Social Darwinism and its Consequences for 19th Century Society

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Trying to define Social Darwinism
2.1 What is Social Darwinism?
2.2 Connection between Darwin and Social Darwinism
2.3 Herbert Spencer’s role in coining Social Darwinism

3. Impacts of Social Darwinism on the society of the 19th century
3.1 British Imperialism
3.2 Racism
3.2.1 General legitimations of racist ideologies
3.2.2 Manifestation of racism in British thought
3.2.3 Implementation of racism in American society

4. Influences of Social Darwinism on the literature of the time
4.1 Impacts on English literature
4.2 Thoughts of American writers

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The phenomenon of Social Darwinism is by no means easy to explain or to define. Its name suggests that Social Darwinism has something to do with Darwinism, meaning the evolutionary theories of Darwin. In the course of this paper, it shall be outlined how Social Darwinism could be defined, what link there is or could be to Darwin and his theories and the role Herbert Spencer plays in coing the term Social Darwinism. Furthermore, it is aimed at discussing the impacts of Social Darwinism on the contemporary society of the 19th century, in particular the English Imperialism and also racism in general, as well in England as in America. Apart from that, the attention will be drawn on the influences of Social Darwinism on English and American literature of the time. Finally, a conclusion will be given to sum up the most important outcomes of this paper.

2. Trying to define Social Darwinism

2.1 What is Social Darwinism?

First of all, Social Darwinism is a very complex term implying rather different ideas. The term is often widely expanded, namely from bestial individualism to socialism and class struggle.[1] Generally speaking, Social Darwinism can be defined as the application of Darwinian biology to human societies. But what is more important is that this application has adopted numerous forms[2], which will be dealt with in the following chapters of this paper. The question is also whether it is possible to combine social and evolutionary ideas at all.[3]

Let us now turn to some definitions of Social Darwinism that can be found in select sources. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the term as a theory of the 19th century about socio-cultural evolution that received its name from the link to the biological works of Charles Darwin.[4] This definition is a classic one and can be seen as rather neutral towards any other implications of social theories, such as racism, for example. Jones, on the other hand, claims in her definition that Social Darwinism

“implies that individuals are alloted social places through their heredity or their moral choice. In the first case this means that the social places we occupy are inevitable; in the second that we deserve them (…) ultimately from the “reality” of existing social relationships – or more often an ideological picture of them – and argued back to their “natural” causation.”[5]

This statement has a very conservative character indeed and earlier in her book Jones has already mentioned that Darwin’s biology was highly affected by Victorian beliefs of the time.[6]

Furthermore, Bannister argues that the term Social Darwinism was first found in Europe in about 1880 and later denoted several types of evils.[7] Bannister also quotes Floyd N. House, who tried to establish a common basis for the term Social Darwinism in his work “Development of Sociology” (1936): “(…) the type of theory that attempts to describe and explain social phenomena chiefly in terms of competition and conflict (…)” [8] Here, the link to Darwinian ideas can be detected slightly hidden because the underlying ideas of competition and conflict may be ascribed to Darwinian thoughts, such as “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest”. Later, by the 1940s, a more straightforward expansion of the definition has succeeded, which describes Social Darwinism as the application of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to society.[9]

From these different approaches of explaining what Social Darwinism is, it is obvious that a connection to the biological ideas of Darwin was assumed. Thus, one might think that Darwinism must have preceeded Social Darwinism because it could not be explained without Darwinian biology. But this conclusion is rather questionable. In the following chapter, the relation between the two terms, Darwinism and Social Darwinism, will be looked at in more detail, in order to find out, if Social Darwinism can be automatically brought into connection with the biology of Darwin.

2.2 Connection between Darwin and Social Darwinism

To begin with, the main facts about Darwinian biology should be briefly resumed: When there is a growth in population and the resources are limited, this leads to a struggle for survival amongst all living beings or organisms. Then, certain characteristics, physical as well as mental ones, obtain advantages and disadvantages in the struggle for survival. These traits and their inheritance will then be selected and lead to the emergence of new species and the extinction of others.[10]

Now, the application of these ideas to human society is the starting point of many difficulties because the proposed dualism and the analogies between society and nature are very doubtful.[11] Moreover, it must not be neglected that Darwin’s work is predominantly a scientific disquisition, although in his work “The Origin of Species by Natural Selection” he said that “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”[12]. With this, Darwin suggested that natural selection may have a connection to humans and their societies.[13] However, from this statement alone, it cannot be concluded that Darwin was concerned with the racial interpretations that were legitimated by his ideas. After all, a kind of Social Darwinism anteceded the publication of Darwin’s “Origin”, namely the works of Lamarck and Geoffroy.[14]

There are two different forms of Darwin’s influence on social theories. First, the thoughts and comments he established himself. Second, the term “Social Darwinism” that was coined by others and that expressed what they thought to be Darwinian interpretations of society. The problem is that the two often differ very much from each other. Also, Darwin’s thoughts of man’s social development were not his very own establishment, but general opinions of the time.[15]

