Social Darwinism was a controversial and complex intellectual and cultural phenomenon that sent shock waves through Western, particularly American, society, that still reverberate today. Charles Darwin’s writings, particularly the Origin of Species (1859), although a treatise of enormous scientific value, was sufficiently ambiguous as to lend itself to various political and sociological interpretations. Indeed, it is fair to say that the two leading Social Darwinian thinkers Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) in Britain and William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) in the United States, as well as their many critics, made careers out of exploiting the moral and social ambiguities of the Darwinian corpus. Essentially what Spencer and Sumner derived from Darwin was a moral and political legitimation for laissez-faire capitalism, while their collectivist critics often inverted their analysis to legitimate a cooperative rather than a competitive economy and society. Did the “survival of the fittest” literally mean what it seemed to, or was it merely tautological in that the “fittest always survive?”
The Darwinian system had three pillars in terms of explaining the evolution of species. These were (1) natural selection, (2) sexual selection and, (3) the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although the last two play a decidedly less significant role in evolutionary theory, Darwin believed that the bright plumage of birds or the vivid color of fish during the mating season affect the reproductive pattern of species and thus the character of the offspring; nor could he abandon his belief that Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired traits contained some scientific validity, although, of course, not to the degree Lamarck claimed.
To make matters more difficult and complex, evolutionary theory itself was in the process of rapid development and change during this same period. At the outset, Darwinism had to be distinguished from Lamarckianism which was the earlier creation of French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). Indeed, Darwin was unable to completely wean himself from this theory so that it existed in uneasy tension in his work with natural selection. In fact, as Peter Bowler has shown it was not until 1940 that natural selection finally carried the day in the biological sciences.1
Then, too, the genetic mechanism by which natural selection worked was unknown to Darwin, although the monk-scientist Gregor Mendel explained it as early as 1866 in a paper which was ignored until its “rediscovery” by Hugo de Vries near the turn of the century. Mendel showed that both dominant and recessive genes were inherited by offspring from their parents and this determined the pattern of natural selection that occurred. Also of importance in the development of evolutionary theory was the mutation theory devised by de Vries which explained radical changes in the human genetic structure as “leaps” caused by the earth’s natural radiation among other forces. Finally, the work of Auguste Weissman demonstrated that “germ plasm” in individuals was not effected by changes in the circumstances of daily living – thus acquired characteristics could not be genetically transmitted.
Until the 1940s and later interpretations of the meaning of “Social Darwinism” were so broad as to include industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Indeed, almost anyone who employed the jargon of Darwin and his followers, however loosely, in explaining social existence and change, were likely to find the label attached to their name. But interpretations of the meaning of “Social Darwinism” have evolved among scholars since the 1940s when American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his once influential Social Darwinism in American Thought2 and historians, social scientists and humanists have engaged in a major historical revisionist enterprise.3 From this has emerged a portrait of the Social Darwinian movement significantly different than the one which once existed for the use and abuse of the Darwinian corpus led to a new understanding of the application of evolutionary theory to political and social thought.
Hofstadter believed that Social Darwinism consisted of three related concepts which were (1) evolutionary biology particularly the idea of the “survival of the fittest,” (2) classical economics with its preference for laissez-faire and, (3) the Protestant Ethic with its focus on hard work, thrift and economic individualism and emphasis on the relationship between moral virtue and economic success, and sin and failure. For a long time, this was the dominant view of Social Darwinism presented in textbooks in American history and, of course, in this context it could only be presented in stereotypical form. But when the revisionist view appeared it focused on evolutionary biology, that is, natural selection and species adaptation as its foundation stones. Nevertheless, ideas drawn from classical economics with its preference for laissez-faire and the Protestant Ethic with its emphasis on the work ethic continued to play a role in defining Social Darwinism. Only now it was evident that these were secondary aspects dwarfed by the leading role of evolutionary theory. However, despite this advance in our understanding of Social Darwinism, it continued to be loosely defined and often indiscreetly applied to thinkers and ideas that have only a vague relation, if any, to William Graham Sumner, the example par excellence of Social Darwinism in the United States.
