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Definition: social Darwinism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1887) : an extension of Darwinism to social phenomena; specif : a sociological theory that sociocultural advance is the product of intergroup conflict and competition and the socially elite classes (as those possessing wealth and power) possess biological superiority in the struggle for existence

social Darwinist n or adj


Summary Article: Social Darwinism from Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations

Social Darwinism is the belief that the fittest or strongest among individuals, groups, or nations should survive and flourish, while the weak or unfit should be allowed to perish. This view was advocated by Herbert Spencer, a British sociologist who attempted to apply Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution to the development of human societies. Social Darwinism became popular in the late Victorian era in England, the United States, and elsewhere. Another social interpretation of Darwin's biological views was promoted by Francis Galton. His view and its theoretical offshoot, later known as eugenics, have also been associated with social Darwinism. This entry first reviews Spencer's and Galton's views on developments of human faculties and human societies and then describes the trajectory that social Darwinism took in societies and social sciences in the late 20th century. It then explains how advocates of social Darwinism commit a common but fatal logical fallacy (the naturalistic fallacy) and confuse Darwinian science with a particular ethical position, a position that is incompatible with contemporary moral values.

Spencer's Evolutionary Progressivism

In 1857 Spencer, under the influence of Thomas Malthus's 1798 work (An Essay on the Principle of Population), published his major work, Progress: Its Law and Causes. It was 2 years before Charles Darwin published his seminal, 1859 work, On the Origin of Species. Spencer's later theorizing (e.g., see First Principles, published in 1860) was strongly influenced by Darwin's ideas.

Spencer applied Darwin's ideas to interpret social phenomena. He coined the term survival of the fittest, maintaining that through competition and natural selection, social evolution would lead to prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history. Spencer argued that the individual (rather than the collective) evolves, and thus government intervention should be minimal in social and political domains. This view fit well with the dominant ideologies of the capitalist economics in the late 19th century, especially those of laissez-faire economics, and it was strongly supported by both intellectuals and businessmen, including Andrew Carnegie, who hosted Spencer's visit to the United States in 1883.

Spencer's theory was essentially a prescriptive, ethical theory. He did not simply argue that natural selection descriptively works with humans much as Darwin theorized it worked with animals and plants, but that the survival of the fittest in human society is morally correct and should be promoted. As a result, social Darwinism was used to justify various political and economic exploitations that are generally inconsistent with modern moral values, including colonialism, imperialism, neglect of poor living and working conditions, oppression of labor unions and similar organizations, and so on.

Among others, a major problem with social Darwinism as an ethical theory is that the theory commits what is called the naturalistic fallacy in philosophy, whereby an ought statement is derived rather directly from an is statement. That is, it is a logical error to assume that what is natural is equivalent to what is morally correct. Social Darwinism made this fatal error in using the principle of survival of the fittest not only to explain how human society might actually operate (a statement that could, in principle, be verified empirically) but also to prescribe morally how social institutions (and human society in general) ought to be designed. Although social Darwinism arguably had some beneficial effects (e.g., providing the poor with resources for production and education rather than simply with handouts), its moral basis is now widely rejected.

Galton's Eugenics

Intrigued by Darwin's 1859 work, Galton, a British scientist and Darwin's cousin, became interested in heritability of many aspects of human variation, ranging from physical characteristics to mental characteristics and from facial appearance to fingerprint patterns. Using various biographical records, Galton developed statistical techniques to quantify the heritability of human abilities. In Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, he summarized these findings and argued that biological inheritance is much more critical in determining human character and intelligence than are environmental influences. Besides reporting his scientific findings, Galton went on to argue that the notion of heredity should occupy a central place when one considered social morals. According to his view, certain social welfare policies (e.g., asylums for the insane) allowed “less fit” members of society to survive and reproduce faster than “more fit” ones, and this trend eventually would lead to degradation of the society by “inferiors.” Galton thus maintained that social morals should be changed so that people would become more conscious of heredity in their decisions about reproduction.

