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Social Darwinism is a pejorative term used in criticism of ideologies or ideas concerning their exploitation of concepts in biology and social sciences to artificially create political change that reduces the fertility of certain individuals, races, and subcultures having certain "undesired" qualities. It has very rarely been used as a self description.[1]

The term first appeared in Europe in 1877[2] and was popularized in the United States in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstadter. Before Hofstadter's work the use of the term in English academic journals was quite rare.[3] 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.[4][5]

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 known as "survival of the fittest", a term coined by anthropologist 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.


Theories and origins

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.[6]

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.[7]

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 commented on the effects of this, while cautioning that hard reason should not override sympathy, and considering 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[8].

Social Darwinists

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.

Although Spencer's writings were never described as 'social Darwinist' in his lifetime, some authors desribe 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.[9]

In many ways Spencer's theory of cosmic evolution has much more in common with the works of Lamarck and Auguste Comte's positivism than with Darwin's.

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, so 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 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, as government coercion of any form was very much against their political opinions.

Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy addressed the question of artificial selection, but it was built against Darwinian theories of natural selection. His point of view on sickness and health, in particular, opposed him to the concept of biological adaptation, forged by Spencer's "fitness". He criticized Haeckel, Spencer, and Darwin, sometimes under the same banner. Nietzsche thought that, in specific cases, sickness was necessary and even helpful.[10] 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.[11]

The publication of Ernst Haeckel's best-selling Welträtsel ('Riddle of the Universe') in 1899 brought social Darwinism and earlier ideas of racial hygiene to a wider audience, and its recapitulation theory (since heavily refuted on many fronts [12] ) became famous. This 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.[citation needed]

The simpler aspects of social Darwinism followed the earlier Malthusian ideas that humans, especially males, need competition in their lives in order to survive in the future, and that the poor should have to provide for themselves and not be given any aid, although most social Darwinists of the early twentieth century supported better working conditions and salaries, thus giving the poor a better chance to provide for themselves and distinguishing those who are capable of succeeding from those who are poor out of laziness, weakness, or inferiority.

Darwinism and hypotheses of social change

"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 March 1879.[13] 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 are 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's unique discussion of evolution considered the supernatural in human development. Unlike Hobbes, he 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."[14]

After the 1906 election, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill began to reform society according to the Rowntree Report. The report detailed poor people from York and explained that although they tried hard to lift themselves out of their poverty, it was nearly always impossible. This contributed to changing the prevalent social view that the poor were lazy and stupid, and new policies were made concerning the 'Deserving Poor'. These social reforms earned the Liberal Party the title 'Fathers of the Welfare State' and were largely due to the implementation of Social Darwinist philosophies.

United States

Spencer proved to be a popular figure in the 1870s primarily because his application of evolution to all 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 all developed theories of social evolution as a result of their exposure to the works of Darwin and Spencer.

Sumner never fully embraced Darwinian ideas, and some contemporary historians do not believe that Sumner ever actually believed in social Darwinism.[15] 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.[16]

H. G. Wells was heavily influenced by Darwinist thoughts, and novelist Jack London wrote stories of survival that incorporated his views on social Darwinism.[17]


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[18], eugenism as a science, was hotly debated at the beginning of the 20th, in Jinsei-Der Mensh, 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.[19]


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 tireless promotion of eugenics by the Chinese sociologist Pan Guangdan.

Criticisms and controversies

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. John Halliday & Iain McLean state that

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.

Some pre-twentieth century doctrines subsequently described as social Darwinism appear to anticipate eugenics and the race doctrines of Nazism. Critics have frequently linked evolution, Charles Darwin and social Darwinism with racialism, 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.[20][21]

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 Alles Leben ist Kampf (English translation: All Life is Struggle). Hitler often refused to intervene in the promotion of officers and staff members, preferring instead to have them fight amongst themselves to force the "stronger" person to prevail - "strength" referring to those social forces void of virtue or principle.[22]

The argument that Nazi ideology was strongly influenced by social Darwinist ideas is often found in historical and social science literature.[23] For example, the Jewish philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt analysed the historical development from a politically indifferent scientific Darwinism via social Darwinist ethics to racist ideology.[24] However, in the last years the argument has been radicalised and increasingly been taken up by opponents of evolutionary theory. The creationist ministry Answers in Genesis is especially known for some of these claims.[25][26] Intelligent design 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 is a senior fellow for the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute.[21]

It is also a main argument in the 2008 movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. These claims are widely criticized within the academic community.[27][28][29][30][31][32] 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."[20]

Weickart himself writes in his book "From Darwin to Hitler": "The multivalence of Darwinism and eugenics ideology, especially when applied to ethical, political, and social thought, together with the multiple roots of Nazi ideology, should make us suspicious of monocausal arguments about the origins of the Nazi worldview".

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."[30]

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 progressive causes including feminism, pacifism, human rights, and early gay liberation movements.[33]

Similarly, capitalist economics, especially laissez-faire economics, is attacked by some socialists by equating it to social Darwinism because it is premised on the idea of natural scarcity, and because it is often interpreted to involve a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity. However, while many industrialists supported social Darwinism during the gilded age, later notable advocates of laissez-faire rejected it.

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."

Social Darwinist theory itself does not necessarily engender a political position: some social Darwinists would argue for the inevitability of progress, while others emphasize the potential for the degeneration of humanity, and some even attempt to enroll social Darwinism in a reformist politics.[citation needed] Rather, social Darwinism is an eclectic set of closely interrelated social theories—much in the way that existentialism is not one philosophy but a set of closely interrelated philosophical principles.