Since this collection focuses on the United States rather than Britain or Western Europe, it is essential to analyze the political and social philosophy of William Graham Sumner who was undoubtedly the leading American Social Darwinist. Although his English contemporary Herbert Spencer was more influential than any thinker in their ideological camp Sumner, who was an ordained Episcopal minister and a long-time professor of political economy at Yale University, had far more influence than any of his own countrymen between 1880 and 1920. For this reason his intellectual system is treated in more detail here because it was the fulcrum of support for his disciples as well as the center of attack by his critics.
Aside from different interpretations of Darwin’s major writings, especially The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (1871), it is evident that what separates the Social Darwinists from their critics are assumptions of a metatheoretical nature. Metatheory itself has three parts which are (1) epistemology, or the study of meaning particularly with regard to the meaning of “truth,” (2) ontology, the study of being (reality) and, (3) axiology or the study of value, value inquiry so to speak. Even though the Social Darwinists and their doctrinal opponents overlap at times on the meaning and relevance of these metatheoretical issues, metatheory often separated them into distinct camps.
It is fair to say that the Sumnerian system was accused by its critics of being built on (1) a deductive epistemology in which truth claims are made by deducing conclusions from general principles not from factual evidence, (2) a radically individualist ontology which asserted that society is composed of individuals and nothing more, that is, individuals are more real than society and thus have ontological primacy over the collective, and (3) axiomatically speaking, individual “freedom” is the highest value available to humans during their earthly existence, especially freedom of exchange and contract, and the right to unlimited acquisition of wealth and property. With these metatheoretical assumptions in mind, although his critics sometimes exaggerated their role in his thought, it is easier to understand Sumner’s political and social philosophy.
Sumner’s views of the proper role of the State can be summarized under three headings: (1) administration of justice, that is, provision of courts, police and prisons, for the punishment of criminals and enforcement of the obligation of contract, (2) national defense, that is, provision of an army and navy to deter and punish aggression by foreign powers and, (3) provision of public works when goods and services absolutely essential to the welfare of the community are not forthcoming because it is not profitable to provide them. Sumner’s philosophy regarding the proper role of government is not too different from that of other classical liberals including Adam Smith whatever their disagreements in terms of policy application. Although Sumner was to modify his views in later life, particularly with regard to the use of State power to curb monopoly, most of his critics have focused on his prescriptions for strict laissez-faire expressed in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883). It is these which are used here to characterize his philosophy.
Sumner claims in effect that what social classes owe to each other is nothing except mutual acquiescence in the structures of unlimited capitalism. In a free market, each owner of a factor of production, whether it be land, labor or capital, will be paid what his contribution is worth provided that neither unions, government nor monopolists interfere with the free movement of the forces of supply and demand. Indeed, such interference will likely help the unfit to survive, multiply, and transmit their inferior genes to future generations which will only slow down the evolutionary process which for so long had effectively culled out the weak and unfit. In short, unlimited capitalism contains and gives rise to the most efficient social institutions for the processes of natural selection and adaptation to work toward their ends; and these ends are the transmission of only those traits conducive to the survival of the fittest. This is how Sumner links free market processes with evolutionary biology and his critics were quick to seize on the callousness of his theory and its apparent denial of social justice and social conscience. Sumner, however, was shrewd enough to distinguish between the struggles that went on in nature between flora and fauna and the conflicts that ensued between human beings in the social order and he did not consistently extend the logic of his argument from the natural to the social order. If, ultimately, he drew back from the Darwinian portrayal of “nature red in fang and claw” as the model for human existence, he continued to sanction and praise competitive processes as the highest form of human existence that evolution could bring at the existing level of social development.
