The term social Darwinism is used to refer to various ways of thinking and theories that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and tried to apply the evolutionary concept of natural selection to human society. The term itself emerged in the 1880s, and it gained widespread currency when used after 1944 by opponents of these ways of thinking. The majority of those who have been categorized as social Darwinists did not identify themselves by such a label.
Scholars debate the extent to which the various social Darwinist ideologies reflect Charles Darwin's own views on human social and economic issues. His writings have passages that can be interpreted as opposing aggressive individualism, while other passages appear to promote it. Some scholars argue that Darwin's view gradually changed and came to incorporate views from other theorists such as Herbert Spencer. Spencer published his Lamarckian evolutionary ideas about society before Darwin first published his hypothesis in 1859, and both Spencer and Darwin promoted their own conceptions of moral values. Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. An important proponent in Germany was Ernst Haeckel, who popularized Darwin's thought (and personal interpretation of it) and used it as well to contribute to a new creed, the monist movement.
The term Darwinism was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in his March 1861 review of On the Origin of Species, and by the 1870s it was used to describe a range of concepts of evolution or development, without any specific commitment to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.
The first use of the phrase "social Darwinism" was in Joseph Fisher's 1877 article on The History of Landholding in Ireland which was published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. Fisher was commenting on how a system for borrowing livestock which had been called "tenure" had led to the false impression that the early Irish had already evolved or developed land tenure;
These arrangements did not in any way affect that which we understand by the word " tenure", that is, a man's farm, but they related solely to cattle, which we consider a chattel. It has appeared necessary to devote some space to this subject, inasmuch as that usually acute writer 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, and believe further study will show that the Cain Saerrath and the Cain Aigillue relate solely to what we now call chattels, and did not in any way affect what we now call the freehold, the possession of the land.-- Fisher 1877.
Despite the fact that Social Darwinism bears Charles Darwin's name, it is also linked today with others, notably Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics. In fact, Spencer was not described as a social Darwinist until the 1930s, long after his death. The social Darwinism term first appeared in Europe in 1880, the journalist Emilie Gautier had coined the term with reference to a health conference in Berlin 1877. Around 1900 it was used by sociologists, some being opposed to the concept. The term was popularized in the United States in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstadter who used it in the ideological war effort against fascism to denote a reactionary creed which promoted competitive strife, racism and chauvinism. Hofstadter later also recognized (what he saw as) the influence of Darwinist and other evolutionary ideas upon those with collectivist views, enough to devise a term for the phenomenon, "Darwinist collectivism". Before Hofstadter's work the use of the term "social Darwinism" in English academic journals was quite rare. In fact,
... there is considerable evidence that the entire concept of "social Darwinism" as we know it today was virtually invented by Richard Hofstadter. Eric Foner, in an introduction to a then-new edition of Hofstadter's book published in the early 1990s, declines to go quite that far. "Hofstadter did not invent the term Social Darwinism", Foner writes, "which originated in Europe in the 1860s and crossed the Atlantic in the early twentieth century. But before he wrote, it was used only on rare occasions; he made it a standard shorthand for a complex of late-nineteenth-century ideas, a familiar part of the lexicon of social thought."-- Jeff Riggenbach
Social Darwinism has many definitions, and some of them are incompatible with each other. As such, social Darwinism has been criticized for being an inconsistent philosophy, which does not lead to any clear political conclusions. For example, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics states:
Part of the difficulty in establishing sensible and consistent usage is that commitment to the biology of natural selection and to 'survival of the fittest' entailed nothing uniform either for sociological method or for political doctrine. A 'social Darwinist' could just as well be a defender of laissez-faire as a defender of state socialism, just as much an imperialist as a domestic eugenist.
The term "Social Darwinism" has rarely been used by advocates of the supposed ideologies or ideas; instead it has almost always been used pejoratively by its opponents. The term draws upon the common use of the term Darwinism, which has been used to describe a range of evolutionary views, but in the late 19th century was applied more specifically to natural selection as first advanced by Charles Darwin to explain speciation in populations of organisms. The process includes competition between individuals for limited resources, popularly but inaccurately described by the phrase "survival of the fittest", a term coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer.
Creationists have often maintained that Social Darwinism--leading to policies designed to reward the most competitive--is a logical consequence of "Darwinism" (the theory of natural selection in biology). Biologists and historians have stated that this is a fallacy of appeal to nature and should not be taken to imply that this phenomenon ought to be used as a moral guide in human society. While there are historical links between the popularization of Darwin's theory and forms of social Darwinism, social Darwinism is not a necessary consequence of the principles of biological evolution.
