Social Darwinism

Peter Dickens. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. 

Social Darwinism arose in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was an intellectual movement associated with the theory of evolution in general but was principally derived from the works of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), especially his Origin of Species (1859).

Five major questions are raised by the extension of Darwin’s theories to the human sphere.

  1. To what extent was Darwin’s theory simply a reflection of the thinking and prejudices of his day?
  2. What does “struggle” actually entail? And what exactly are these “human capacities”?
  3. What have been the continuing effects of this movement?
  4. What are the differences between the natural and social sciences and how do these disciplines relate to each other?
  5. How can Social Darwinism be developed?

Darwinism: A Product of Society?

Darwin argued that biological laws affect all living beings. Population growth takes place within limited resources. This leads to a struggle for survival, with particular physical and mental capacities conferring advantages to some individuals and not others. These traits are selected for, reproduced, and inherited, resulting in new species emerging and others being eliminated.

Darwinism and Social Darwinism need to be placed in context for two reasons. First, many of the ideas that are conventionally linked to Darwinism were well established before The Origin of Species (1859). Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was the dominant British philosopher of the late nineteenth century, and he, more than Darwin, made evolution the dominant discourse of that era. Similarly, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who explained variation and diversification of life as a product of acquired characteristics, was expounding his ideas in the early decades of the nineteenth century. His views greatly influenced Spencer, and they were developed by Darwin, especially in The Descent of Man (1871).

Second, Darwinism as a science was itself influenced by its social context, specifically by British industrial capitalism at the heart of a global empire. The struggle for survival in the context of limited resources, with some organisms or species surviving and others not, mirrored mid-nineteenth-century society back on to the nonhuman world.

However, the fact that Darwinism was a product of its era does not make it useless for understanding how species have evolved. This point was well made by Karl Marx in his correspondence with Friedrich Engels.

Meanwhile, influential propagators of Social Darwinism made highly controversial parallels between the species of the natural world and different groups of humans. Nonwhites, women, and the working class apparently did not have the requisite physical and mental capacities to thrive in the modern world.

Human Nature and the Struggle for Survival

There are three connected issues here. What is human nature? How fixed and transmissible is it? How does human nature relate to modern society?

Commentators imbue “human nature” with the qualities that best fit their philosophical and political predilections. Writing in the early twentieth century, for example, the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921) argued that all species are collectively oriented. The struggle for existence is actually composed of individuals collaborating. Indeed, the rise of capitalism had wrecked this essential human nature, a circumstance to be reversed by an anarchist society. In contrast, Fabian socialists, such as Sidney Webb (1859-1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), argued that people can easily be individualistic and competitive. They therefore envisaged a form of social engineering that would override these propensities. Individual actions “must sooner or later be checked by the whole, lest the whole perish through the error of its member” (cited in Hawkins, p. 165). Meanwhile, William Sumner (1840-1910) and others in the United States celebrated possessive individualism, arguing that “the progress of civilisation … depends on the selection process; and that depends upon the workings of unrestricted competition” (quoted in Hofstadter, p. 57).

Social Darwinism has relied heavily on the idea of “traits” or “characteristics” that are seen as determining whether an organism, a “race,” or even a nation survives and satisfactorily breeds. This issue is especially important when considering eugenics, the deliberate selection of people with particular traits and their discouragement from breeding through forms of social control. Darwin’s own writings, especially The Descent, express anxiety about biological decline stemming “the weak members of civilised society” not only propagating their kind but, as a result of medical and charitable intervention, leading to “the degeneration of a domestic race” (Darwin, 1901, p. 206).

The issue was to arise forcibly with Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911) and his colleague Karl Pearson (1857-1936). In Hereditary Genius, Galton studied family trees over a period of two hundred years and argued that a disproportionately large number of distinguished jurists, politicians, military commanders, scientists, poets, painters, and musicians were blood relatives. He concluded that it would be “quite practical to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations” (quoted in Kevles, p. 4). His young colleague Pearson attempted to measure mental capacities and claimed on a statistical basis, one appealing to scientific method, that these capacities were indeed passed on between generations.

But the influential Herbert Spencer envisaged “human nature” as flexible and transformed over time. “Primitive man” was immoral, irrational, mendacious, and aggressive. A number of groups (including children, women, inferior social ranks, and tribal cultures) remain arrested in a prehistoric state, although they could be civilized during their individual lives. Social evolution, Spencer argued, is generally progressive. It has consisted of a steady improvement of a primitive state of affairs. Individualism, morality, and voluntary association (qualities Spencer approved of) had developed in modern society, one in which people could start caring for one another.