Some economic critics of social Darwinism point to David Ricardo's comparative advantage and claim that weaker members of society are valuable even if the stronger members are better at doing everything. However, social Darwinism does not necessarily assert the latter.[citation needed] Comparative advantage relies on the idea that trade and cooperation are more important than pure competitiveness, which might inhibit trade by erecting protective barriers.

See also


  1. ^ Hodgson 2004, pp. 428–430
  2. ^ Fisher, Joseph (1877). "The History of Landholding in Ireland". Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (London) V: 250. , quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary
  3. ^ Hodgson, 2004
  4. ^ Bannister, 1979; Hodgson, 2004
  5. ^ Hodgson 2004, pp. 428–430
  6. ^ Hodgson
  7. ^ Desmond & Moore 1991, p. 598
  8. ^ Darwin 1882, p. 134
  9. ^ Spencer, Herbert. 1860. 'The Social Organism', originally published in The Westminster Review. Reprinted in Spencer's (1892) Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative. London and New York.
  10. ^ Barbara Stiegler, Nietzsche et la biologie, PUF, 2001, p.90. ISBN 2-13-050742-5. See, for ex., Genealogy of Morals, III, 13 here
  11. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, §224 here
  12. ^ Scott F Gilbert (2006). "Ernst Haeckel and the Biogenetic Law". Developmental Biology, 8th edition. Sinauer Associates. Retrieved 2008-05-03. "Eventually, the Biogenetic Law had become scientifically untenable." 
  13. ^ Schmidt, Oscar; J. Fitzgerald (translator) (March 1879). "Science and Socialism". Popular Science Monthly (New York) 14: 577–591. ISSN 0161-7370. "Darwinism is the scientific establishment of inequality". 
  14. ^ Descent of Man, chapter 4 ISBN 1-57392-176-9
  15. ^ "A careful reading of the theories of Sumner and Spencer exonerates them from the century-old charge of social Darwinism in the strict sense of the word. They did not themselves advocate the application of Darwin's theory of natural selection." The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology
  16. ^ "At least a part--and sometimes a generous part" of the great fortunes went back to the community through many kinds of philanthropic endeavor, says Robert H. Bremner, American Philanthropy (1988) p. 86 online at
  17. ^ "Borrowing from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, social Darwinists believed that societies, as do organisms evolve over time. Nature then determined that the strong survive and the weak perish. In Jack London's case, he thought that certain favored races were destined for survival, mainly those that could preserve themselves while supplanting others, as in the case of the White race." The philosophy of Jack London
  18. ^ Eugenics in Japan: some ironies of modernity, 1883-1945 by Otsubo S, Bartholomew JR. Sci Context. 1998 Autumn-Winter;11(3-4):545-65.
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b "Hitler & Eugenics". Expelled Exposed. National Center for Science Education. National Center for Science Education. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  21. ^ a b "Senior Fellow Richard Weikart responds to Sander Gliboff". Center for Science and Culture. October 10, 2004. Retrieved 2008-05-17. 
  22. ^ cf. 1997 BBC documentary: "The Nazis: A Warning from History" [1]
  23. ^ E.g. Weingart, P., J. Kroll, and K. Bayertz, Rasse, Blut, und Gene. Geschichte der Eugenik und Rassenhygiene in Deutschland (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988).
  24. ^ Arendt, H.: Elements of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York 1951. pp. 178-179
  25. ^ Nazis planned to exterminate Christianity
  26. ^ The Holocaust and evolution
  27. ^ "Richard Weikart. From Darwin to Hitler". American Historical Review. Volume 110, Issue 2, Page 566–567, April 2005. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  28. ^ "Richard Weikart: From Darwin to Hitler". Isis. Volume 96, Issue 4, Page 669–671, December 2005. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  29. ^ "Review: Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler". H-German. September, 2004. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  30. ^ a b "Review: Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler". H-Ideas. June, 2005. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  31. ^ "Book Review of From Darwin to Hitler". The Journal of Modern History. (March 2006): 255–257. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  32. ^ "Creationists for Genocide". Talk Reason. 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  33. ^ Weikart, Richard (2002). ""Evolutionäre Aufklärung"? Zur Geschichte des Monistenbundes". Wissenschaft, Politik und Öffentlichkeit: von der Wiener Moderne bis zur Gegenwart. Wien: WUV-Universitätsverlag. pp. 131–48. ISBN 3-85114-664-6. 

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Simple English

Social Darwinism is a term used for different movements. Charles Darwin was one of the main discoverers of evolution. Evolution is a concept from biology that tries to explain how different life-forms change over time. It basically says that because most children are not exactly like their parents, there is change. Some of the children will have features (or traits). These features will mean that some children are better adapted to the place where they live. They will therefore be better able to have offspring. Some of the offspring might also have the trait of their parents.

Social Darwinism theories try to use these ideas from biology for human society. They talk about a Struggle for survival of human societies. During the era of Nazi ideologies, the idea of Survival of the fittest combined with racism. Since the Aryan race was better than all the other races, it needed more space to live. This space was to be provided in the east (where mostly Slavs lived). Today, this is seen as badly named. Most of the ideas for the theories are from Lamarckism and not from the theory of evolution, proposed by Charles Darwin.

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