Although Herbert Spencer was English rather than American he was even more influential in Social Darwinist circles than Sumner. For this reason it is important to mention his work because in certain respects he epitomizes the public policy positions of some of the more extreme libertarians in their opposition to social intervention and control. To illustrate, in England as late as 1870 only two-fifths of the children between the ages of six and ten were in attendance at school. Yet Spencer did not believe that the State should play any role in providing free public education. He not only did not believe government should operate schools, he did not think schools of any kind should be tax-supported.
Strictly speaking, if Spencerian principles were still the libertarian standard in the English-speaking world, then public education could only be interpreted as a betrayal of economic individualism and an oppressive concession to State collectivism. For Spencer consistently objected to all efforts by the State to provide access to education. Indeed, he satirized and opposed the following. In 1860, an Act was passed which in his words “made it penal to employ boys under twelve not attending school and unable to read and write.”4 Then, in 1870, perhaps the single most important Act affecting British education in the nineteenth century was passed and Spencer indignantly commented that we have the [Forster] Act which enables the Education Department to form school-boards which shall purchase sites for schools, and may provide free schools supported by local rates, and enabling school-boards to pay a child’s fees, to compel parents to send their children.5
In 1873, it was the Agricultural Children’s Act which Spencer also criticized because it made it “penal for a farmer to employ a child who has neither certificate of elementary education nor of certain prescribed school attendance.”6
Legislation pending before Parliament in 1902 sheds further light on Spencer’s views. The National Education Bill was again under review, and it would make secondary education the duty of the State. Spencer attacked this Bill because in his view it would increase uniformity and standardization among schools in the name of educational unification. He believed it would likely result in the further weakening and failure of private schools by regimenting them and that it would abolish what little variety still existed in schools. His negative attitudes toward the Bill can be linked with his view that free public education is a menace to a well-governed polity and a likely instrument for the inculcation of government propaganda in the minds of working-class children and adolescents. Spencer summarized his case against public education in these words:
Legislators who in 1833 voted 30,000 a year to aid in building school-houses, never supposed that the step they then took would lead them to forced contributions, local and general, now amounting to £6,000,000; they did not intend to establish the principle that A should be made responsible for educating B’s offspring; they did not dream of a compulsion which would deprive poor widows of the help of their elder children; and still less did they dream that their successors, by requiring impoverished parents to apply to Boards of Guardians to pay the fees which School Boards would not remit, would initiate a habit of applying to Boards of Guardians and so cause pauperization.7
Spencer thus made a frontal assault on any role whatsoever for State provision of free public education. Often, too, his attacks on State-supported education were accompanied by denigration of the popular press, that is, cheap newspapers read by the literate and semiliterate proletariat. He claimed that great moral and political damage ensued from the premature education at public expense of the British working class.
How did he confront the contemporary socialist and liberal arguments favoring State education on the grounds that it would enable working people to escape from jingoism and other forms of political irrationality? Most often by simply asserting that its effects would be the direct opposite of those anticipated by collectivists. Clearly, if he had his way, tax-funded support for public education would be halted so that the press would be unable to corrupt the minds, morals, and politics of the working classes since many of them would not be able to read.
Spencer and other leading conservative Social Darwinists were strongly opposed to what Sumner called “the absurd effort to make the world over.” By this they meant deliberate and calculated attempts to restructure major social institutions through governmental or trade union action; to this they added their contempt for intellectual recipes or blueprints concocted by collectivist thinkers which interfered with man’s “natural liberty” which consisted of absolute freedom of contract and exchange and unlimited acquisition of wealth and income as well as freedom to enjoy what it would buy. They often overlooked the fact that the laissez-faire capitalism which they endorsed was itself an idealized type and a blueprint for remaking society under the direction of the business community. But, as Sumner argued:
If it is said that there are some persons in our time who have become rapidly and in a great degree rich, it is true; if it is said that large aggregations of wealth in the control of individuals is a social danger, it is not true. (p. 14)
Since the main source of great wealth between 1880 and 1920 as now was ownership and control of the major business corporations, it is evident that conservative Social Darwinism sanctions a particular set of social configurations in which large capitalists are most visible and influential.
