The Primate Diaries

Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part II

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

   English sociologist Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” in 1852.
As I pointed out in Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part I scholars have begun to seriously challenge the usefulness of the term as a political theory. For example, Gregory Claeys calls the political framework of social Darwinism “a misnomer,” Paul Crook states that the ground on which it rests is “decidedly shaky,” Robert Bannister calls it a “myth,” Donald C. Bellomy refers to it as “heavily polemical, reserved for ideas with which a writer disagreed,” Thomas C. Leonard calls it “a red herring,” and Antonello La Vergata dismisses the validity of the term entirely and insists that historians should “stop using in their explanations a term that itself needs explaining.”

The objections to social Darwinism as a coherent political theory are varied but fall into three main categories:

  • 1) The term is a misnomer since the central concepts of what came to be called social Darwinism were already in place prior to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species.
  • 2) Social Darwinism has no core theoretical framework and is a mere amalgamation of largely unconnected ideas.
  • 3) Social Darwinism lacks historical documentation concerning those deemed to be proponents of the theory itself.

To take each point in turn, one of the most common objections by scholars to the use of social Darwinism is that they view it as a misattribution of Darwin’s science to ideas that already existed and, hence, should not be labeled “Darwinian.” Those scholars who have written histories of social Darwinism typically adopt the standard methodology of using specific terms such as “survival of the fittest” or “struggle for existence” that were central to Darwin’s science. Any historical figures that used these buzz words, the argument goes, must have been inspired by Darwin’s work for their political views. This was the methodology that Hofstadter utilized in Social Darwinism in American Thought. Other scholars have expanded this by incorporating additional terms such as “natural selection,” “adaptation,” and “variation” to the list.

However, as mentioned in Part I, a problem with this approach is that the core philosophy of laissez-faire social Darwinism was already present in Herbert Spencer’s (1851) Social Statics eight years before Darwin’s Origin was published. Likewise, the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Spencer in 1852 and wasn’t incorporated into Darwin’s Origin until the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species in 1869. The term “struggle for existence” appeared even earlier, in Thomas Malthus’ immensely influential (1798) Essay on the Principle of Population, a work that inspired both Spencer and Darwin equally. Spencer didn’t use this specific terminology until after it appeared in Darwin’s Origin, but he had employed Malthus’ reasoning of overpopulation and intragroup competition as early as 1852.

The fact that the terms used to define social Darwinism already existed prior to the theory itself casts doubt on the methodology employed and may have lead to falsely attributing the theory beyond it’s actual use in the historical literature. To quote Gregory Claeys in his paper “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism:

“Social Darwinism,” insofar as it focuses centrally on the idea of the “survival of the fittest,” is to a significant degree a misnomer. Much of what we associate with the concept had been in formation for over half a century by the time the Origin of Species appeared in 1859. . . Darwin’s discoveries occasioned no revolution in social theory, but instead involved remapping, with the assistance of a theory of the biological inheritance of character traits, a preexisting structure of ideas based largely, though not exclusively, upon a Malthusian and economic metaphor of the “struggle for existence.”

An additional objection concerning social Darwinism as a misnomer is that, while Spencer often championed Darwin’s evolutionism, he rejected the mechanism of natural selection that formed the basis of Darwinian biology. Instead, Spencer embraced the key tenets of the earlier Lamarckian system such as use-inheritance, or “soft heredity,” a biologically driven hierarchy, and the belief that evolution was inherently progressive.

Spencer’s rejection of Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection was most blatant following the famous 1892 experiment by August Weismann. This simple (and somewhat cruel) experiment tested Lamarck’s hypothesis of use-inheritance, the idea that offspring would inherit the acquired characteristics from their parents. Weismann cut off the tails of a group of mice and continued to cut off the tails of their offspring over many generations to see if, according to Lamarck’s logic, their tails would be shorter in the offspring of short-tailed mice. When they weren’t Weismann concluded that the Lamarckian theory was flawed.

According to historian Peter J. Bowler in his book Evolution: The History of an Idea:

Weismann’s experiment had a valid point, because Lamarckism must rest on a theory of soft heredity. His test proved that heredity is hard: mice deprived of their tails still carried the complete germ plasm for this characteristic. . .

To those naturalists who had decided–generally for other than experimental reasons–that use-inheritance must have a role in evolution, Weismann’s theory symbolized the increasing dogmatism of neo-Darwinism. . . Herbert Spencer, who always had insisted on a role for Lamarckism, now felt it necessary to challenge Weismann and proclaim his separation from the Darwinian camp (pp. 238-9).

What all of this suggests, quite obviously, is that “social Darwinism” had very little Darwinism in it. What is more likely to have occurred is that, because Darwin was the most famous naturalist of the nineteenth century, any ideas that were associated with evolution (whether based on his theory or not) were lumped together and labeled “Darwinian.” However, as the second and third categorical objections will emphasize, the entire label itself may have very little explanatory power.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4


ResearchBlogging.orgBowler, P. (1984). Evolution: The History of an Idea, Berkeley: University of California Press

Claeys, G. (2000). The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism Journal of the History of Ideas, 61 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3654026


  1. #1 david
    January 8, 2010

    Glad to see this being going over. Seems little known. An earlier work is Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, difficult reading but you can get names, dates, concepts easily enough, William Graham Sumner, Lester Ward, John Fiske.

