States in part because of the fatalism and scientism they promote. By teaching children that other lifestyles are destined to vanish, atrocity is rendered palatable and elevated from obvious injustice to high historical tragedy. This scientization of history at the center of social Darwinism is most obvious in the eugenics movement, which was much more popular in the United States in the early 1900s than in Germany. A line connects interpreters of Spencer, like the sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909), with the rise of Anglo-Saxonism in the United States and the global eugenics movement. Nazi eugenics drew on an already well-established and well-rooted phenomena. But social Darwinism and similar theories have reportedly been used by apologists to defend genocidal Japanese actions in China, Italian actions in in Ethiopia, and Australian policies toward Native peoples.
SEE ALSO Eugenics; Racism
Friedlander, Henry (1997). The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1980). Ever since Darwin. New York: Penguin.
Hofstadter, Richard (1964). Social Darwinism in American Thought, revised edition. Boston: Beacon Press.
Singer, Peter (2000). A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.