Perhaps the most cynical and scathing indictment of equalitarian collectivism and “absurd efforts to make the world over,” however, came from the journalist H. L. Mencken who wrote against any efforts to remake society. His favorite targets were Christianity and socialism both of which he detested for similar reasons. Mencken viewed the human race rather pessimistically. The many were stupid, irrational, lazy, lacking in ambition and envious of those who succeeded. Only if natural selection were allowed to work its ways in a competitive, acquisitive market order was there any hope for the betterment of humanity. Since socialists proposed to eliminate both natural selection and basic capitalist institutions, their programs, if enacted, would only make things worse. Mencken, like many of the other conservative Social Darwinists tended to overlook the fact that laissez-faire capitalism, too, aimed at massive social reconstruction only it endorsed different means for achieving it. His blueprint as articulated in Men Versus the Man may appear to the reader to be as ideological and utopian as the Christianity and socialism he denounced.
A different view of human nature separated conservative Social Darwinians from their progressive, reform Darwinian critics. Many of the former believed that human beings were by nature egoistic and self-serving, although they did not rule out a future in which sympathy and benevolence might come to play a larger role. On the other hand, their critics tended to take a more positive view of humanity since they believed that morality was learned rather than inherited. In their view, altruism and other-regardingness also played a larger role and some degree of political and social reconstruction was thus thought to be feasible. Indeed, it was possible to use evolutionary theory to argue that industry could now be organized along cooperative rather than competitive lines because the relentless pursuit of individual self-interest was detrimental to both individual and social development. In short, humanity had evolved to a higher plane of existence as a result of evolutionary processes which would now reach fruition in a cooperative commonwealth built on social harmony and tranquility rather than on the survival of the fittest as evidenced by cutthroat competition. The writings of Arthur M. Lewis (1908) and Arthur Jerome Eddy (1913) clearly attest to the ability of reform Darwinists to exploit evolutionary theory for their own political and ideological ends and these are not always the ends of radical individualism. Reform Darwinists thus found ways to turn Spencer’s and Sumner’s arguments against them often by inverting them. The end result of the human evolutionary process could as likely be an equalitarian leveled society as the stratified, hierarchical order postulated by the conservative Darwinist. Franklin Giddings summarized the position of many reform Darwinists when he wrote:
To reintroduce and to maintain certain possibilities and tendencies toward variation is … one of the chief uses of conflict. Social evolution thus proceeds through the conflict of antagonistic tendencies, on the one hand toward uniformity and solidarity; on the other hand toward variation and individuality. In some groups, one of these tendencies predominates. Contending together, group with group, in the struggle for existence, those groups survive in which the balancing of these tendencies secures the greatest group efficiency … today we recognize [this]as belonging to the theoretical core of a scientific sociology. (p. 37)
It is important to note that sociologist Giddings, like many reform Darwinists, does not rule out competition as having a role in progress.8 He simply states that it is only one factor and not always the dominant one in social evolution.
Giddings summarizes what he takes to be Darwin’s view in The Descent of Man when the latter dealt with the origin of social habits and moral faculties. Giddings emphasizes four facts:
(1) the importance of group or tribal cohesion as a factor of success in intertribal struggle, (2) the importance of sympathy as a factor in group cohesion, (3) the importance of mutual fidelity and unselfish courage, and (4) the great part played by sensitiveness to praise and blame in developing both unselfish courage and fidelity. (p. 37)
Giddings concludes by arguing
How great has been the part played by sympathy and helpfulness in the struggle for existence, and how inadequate would be any interpretation of natural selection which accounted for it wholly in terms of superior strength, cruelty and cunning. (p. 8)
One of the most astute commentaries on the relationship between evolution and ethics which was also a reply to Eddy was that of John Dewey, the influential American philosopher, whose ideas were greatly impacted by Darwin. Dewey agreed with the critics of conservative social Darwinism that the survival of the fittest did not necessarily mean the survival of the ethically best. But he also believed that the relationship between evolution and ethics was more complex than the simple claims that morality based on natural selection was always antisocial, or that virtue was compatible with the survival of the fittest. In fact, Dewey argued that the nature of “ethical” behavior may change because the conditions of human existence change and ethics must be adapted to the changes. This is not to suggest, however, that he was a radical value relativist for he was certainly not a moral agnostic who doubts that any ethical standards can ever be shown to be superior to any others. On the contrary, he believed that the results produced by moral choice can be subjected to public scrutiny. “Value” is not in Dewey’s judgment a purely subjective state of mind in which one value is as good or as bad as another. Rather, the consequences of moral choice, that is, the individual and social results which impact on our lives can be judged by these very consequences, although he was not always forthcoming as to which consequences were most important or what standards should be used to measure them.