The idea of inborn characteristics generating success has remained influential since the days of Galton and Pearson. It was made prominent in the late twentieth century with the suggestion by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that success in modern society depends on people’s inbuilt ability to handle information. In modern society the successful are those with advanced mental capacities. Meanwhile unsuccessful people with low intelligence are interbreeding to produce a rapidly increasing underclass. Society is again envisaged as “natural,” class structure being a product of inborn characteristics. Robert Plomin and others supporting the work of Herrnstein and Murray are searching for a genetic basis to intelligence.

The issue of a fixed, heritable, possibly genetically based human nature remains highly controversial. In contrast, there is a rapidly growing literature showing that early parenting and schooling are especially important in determining both mental and physical “fitness” (Dickens, 2004). Perhaps the most important defining “trait” of human beings is their flexibility, their capacity to adapt to many different circumstances.

As regards the relationship between human nature and modern society, a recurrent theme was established by Graham Wallas (1858-1932), another Fabian socialist. Writing in 1908, he asked, “Why should we expect a social organisation to endure, which has been formed in a moment of time by human beings, whose bodies and minds are the result of age-long selection under far different conditions?” (quoted in Hawkins, p. 64). The implication is that human nature was established during the earliest years of human evolution but is inappropriate for, or even destructive to, modern society.

This is a position developed later by “evolutionary psychology.” Again using the idea of a genetically based human nature, the suggestion is that humanity’s principle predispositions were established while the species evolved on the savannah. The modern mind remains a “neural computer,” one “driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments, such as food, sex, safety, parenthood, friendship, status and knowledge” (Pinker, p. 524). Male philandering, female coyness, and even aesthetic predispositions were genetically embedded in humanity during that era. These theories are also proving highly controversial (Rose and Rose).

Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and the Modern Era

Social Darwinism, and particularly its extension to eugenics, has had a continuing, often evil, impact on modern society. The Nazi Holocaust killed over 5 million Jews and sterilized at least 375,000 supposedly “inadequate” people. This was all in the name of a “science” of eugenics, one deeming Jews and others to be biologically inferior to the Aryan race. These programs were the horrific climax to an extreme eugenic movement that swept through much of the Western world during the first third of the twentieth century.

While Jews were the targets of eugenics in Europe, black people were made victims of this movement in the United States. Intelligence quotient (or IQ) tests purported to show that they were inherently inferior, a conclusion that greatly hindered the extension of educational opportunities beyond the white population. And it has become clear that in Sweden, a society often held up as a model of social democracy, thousands of misfits, deviants, gypsies, and others were sterilized as late as the 1960s. This was an attempt to make a pure, socially responsible breed of human being. Eugenics still finds echoes in the early twenty-first century. Yet eugenics has no serious credibility as a science. Not only are there no proven connections between innate biological characteristics and human behavior, but there is no such thing as a pure race—”Jewish,” “black,” “white,” or otherwise. Migration and inter-marriage have meant that biological characteristics have become fully combined.

Problems of Direction, Progress, and Teleology

Social Darwinism has often implied that evolution is developing in a linear and progressive way. Furthermore it may be fulfilling some long-term purpose. These themes have a long history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), writing in the early part of the nineteenth century, remains among the best-known advocates of the argument that history is marching toward a definite end, one in which human beings will finally recognize and fulfill themselves as human beings. A similar argument informed early evolutionary thought. In the mid-nineteenth century Robert Chambers (1802-1871) combined a notion of linearity and progress with one of teleology or underlying purpose. The fossil record shows, he argued, that invertebrates developed into fish, fish developed into reptiles, and the latter evolved into mammals. In due course the process culminated with “man.” Furthermore these developments signify “progress,” the transition from basic animals to humanity being seen as a generally beneficial development. Finally, Chambers argued that the advance toward humanity was the unfolding of a divine purpose. The law of progress was created by God.

