Meanings of Social Darwinism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: A


1 Introduction

At first glance, it may be tempting to think of Social Darwinism as a social theory that originates from the ideas of Charles Darwin. Indeed, some scholars have viewed social Darwinism explicitly as a certain application of Darwin’s theory on human society.[1] However, this connection is not uncontested among historians. John C. Greene for example arrives at the conclusion that social Darwinism was a widespread phenomenon in the mid-nineteenth century, of which Darwin was a part, but which he did not start.[2] Disregarding the relation between Darwin and social Darwinism itself, the very reality of the phenomenon of social Darwinism is contested: Robert C. Bannister views social Darwinism first and foremost as a social myth.[3] Against this background, it seems necessary to take a closer look at differing definitions of social Darwinism.

First, there are those historians who define social Darwinism independently of Darwin and those who don’t. Only the above mentioned Greene can clearly be considered as a member of the former view. Indeed, Hawkins in his definition does not explicitly refer to Darwin. It seems that he does attempt to define social Darwinism independently of Darwin. His social Darwinist world-view consists of five statements, among which the fifth is the crucial one: the extension of scientific determinism to the social existence of human beings.[4] Because his statements clearly express Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it is my contention that in fact, he does not define social Darwinism independently of Darwin. The other historians who define social Darwinism explicitly as an application of Darwin’s theory on society differ in their emphasis of particular parts of Darwin’s theory: James Allen Rogers defines social Darwinism as “[…] the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the evolution of human society,”[5] whereas Linda L. Clark’s definition is similar, but includes ‘struggle for existence’.[6] Bannister even embraces ‘survival of the fittest’ in his definition: “While not limiting the term to any ‘technical’ meaning, the present study likewise focuses on the specifically Darwinian concepts of struggle for existence, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest […].”[7] In Hofstadter’s view, social Darwinism makes use of ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, but it also exploits the idea of gradual change.[8]

Second, one can differentiate between those historians who link social Darwinism to a certain ideology and those who don’t. Hawkins separates his social Darwinist world-view explicitly from any specific ideology. While taking up very different viewpoints on the extent of occurrence of social Darwinism, both Hofstadter and Bannister connect the term to conservative thought.[9] Bannister calls those theorists who refer to Darwin, but criticize the conclusions that social Darwinists draw, reform Darwinists.[10] By also distinguishing between the social Darwinists on the one side, and the reform Darwinists on the other, Clark links social Darwinists to a conservative agenda: One group that appears in her study consists of “[…] writers who emphasized the importance of the ‘struggle for life’ in discussions of laissez-faire economics, racial struggles, or wars and thus fit the familiar model for ‘social Darwinists’.”[11] While Rogers’ definition of social Darwinism itself does not suggest that he links it to a certain ideology, one can nevertheless conclude the linkage on the basis of his usage of the term in his essay . It is my contention that Greene’s definition indicates a linkage of social Darwinism and conservative thought, for his definition of social Darwinism encompasses the importance of competitive struggle for human evolution. Thus, among the secondary literature analyzed in this paper, only Hawkins keeps social Darwinism clearly apart from any specific political agenda. In Hawkins’ definition there is room for a social Darwinist position which concludes that cooperation among human beings has evolved due to the biological laws that determine human development.

Against this background, it is not so surprising that scholars render different judgments as to whether or not Darwin was a social Darwinist himself. Hofstadter views Darwin’s theory of evolution as “intrinsically a neutral instrument,”[12] whereas Hawkins sees Darwin clearly as a social Darwinist.[13] It is my contention that these differing conclusions depend on the authors’ different concepts of social Darwinism. The following statement can be read as a clarification of what Hofstadter means, when he frees Darwin of the charge of social Darwinism: “There was nothing in Darwinism that inevitably made it an apology for competition and force.”[14] Hawkins, on the other hand, does not base his judgment on the fact that Darwin was necessarily justifying competition and force. “Darwinism, was [author’s italic] inherently social in that Darwin himself sought to apply evolutionary theory to mental and social phenomena.”[15] Greene, whose definition includes competition, finds that Darwin is ambiguous to social Darwinism.[16] Rogers, on the other hand, holds that Darwin was not responsible for what was later called social Darwinism.[17] He does acknowledge that in his letters and The Descent of Man Darwin fails to “make a consistent distinction between biological and social evolution.”[18] Due to his rather narrow definition of social Darwinism as the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the evolution of human society, Rogers is able to avoid the conclusion that Darwin was a social Darwinist.

Beside the controversy, it can be observed that there is agreement among historians at least on the point that Darwin did not unequivocally argue for competition and force as the means for human evolution. In addition to that, an underlying consensus among authors here looked at is the contention that Darwin’s theorizing about the plant and animal world does not necessitate a certain view on human development.

The question is whether or not there is a justification for the choice of definition. I believe that this choice is somewhat arbitrary. With regard to its function as the basis for a historical narrative, however, the choice does matter. Maybe the reversed formulation is more accurate: The certain narrative a historian attempts to display may determine the choice of definition. If there is such a link between the choice of definition and the narrative of a historian, the question arises what the difference of definitions amounts to. I attempt to answer this question by analyzing in some detail the essays of Andrew Carnegie in The “Gospel of Wealth” Essays and Other Writings. His characterization as a social Darwinist is contested among historians. Carnegie has been portrayed as a social Darwinist by Hofstadter,[19] but Carnegie biographer Joseph Frazier Wall challenges this clear-cut subsumption under the social Darwinist label by claiming that “Carnegie’s Social Darwinism was far from pure”.[20]


[1] Clark, Linda L. Social Darwinism in France. University of Alabama, The University of Alabama Press, 1984, 1; Rogers, James Allen. Darwinism and Social Darwinism. Journal of the History of Ideas Volume 33, No. 2, Apr. - Jun., 1972, 265.

[2] Greene, John C. Science, Ideology, and World View. Essays in the History of Evolutionary Ideas. Berkeley/ Los Angeles/ London, University of California Press, 1981, 123.

[3] Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism. Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1979, 10.

[4] Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860 – 1945. Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 31.

[5] Rogers, Darwinism, 265.

[6] Clark, Social Darwinism in France, 1.

[7] Bannister, Social Darwinism, 7.

[8] Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 6.

[9] Bannister, Social Darwinism, 9; Ibid.

[10] Bannister, Social Darwinism, 11.

[11] Clark, Social Darwinism in France , 6. While Clark points out that there is a debate about the question on whether or not so called reform Darwinists could legitimately be called social Darwinists, for the purpose of her studies she holds on to the distinction between social and reform Darwinists.

[12] Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 201.

[13] Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 36.

[14] Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 201.

[15] Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 36.

[16] Greene, Science, 96.

[17] Rogers, Darwinism, 171.

[18] Ibid., 275.

[19] Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 45.

[20] Wall, Joseph Frazier. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970., 814.

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Meanings of Social Darwinism
Indiana University  (History and Philosophy of Science)
The Meanings of Darwinism
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Wiebke Schröder (Author), 2011, Meanings of Social Darwinism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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