While the term has been applied to the claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection can be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, Social Darwinism commonly refers to ideas that predate Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species. Others whose ideas are given the label include the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who founded eugenics towards the end of the 19th century.
The expansion of the British Empire fitted in with the broader notion of social Darwinism used from the 1870s onwards to account for the remarkable and universal phenomenon of "the Anglo-Saxon overflowing his boundaries", as phrased by the late-Victorian sociologist Benjamin Kidd in Social Evolution, published in 1894. The concept also proved useful to justify what was seen by some as the inevitable extermination of "the weaker races who disappear before the stronger" not so much "through the effects of ... our vices upon them" as "what may be called the virtues of our civilisation."
Herbert Spencer's ideas, like those of evolutionary progressivism, stemmed from his reading of Thomas Malthus, and his later theories were influenced by those of Darwin. However, Spencer's major work, Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857), was released two years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and First Principles was printed in 1860.
In The Social Organism (1860), Spencer compares society to a living organism and argues that, just as biological organisms evolve through natural selection, society evolves and increases in complexity through analogous processes.
Jeff Riggenbach argues that Spencer's view was that culture and education made a sort of Lamarckism possible and notes that Herbert Spencer was a proponent of private charity. However, the legacy of his social Darwinism was less than charitable.
Spencer's work also served to renew interest in the work of Malthus. While Malthus's work does not itself qualify as social Darwinism, his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, was incredibly popular and widely read by social Darwinists. In that book, for example, the author argued that as an increasing population would normally outgrow its food supply, this would result in the starvation of the weakest and a Malthusian catastrophe.
According to Michael Ruse, Darwin read Malthus' famous Essay on a Principle of Population in 1838, four years after Malthus' death. Malthus himself anticipated the social Darwinists in suggesting that charity could exacerbate social problems.
Another of these social interpretations of Darwin's biological views, later known as eugenics, was put forth by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, in 1865 and 1869. Galton argued that just as physical traits were clearly inherited among generations of people, the same could be said for mental qualities (genius and talent). Galton argued that social morals needed to change so that heredity was a conscious decision in order to avoid both the over-breeding by less fit members of society and the under-breeding of the more fit ones.
In Galton's view, social institutions such as welfare and insane asylums were allowing inferior humans to survive and reproduce at levels faster than the more "superior" humans in respectable society, and if corrections were not soon taken, society would be awash with "inferiors". Darwin read his cousin's work with interest, and devoted sections of Descent of Man to discussion of Galton's theories. Neither Galton nor Darwin, though, advocated any eugenic policies restricting reproduction, due to their Whiggish distrust of government.
Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy addressed the question of artificial selection, yet Nietzsche's principles did not concur with Darwinian theories of natural selection. Nietzsche's point of view on sickness and health, in particular, opposed him to the concept of biological adaptation as forged by Spencer's "fitness". Nietzsche criticized Haeckel, Spencer, and Darwin, sometimes under the same banner by maintaining that in specific cases, sickness was necessary and even helpful. Thus, he wrote:
Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it. Something similar also happens in the individual. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one-eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race.
Ernst Haeckel's recapitulation theory was not Darwinism, but rather attempted to combine the ideas of Goethe, Lamarck and Darwin. It was adopted by emerging social sciences to support the concept that non-European societies were "primitive" in an early stage of development towards the European ideal, but since then it has been heavily refuted on many fronts Haeckel's works led to the formation of the Monist League in 1904 with many prominent citizens among its members, including the Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald.
The simpler aspects of social Darwinism followed the earlier Malthusian ideas that humans, especially males, require competition in their lives in order to survive in the future. Further, the poor should have to provide for themselves and not be given any aid. However, amidst this climate, most social Darwinists of the early twentieth century actually supported better working conditions and salaries. Such measures would grant the poor a better chance to provide for themselves yet still distinguish those who are capable of succeeding from those who are poor out of laziness, weakness, or inferiority.
"Social Darwinism" was first described by Oscar Schmidt of the University of Strasbourg, reporting at a scientific and medical conference held in Munich in 1877. He noted how socialists, although opponents of Darwin's theory, used it to add force to their political arguments. Schmidt's essay first appeared in English in Popular Science in March 1879. There followed an anarchist tract published in Paris in 1880 entitled "Le darwinisme social" by Émile Gautier. However, the use of the term was very rare--at least in the English-speaking world (Hodgson, 2004)--until the American historian Richard Hofstadter published his influential Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) during World War II.
