Social Darwinism is one of those concepts that everyone knows what it is but few can define. I myself have sometimes reflexively used the concept without fully knowing the history of the term or its use as a political theory. In this series it is my goal to raise some questions about the usefulness of social Darwinism and the way it has been applied. This is a history that is full of contradictions (as history often is) and I encourage people to both challenge and offer suggestions as I develop these ideas.
It is first important to point out that Darwin rarely wrote about socioeconomic matters. There is a widespread myth that Darwin wrote a letter to Karl Marx thanking him for sending a copy of Das Kapital. The reality is that a letter from Darwin to Edward Aveling (a biology lecturer who was in a long term relationship with Marx’s daughter Eleanor) was accidentally mixed in with a box of Marx’s correspondence that was in Eleanor’s care. However, the few times Darwin did write about social or economic matters shows that his theory was strictly confined to the natural world. For example, in 1869 the German economist Hugo Thiel sent him an article on the economic applications of natural selection. In response Darwin wrote:
You will readily believe how much interested I am in observing that you apply to moral and social questions analogous views to those which I have used in regard to the modification of species. It did not occur to me formerly that my views could be extended to such widely different, and most important subjects.
Right wing propagandists who are opposed to evolution often try to blame Darwin for the policies later known as social Darwinism. However, these views were primarily associated with the English sociologist Herbert Spencer. In his 1851 bestseller Social Statics, Spencer developed most of the ideas attributed to social Darwinism when he argued that the poor should not be helped through government programs, but should be allowed to die for the betterment of society:
It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence–the same beneficence that brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic. . .
Blind to the fact that, under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation–absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family. And thus, in their eagerness to prevent the really salutary sufferings that surround us, these sigh-wise and groan-foolish people bequeath to posterity a continually increasing curse.
Considering that these views were written eight years prior to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it would be more appropriate to refer to this kind of brutal, uncaring sociology as social Spencerism rather than anything connected with Darwin himself. Likewise, the widespread association of social Darwinist ideas with racism are based on a misattribution of Darwin’s work to different categories of human being. The subtitle to Origin of Species, “Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” was speaking about pigeons, not people. Darwin himself, as Adrian Desmond and James Moore have documented in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, shared some of the cultural racism of his day but was largely motivated to develop his theory of common descent for the human species based on “his abhorrence of racial servitude and brutality” (p. xvii).
So what then is social Darwinism? The standard Western definition of social Darwinism is of a political theory that emphasizes struggle and competition, and claims that human racial stock improves by allowing ruthless and unrestrained competition in the economic realm. In 1944 Richard Hofstadter wrote his highly influential Social Darwinism in American Thought. He emphasized that the theory arose from “those who wished to defend the political status quo, above all the laissez-faire conservatives” (p. 5). According to Hofstadter, social Darwinism had two key attributes. First, that the catchphrases “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” when applied to human life meant that “the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement.” Second, society should be viewed as an organism and, therefore, could change “only at the glacial pace at which new species are produced in nature” (pp. 6-7). From this basis of laissez-faire capitalism and a conservative rate of social change he then went on to briefly mention eugenics and imperialism as components of this social Darwinian theory.
In 1971 R.J. Halliday built on Hofstadter’s foundation and set out to fully define social Darwinism in his paper in Victorian Studies. Halliday argued that:
Social Darwinism as a political theory and a philosophy of man [is] primarily concerned with the degeneration of the genetic purity of a population and hence with the practical consequences of the breeding of the unfit.
According to Halliday’s definition, rather than being a doctrine of individualism, social Darwinism was primarily a theory of populations in which laissez-faire capitalism was considered the perfect environment for promoting the most “fit” members of society. Socialism, and collectivism more generally, was shunned by social Darwinists because it allowed the unfit to survive and reproduce as the result of welfare programs, therefore reducing the fitness of the population as a whole. Because the State was far from the libertarian ideal and advocates of reform were always a threat, “socialism was to be resisted and finally dismantled by means of eugenic population control.” Likewise, the social Darwinist was apt to “justify Imperialism as an indispensable aid to the selection of races [or] as an alternative to domestic reforms.”
Therefore, according to Hofstadter and Halliday, social Darwinism has four key criteria: a competitive laissez-faire ethic, conservative approach to social change, eugenic social policy and imperial vision. Hofstadter argued that this theory developed at a specific time period as the Industrial Revolution influenced social policy:
Theirs is a kind of naturalistic Calvinism in which man’s relation to nature is as hard and demanding as man’s relation to God under the Calvinist system. This secular piety found its practical expression in an economic ethic that seemed to be demanded with special urgency by a growing industrial society which was calling up all the labor and capital it could muster to put to work on its vast unexploited resources (p. 10).
Since Hofstadter first published this work its impact has been far ranging. There have been more than 4,000 articles or reviews mentioning social Darwinism and the term has been applied to figures as far removed in geography and ideology as Herbert Spencer, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Adolf Hitler.
But that’s where the problems begin to rise. Herbert Spencer was a fervent laissez-faire capitalist who argued that all government programs for the poor should be abolished (even public education) because that would simply help the “unfit” reproduce. He also advocated a glacial rate of social change because that’s how he believed nature operated. However, Spencer never advocated eugenics and he was fiercely opposed to imperialism. His political philosophy would probably be closest today to that of right-wing libertarians such as Ron Paul.
Compare that to Theodore Roosevelt who is one of the United States’ greatest advocates for imperialism. He championed the US invasions of Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century when the Spanish empire was unable to maintain its colonial presence. In his book The Strenuous Life Roosevelt argued that only through war could a nation be made great:
In this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities.
However, at the same time, Roosevelt is widely known for his “trust busting” that sought to reign in the business monopolies that were allowed to form because of capitalism without sufficient regulation.
If both Spencer and Roosevelt were social Darwinists it means they contradicted one another on two of the fundamental tenets of the theory. This raises significant questions about how useful social Darwinism is to explain their ideas (and these are two figures that Hofstadter referenced most frequently in his book). Of course, it also goes without saying that the American humorist who wrote Huckleberry Finn has little or no connection to the Nazi Dictator who wrote Mein Kampf. This glaring problem with the history of social Darwinism has been identified by numerous scholars and, in future posts on this topic, I will seek to synthesize the main points of criticism that researchers have identified that raise doubts about how the theory has been used.
R.J. Halliday (1971). “Social Darwinism: A Definition,” Victorian Studies 14(4):389-405.
David H. Burton, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Social Darwinism and Views on
Imperialism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 26(1):103-118.
Sherwood Cummings, “Mark Twain’s Social Darwinism,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 20(2):163-175.