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Social Darwinism

New Dictionary of the History of Ideas | 2005 | Dickens, Peter

COPYRIGHT 2005 The Gale Group, Inc.

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 (18091882), 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 (18201903) 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 (17441829), 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
(18591947) and Beatrice Webb (18581943), 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 (18401910)
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 (18221911) and his colleague
Karl Pearson (18571936). 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.
Marx on Evolutionism as a Social Construct
In a letter to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx argued that the theory outlined in The Origin of Species is a
construction of human society used to understand nature. "It is remarkable how Darwin recognises in
beasts and plants his English society with its 'inventions' and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence'"
(Dickens, 2000, p. 29). But Marx had a great deal of respect for Darwin. Despite using metaphor,
Darwin's theory referred to real, important processes. It needed incorporating into Marx and Engels's
understanding of human society. "Although developed in the crude English fashion, this is the book
which, in the field of natural history, provides the basis for our views."
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 (18581932), 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 (17701831), 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 (18021871)
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.
Karl Pearson on Inheriting of Mental Capacities
"We inherit our parents' tempers, our parents' conscientiousness, shyness and ability, even as we inherit
their stature, forearm and span" (quoted in Kevles, p. 32).
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
T. H. Huxley (18251895), 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
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
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. Jrgen 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?
Darwin and Wallace on Gender Differences
Darwin wrote that "the chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man's
attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up, than can womenwhether requiring deep
thought, reason, or imagination, merely the use of the senses of the hands" (quoted in Richards, p. 119).
Alfred Wallace (18231913), the codiscoverer of the theory of evolution, argued that if women were
freed from financial dependence on men, their mental potentials would soon become fully realized.
They would be "regenerators of the entire race" (quoted in Stack, p. 29).
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.
See also Eugenics ; Evolution .