Darwin resisted all three supposed tendencies. He saw evolution as open-ended and capable of diverging or branching in any number of directions. How, or whether, a species survives depends on the environment it encounters. Darwin certainly denied that it was directed toward some predetermined, God-given, goal. On the other hand, his understanding of “progress” was also colored by the dominant views of his day. Witness his assertion that the European white race represented a major advance over other “races” or that men are more capable of rational thought than women. Men, he argued, had developed this capacity when they had to hunt and protect their families in the earliest stages of evolution.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), Darwin’s contemporary and great publicist, offered a related analysis. He argued that women’s capacities excluded their full involvement in science. Their levels of intelligence rendered them largely unable to handle abstract ideas. Here again a supposed “science” is used to legitimate power relations. Social relations are envisaged as a product of nature, and nature is immutable.

As regards humanity as a whole, Darwin proposed a progressive model of evolution that conferred superiority on humans while remaining consistent with his general theory. In The Descent of Man he argued that humanity had separated itself from apes as a wholly unique way of adapting to life in the ancestral forests. Early human beings had adopted an upright posture in this kind of environment. Unlike the apes, who needed their hands for locomotion, early humans’ hands were freed up to hunt and make tools. This freeing up, Darwin argued, led to the development of advanced human intelligence and dominion over nature.

Nevertheless, the views of writers such as Chambers rather than Darwin were those that prevailed in the making of Social Darwinism, the idea of an open-ended, undirected form of evolution finding little or no support. Similarly, the idea of a linear progression toward some kind of ideal solution was especially influential in evolutionary anthropology.

Notions of “progress” and direction remain important in early-twenty-first-century social and political science, albeit in muted and perhaps less-teleological forms. There often remains, for example, an implicit suggestion that there is just one way in which societies can evolve. It is toward liberal democracy, with individual fulfillment being obtained via democracy and the market. Pursuing such an end remains, for some, a divinely inspired mission. Such arguments are controversial since they do not recognize that societies, their politics, and religions may also branch off in their own, perhaps unique directions.

Evolution and Society: Ways Forward

Social Darwinism therefore has a distinctly checkered history. A “science” that concludes that nonwhites, working-class people, and women are biologically unable to succeed is nowadays likely to encounter ridicule and outright hostility. Sociobiology, the forerunner of evolutionary psychology, has run into similar controversy. It suggested that genes and the reproduction of genes into future generations is the primary mechanism informing the behavior of humans and other animals. Sexuality and gender inequalities are largely governed by genes, and there is little that can be done to change inherited nature (Wilson).

But there remains much potential value in alternative forms of Social Darwinism. One important contemporary application of evolutionary thought to human society is to use evolution primarily as a metaphor or analogy. Jürgen Habermas, for example, envisages society as similar to a natural organism, one with highly differentiated parts, one that is self-maintaining and capable of selecting alternative strategies. This has echoes in the analogies between society and nature made by, for example, Herbert Spencer. But Habermas uses the organic metaphor not as a means of developing laws supposedly applying to both humans and nonhumans. Rather, evolution and biology are being used as heuristic devices. They are deployed as a means of understanding how contemporary society develops and changes.

Evolutionary analogies are used in other fields. “Evolutionary economics,” for example, treats the competition of firms as analogous to the struggle for survival in the nonhuman world. And a popular understanding of technological change also uses evolutionary analogies, some technologies succeeding over others in a competitive process.

Analogies and metaphors of this kind are helpful in developing new insights. But they do not address the main difficulties of early Social Darwinism. Two central questions remain. In what sense is society “natural”? How are the insights of the social and natural sciences to be combined?

A useful first step in developing a modern “Social Darwinism” would be to recognize different levels of generality. Evolutionary processes and tendencies operate at a general level and over immense periods of time. Biological evolution has left human beings with developmental tendencies and needs stemming from their remarkably long periods of infancy. But precisely how these tendencies and needs are realized crucially depends on the contingent circumstances that they encounter. Early parenting as well as experience at school and work deeply affect cognitive abilities and levels of health, and these are all highly variable over time and between different societies.

A rigorous dualism between “society” and “nature” was maintained by early Social Darwinism, women and nonwhites being allocated to the category of “nature,” for example, and European men being allocated to “culture.” This kind of dichotomy is full of dangerous implications but can be overcome if evolution and biology are envisaged as bequeathing potentials and tendencies that can be realized in different ways by the kinds of society encountered.

Social Darwinism attempted, often in crude, premature, and dangerous ways, to link insights from the social and natural sciences. But there remain exciting possibilities for developing new, more complex, nuanced, and transdisciplinary ways of linking the social and biological sciences. These are likely to throw important new light on the nature and well-being of humans as they interact with one another and their environment.