Social Darwinism

charles darwin portrait

De dwaaltocht van het sociaal-darwinisme

Vroege sociale interpretaties van Charles Darwins theorie van natuurlijke selectie 1859-1918 (Nieuwezijds Publishers, Amsterdam, 2003), 626 p.


What is Social Darwinism? How real is it and are we justified in connecting it to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution? Although these are rather basic and even old questions, they have not yet received convincing answers. ‘Social Darwinism’ as a concept for historical research is eagerly disputed. Some fourteen different definitions describing its content and meaning can be discerned. One should not narrow down Social Darwinism, as several of these definitions do, to one particular ideology such as laissez-faire liberalism or socialist reformism. Instead, Social Darwinism can best be designated a general term for all attempts to redefine social philosophy, sociology and social policy in a Darwinist sense. Many scientists and journalists in the first four or five decades following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, were deeply engaged in this process of biological re-evaluation of social theory and practice. They are all part of the history of extending Darwinism to the social realm.

It was not “a bad thing” to try this; it was inevitable, considering that Darwin himself had meant his theory (Darwinism) to be a truly universal theory. In the last pages of Origin, he had announced the further “extension” of his theory of natural selection to anthropology, psychology and history, i.e. to human psyche and human culture. The realisation of this extension was part of his own scientific program that he followed through in his Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). From this it can be seen that Social Darwinism, although certainly not always an exemplification of ‘pure Darwinism’, nevertheless developed within the boundaries of the wider domain of Darwin’s theory.
The roots of Social Darwinism cannot be found in the pre-Darwinian period. Darwin’s main idea of natural selection, the key concept all Social Darwinists reacted to, was unknown to his so-called forerunners. So long as the study of nature was dominated by natural theology and its providentialism, natural selection was an inconceivable idea. The only idea familiar to selection that the pre-Darwinians frequently used was elimination, meaning the extermination of imperfect specimens. This was seen as an instrument of Providence to keep the ever unchanging essence of a species intact. Although this older idea of eliminating the imperfect was influential in Social Darwinism and eugenics, it was only after Darwin’s theory had had its unsettling effect on traditional, providential, social theory that Social Darwinism could originate. Only after the supernatural sanction of social hierarchy had been demolished, the idea could take form that natural selection also determined social relations.

portrait_william rathbone greg

William Rathbone Greg

At first it seemed that Darwinism would benefit the democratic movement and both economic and political liberalism. After all, Darwin was inspired by the theory of political economy (popularised by Malthus) that food and other commodities are scarce, while demand, as a result of the strong growth of population, is in excess of supply. Besides, the theory of evolution did show that all people were of common descent and that purely natural causes had brought man to his present state. These ideas appealed to those who, like Wallace, Spencer and Darwin himself, were sympathetic to anti-aristocratic radicalism and its meritocratic ideals. But before the end of the 1860s the optimism of laissez-faire liberalism began to give way to emerging fears that the evolution of modern man was going the wrong direction. The industrialist William Greg was one of the first to express the fearsome idea that natural selection in modern society had turned into its opposite: reversed selection. In the processes of social selection that went on in Victorian society it was no longer the naturally fittest that survived, but the shrewdest. After his bankruptcy Greg was convinced that modern economic competition was unjust, only benefiting the wealthy and influential. Culture had become the antithesis of nature, he felt.

The biological and the mental revolution that Darwin’s theory caused also stretched out to anthropology. Here Darwinist evolution firmly linked modern man to his primitive ancestor and to his primitive contemporary, or modern wild man as Lubbock called him. The one who deeply looked into the social consequences of both this new anthropology and of Darwin’s Origin was Walter Bagehot, editor to The Economist. Each human being, Bagehot realised, was an amalgam of many formerly selected characters. In the mind of modern man lay hidden, as mental fossils, the social instincts and primitive political ideas he had biologically inherited from his ancestors. The same was true for each national culture, which was a unique product of biologically inherited traditions. Modern society rested on a basis of social instincts and cultural traditions that had been formed and selected in the struggle for existence whilst the tribes and societies that were organised best, with the strongest and most dominant leaders, emerged victorious. This social biology led Bagehot to distance himself from liberal beliefs in universal natural rights and the political idealism that accompanied it. He and Greg at approximately the same time concluded that a strong central state was essential from an evolutionary point of view. Societies were formed and maintained, Bagehot concluded, by a process of domestication and the best tamed tribes were the most coherent and therefore the strongest in battle.


