Adherents of Social Darwinism believed that social progress resulted from conflicts in which the fittest, or best adapted, individuals (or societies) would triumph. Social Darwinism gave rise to the slogan "survival of the fittest."
Social Darwinism Theory: Charles Darwin and the theory of Darwinism
The Social Darwinism theory expanded the originally theories of Darwinism. What was the theory of Darwinism?
Social Darwinism was based on the theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), which had focused on the evolution of plants and animals. The Darwinism theory was explained in his famous 1859 work called "On the Origin of Species"
The work of Charles Darwin evolved as then applied his theory of natural selection in plants and animals, specifically to people in his 1871 book "The Descent of Man"
His theory explained in "The Descent of Man" was criticized by some as justifying harsh social policies and the living conditions of the poor
Social Darwinism Theory: Herbert Spencer and the "Survival of the Fittest"
The person most associated with the Social Darwinism theory was the British sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903).
Herbert Spencer published his ideas on the theory of evolution in an essay entitled 'The Development Hypothesis' on March 20, 1852, seven years before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published
Herbert Spencer first coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" in his 1864 'Principles of Biology', after reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species
Spencer used the phrase "survival of the fittest" to human society describing the outcome of competition between social groups. Spencer wrote "This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms is what Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."
In his 1851 'Social Statistics' Spencer he opposed welfare systems, compulsory sanitation, free public schools and any form of ‘poor law’ and argued in other works that through competition social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history
Social Darwinism Theory
Social Darwinism was similar to the theory of Darwinism but applied its biological concepts of human evolution to sociology and politics. Social Darwinism developed in Great Britain and America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term "Social Darwinism" has been rarely used by advocates of the concepts and ideologies of the theory. The term "Social Darwinism" has almost always been used as a derogatory term by its opponents and in respect of unfair business practices. Social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for the imperialist and racist policies of the Nazi Party that led to the outbreak of World War 2.
Social Darwinism Theory: Concepts and Theories
The theories and concepts of Social Darwinism are included the following chart. Because there were so many ideas that supported the theory of Social Darwinism the proponents of the theory tended to agree with specific aspects, rather than all of the theories.
Imbalances of power between individuals and races were justified because some people were more fit to survive than others
Some people were superior to others due to their inherent characteristics and moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, diligence and ingenuity
People with strength (physical, economic and technological) would survive, and those without will not
The theory of Social Darwinism was used to support Free Enterprise and 'laissez-faire' capitalism combined with political conservatism during the Gilded Era
The concept of Social Darwinism attempted to justify and rationalize ideas of imperialism, hereditarianism and racism
The idea that some racial or social groups (white and wealthy) were "naturally" superior to other groups
Proponents believed that Governments should not interfere with competition in successful businesses by attempting to regulate working practices and the economy
The belief that it was not the function of the Government to cure social problems
The process of natural selection would result in the survival of the best competitors and continued improvements in society and the population
Social Darwinism in America: American Supporters of Social Darwinism
Social Darwinism in America emerged as Herbert Spencer gained considerable support among intellectuals and leading businessmen such as teacher and academic William Graham Sumner, historian John Fiske, banker John D. Rockefeller, naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan and railroad magnate James J. Hill and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Social Darwinism in America: Free Enterprise and 'Laissez-Faire'
The theory of Social Darwinism was embraced by many leaders of American Big Business and Corporations. These powerful companies accumulated vast profits that flourished in the American economic system of Free Enterprise which was combined with the concept of 'Laissez-Faire'. The economic system of Free enterprise enabled American Big Business and Corporations to operate in competition, largely free of state regulation or control. The concept of 'Laissez-faire' economics relied on supply and demand, rather than government intervention, to regulate prices and wages.
Social Darwinism in America: Liberalism
Many of the wealthy businessmen who embraced Social Darwinism also adhered to the concept of Liberalism believing that all social problems, including environmental ones, could and should be solved through the free market.
