Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism was an attempt in the late nineteenth century to rebase ethics and social policy on an understanding of the Darwinian notion of a struggle for existence. The term social Darwinism is pejorative, and usually refers to the writings of Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer and originally Thomas Malthus. It was Spencer, and not Darwin as many believe, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest". Social Darwinism can refer to both the idea that societies evolve in broadly the same way that nature does, but also to the far more controversial idea that we should actively plan social policy around this.

Darwin's belief in Social Darwinism has been a question which many historians have debated. The subtitle of The Origin of Species, "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" has been seen as an indicator of a belief in racial difference on the part of Darwin, but his negative reaction to policies suggested by Herbert Spencer, and his opposition to slavery seem to suggest that Darwin was more liberal[1].

The beliefs of the social Darwinists have been used as one of the driving forces behind eugenics (specifically by Francis Galton) and the belief in genetic determinism. Some of these factors also shaped the values of the Nazis.

The vast majority of biologists and philosophers are now critical of social Darwinism, and other attempts to draw normative ethics from the fact of evolution. Here is an example of this from Richard Dawkins:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.[2]

Social Darwinism, per se, offers a partial and misleading picture of the impact of modern biology on social understandings. Evolutionary biology and Darwinian conceptions have had a major impact on sociology and social and political theory far beyond the rather narrow purview of social Darwinism.


  1. Isaak, Mark. CA005.1: Darwin's racism in Index of Creationist Claims
  2. Dawkins, Richard. (1976) The Selfish Gene, p.2-3.