Walter Bagehot

As Darwin started to write his Descent of Man, he let himself be inspired by the writings of Bagehot, Greg, Francis Galton, John Lubbock and other evolutionary anthropologists. He realised that these writings, which he admired, were all part of one big quest: to discover the role natural selection had played and still was playing in the cultural realm. He knew this was essential to his ambition to extend his theory to the descent of man as a cultural being. So he included a paragraph in Descent called Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations. It contains the essence of the lines of reasoning that all Social Darwinists followed. Here Darwin made it clear that to him social competition was a form of selection akin to natural selection and could be seen as an incentive to social progress. The success or failure of a nation depended on whether this nation had a selective advantage over one or more others. And, most important, in this paragraph Darwin hit on the same evolutionary paradox that troubled all Social Darwinists: because social co-operation was an evolutionary advantage, evolution led to the natural selection of social instincts, resulting in altruistic and co-operative behaviour. But this in turn led to social protection of the weak, who as a result were no longer eliminated and could propagate their weakness to their progeny. Thus, Darwin made it no secret that he felt haunted by the chimera of a modern society without proper selection, resulting in degeneration.

It was in France that several intellectuals for the first time became aware that a social version of Darwinism was taking shape. The young Parisian anarchist Émile Gautier in 1879 in a brochure introduced the term darwinisme social. Their defeat in 1871 by Prussia had made the French very susceptible to smug German claims of evolutionary superiority. It also made them weary of national biological degeneration, of being the unfit. As a result a debate developed in France on the pros and cons of an emerging darwinisme sociologique in which several authors presumed the existence of a school of sociologues darwiniens. This can be seen as a debate on socio-biology avant la lettre.

In the United States it was Spencer’s individualistic social philosophy that was most influential. However, Spencerism and Social Darwinism are not identical. The high tide of Social Darwinism in Europe converged with the emerging of collectivism as a reaction to the previous liberal individualism. In Great Britain Spencer’s influence was limited. After 1871 he gradually became an isolated figure, while his erstwhile liberal friends started to appeal to state authority to direct social evolution. In the eugenics debate, of crucial importance to the history of Social Darwinism, even the most private aspect of life, reproduction, was by many placed under some form of state control. Besides, the Social Darwinist position was that natural selection had an important role to play in modern society as well as in prehistoric times. Spencer on the other hand was convinced that social and cultural progress meant that modern man liberated himself from the domination of natural selection as the human mind triumphed over matter. To him evolution began ‘Darwinian’ and ended ‘Lamarckian’ as natural selection was gradually superseded by the inheritance of acquired characters, giving man more control over nature.

Alfred Russel Wallace shared the same radical anti-aristocratic ideas as Darwin and Spencer. His evolutionism was as utopian as Spencer’s: he explained man’s big brain (much bigger, he thought, than natural selection could account for) as an anticipation of the power of modern man to transcend the forces of nature. Only late in life did Wallace distance himself from the Spencerian world view he had felt attracted to for so long, choosing to follow Bellamy’s brand of socialism instead. He developed it into a kind of feminist regeneration-socialism: to woman he assigned the task of saving the biological quality of the race. Using Darwin’s concept of sexual selection, he argued that, if women consistently chose only strong and healthy males to have children with (thereby in a few generations eliminating the unfit), they could chase off the ugly ghost of degeneration that made both him and Darwin shudder. Wallace called this form of eugenics by marriage ‘human selection’ and considered it to be his greatest contribution to sociology. In this particular way he played his own part in the Social Darwinist experiment.

Central to this experiment was the idea that it was the task of biology, anthropology, sociology and the medical sciences to remedy social evils. The ‘national eugenics’ of Francis Galton and the ‘social anthropology’ of Otto Ammon are examples of this new ambition of science. Galton and Ammon, using anthropological measurements of large numbers of people, first tried to define the social and biological elite and then find ways to stimulate the procreation of this elite and hamper that of the lowest classes. Like Wallace, Galton saw eugenics as a contribution to sociology. Paul von Lilienfeld called his own special branch of sociology ‘social pathology’, speaking of society and its diseases in organic terms. So did Albert Schäffle, who tried to translate Darwin’s theory into a comprehensive ‘sociological theory of evolution’. Social evolution to him was a struggle for power, a struggle between collective bodies, and he had no doubt that in this struggle strong centralised states (“organs of collective will and collective power”), built on the basis of corporate societies, would emerge victorious. Because of the “law of growing state activity”, he thought, the social struggle for life would take on ever larger dimensions.