Hypotheses of social evolution and cultural evolution were common in Europe. The Enlightenment thinkers who preceded Darwin, such as Hegel, often argued that societies progressed through stages of increasing development. Earlier thinkers also emphasized conflict as an inherent feature of social life. Thomas Hobbes's 17th century portrayal of the state of nature seems analogous to the competition for natural resources described by Darwin. Social Darwinism is distinct from other theories of social change because of the way it draws Darwin's distinctive ideas from the field of biology into social studies.
Darwin, unlike Hobbes, believed that this struggle for natural resources allowed individuals with certain physical and mental traits to succeed more frequently than others, and that these traits accumulated in the population over time, which under certain conditions could lead to the descendants being so different that they would be defined as a new species.
However, Darwin felt that "social instincts" such as "sympathy" and "moral sentiments" also evolved through natural selection, and that these resulted in the strengthening of societies in which they occurred, so much so that he wrote about it in Descent of Man:
The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable--namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.
Spencer proved to be a popular figure in the 1880s primarily because his application of evolution to areas of human endeavor promoted an optimistic view of the future as inevitably becoming better. In the United States, writers and thinkers of the gilded age such as Edward L. Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, and others developed theories of social evolution as a result of their exposure to the works of Darwin and Spencer.
In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled "What Social Classes Owe to Each Other", in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin's findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification. According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival. This pamphlet makes no mention of Darwinism, and only refers to Darwin in a statement on the meaning of liberty, that "There never has been any man, from the primitive barbarian up to a Humboldt or a Darwin, who could do as he had a mind to."
Sumner never fully embraced Darwinian ideas, and some contemporary historians do not believe that Sumner ever actually believed in social Darwinism. The great majority of American businessmen rejected the anti-philanthropic implications of the theory. Instead they gave millions to build schools, colleges, hospitals, art institutes, parks and many other institutions. Andrew Carnegie, who admired Spencer, was the leading philanthropist in the world (1890-1920), and a major leader against imperialism and warfare.
H. G. Wells was heavily influenced by Darwinist thoughts, and novelist Jack London wrote stories of survival that incorporated his views on social Darwinism.Film director Stanley Kubrick has been described as having held social Darwinist opinions.
Social Darwinism has influenced political, public health and social movements in Japan since the late 19th and early 20th century. Social Darwinism was originally brought to Japan through the works of Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel as well as United States, British and French Lamarkian eugenic written studies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eugenism as a science was hotly debated at the beginning of the 20th century, in Jinsei-Der Mensch, the first eugenics journal in the empire. As Japan sought to close ranks with the west, this practice was adopted wholesale along with colonialism and its justifications.
Social Darwinism was formally introduced to China through the translation by Yan Fu of Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, in the course of an extensive series of translations of influential Western thought. Yan's translation strongly impacted Chinese scholars because he added national elements not found in the original. He understood Spencer's sociology as "not merely analytical and descriptive, but prescriptive as well", and saw Spencer building on Darwin, whom Yan summarized thus:
By the 1920s, social Darwinism found expression in the promotion of eugenics by the Chinese sociologist Pan Guangdan. When Chiang Kai-shek started the New Life movement in 1934, he
Social evolution theories in Germany gained large popularity in the 1860s and had a strong antiestablishment connotation first. Social Darwinism allowed to counter the connection of Thron und Altar, the intertwined establishment of clergy and nobility and provided as well the idea of progressive change and evolution of society as a whole. Ernst Haeckel propagated both Darwinism as a part of natural history and as a suitable base for a modern Weltanschauung, a world view based on scientific reasoning in his Monistenbund. Friedrich von Hellwald had a strong role in popularizing it in Austria. Darwin's work served as a catalyst to popularize evolutionary thinking. Darwin himself called Haeckels connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection a foolish idea prevailing in Germany.
A sort of aristocratic turn, the use of the struggle for life as base of social darwinism sensu stricto came up after 1900 with Alexander Tilles 1895 work Entwicklungsethik (ethics of evolution) which asked to move from Darwin till Nietzsche. Further interpretations moved to ideologies propagating a racist and radical elbow society and provided ground for the later radical versions of social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism is often cited as an ideological justification for much of 18th/19th century European enslavement and colonization of Third World countries; it has often even found its way into the intellectual foundations of public education in neo-colonized countries.
What if the orbit of Darwinism should be a little too circular?
Like many foes of Darwinism, past and present, the American populist and creationist William Jennings Bryan thought a straight line ran from Darwin's theory ('a dogma of darkness and death') to beliefs that it is right for the strong to crowd out the weak
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Eventually, the Biogenetic Law had become scientifically untenable.
Darwinism is the scientific establishment of inequality
Social Darwinism, as almost everyone knows, is a Bad Thing.