Social Darwinism

Zero-sum thinking

Social Darwinism is an ideology of society that seeks to apply biological concepts of Darwinism or of evolutionary theory to sociology and politics, often with the assumption that conflict between groups in society leads to social progress as superior groups outcompete inferior ones.

It is a modern name given to the various theories of society that emerged in England and the United States in the 1870s, which, it is alleged, sought to apply biological concepts to sociology and politics. The term social Darwinism gained widespread currency when used in 1944 to oppose these earlier concepts.

Today, because of the negative connotations of the theory of social Darwinism, especially after the atrocities of the Holocaust, few people would describe themselves as Social Darwinists and the term is generally seen as pejorative. Social Darwinism is generally understood to use the concepts of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves. Many such views stress competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism; but the ideology has also motivated ideas of eugenics, scientific racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism, and struggle between national or racial groups.

Opponents of evolution theory have often maintained that social Darwinism is a logical entailment of a belief in evolutionary theory, while biologists and historians maintain that it is rather a perversion of Charles Darwin’s ideas. While most scholars recognize historical links between Darwin’s theory and forms of social Darwinism, they also maintain that social Darwinism is not a necessary consequence of the principles of biological evolution and that using biological evolution as a justification for policies of inequality amounts to committing the naturalistic fallacy (assuming what is natural is inherently good or right).

The term first appeared in Europe in 1877, and around this time it was used by sociologists 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 nationalism. Hofstadter later 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 in English academic journals was quite rare.  In fact, according to libertarian journalist Jeff Riggenbach: ‘…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.”

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. 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 term ‘Darwinism’ had been coined by English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in his 1860 review of ‘On the Origin of Species,’ and by the 1870s it was used to describe a range of concepts of evolutionism or development, without any specific commitment to Charles Darwin’s own theory. 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.’

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. Darwin himself gave serious consideration to Galton’s work, but considered the ideas of ‘hereditary improvement’ impractical. Aware of weaknesses in his own family, Darwin was sure that families would naturally refuse such selection and wreck the scheme. He thought that even if compulsory registration was the only way to improve the human race, this illiberal idea would be unacceptable, and it would be better to publicize the ‘principle of inheritance’ and let people decide for themselves.

In ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ of 1882 Darwin described how medical advances meant that the weaker were able to survive and have families, and as he commented on the effects of this, he cautioned that hard reason should not override sympathy and considered how other factors might reduce the effect: ‘Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. … We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.’

English biologist Herbert Spencer’s ideas, like those of evolutionary progressivism, stemmed from his reading of British political economist 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 three years before the publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ and ‘First Principles’ was printed in 1860. Although Spencer’s writings were never described as ‘social Darwinist’ in his lifetime, some authors describe him as such. 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. In many ways, Spencer’s theory of cosmic evolution has much more in common with the works of Lamarck and Auguste Comte’s positivism (‘all true knowledge is scientific’) than with Darwin’s.

A writer from the Von Mises Institute proposes that Spencer’s view was that culture and education made a sort of Lamarckism (the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring) possible, and notes that Herbert Spencer was a proponent of private charity. 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 British philosopher of science 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 such as those that would be undertaken in the early 20th century, for government coercion of any form was very much against their political opinions.

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.’

The publication of German Biologist Ernst Haeckel’s best-selling ‘Riddle of the Universe’ in 1899 brought social Darwinism and earlier ideas of racial hygiene to a wider audience. His recapitulation theory (‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’) 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. By 1909, it had a membership of some six thousand people.

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, nonetheless used it to add force to their political arguments. Schmidt’s essay first appeared in English in ‘Popular Science’ in 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 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 he 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.

Social Darwinism has influenced political, public health and social movements in Japan since the late 19th and early 20th century. Originally brought to Japan through the works of Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckel and German orthodox mendelian, United States, British and French Lamarkian eugenical 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 the Japanese 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 translations by Yan Fu of Huxley, in the course of an extensive series of translations of influential Western thought. By the 1920s, it found expression in the promotion of eugenics by the Chinese sociologist Pan Guangdan.

As social Darwinism has many definitions, it is hard for some to be either for or against it; some of the definitions oppose the others. As ‘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.’ Therefore, Fascist and National Socialist ideology subscribed to a different form of social Darwinism than the laissez-faire version because they were not advocates for an individualist order of society, rather they advocated racial and national struggle where the state planned and controlled human breeding through science and eugenics—a program that no proponent of laissez-faire could consistently endorse. Darwinist Collectivism or Reform Darwinism, rather than the individualist form of Darwinism, are more accurate terms for these ideologies.

