- Social Darwinism refers to a set of theories and social practices that apply Darwin’s natural selection to other domains, notably the development of societies.
- There are two notable early theories of social Darwinism: Spencerism and Taylorism.
- Spencer aimed to explain the persistence of inequality by theorizing that humans adapt to their sociological circumstances.
- Coining the term “survival of the fittest,” Spencer believed that successful individuals (those who acquire wealth and status) pass their predisposition for success to their children. The cycle continues, and the most successful become more successful, while — in an “ideal” society — the least successful die off.
- Tylor, meanwhile, used social Darwinism to describe the development of societies on a meta scale. He believed that all humans shared a culture, and that societies advanced linearly. Cultural differences, in his view, are the result of some societies being less “advanced” than others.
- Social Darwinism has been heavily criticized and widely rejected by the scientific community for its lack of adherence to Darwinism, as well as in its use in justifying social inequality, imperialism, and eugenics. Nonetheless, social Darwinistic beliefs still persist in public conscience.
In This Article
What is Social Darwinism?
Social Darwinism is a set of theories and societal practices that apply Darwin’s biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics, and politics.
Darwin’s natural selection modeled the work of many thinkers in the late 19th century.
Many scientists during that period, as well as geographers, described themselves as Darwinian despite displaying the influence of a number of biological evolutionary theories, such as Lamarckism, which emphasized the linear progression of a species.
Sociocultural evolutionary theories developed in parallel to biological theories of evolution rather than emerging from them (Winlow, 2009).
Because social Darwinism conglomerates a large number of theories that often hold little-to-no resemblance to Darwinism, scholars question whether the label refers to an actual social movement or is merely one created by historians.
Over the course of the 20th century, Social Darwinism took up negative connotations as it became associated with racism, Nazism, and eugenics (Winlow, 2009).
Principles of Social Darwinism
Social Darwinist theories and the actions that used them as justifications share a few themes in common. These are:
The belief is that humans, like plants and animals, compete in a struggle for existence. The result is the “survival of the fittest;”
The belief that governments should not interfere with human competition by attempting to regulate the economy or cure social problems such as poverty;
Advocating for a laissez-faire political and economic system favoring competition and self-interest in social and business affairs; and,
A justification for the imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations.
Rather than arguing that the whole human species evolved over time socially, social Darwinism argues that only certain groups of people did.
Thus, some groups of people, in the view of social Darwinistic theories, are superior to others.
Forms of Social Darwinism
Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism
Spencerianism is the set of theories most commonly associated with social Darwinism, despite the fact that it was primarily influenced by Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian, evolution (Winlow, 2009).
Spencer published the book Social Statistics (2021), in which he integrated Lamarck’s ideas around a progressive change in species with laissez-faire economics and developed the metaphor of the social organism.
He used this synthesis of biological, psychological, and social evolution to describe the origin of racial difference, to account for deviations from Lamarck’s one-line sequence of development, and to explain the evolution of high-level brain functioning.
Spencer reasoned that humans adapt to changes in their physical environment through cultural rather than biological adaptation. In doing so, Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest,” which later became linked to Darwinism.
According to Spencer, those who are most successful at adapting to a changing cultural environment are those most likely to enjoy societal success in the form of status and resources.
These successful individuals pass on their culturally-adaptive advantages to their offspring. Because these people’s offspring enjoy the luxury of a more advantageous position in society, they are in an even better position to evolve further on the socioeconomic ladder.
Spencer argued that this process of cultural evolution was a process that could not be stopped (Delaney, 2009).
In his book (1851), Spencer concluded that the evolution of any human society is a matter of “survival of the fittest.” As evolutionary processes filter out the unfit, the outcome is a more advanced society.
According to Spencer, society exists solely for the benefit of the individual and emerges in response to the social and natural environment. Civilization is a process by which humans adjust to an increasingly complex social environment.
Because the results of interfering with the natural social order cannot be predicted, government intervention could distort the natural and necessary adaptation of society to its environment.
Thus, according to Spencer, governments should not intervene in social problems. Spencer criticized government attempts to regulate levies and opposed subsidies for education and housing.
Additionally, Spencer believed that businesses and institutions that could not adapt to the social environment were unfit for survival.
The government’s support of poorly functioning people, groups, organizations, and institutions allows weak institutions to endure, weakening society. Survival of the fittest, meanwhile, was a honing tool that societies could use to achieve perfection over time.
Spencer also opposed social welfare, believing it to lead to tyrannical and militant social order that entered with natural selection and degraded the species.
In a world without assistance for the poor, the least intelligent could die off, leading to rising levels of general intelligence.
Edward Burnett Tylor’s Cultural Evolutionary Theory
Edward Burnett Tylor’s cultural evolutionary theory also stressed that cultures develop linearly.
Tylor argued that the similarities between cultures in different areas of the world could be explained by independent invention; cultures were forced into developing in parallel ways because they needed to follow a hierarchy of cultural stages.
Edward Burnett Tylor’s so-called science of culture had three premises: the existence of one culture, its development through one progression, and humanity as united by one mind.