The publication of “The Origin of Species” falls into a period when revolutionary thoughts are very welcome because of the numerous discoveries in nature, new inventions, social change and the emancipation movement, poltical changes as well as a critical position towards the church. Therefore, all the old systems were questioned. Because man was suddenly, according to Darwinian theories, only a part in the row of evolution, but at the same time apparently able to rule evolution, it seemed necessary to transfer the biological theories of Darwin to human society by supporting the superiority of man that is obviously fixed by nature. So, suddenly Darwin’s survival of the fittest was seen as a general solution for social and political problems, such as expansion policies of certain countries during the 19th century. But what was not taken into account was the fact that the terms survival of the fittest and struggle for existence were actually misinterpreted by Social Darwinists. While survival of the fittest is to mean the survival of the most adapted living beings, it was simply referred to as the survival of the most industrious or hard-working ones. The same principle applied to the struggle for existence: it was interpreted as the struggle for staying alive instead of the struggle for the best living conditions. Thus, it was easily possible to justify many opinions on expansion policy, for instance, with the aid of Darwin’s terminology. It was no longer questioned whether these false interpretations corresponded to Darwin’s evolutionary ideas as such.[16]

Another very important factor to mention is that all the various interpretations of Darwinism have no common originator. In fact, we are dealing with several different forms of Social Darwinisms. Nevertheless, two different basic types can be detected, namely the chronologically first one which focused on evolutionary thought and the second one which shifted towards the selection theory. Today, Social Darwinism is negatively connotated because it was applied to as a selection theory in National Socialism, when it led to the idea of euthanasia. Most important of all, we cannot simply say that Darwin was the first Social Darwinist because Darwin’s main intention was scientific research of nature whereas socio-political purposes were only on second place. Darwin himself was always very shy and careful with his utterances when it came to a far too broad expansion of his evolutionary ideas. Admittedly, he did not exclude man from his theory since he published the origin of man from the ape, but he did not draw the conclusion that this idea can be transferred to human society as the Social Darwinists do. Thus, it can be asserted that Darwin does not have a direct link to Social Darwinism.[17] Another problem with the connection between Darwin and Social Darwinists is the role of Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the term “struggle for existence”, which Social Darwinists interprete in the wrong way, as mentioned earlier.[18]

A last crucial point in Darwin’s theory is that not each development automatically means a higher development and even if so, the inferior species can still exist. There would only be a new branch in the tree of descency, but higher and lower species can still exist next to each other. Social Darwinists, on the other hand, argue that lower species have to die out in favour of the newly developed species as a result of natural selection.[19]

All in all, it cannot simply be claimed that Darwin is in charge of this dangerous tendency that has evolved from his biological theory. Putting oneself in the position of the Social Darwinists, it is always possible to interprete Darwin’s terminology, like survival of the fittest, struggle for existence or even the expressions inferior and higher species in a way that one wants them to be interpreted. Conversely, one could also argue that Darwin could have done something to prevent Social Darwinists from misusing his biological words in terms of their social and political purposes.

However, some of Darwin’s critics, such as Koch, make Darwin responsible for the social development of his biological theory and therefore Koch sees Darwin’s biology as a part of defining Social Darwinism. The other part is Spencer’s social philosophy[20], with which I will be dealing in the following chapter.

2.3 Herbert Spencer’s role in coining Social Darwinism

The British philosopher Herbert Spencer transferred mechanisms of evolution to human society. But what is more important, is that he did this before the publication of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.[21] Years before Darwin, Spencer had established his own theory of development, which was orientated on natural evolution and was transferred to man and human society by him. Here is a passage from his later work “The Principles of Sociology”:

Like a low animal,the embryo of a high one has few distinguishable parts; but while it is

acquiring greater mass, its parts multiply and differentiate. It is thus with a society. At first the unlikenesses among its groups of units are inconspicuous in number and degree; but as population augments, divisions and sub-divisions become more numerous and decided.[22]

So, for Spencer, there is obviously a strong analogy between animals and social structure.


[1] Cf. Bannister, Robert C. (1979): Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social

Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 4.

[2] Cf. Dickens, Peter (2000): Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory.

Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, p. 1.

[3] Cf. ibid., p. 5.

[4] Cf. Hemingway Benton, William and Helen (publs.) (1983): The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Micropaedia 15th edition. Chicago., p. 310.

[5] Jones, Greta (1980): Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between

Biological and Social Theory. Sussex: The Harvester Press, p. 194.

[6] Cf. ibid., p. 194.

[7] Cf. Bannister (1979), p. 4.

[8] House, Floyd N. (1936): The Development of Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill. p.158.

[9] Cf. Bannister (1979), p.5, quoting Merle Curti (1943).

[10] Cf. Dickens (2000), p. 1.

[11] Cf. ibid., p.4.

[12] Darwin, Charles (1968): The Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (First publ. in 1859), p. 458.

[13] Cf. Dickens (2000), p. 9, 14.

[14] Cf. ibid., p.7 et seq.

[15] Cf. Jones (1980), p. 10 et seq.

[16] Cf. Reusch, Tanja (2000): Die Ethik des Sozialdarwinismus. Europäische Hochschulschriften:

Reihe 20, Philosophie, Bd. 619. (Würzburg, Univ., Diss.) Frankfurt a. Main et al.:

Peter Lang, p. 35 et seq.

[17] Cf. ibid., p. 37 et seqq.

[18] Cf. Gottschalk, Rudolph: „Darwin und der Darwinismus. In: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 4. 7. Jahrgang 1959, p. 522.

[19] Cf. Reusch (2000), p. 4o.

[20] Cf. Koch, Hannsjoachim W. (1973): Der Sozialdarwinismus. Seine Genese und sein Einfluss auf das imperialistische Denken. Beck’sche Schwarze Reihe, Bd. 97. München: C.H. Beck, p. 64.

[21] Cf. Reusch (2000), p. 43.

[22] Spencer, Herbert (2002): The Principles of Sociology. In three volumes. With a new introduction by Jonathan H. Turner. New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers, p. 449-450.

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Social Darwinism and its Consequences for 19th Century Society
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