It is clear, however, that Dewey as a reform Darwinist believed that fostering habits of group loyalty, feelings of human solidarity and acts of altruism and self-denial, in short, other-regardingness may actually enhance the individual’s and the group’s chances of survival; whereas fostering the values assumed by conservative Darwinists to be an inevitable part of the natural order, i.e., competitiveness, predation, exploit, greed and selfishness, might lead to the destruction of the community. But, overall, Dewey mostly refused to identify any specific code of ethics and values as always leading to superior adaptation and survival because he was a process philosopher who believed the social order was usually in a state of flux and change
Still another position on the relationship between morality and evolution was that of philosopher Jacob Gould Schurman whose The Ethical Import of Darwinism (1887) asked these questions:
We want to know whether, the Darwinian doctrine of evolution being assumed, it entails any particular theory of morals. Or, since natural selection is the essence of the scientific achievement of Darwin, we have simply to ask, Does natural selection involve or indicate a definite type of ethics, so that acceptance of the one logically necessitates acceptance of the other. (p. 115)
Of course, this is not an inquiry into Darwin’s own moral development; it is a query regarding the implications of evolutionary theory with focus on his doctrine of natural selection. Like other reform Darwinists, Schurman suggests that fidelity, trustworthiness, truthfulness and obedience are as valuable as other moral traits as means of social survival. It is evident that he does not think that predation, exploitation, and cunning ensure adequate adaptability of the fittest.
But Schurman’s main target is the doctrines of the evolutionary-utilitarian school who held that “utility alone under the action of natural selection, takes on the appearance of morality.” The utility to which he refers is derived from the utilitarian philosophy of Englishman Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his disciples who argued in favor of ethical hedonism. This is the idea that virtuous acts produce pleasure while immoral acts cause pain. Since “pleasure and pain are the sovereign masters of us all” and since humans are essentially rational, they will try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The process of evolution thus becomes one in which humanity has increasingly come to view utility (pleasure) as preferable to disutility (pain). As Schurman put it, “The fundamental agreement in men’s moral notions is thus explained without any assumption of supernatural revelation or a priori intuition” (p. 131). But he disagrees with the viewpoint of the evolutionary-utilitarians.
Although he mentions other characteristics of evolutionary ethics he then focuses on “the fortuitous origin of morality through a process purely mechanical” (p. 140) which he thinks is the basic tenet of the school. He points to the fact that those who accept it “must regard moral responsibility as illusory” (p. 140) and comments that “it is worse than idle for mechanical evolutionists to talk of the reason or end or ground of morality” (p. 141).
Schurman’s own conclusions about ethics are in his view convergent with the doctrine of evolutionism and Darwinism; yet he does not believe that freedom of the will which is essential to any sound ethical system is effected in any way by evolution. Morality is much more than social utility and, in fact, seems to have its origins outside time and history in immutable human nature and conscience.
