Social Darwinism

From Academic Kids

Social Darwinism is a social theory which holds that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection affects not only the distribution of biological traits in a population, but that it affects human social institutions as well. Social Darwinisim was popular in the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II, although some have claimed that contemporary sociobiology could be classed as a form of social Darwinism. Proponents of Social Darwinism often used the theory to justify laissez-faire capitalism and social inequality. Others used it to justify racism and imperialism. At its most extreme, some Social Darwinists appear to anticipate eugenics and the race doctrines of the Nazis. The theory itself does not necessarily engender a political position: some Social Darwinists argue for the inevitablility of progress, while others emphasise the potential for the degeneration of humanity, and some even attempted to enroll Social Darwinism in a reformist politics.


Social Darwinism and other theories of social change

Theories of social evolution and cultural evolution are common in European thought. The enlightenment thinkers who proceeded Darwin often speculated that societies progressed through stages of increasing development. Earlier thinkers also emphasized conflict as an inherent feature of social life. Thomas Hobbes's portrayal of the state of nature at time seems close to the competition for natural resources described by Darwin. Darwin's discussion of evolution was unique in several ways from these previous works. Darwin argued that humans were shaped by biological laws (rather than divine intervention) in the same way as other animals, and particularly by the pressure put individuals by population growth. Unlike Hobbes he believed that this pressure allowed individuals with physical and mental traits to suceed more than others, and that these traits accumulated over time to allow the emergence of a new species.

It seems clear that Darwin felt that 'social instincts' such as 'sympathy' and 'moral sentiments' evolved through natural selection, and that these resulted in the strengthening of societies in which they occurred, so much so that "at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world." (Descent of Man, ch. 6). Thus Darwin did believe that social phenomenon were shaped by natural selection, although exactly how evolutionary pressure on individuals led to collective benefits is something that Darwin never clearly explicated. At the same time, Darwin did not hold the political views that many of those inspired by him would eventually take up.

Social Darwinists

The term "Social Darwinism" is most closely associated with the writings of Herbert Spencer (who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest") and William Graham Sumner. In many ways Spencer's theory of 'cosmic evolution' has much more in common with the works of Lamark and August Comte than Charles Darwin. In regards to social institutions, however, there is a good case that Spencer's writings might be classified as 'Social Darwinism'. He argues that the individual (rather than the collectivity) is the unit of analysis that evolves, that evolution takes place through natural selection, and that it affects social as well as biological phenomenon. Regardless of how scholars of Spencer interpret his relation to Darwin, Spencer proved to be an incredibly popular figure in the 1870s, particularly in the United States. Authors such as Edward Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, and other thinkers of the gilded age all developed theories of Social Darwinism as a result of their exposure to Spencer as well as Darwin.

Spencer's work also served to renew interest in the work of Malthus, who is also cited as a Social Darwinist author. Malthus's 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, for example, argued that as increasing population would normally outgrow its food supply, this would result in the starvation of the weakest. Some historians have suggested that the Malthusian catastrophe theory and similar concepts were used by the British to justify the continued export of agricultural produce from Ireland, even as the Irish were suffering from famine, in particular the Great Famine of 1845-1849.

Social Darwinism enjoyed widespread popularity in some European circles, particularly among ruling elites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period the global recession of the 1870s encouraged a view of the world which saw societies or nations in competition with one another for survival in a hostile world. This attitude encouraged increasing militarization and the division of the world into colonial spheres of influence. The interpretation of social Darwinism of the time emphasized competition between species and races rather than cooperation. In the time since then, evolutionary theory has de-emphasized inter-species competition as well as the importance of violent confrontation in general. Advances in both the social and natural sciences, therefore, have discredited many of the assumptions on which Social Darwinist theories were built.

It is worth noting that 'Social Darwinism' is a term used by Scholars to describe a style or trend in social theory, rather than a coherent school of thought with, for instance, a professional association or an explicit manifesto. The application of the term to 19th and 20th century modes of thought generally did not occur until after the publication of American historian Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944, which codified it in the sense it is generally used today. As such, some historians have complained that it is an anachronistic label and to ask certain questions with it makes little sense. However, even within the field of academic history, the phrase is still widely used.

Because Social Darwinism came to be associated in the public mind with racism, imperialism, eugenics, and pseudoscience, such criticisms are sometimes applied (and misapplied) to any other political or scientific theory that resembles social Darwinism. Such criticisms are often levelled, for example, at evolutionary psychology. Similarly, capitalism, especially laissez-faire capitalism, is sometimes equated with Social Darwinism because it is thought by some to involve a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity. However, the fact that some Social Darwinists are advocates of capitalism does not imply that all capitalists are in favor Social Darwinism.

See also

Sources and Further Reading

External links

fr:Darwinisme social he:דרוויניזם_חברתי nl:Sociaal Darwinisme pl:Darwinizm społeczny sv:Socialdarwinism


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