Social Darwinism, often attributed to Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), is body of thought which claims that human social groups evolve according to Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution—in short, society is the outcome of Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.”
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; …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.¹
For some, Social Darwinism has an upside. Critics of heavy-handed government intervention believe that, if left alone in a free enterprise system, society will flourish. This is often called the laissez-faire attitude. As an ideology, laissez-faire has deep roots not just in Europe but also in the United States and in (Confucian) China.
However, the idea of social darwinism arguably has a dark element which is lacking in mere laissez-faire. And the idea of social darwinism has been criticized from several angles. Detractors say that social darwinism
- assumes the validity of Darwinian theory
- grafts ideas about biological organisms, animals and the physical environment onto human beings and the social environment
- ignores theological ideas about providence, intervention, revelation, infused knowledge, blessings, grace and intercession
- may be used by elitist, supremacist, racist or brutish groups to try to rationalize unjust or even tyrannical social conditions and practices
As we see in the above image, Darwin himself did not escape a fair amount of criticism in his day. His own views about social darwinism are somewhat ambiguous. Apparently he at times seems against, other times in support of the idea.
Scholars debate the extent to which the various social Darwinist ideologies reflect Charles Darwin‘s own views on human social and economic issues. His writings have passages that can be interpreted as opposing aggressive individualism, while other passages appear to promote it. Some scholars argue that Darwin’s view gradually changed and came to incorporate views from the leading social interpreters of his theory such as Herbert Spencer. But Spencer’s Lamarckian evolutionary ideas about society were published before Darwin first published his theory, and both promoted their own conceptions of moral values. Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited.²
Regardless of his ambiguity to social darwinism, Darwin’s theory of evolution clearly hit a major nerve among the public, as evident in this remarkable series of caricatures.
¹ Abridged from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism
Seaside Commentary from Long Beach Island, New Jersey