Social Darwinism refers to various theories and ideologies that applies Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory to various aspects of human society. In particular, it refers to an ideology arguing that the natural selection that causes evolutionary development should be used as a model for aspects of human society and human development, such as for competition between individuals, businesses, groups, organizations and/or for more abstract phenomena such as ideas. This is argued to cause favorable developments.
The term is mostly used by critics. Very few prominent individuals or organizations have described themselves as "social Darwinist".
Leftists and genetic denialists often apply the term social Darwinism to a wide variety of disliked political and economical ideologies as a form of guilt by association with the argued social Darwinist policies of National Socialist Germany. Thus, the term has been applied to many forms of capitalism, nationalism, and argued influence of genetics on human behavior and society.
Social Darwinism, other ideologies, and claimed influence
Social Darwinism has often been conflated with somewhat similar ideologies, which may have caused the influence of social Darwinism to be overstated.
The term "social Darwinism" only became popular in 1944, due to the book Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 by the half-Jewish Richard Hofstadter. The book used the term in order to criticize "laissez-faire" capitalism.
Before this, the term was rarely used, and if it was used, it was usually by critics. An examination of English literature between 1850 and 1931 found only 21 instances when the term was used. In every case except one, the term was used by critics. The exception emphasized that his view was not related to Darwin's theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species, which introduced the concept of natural selection, was first published in 1859. Thus, social Darwinism can not have existed at all before this date.
The creator of social Darwinism is often stated to be Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest" in 1864, after reading On the Origin of the species. However, Spencer was no enthusiastic proponent of Darwinism and was greatly influenced by Lamarckism. He was also a strong proponent of individualism and it is thus questionable that he would have supported many of the involuntary state policies later claimed to be part of social Darwinism.
Before, during, and after the time period in which social Darwinism is argued to have been influential, there existed several somewhat similar ideologies. They included various ideologies that emphasized the importance of struggle and competition between individuals, organizations, businesses, and groups, as methods for personal and group development (such as for developing economic effectiveness, personal characteristics such as manliness and bravery, and/or group cohesion), but where this was not seen as related to Darwinian natural selection or genetics. If genetics was seen as involved, this could mean Lamarckism rather than Darwinism.
During this time period, it was not unusual to see aiding the poor as pointless or harmful, but this was often related to views such as poverty largely being due to character weaknesses and laziness, which should be discouraged, rather than to views that saw such aid as dysgenic.
Furthermore, before the effects of the demographic transition became clear, it was commonly believed that poverty and even regular mass starvation were inevitable, due to rapid population growth inevitable being greater than resource growth (thus, Malthusian views rather than Darwinian views). Also, such inevitable resource shortages were seen as implying that competition and conflicts between countries over resources were inevitable (again a view independent of Darwinian theories).
Also, even ideologies that explicitly deny the existence of Darwinian evolution, or the importance of genetics, may still argue that there exist necessary and inevitable struggles between groups that will cause beneficial developments. One example is various religious views that deny the existence of evolution, but that argue for the necessity of religious struggle in order to convert the world to their own beliefs. Another is Marxism, where a fundamental principle is the struggle between different groups (classes), which causes development towards a future better society.
"Appeal to nature"
Social Darwinism has been criticized as a form of appeal to nature, meaning that what can be found in nature must be morally right for humans. This is argued to be a logical fallacy. Furthermore, in nature it is possible to find many examples of very different and often contradictory behaviors in different species. Phenomena like starvation and diseases, often found in nature, are usually not seen as desirable or morally right to advocate.
However, natural selection, and development caused by this, may be seen as a model that can or could be applied to certain human phenomena, in order to cause a desired development, rather than being part of a moral view where absolutely everything that can be found in nature is morally right and must be blindly copied by humans.
"Might makes right"
Social Darwinism is often argued to imply that "might makes right" or that the strong has a moral right to treat the weak however desired, even if this means suffering and other negative effects for the weak. The only "law" that is argued to exist is "the law of the jungle", of the type "eat or be eaten".
