Social Darwinism Essay, Research Paper
In his most famous book On the Origin of Species, Darwin included four major arguments: that new species appear; that these new species have evolved from older species; that the evolution of species is the result of natural selection; and “that natural selection depends upon variations and the maintenance of variation in spite of the tendency of natural selection to eliminate ‘unfit’ variants” (403). After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) took hold of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applied it to society as well as evolution. He strayed from biology to society. Spencer’s ideas became known as Social Darwinism. The theory of natural selection holds that only the most well-adapted individuals in a population will survive and reproduce. These successful individuals pass on their adaptive advantage to their offspring. Over many generations, the process ensures the adaptation of the entire population to its environment. This holds true in the jungle, but it was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the competition among human individuals and groups. He argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of more advanced individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors. Wealth and power were seen as signs of inherent “fitness,” while poverty was taken as evidence of natural inferiority. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Social Darwinism was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the “unfit” poor. The theory was also used to justify racist and imperialist policies in Europe and the United States. Social Darwinist ideas fell from grace in the early 20th century; Herbert Spencer’s reputation as a philosopher and social theorist toppled with it. Spencer once wrote of society.
These are the traits that societies have in common with organic bodies. And these traits in which they agree with organic bodies and disagree with all the things entirely subordinate the minor distinctions: such distinctions being scarcely greater than those that separate one half of the organic kingdom from the other. The principles of organization are the same and the differences of application.(Spencer. P.206)
Having exhaustively spelled out the elements of the analogy between society and the features of biological organisms, he concludes that there is more than an analogy between them. Societies are organisms.
Beyond the exact definition of Darwinism, many people found personal applications to the scientific doctrine. Not only was survival of the fittest an established truth in nature, it was also more than evident in human society. Many people, after reading the benefits associated with reproduction of the strong, began to place human activity under the scrutiny of science. Those who found that the principles of Darwinism advocated their personal goals in society took great lengths to spread the word of Social Darwinism. This was a doctrine that called for free competition among humans and a setting in which the dominating class was the major contributor of offspring. A further example would be:
We see that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious, who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes, which included the largest number of men thus endowed, would increase in number and supplant other tribes. (Crook, 23)
The primary supporters of Social Darwinism included the hard-nosed capitalists who fought for laissez faire. These people wanted an economic market that was free from outside regulation. They contended that the system itself, like nature, had inherent systems of checks and balances. Favorable variations would be preserved and unfavorable ones would be destroyed. Because the stronger and more cunning fox survives, he passes on his positive traits and furthers the entire species genetically. Similarly, the stronger and more successful businessman weeds out his unskilled competitors. This allows the entire system to progress and provides positive examples for future generations to follow. If there was a “natural order” to nature which, if left alone, would progress to the survival of the fittest, then any tampering with that order would strike against natue and weaken society. If nature had an iron law, then justice, equality, and natural rights were fiction. There were no rights against a nature which sanctions ruthless competition. Any principles not found in the jungle, should not be found in society. This justification through ?scientific law? promoted acceptance because science was held in high regard at the time. When lectures, publications, and even private conversations tackled the controversial issue of business regulation, people cited the principles of Social Darwinism time and time again. By providing firm scientific principles that could be used as evidence on popular issues, Social Darwinism consumed discussions and spread wildly. These concepts and laws that Social Darwinism entails were obviously more widely accepted by the upper classes and business men who would benefit most by this organization of natural selection. While this didn’t leave the lower classes with nothing, it did increase competition and productivity in economic society.
But although the idea and theory of Social Darwinism is relatively straight forward, its impact on the progress of man and society is not so easily seen. As social Darwinism supports “survival of the fittest,” it is only through this that we can see what influence it had on societies progress. The theory contends that all human progress depends on competition. Social Darwinists believed that this competition was a natural process and any interference with this process would have perilous results. Because society is made up of a number of different people, who fall into different classes, social Darwinism worked for some but not for all. It brought the men who were already in power into greater control, but kept the lower classes and minorities at a stand still. A friend of Darwin once wrote him, saying:
Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turks hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the highest civilized races throughout the world (Crook, 25)
William Graham Sumner(1840-1910) was a Yale professor and was influential on economic matters in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. Also a Social Darwinist he believed that “The millionaires are a product of natural selection.” Like Spencer before him, Sumner, wrote many essays about his firm belief in laisse-faire, individual liberty, and the innate inequalities among people. He viewed competition for property and social status as a good thing that eliminated the ill adapted and preserved racial soundness and cultural strength. For William Sumner, the middle class Protestant values of hard work, thrift, and sobriety were worthy of high praise because the set the stage for wholesome family life and sound public morality. He was against any reforms to help the poor because, in his view, creation of a welfare state would put excessive economic burdens on the middle class whose members would have to pay for it through taxation.
Social Darwinism still, and always will, exist in the present day, in some respects. Although now is not a period known as Socialy Darwinistic, it can be found in the modern day class system. “Survival of the fittest” is still a theory that drives many a man to succeed and strive for greatness. It is not such a solid or segregated system as was in the past, but it is none the less there. If a man is born into wealth, he usually retains that wealthy status of high society his entire life. But in the modern nation, the chance to achieve greatness is given to all, regardless of the class the are born into. But as these people come to power and others fall, the are positioned in classes, which usually leads to marriage and breeding inside those classes. Because of this children are still born into segregated positions in society. This is unavoidable in any structured society. In this respect, Social Darwinism has always existed in our society and this specific incident did not have a positive or negative effect on society.
As a whole Social Darwinism inevitably served as an aid to social progress, because it had an impact on modern society. Along the lines of Darwinistict thought, a species must evolve to adapt to his surroundings. Humans follow the same pattern as all species in this effect. Society as a whole is always changing and evolving to fit its surroundings, and in doing so, is progressing, whether in a positive or negative direction. When the question is asked, “Did Social Darwinism have a positive impact on society?,” there is no way to answer, because society is a constantly changing organism. The only thing that can be taken as fact is that Social Darwinism did have a large impact on today’s modern society.