Lester Frank Ward, one of the leading American scholars and intellectuals of his time, attacked laissez-faire from several unique angles and other reform Darwinists often followed his lead. He entered the nurture versus nature debate which involves the issue of acquired versus inherited traits in “Broadening the Way to Success” (1886) by arguing, contrary to the conservative Social Darwinists, that the worshipers of genius and the expounders of heredity alike were wrong in maintaining that these qualities were inherent. In this same vein, he claimed that the chances for the discovery of native genius were the same in all classes. In fact, in summation of his argument, he asserted that “intermarriage among different ranks, neglect of the education of women, the effeminating luxury of the rich and the ennobling industry of the poor, have combined to bring about a state of things which fully justifies the law of the average equality of all classes” (p. 37). In short, although he did not believe that the laws of heredity could be altered, he did believe gifted individuals could be given the opportunity to realize their potential through governmental manipulation of the environment. This meant that social achievement is the basis for most individual achievement contrary to laissez-faire doctrine. In Ward’s view, this claim underlay any prospects for a genuine science of sociology.
That Darwinism could be applied in social psychology and sociology was evident in the writings of James Mark Baldwin. Yet he insisted that it should be used sparingly and in a more sophisticated fashion. Social mimesis, emulation and imitation, for example, were viewed by Baldwin not simply as synonyms for the imitative, but as having both a biological and social environmental basis. As he put it in 1909,
by the use of the brain, the organism becomes the instrument of mind; its various capacities are applied to new and varied uses. The plasticity of the brain and nerves is such that with its increase, the intellectual and social utilities are increasingly served. This gives … a sort of selection and survival which is quite different from that recognized in the strictly biological sciences. We find that the utility to be subserved is one of conscious cooperation and union among individuals; and the unit whose selection is to secure this utility must have the corresponding characters. This unit is not the individual, but a group of individuals who show in common their gregarious or social nature in actual exercise. (p. 43)
Baldwin thus agrees with John Dewey who once challenged a conservative critic to name anyone or anything that acted in isolation from everything else. At his death in 1952, America’s most influential philosopher was still waiting for a satisfactory answer. Likewise, Baldwin commented that “personal cooperation” and “group selection,” were “the cornerstones of the more critical and adequate social philosophy which utilizes the Darwinian principle of selection.” It is apparent at this point that while Baldwin does not deny the genetic-biological inheritance of humanity, he chooses to emphasize the plasticity and malleability of human nature and, like other reform Darwinians, its potential for change based on environmentally induced circumstances. As he puts it “social psychology shows that the “self” of the individual’s “self-consciousness” is, in its material and processes of formation, thoroughly social. Baldwin nowhere denies the importance or efficiency of rivalry and competition as general social processes; he simply insists that they alone cannot possibly explain human behavior in a scientific manner.
Undoubtedly, the most direct defense of Christianity and certainly the strongest attack on “Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism” reprinted here was Francis Bowen’s essay by that name published in the North American Review in 1879, at the beginning of the period under survey. As will soon become evident, Bowen does not agree in general with any of the other writers be they Malthusians, evolutionists or secularists. In fact, he argues against all such positions for the following reasons.
First, morality itself is not the result of mechanical-evolutionary process – it is transcendental in origin and divine in inspiration. An evolutionary ethics rooted in natural processes can only lead to a sense of despair and futility. As Bowen puts it “no organism could have been produced without an organizing mind” and he adds to this his belief as a Christian theist that the only acceptable explanation of evolution is the “story of God’s providence and incessant creative action throughout the long roll of the geologic ages of this earth.” He accuses all atheistic creeds of leading in one direction which is to bring “the world to an end as soon as possible.”
Second, the doctrines of Malthus have been proven false – his pessimism was misplaced when he argued that population growth will always outstrip the food supply and Bowen argues that
In every way, therefore, man, not Providence, is in fault. The bounties of nature are practically inexhaustible; but men are too ignorant, indolent, and self-indulgent, too much the slaves of their lower appetites and passions, to profit by them. (pp. 452–53).
On the other hand, Bowen also sharply criticizes those eighteenth-century thinkers like Condorcet and Godwin for believing that the removal of all social and political evils will lead to the reign of peace, virtue and happiness throughout the world. Bowen thus warns his readers against the seductions of secular philosophies and admonishes them to follow the tenets of Christianity which dictates multiplication of the species and the transmission of the creed and values of the Maker to their offspring as fulfillment of His divine plan.
