In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Darwinism

  • Introduction
  • Journals

Sociology Social Darwinism
Peter Bowler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0166


Social Darwinism is a complex and controversial topic, a package of ideologies supposedly inspired by biological evolutionism that is of interest to scholars of both the life and the social sciences. In principle it includes any political system inspired by the view that human nature and social activity are driven by our biological nature, especially as defined by the process of evolution. The complexity of the topic derives from the fact that the term social Darwinism has been applied to a number of different (and to some extent incompatible) ideologies. The key feature is supposed to be the influence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, in which the “struggle for existence” determines the “survival of the fittest,” thereby ensuring that the species adapts to new conditions—although it is widely assumed that the process also guarantees progress toward higher levels of complexity. The classic image is of the proponents of unrestrained free-enterprise capitalism justifying their policy by appealing to the “survival of the fittest.” But the term has also been applied to justifications of militarism and imperialism (national or racial struggle) and to the eugenics movement’s efforts to replace natural selection with a process of artificial selection by restricting the reproduction of the “unfit.” The term has also been applied to more or less any claim that human nature is fixed by hereditary factors, especially those linked to social class or race. The topic is contentious because social Darwinism is almost always used in a pejorative sense—the opponents of these ideologies use it to define positions they reject, and this becomes particularly sensitive when applied to areas such as Nazi racial policies and the Holocaust. Most forms of social Darwinism are associated with right-wing ideologies, despite the fact that scholars can point to many left-wing writers who were also inspired by Darwin. The problem of interpretation is compounded by the fact that historians of both the biological and the social sciences are involved, bringing very different interpretive frameworks to bear. Scholars interested in the social world tend to equate social Darwinism with any ideology based on the struggle for existence, whether or not there is evidence of inspiration from biological Darwinism. Historians of science may be well aware that the term refers to a much wider range of ideologies than those inspired directly by Darwin, but they do expect the analysis to respect the fact that other biological ideas and, indeed, other evolutionary mechanisms were involved.

General Overviews

There are few wide-ranging studies of social Darwinism, in part because so many different ideologies have been associated with the movement, but also because the national contexts in which these ideologies developed are very different. Disagreement exists even over the meaning of the term social Darwinism, often reflecting the varying backgrounds from which scholars approach the subject. Historians of the social sciences have tended to equate social Darwinism with more or less any ideology promoting the view that struggle and competition (at whatever level) are the motors of progress. Historians of the life sciences are generally more aware of the complexity of the biological debates, which provided the models on which the social policies were based and stress that the Darwinian theory of natural selection was by no means the only source of inspiration for ideologies of social progress based on the “struggle for existence.” Of the few general overviews available, Bowler 1993 provides the perspective from the life sciences, while Hawkins 1997 is written by a historian of the social sciences. Alexander and Numbers 2010 is a wide-ranging collection of essays on the relationship between biology and ideology, beginning in the pre-Darwinian period and continuing to recent debates. Tort 1992 also offers a wider perspective, but one generated from outside the English-speaking world.

  • Alexander, Denis R., and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. 2010. Biology and ideology from Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A collection of essays that includes material on the origins of race science, Darwin’s social views, the idea of progress, eugenics, the role of Marxism, and 20th-century developments.

  • Bowler, Peter J. 1993. Biology and social thought, 1850–1914. Berkeley: Office for the History of Science and Technology, Univ. of California.

    A survey of the early development of links between evolution and ideology noting the impact of both Darwinian and non-Darwinian evolutionary theories and showing how anthropologists and archaeologists developed a model of human progress independently of developments in evolutionary biology.

  • Hawkins, Mike. 1997. Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511558481

    The most comprehensive overview, based on a clear recognition of the problems generated by equating social Darwinism with capitalism. Written from the perspective of the social sciences, and thus tends to equate any ideology based on struggle with social Darwinism irrespective of the actual evolutionary models employed.

  • Tort, Patrick, ed. 1992. Darwinisme et société: Colloque international, 4–6 juin 1991, Paris. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Collects the papers delivered at an international conference. Particularly useful on social Darwinism beyond the English-speaking world.

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