Sociology Index


Social Darwinism is a late nineteenth century social philosophy which unites an interest in social problems, for example, inequality or social inequality, with an interpretation of Darwin's work on the origin of species. The concept of "social Darwinism" was invented by Richard Hofstadter.

Social Darwinism was the main basis for Hitler's notion of the superiority of the Aryan race. Social Darwinism served to justify the massacre of six million Jews. Reason enough in the "social sciences" efforts to implement Social Darwinism is usually regarded with much suspicion. Social Darwinists argue that the central Darwinian principle of evolution, development and progress, is the survival of the fittest and extinction of the weakest.

Applied to social affairs this implies that those who get ahead in society are the most fit and deserve their position. This perspective of Social Darwinism suggests that supporting those who fall behind interferes with the principles of evolution and obstructs social progress. Sociologists of course believe that social problems like inequality must be understood within a social and cultural context, rather than a context of biological competition.

Herbert Spencer was thinking about ideas of evolution and progress before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. His ideas received a major boost from Darwin's theories and the general application of ideas such as "adaptation" and "survival of the fittest" to social thought is known as Social Darwinism. It would be possible to argue that human evolution showed the benefits of cooperation and community. Spencer, and Social Darwinists after him took another view. He believed that society was evolving toward increasing freedom for individuals and therefore held that government intervention, ought to be minimal in social and political life. 

Social Darwinism's “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest,” was the leading strain in American conservative thought for more than a generation. It was not until the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal that the “liberal” or “progressive” side in American politics was also the side that was identified with social and economic innovation and experiment.

Creating the "Unfit": Social Darwinism or Social Triage? 
Constructing a Supply of Patients in Private Psychiatric Hospitals
Karen Glumm, Meredith College 
Jennifer D. Johnson, Research Triangle Institute 
Social Darwinism calls for "inequality, survival of the fittest" and not "liberty, survival of the unfittest. " However, this theory fails to acknowledge that fitness can be a social construction. Social triage argues that bureaucratic decision makers find it inefficient to work with certain groups, and these decision makers sacrifice these groups’ needs in order that others receive services. Social triage appears linked to social Darwinism. To favor society’s "most fit" members, it seems necessary to establish "unfit" members. Sacrificing the needs of certain populations seems possible only if fitness can be a social construction. Using a case study of efforts to reform private psychiatric hospitals, we argue that certain hospitals created a supply of "unfit" patients capable of paying the cost of private care, leading to social triage. Although it appeared that social Darwinism was outdated, the connection between these theories may suggest a resurgence in its use. 


Social Darwinism: A Determinant of Nuclear Arms Policy and Action
Alfred W. Clark, Department of Sociology, La Trobe University
Richard C. S. Trahair, Brian R. Graetz, La Trobe University
A quota sample of 679 people completed a questionnaire about their view of the world, their preferred nuclear defense policy, and their political activity. Results showed that people with a low adherence to a social Darwinist world view favored nuclear disarmament and a nonbelligerent defense policy, whereas people with a high adherence favored nuclear arms and a belligerent defense policy. The results also showed that, irrespective of a benign or hostile world view, people's feelings of learned helplessness erected a barrier to political action. But, people lower on social Darwinism overcame the barrier and engaged in more political action than people higher on social Darwinism; and these people were more inclined to vote for, or change their political allegiance to vote for a party that favored nuclear disarmament. The findings demonstrate the importance of social Darwinism as an ideology determining preferred nuclear arms policy and political action and commitment.

Hofstadter, Richard Social Darwinism in American Thought - Abstract
Darwin’s ideas were popularized in the United States just after the Civil War when there was rapid and striking economic change. The prevailing political mood was conservative. Darwinism appealed to the well-to-do and powerful who wished to defend the status quo in politics and laissez-faire in business. Darwinism, “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest,” when applied to the life of man in society, suggested that those that won were the best and that nature moved toward greater states of perfection without the need of directed reform.
This social Darwinism was one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. Indeed, it was not until the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal that the “liberal” or “progressive” side in American politics was also the side that was identified with social and economic innovation and experiment.
Social Darwinism was used to justify the hardness of life, the necessity of labor and the inevitability of suffering. Economic life punished those who were negligent, shiftless, inefficient or imprudent.
The controversy that surrounds the concept of the “welfare state” is the fact that the very idea affronts the traditions of a great many men and women who still hold to the tenets of social Darwinism.


Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought - Leonard, Thomas C. Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
Abstract: The term "social Darwinism" owes its currency and many of its connotations to Richard Hofstadter's influential Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (SDAT). The post-SDAT meanings of "social Darwinism" are the product of an unresolved Whiggish tension in SDAT: Hofstadter championed economic reform over free market economy, but he also condemned biology in social science, this while many progressive social scientists surveyed in SDAT offered biological justifications for economic reform. As a consequence, there are, in effect, two Hofstadters in SDAT. The first (call him Hofstadter1) disparaged as "social Darwinism" biological justification of laissez-faire, for this was, in his view, doubly wrong.