In Tylor’s view, all societies were essentially alike. Thus, according to Tylor, societies could be ranked by their different levels of cultural advancement, and less advanced societies provided hints as to what earlier human development looked like (Tremlett, Harvey, & Sutherland, 2017).
Tylor emphasized the earliest stage of “savagery.” The progression from savage to civilized, in Taylor’s view, did not occur evenly or at the same pace in every society; however, the distinct stages were always the same.
Tylor held that the progress of culture entailed a slow replacement of magical thinking with the power of reason. Savage societies, according to Tylor, had global supernaturalism.
This global supernaturalism remained in the barbaric stage with the development of language, laws, and institutions.
Finally, in advanced civilizations, such as Tylor’s own Victorian society, reason and scientific thinking predominate (Tremlett, Harvey, & Sutherland, 2017).
Controversies and Criticism
Evolutionary anthropology came under fire in its early days. The most notable early criticism of social Darwinism came from the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas.
Boas challenged Tylor’s notions that human culture was universal and that this explained the independent invention of different societal structures (Halliday, 1971).
Social Darwinism has also been commonly criticized for its misreading of the ideas first described in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
One element of this criticism regards the evolutionarily short time scales under which the societal changes seen in social Darwinism supposedly take place.
While evolutionarily change takes place over many, many generations, social Darwinism change supposedly happens over a much shorter time period.
Many have called social Darwinism a misnomer in that its two originating theorists — Spencer and Tylor — take more influence from discredited Lamarckian ideas of evolution than Darwinian ones.
In essence, Spencer and Tylor both assumed that sociocultural characteristics acquired over a lifetime could be passed onto offspring, while Darwinism believes that only genetic characteristics can (Halliday, 1971).
Social Darwinism lost favor after the Second World War and the subsequent crash of eugenicist regimes.
For this reason, the field carries the connotation of a justification for forced sterilization and a number of policies leading to the deaths and domination of many from groups determined to be “inferior.”
Examples of Implications
Eugenics is the theory and practice involving the belief that control of reproduction can improve human heredity.
Although the concept dates to at least the ancient Greeks, the modern eugenics movement arose in the 19th century when Galton (1883) applied his cousin Charles Darwin’s theories to humans.
Galton believed that, by being cognisant of more suitable human characteristics, the human race could progress more speedily in its development than it otherwise would have.
While some forms of eugenics promote breeding by those, who have “superior” genetic qualities, “negative” eugenics determines breeding by those with perceived physical, mental, or moral defects (Paul, 2001).
Eugenics, in practice, was largely influenced by the principles of Social Darwinism, particularly in justifications for sterilizing those who came from “inferior” social positions.
In Germany, the Nazi government passed a law that enforced compulsory sterilization from a wide range of ostensibly genetic conditions. This law was praised by a number of non-German commentators (Bock, 2013).
Social Darwinism was also used as a justification for imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, the British Empire, in particular, controlled large portions of the globe and exerted dominion over the conquered peoples of their territories.
In order to justify their control of colonial populations, Europeans had stated that the colonial population was subhuman, therefore needing to be controlled by the more intelligent Europeans.
The work of Charles Darwin and Henry Lamarck — and the sociocultural theorists such as Spencer and Tylor, who extrapolated upon it — became a scientific explanation for the dominance of Europeans.
This provided a moral and rational justification for continued dominion (Koch, 1984).
Social Darwinism has also played a large control in justifying various social inequalities from the 19th century to the present (Rudman & Saud, 2020).
Spencer (2021), for example, justified laissez-faire capitalism by arguing that the wealthy were biologically and socially superior to the lower class and that this superiority was heritable.
Some, such as Rudman and Saud (2020), have argued that certain modern social phenomena — such as justifications for police brutality and support for reducing social safety nets — are motivated by Social Darwinism.
In doing so, the researchers conducted two studies. In each of these studies, participants filled out a scale measuring the extent to which they believed that a person’s traits and abilities are ingrained in their race or economic status and the extent to which they can be changed.
Rudman Saud considered those who scored high on these scales to be high in essentialism.
In both studies, Rudman and Saud (2020) found that those who had beliefs aligning with social Darwinism were more likely to justify police brutality and support the reduction of social safety nets.
Bock, G. (2013). Antinatalism, maternity and paternity in National Socialist racism (pp. 122-152). Routledge.
Delaney, T. (2009). Social spencerism. Philosophy Now, 71, 20-21.
Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty and its development. Macmillan.
Halliday, R. J. (1971). Social Darwinism: a definition. Victorian Studies, 14(4), 389-405.
Koch, H. W. (1984). Social Darwinism as a Factor in the ‘New Imperialism’. In The Origins of the First World War (pp. 319-342). Palgrave, London.
Paul, D. B. (2003). Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, 214(10.1017).
Rudman, L. A., & Saud, L. H. (2020). Justifying social inequalities: The role of social Darwinism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(7), 1139-1155.
Spencer, H., & Taylor, M. (2021). Social statics. Routledge.
Tremlett, P. F., Harvey, G., & Sutherland, L. T. (Eds.). (2017). Edward Burnett Tylor, religion and culture. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Winlow, H. (2009). Darwinism (and Social Darwinism). International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.