August Weismann

The deterministic biology of August Weismann, who strongly denied that acquired characters could be inherited, enhanced a pessimistic tendency in sociology. Weismann’s concept of panmixia (meaning that non-selective intermixture would inevitably lead to racial degeneration) was at the heart of several social pathological analyses. Without the power of selection eliminating disease and weakness in people and societies, retrogression would occur. The Social Darwinism emerging from the social pathological writings of Von Lilienfeld, Chatterton-Hill, Haycraft and Grotjahn, is quite different from the traditional picture of tycoon Darwinism that the American historian Hofstadter presented. It is a sociological Darwinism that was critical of the disintegrating tendencies of individualism and of the fierce competition for money in modern capitalism, stressing the importance of social integration and collectively controlled eugenic measures. Under the influence of Darwinism sociology did not, as Spencer had hoped, develop into the science of liberal social self-regulation; instead it became, for the time being, the science of social selection under state control. This social selectionism was carried furthest by Count Vacher de Lapouge. Haunted by the idea of the racial inferiority of his contemporary French countrymen, he pleaded for ‘practical selectionism’ in a ‘socialist-selectionist state’. His socialism however was aristocratic in the sense that it would be built on an aristocracy of race.

In Germany the Krupp-contest (1900) was a deliberate call for papers applying Social Darwinism. Of the writers who participated, only one defended a liberal Darwinism à la Spencer; most contestants pleaded for some form of state socialism. Ludwig Woltmann, who to his chagrin only won a third price, developed his own version of Darwinist socialism, in which equal chances for all in the social struggle for life were of utmost importance to keep the race fit. ‘Race’, as with Lapouge, was to Woltmann an essence not subject to evolutionary change in a Darwinian sense. Here a pre-Darwinian essentialism was revived.


Vacher de Lapouge

Ernst Haeckel too used Darwinism for his own ends, although he had reason to believe that Darwin and Huxley were readily backing him up. On the basis of Darwin’s theory Haeckel forged a non-Christian philosophy of life or Lebensanschauung, comprising both natural and cultural life. Supporting Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Roman Catholics in Germany, he hoped to break the spiritual power the church had over the German people by introducing a monistic materialism that derived its authority from Darwinian evolutionary science. His political ideal was a secularised state that was firmly based on the national philosophical unity provided by the Darwinian Lebensanschauung of monism. His Darwinismus seemed designed to bolster up the new won national unity of the fatherland. Did not Darwinism show that national egoism was justified biologically, that the state should unite its citizens just as tightly as each body united its cells, that a well-organised division of labour with each individual in its rightful place was an evolutionary asset? The twentieth century, Haeckel and his followers believed, would become ‘the monistic age’. They hoped for an international breakthrough of monism. But instead, the First World War further sharpened national rivalry, while the bloodshed and the defeat of the German army seriously shook the belief in Darwinian progress. As the French in 1871 had had to learn to live with the unpleasant idea that they were not ‘the fittest’, the Germans in 1918 found themselves in the same awkward situation. It made the social and political use of Darwinism a great deal less popular.

Nevertheless, in the decades before the tragedy of the trenches Social Darwinism had, as a kind of common ground, created an international language that, despite national accents, was understood in many countries. ‘Social selection’, ‘social evolution’, ‘struggle for life’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘degeneration’, ‘national efficiency’, ‘racial hygiene’, ‘eugenics’, ‘social pathology’: all these terms were widely understood and actively used in several countries in the post-Darwinian period.


Ernst Haeckel

Mostly they were not used in an isolated manner, but as a kind of building blocks with which patterns of reasoning were composed. Social Darwinism is formed of a limited number of such patterns. They give Social Darwinism its logical unity and even a certain degree of uniformity, which is much more characteristic of the phenomenon than its variability that has often been stressed. These patterns of reasoning in a way can be seen as the DNA-structure of all Social Darwinist publications. What had started as a rather open and international debate on the social implications of Darwin’s theory, ended in a programme of socio-biological policy that can best be described as a cult of selection.

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