Social Darwinism
   An ideological trend widespread at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries advocating laws of human social and political development based on crude association with the laws of biological evolution theorized by Charles Darwin. Competition, natural selection, struggle for existence, and survival of the most adaptive individuals are recognized as basic determinants of social life and in a wider context applied to social theory, arguing the necessity of competition for social progress. It originated in the specific historical, cultural, political, and economic context of the end of nineteenth century, characterized by wars over resources, competition in the world market, rising militarism and territorial expansionism, class struggle, social tensions, and antagonistic nationalisms. In such situations it became convenient to believe that the world of nations was organized according to the same basic principle as the animal world and that predatory behavior afforded the best chances of survival.
   Aspects of social Darwinism are found in the ideas of English economist and priest Thomas R. Malthus (1766–1834), according to whom contradictions and difficulties of social progress were explained by eternal and absolute laws of nature. Malthus was well known for his “natural law” of human population growth and regulation. A theoretical expression of social-Darwinist views is found in works of the English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). It was Spencer who coined and put into circulation in social science the concept of “struggle for existence.” In nature the best chance for survival belongs to the best-adapted organisms, the organisms with the highest degree of functional differentiation. According to Spencer, in a social context, the higher the internal differentiation of the society, the higher its capacity to adapt. Spencer neglected the role of the state and of any political institutions in society regulation. At his later period he underlined primacy of the individual in the industrial society; the role of the state he considered as secondary and non-necessary in the process of social development. As a result of Spencer’s significant impact and influence on the development of social Darwinism’s theoretical base, this direction in social thought sometimes is also called spencerism. In Great Britain Darwinist ideas applied to social behavior were sometimes used as an argument to attack privileges, but they were also used to explain failure. The most politically liberal form of social Darwinism was developed in the United States and is associated with a new generation of industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who considered their success in business as the best proof of the social Darwinist principle that competition inevitably leads to progress. The least liberal form of social Darwinism saw an inherent virtue in competitive nationalism and militarism, at its worst justifying, in an age of rampant colonial competition, the subjugation of inferior peoples by their “natural” Superiors.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979;
    Crook, David Paul. Darwinism, War and History: The Debate over the Biology of War from the “ Origin of Species ” to the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994;
    Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1880–1946: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997;
    Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. New York: G. Braziller, 1959.
   OLENA V. SMYNTYNA

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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