    Julian Huxley et al tried and did a great deal to separate the science from the sociological theories. He’s rather out of date now isn’t he?

    I have often thought that one problem we have is that so few, scientists included, have actually read the Origin. If they have read it they know a very great deal about pigeons, for one thing, and as your article points out “survival of the fittest” as a phrase is nowhere in the Origin until its fifth edition, after much discussion with Huxley, Lyell, et al. Plainly stated, scientists are not above talking about things they know very little about without admitting it, and thus some join the sea of hypocrisy. But, we knew that.

    I have a little book here from Cornell that says there are 153,733 words in the Origin, first edition. That’s less than many novels, yet it sits there unread, but talked about.

  2. #2 CPRyan
    January 8, 2010

    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Malthus yet.

    As I’m sure you know, both Darwin and Wallace were reading Malthus’ still-famous essay on population when the central mechanism of natural selection came to them. Your quote from Spencer seems to me far more Malthusian than Darwinian.

    Like those of Malthus, Spencer’s ideas have prospered (to the extent they have) not because of their coherence, but because of their usefulness to the powers that were. Malthus helped the English forgive themselves for the horrors of London in 1800 (providing justification for opposition to the Poor Laws, for example), just as Spencer offered psychological cover to those who might otherwise be repulsed by the horrors of nascent industrialism.

    We often assume the power of ideas lies in their accuracy, when history seems to show that their appeal to the powerful is often more important in their spread.

  3. #3 Michael
    January 9, 2010

    “Social Darwinism” is a despicable philosophy that has little to do with Darwin and his theory. I find it very ironic that those who try to discredit Darwin by linking him to it are the very ones who come closest to putting into practice. Today’s “laissez-faire” conservatives is the religious right-infused Republican Party and its ceaseless work to deny universal healthcare is our 21st century brand of Social Darwinism.

  4. #4 yogi-one
    January 11, 2010

    I get that “Social Darwinism” is just a popular label for human behaviors based on competition against other humans for survival, power, money, mates, etc.

    There may be social psychologists or other commentators that have helped make the term mainstream, but clearly there is no tradition of hard scientists testing a hypothesis called ‘Social Darwinism’ rigorously using the scientific method.

    Along those lines, labeling an individual as a “Social Darwinist” is pretty much just a way of expressing an opinion that someone is selfish and cutthroat, having little or no empathy or compassion for others whom they may harm in their quest for power, money, mates, etc.

    The term is out there, and many people use it. So I think the best way to handle the situation is to be clear that “Social Darwinism” is popular construct, but it is not a scientific term that describes the work of Darwin.

    You can try to assign those attributes to groups of people, such as political parties, corporations, or subcultures, by using the label, but that has nothing to do with actual Darwinian science, nor does it indicate that the group being labeled knows anything about Darwin or accepts his theory.

    On other words, certain fundamentalist Christian groups, corporations, or political parties are not closet Darwinists because their group can be labeled with the traits associated with Social Darwinism.

  5. #5 Christopher Dennis
    January 13, 2010

    I don’t understand how the historical conception or use of “Social Darwinism” in any way affects the truth or validity of those ideas.

    I suffer from intellectual hubris.

    When, or where, or how, Darwin came up with the theory of evolution has no bearing on the truth of evolution.

    I am not a “Darwinist.” That I defend evolution does not mean that I should have to defend Darwin, himself.

    And as false as “Social Darwinism” is, that falsity had nothing to do with when, or where, or by whom, that concept was developed.

    But I still have to read part three!

  6. #6 dave souza
    January 15, 2010

    Nice set of articles, very informative. A little marred by the statement that “the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Spencer in 1852″, as we’ve discussed in comments on your “Darwiniana: Notes on Evolutionary History” post, Spencer did not coin the term until 1864, though he had outlined ideas of selection in his 1852 article. Hope that can be checked and corrected.

    The term “Social Darwinism” is itself of interest, the earliest use is apparently in Joseph Fisher’s 1877 book “The History of Landholding in Ireland”. Fisher discusses how “tenure” in early Ireland was of cattle, not fixed property, and argues that “Sir Henry Maine has accepted the word ‘tenure’ in its modern interpretation, and has built up a theory under which the Irish chief ‘developed’ into a feudal baron. I can find nothing in the Brehon laws to warrant this theory of social Darwinism”. Even in this early use the statement is dismissive or pejorative, but Fisher seems to be using it to mean social evolution. That ties in with the common use at that time of “Darwinism” to refer to all sorts of evolutionary theory, and suggests that the two words “social” and “Darwinism” were simply being used together, not being put together as a phrase to describe a social theory or view. What are your views on use of the phrase before Hofstadter?