Some pre-twentieth century doctrines subsequently described as social Darwinism appear to anticipate state imposed eugenics and the race doctrines of Nazism. Critics have frequently linked evolution, Charles Darwin, and social Darwinism with racialism, nationalism, imperialism and eugenics, contending that social Darwinism became one of the pillars of fascism and Nazi ideology, and that the consequences of the application of policies of ‘survival of the fittest’ by Nazi Germany eventually created a very strong backlash against the theory. During the age of New Imperialism (uring the 19th and early 20th centuries), the concepts of evolution justified the exploitation of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ by ‘superior races.’ To elitists, strong nations were composed of white people who were successful at expanding their empires, and as such, these strong nations would survive in the struggle for dominance. With this attitude, Europeans, except for Christian missionaries, seldom adopted the customs and languages of local people under their empires.

Russian zoologist Peter Kropotkin argued in his 1902 book ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’ that Darwin did not define the fittest as the strongest, or most clever, but recognized that the fittest could be those who cooperated with each other. In many animal societies, struggle is replaced by cooperation: ‘It may be that at the outset Darwin himself was not fully aware of the generality of the factor which he first invoked for explaining one series only of facts relative to the accumulation of individual variations in incipient species. But he foresaw that the term [evolution] which he was introducing into science would lose its philosophical and its only true meaning if it were to be used in its narrow sense only—that of a struggle between separate individuals for the sheer means of existence. And at the very beginning of his memorable work he insisted upon the term being taken in its ‘large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny.’

Kroptkin continues, ‘While he himself was chiefly using the term in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In ‘The Descent of Man’ he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.’ The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.’ Noam Chomsky discussed briefly Kropotkin’s views in a 2011 YouTube video from ‘Renegade Economist,’ in which he said Kropotkin argued: ‘…the exact opposite [of Social Darwinism]. He argued that on Darwinian grounds, you would expect cooperation and mutual aid to develop leading towards community, workers’ control and so on. Well, you know, he didn’t prove his point. It’s at least as well argued as Herbert Spencer is…’

Nazi Germany’s justification for its aggression was regularly promoted in Nazi propaganda films depicting scenes such as beetles fighting in a lab setting to demonstrate the principles of ‘survival of the fittest’ as depicted in ‘All Life is Struggle.’ Hitler often refused to intervene in the promotion of officers and staff members, preferring instead to have them fight among themselves to force the ‘stronger’ person to prevail – ‘strength’ referring to those social forces void of virtue or principle. The argument that Nazi ideology was strongly influenced by social Darwinist ideas is often found in historical and social science literature. For example, the Jewish philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt analyzed the historical development from a politically indifferent scientific Darwinism via social Darwinist ethics to racist ideology.

By 1985, the argument has been taken up by opponents of evolutionary theory. Such claims have been presented by creationists such as Jonathan Sarfati. Intelligent design creationism supporters have promoted this position as well. For example, it is a theme in the work of Richard Weikart, who is a historian at California State University, Stanislaus, and a senior fellow for the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute. It is also a main argument in the 2008 intelligent-design/creationist movie ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.’ These claims are widely criticized within the academic community. The Anti-Defamation League has rejected such attempts to link Darwin’s ideas with Nazi atrocities, and has stated that ‘Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.’ Similar criticisms are sometimes applied (or misapplied) to other political or scientific theories that resemble social Darwinism, for example criticisms leveled at evolutionary psychology. For example, a critical reviewer of Weikart’s book writes that ‘(h)is historicization of the moral framework of evolutionary theory poses key issues for those in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, not to mention bioethicists, who have recycled many of the suppositions that Weikart has traced’

Another example is recent scholarship that portrays Ernst Haeckel’s Monist League as a mystical progenitor of the Völkisch movement and, ultimately, of the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler. Scholars opposed to this interpretation, however, have pointed out that the Monists were freethinkers who opposed all forms of mysticism, and that their organizations were immediately banned following the Nazi takeover in 1933 because of their association with a wide variety of causes including feminism, pacifism, human rights, and early gay rights movements.

Ludwig von Mises argued in his book ‘Human Action’ that social Darwinism contradicts the principles of liberalism, however this conclusion was based on the definition of social Darwinism as ‘that individuals or groups achieve advantage over others as the result of genetic or biological superiority.’ He addresses this definition of social Darwinism by stating ‘Darwinism does not in any way invalidate the liberal creed; on the contrary, the traits conducive to social cooperation (rather than the allegedly ‘natural’ instincts of aggression) are precisely those that maximize one’s offspring in the current environment. Far from being unnatural, reason is the foremost biological mark of homo sapiens.’

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