Social Darwinism in America: American Industrialists and the Robber Barons
Social Darwinism in America was supported by many wealthy American Industrialists, often referred to as the Robber Barons who advocated a "dog-eat-dog" philosophy. John D. Rockefeller and James J. Hill, publicly justified their ruthless and cutthroat business practices in terms of Social Darwinism. The powerful industrialist maintained that individual self-interest was socially beneficial and that free trade and competition was a permanent and necessary law of economics.
Social Darwinism in America: Captains of Industry
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie hosted Herbert Spencer's visit to America in 1883 but attempted to soften the harsh philosophy of Social Darwinism by publishing his 1889 article called the 'Gospel of Wealth'. His 'Gospel of Wealth' described the responsibility of philanthropy by the new upper class of self-made rich to further social progress. Andrew Carnegie was as good as his word and donated millions of dollars to charitable causes and perhaps should be referred to as one of the Captains of Industry.
Social Darwinism in America: The Industrial Revolution and the Industrialization of America
The theory of Social Darwinism thrived during the era of the Second American Industrial Revolution when the nation progressed from the Industrial Age of Iron into the Age of Steel when new inventions and massive corporations emerged that utilized steel, electricity and oil. The effects of Industrialization in America transformed the country from an agricultural to an industrial society. Open rural lifestyles were replaced by congested City lifestyles. Industrialization changed the lives of Americans forever, bringing about complex economic and social changes. The Industrialization of America led to the increased mechanization of industries and the emergence of Factories and the Factory System based in towns and cities which led to the Urbanization of America.
The Backlash against Social Darwinism in America: Urbanization
The backlash against the theory Social Darwinism in America emerged during the process of American Urbanization when vast numbers of immigrants, a lack of town planning and the greed of the wealthy industrialists resulted in the rapid growth of cities. The massive rises in the population were fueled by unprecedented Immigration levels that peaked between 1901 - 1910 when 8,795,386 immigrants arrived in the United States looking for work, new opportunities and a better standard of living. People flocked to the already crowded towns and cities. The Urbanization of America led to:
Squalid living conditions for the poor
Unhygienic, unsanitary and unsafe working conditions
An increase in Child Labor
A rise in poverty leading to increased crime and alcohol consumption
Political bribery and corruption
Social unrest that led to riots and strikes by workers
The Backlash against Social Darwinism in America: Reform Movements and the Progressive Era
The Backlash against Social Darwinism in America was inevitable, people began to protest against the idea of the "survival of the fittest" and numerous Reform Movements emerged, including Reform Darwinism, that gave rise to the Progressive Era in America. The Progressive Movement encompassed the problems of urbanization, industrialization and child labor. The Progressive Movement also covered social reform issues relating to female suffrage, education, working conditions and unionization. The Progressive Movement also called for political reforms attacking bribery and corruption of the political machines and the regulation of business and reducing the power of the Robber Barons and Industrialists.
Backlash against Social Darwinism in America: President Theodore Roosevelt
Many wealthy and powerful industrialists who advocated Social Darwinism held the view that the government was an inefficient agency that should not be involved in economic matters. Not surprisingly, President Theodore Roosevelt disagreed with this view and decided to take on the Trusts (large, merged corporations). His victory in the legal case against the Northern Securities Company owned by J.P. Morgan, James J. Hill and E.H. Harriman gave Roosevelt the name of "trustbuster". President Roosevelt became the most influential leaders of the Progressive Movement.
Backlash against Social Darwinism: Reform Darwinists
The backlash against Social Darwinism grew stronger as Reform Darwinists argued that people needed new ideas and institutions as they adapted to changing conditions. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reasoned that the U.S. Constitution should be reinterpreted in light of the changes in American society. The validity of his reasoning was confirmed as the Constitution was subsequently amended to progressive reforms that included the 17th amendment to counter Senate corruption, the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol and the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.