In his 1883 book, Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development, Galton coined the term eugenics from the Greek word eu (well) and the suffix -genes (born). Although Galton did not personally advocate eugenic social policies that promoted governmental coercion of so-called inferiors, such mandatory eugenics began to be practiced in the early 20th century. The most infamous example was provided by Nazi Germany's eugenics programs, which led to the sterilizations of thousands of individuals whom the Nazis viewed as mentally and physically “unfit” and to mass killings of “undesirable” people, including Jews, Roma, and homosexuals during the Holocaust.

Social Darwinism in the Late 20th Century

Social Darwinism gradually lost its popularity and support after World War I. Ironically, the term social Darwinism was later popularized by a U.S. historian, Richard Hofstadter, in his 1944 work, Social Darwinism in American Thought, which discredited Nazi Germany's ideologies along with its eugenic policies.

Around the same time, anthropologists Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and others also severely criticized social Darwinism. They emphasized the role of culture in differentiating humans from other animals and rejected social Darwinism's biological foundations. It is important to note that the criticisms from these anthropologists (Boas in particular) were originally directed only against the notion of “evolutionary progressivism” advocated by Spencerthe notion that assumes that all societies progress through the same stages in the same sequence and that societies can thus be ordered, from less well-developed, inferior ones to more highly developed, superior ones. Obviously, Spencer's is a notion with little scientific basis. However, later generations of anthropologists also broadly rejected Darwinian, biological approaches to the development of human societies in favor of a sociocultural approach. Such resistance to applying Darwinian concepts and analyses to the study of human society rapidly became dominant in the social sciences.

During the 1960s, biological approaches to study human social behavior and human society resurfaced, after the “modern evolutionary synthesis” was completed in biology. Biologists such as William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and others extended their theories to explain origins of human cooperation, mate selection, and human sociality in general. In 1988, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society was founded by investigators who unapologetically used evolutionary theory to analyze human nature. Since then, the Society has expanded substantively to overlap with many social science disciplines, including psychology, anthropology, psychiatry, economics, law, political science, and sociology. Sharing a common metatheoretical perspective, the biological and evolutionary approaches have yielded highly successful cross-disciplinary collaborations, including modern behavioral genetics, analysis of human sociality, and research on neural underpinnings of social cognition. In social psychology, these approaches have also spurred reexaminations of traditional questions, including research on adaptive efficiencies of group behavior, biological roots of intergroup behavior, and so on.

However, despite its broader scientific acceptance, biological and evolutionary approaches to studying human behavior and society have also met with substantial opposition. For example, in 1975, when biologist Edward Wilson argued in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis that genetics exerts a greater influence on human behavior than scientists had previously thought, he was labeled as a racist by both liberals and conservatives who favored the idea that human behavior was determined by enculturation. But in fact what Wilson claimed in his book was not particularly extreme: He maintained that human behavior cannot be understood without taking both biology and culture into account.

Confusion of Social Darwinism With Darwinism

As exemplified above, many negative reactions to Darwinism arise from the confusion of Darwinism with social Darwinism. Darwinism is a scientific theory whose ultimate value can be judged only empirically. On the other hand, social Darwinism is an ethical theory purporting that the fittest should flourish while the unfit should be allowed to die. Aside from their names and a couple of basic Darwinian notions that social Darwinism misused (e.g., directional evolution that underlies survival of the fittest), these two theories share very little. Nevertheless, many of the negative reactions to a Darwinian approach to understanding human behavior and human society continue to stem from antipathy for social Darwinism, its unconventional moral values, and its illogical foundation (viz the naturalistic fallacy).

See also

Eugenics, Evolutionary Psychology, Holocaust, Racism, System Justification Theory

Further Readings
  • Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.). (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Hawkins, M. (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860-1945: Nature as model and nature as threat. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hofstadter, R. (1992). Social Darwinism in American thought. Boston: Beacon. (Original work published 1944).
  • Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin.
  • Schaller, M., Simpson, J., & Kenrick, D. (Eds.). (2006). Evolution and social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap. (Original work published 1975).
  • Kameda, Tatsuya
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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