However, persons advocating claimed social Darwinist principles (like proponents of "laissez-faire" capitalism) have usually not seen such a society as desirable. When "laissez-faire" is advocated (such as between businesses), this is usually motivated with society in general (including the weak in general) benefiting from the increased effectiveness and development caused. Thus, "laissez-faire" policies are argued to cause the better businesses to survive, while the inefficient are removed. This is argued to be generally beneficial and to cause general progress, although the process may be negative for the businesses losing out in the competition and the employers and employees of such businesses.
Proponents of market economies at the same time usually argue that such processes must be regulated. This includes most proponents of "laissez-faire". One example is by not allowing businesses to use violence against one another. In the same way, a proponent of social Darwinism may argue that there must regulations and limitations, also regarding other areas.
"The survival of the fittest"
Natural selection and social Darwinism and are often summarized with the phrase "The survival of the fittest". There are however several potential misinterpretations due to this. Biological fitness refers to the ability of an individual or a group of genetically similar individuals to transmit the individual's or the group's genetics to future generation, in a particular environment. Fitness for the same individual or group may vary depending on the environment. This explains the existence of an enormous number of species adopted to different environments and who all have high fitness. "The survival of the fittest" thus does not imply a development towards a sole winner, who has exterminated all other kinds of organisms.
Furthermore, a low fitness does not necessarily mean that an individual soon will be killed or otherwise will not survive long, but could mean that an individual will live long, but for a number of different reasons will not reproduce well.
Having a large number of offspring does not in itself mean high fitness, if the offspring dies without reproducing. Thus, it may be an individual who have few offspring, but that takes good care of these that have the highest fitness. It may even be so that an individual without own offspring, but who helps genetically related individuals or a genetically related group to reproduce, will be able to help transmit many of the individual's genes to future generation and thus achieve a high fitness (see the article on Racial genetic interests).
Maybe the most controversial form of social Darwinism are as applied to human groups, such as races or countries. Critics have argued that this implies an ideology where different groups are seen as engaged in a "survival of the fittest" struggle and therefore to have contributed to colonialism, wars, genocides, and so on.
However, colonialism, wars, genocides, and so on have existed throughout recorded history, and long before the publication of On the Origin of Species.
Similarly, a preference for genetically similar individuals (ranging from related relatives to related races) is no new phenomenon caused by social Darwinist ideology and has likely genetic causes (see the articles on Racial genetic interests and Genetic similarity theory).
"Darwinism" has been argued to support very different ideologies. For example, Hitler is by critics often argued to have been heavily influenced by social Darwinism, but this has been disputed (for example, in the book Was Hitler a Darwinian?). Books such as Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution and A Darwinian Left have argued that Darwinism support certain leftist policies.
A purely "social Darwinist" policy seeking only to maximize the prevalence of the genetics of the own population may possibly advocate maximizing the population size of the own population, including at the expense of other populations and regardless of if this is increases the well-being and happiness of the own population or not. However, arguably no ideologies have had such a "social Darwinist" goal, but instead usually advocated goals such as increased well-being and happiness (although the methods for doing so vary).
Relationships to other concepts
Social Darwinism is often incorrectly conflated with a variety of other concepts.
See the Eugenics article.
Evolutionary psychology/Sociobiology have often been claimed to be forms of social Darwinism. This despite such research areas being descriptive sciences and not ideologies advocating a particular kind of desirable society. If researchers argue that certain historical evolutionary ("Darwinian") processes have caused certain effects, then this does not imply that such processes are necessarily desirable or necessarily advocated by the researchers as models for how human society should be. For example, that infectious diseases have been argued to have caused certain evolutionary developments influencing human behaviors does not imply that infectious diseases are seen as desirable or advocated.
- Hodgson, G. M. (2004). Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term, Journal of Historical Sociology 17:4, 428–463.