However, not all Christians reacted to the Darwinian message in a similar fashion, be it the conservative social Darwinism of Sumner and Spencer or the reform Darwinism of Dewey, Giddings, Ward and company. In the first place, many Christians were not biblical literalists and so had less difficulty in separating the realm of science from that of religion. But many biblical literalists rejected compartmentalization of the realms of science and religion and persisted in adhering to the account of the creation in the Old Testament as well as to conventional Christian doctrine. However, another reaction to the Darwinian challenge to religious conviction and belief was to argue that evolutionary biology and Christian theology were both supreme, but in their own separate realms which, if properly understood, were not in conflict with each other. In short, belief in Christian doctrine as exemplified by the Apostles and Nicene Creed and the story of the creation in Genesis did not necessarily contradict the Darwinian view of the evolution of the human species.
It should now be evident that between 1880 and 1920, there was no conclusive or definitive resolution of the problems raised by the Darwinian system when it was projected onto the amphitheatre of Western, particularly American, intellectual and cultural life. Although they were gradually getting the upper hand in terms of social acceptance, the evolutionists themselves, divided as they were between conservative and reform Social Darwinism as well as other groups, had to face a powerful element in the Christian community which simply refused to believe that humankind was descended from earlier and simpler life forms. The different moral codes and political and social conflict that ensued are simply evidence of the ambiguity of the Darwinian inheritance and the durability of parts of the Christian tradition.
What are we to make of all this? Not surprisingly, given the eminence of Darwin, himself, and the scientific claims made for evolutionary theory, evolutionists of various stripes began exploiting his ideas to achieve their own political and moral ends. But how legitimate and how convincing was this exploitation of a theory whose genesis lay in Darwin’s desire to explain the evolution of the natural as well as the human social order? To use sociologist Karl Mannheim’s phrase “ideology and utopia” were both postulated, the former to preserve and protect vested interests and the latter to advance the cause of radical social reconstruction. Of course, there were also attempts to rationalize racism, ethnocentrism, imperialism, colonialism and war using evolutionary biology as the “scientific” basis for such ideologies. In short, political radicals, liberals and conservatives all saw the potential of Darwinism to help advance their own politics complicating the intellectual history of the period from 1880 to 1920 even more.
The legacy that antievolutionists, conservative Social Darwinists and reform Darwinists all had to grapple with was set forth most authoritatively by Darwin who certainly ranked as the greatest scientist of his time. However, not only were his ideas novel to the educated classes most likely to be immediately exposed to them, they were not always easy to grasp since much of his reading audience had little background in biology. Furthermore, as we have seen, even the meaning of his evolutionary theory was unclear or at least ambiguous. Thus it was not surprising that much disagreement occurred particularly when the theories were applied to the social order. Indeed, the controversy over Darwinism and evolutionary biology remains with us today; witness the efforts of biblical literalists to compel the teaching of creation theory in the public schools.
1 See Peter Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution:
Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1988).
2 Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (New York: George Braziller, 1959) first published in 1944.
3 See Robert Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978).
4 Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, abridged and revised; together with The Man Versus the State (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1904), p. 290.
5 Ibid., p. 292.
6 Ibid., p. 293.
7 Ibid., p. 309.
8 Giddings as a professional sociologist reacting to the Darwinian hypothesis regarding “the struggle for existence” argues that:
the struggle itself obviously consists of four distinct and specific struggles: (1) the struggle to react, to endure heat and cold and storm, to draw the next breath, to crawl the next yard, to hold out against fatigue and despair, to explore and analyze the situation; (2) the struggle for subsistence wherewith to repair the waste of reaction; (3) the struggle for adaptation by every organism to the objective conditions of its life; and, (4) the struggle for adjustment, by group-living individuals, to one another. (p. 43)
Rick Tilman (ed.), 'Introduction', Darwin’s Impact: Social Evolution in America, 1880–1920 (Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2001), pp. ix-xxix.
© Rick Tilman, 2001.