Darwin’s Theory Of Natural Selection And Social Darwinism

2711 words - 11 pages

The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 had far reaching consequences. One of the most important notions in his ground-breaking book was the claim that no species is fixed. Rather “a well marked variety may .... well be called an incipient species,” demonstrating that nature is not static but a continuum where varieties beget species. Assuming that man was a part of nature, a concept many scientists had come to accept, this principle could be extended to include human societies. Thus, by applying the principles of evolution, human stock could be manipulated and improved. Evolutionary principles were also applied to justify particular ideologies and human social ...view middle of the document...

Hobson’s assessment of contemporary journals finds that Social Darwinism was often a criticism levelled by the left wing against the right. This biased contemporary assessment influenced traditional historians, such as Hofstadter. He believed that Social Darwinism was largely defined by Darwin’s core doctrines. If taken literally, these could be interpreted to support either an individualist, no-regulation viewpoint or an interventionist eugenicist one.

However, Halliday believes this narrow view of Social Darwinism is flawed in two respects. First, he contends that as there were many different views of how evolution occurred, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not the only approach to how nature, and thus society worked, or how it could be manipulated. He cites as an example Spencer’s work, Social Statistics, which was published eight years before The Origin, so cannot have been influenced by Darwin. His opening chapters make clear his belief in Lamarckian evolution . Thus, by Hofstadter’s definition, even Spencer would not be a Social Darwinist. Halliday also argues that the belief that Social Darwinism is committed to right wing ideologies is flawed because, as Robert Bannister points out, most of the literature supporting this view comes from left wing theorists.
Historian Paul Crook presents a “generalist” definition of Social Darwinism as a counterpoint to the traditional one. It takes into account a variety of political views, all Darwin’s works, not just his core doctrines, as well as other evolutionary perspectives. Crook’s definition is broad enough to include the wealth of socialist Social Darwinist literature as well as non-Darwinian Social Darwinists, such as Spencer. This view makes more sense in light of this revision of our understanding of Social Darwinist literature.

Darwin’s principle of competition for limited resources as a driving force of adaptation of species might well have been taken up by classic economic theorists, using it as a justification for individualism to drive human progress. This kind of Social Darwinism rejected philanthropy and social welfare as biologically counter-productive. Hofstadter argued strongly that this viewpoint was influential in the nineteenth century leading to a heyday of laissez-faire Social Darwinism. However, this was based on misrepresented extracts taken from Spencer and Sumner in particular. Bannister, on the other hand, is critical of Hofstadter, claiming he got the wrong impression, and Spencer himself retorted that his books contained ideas “diametrically opposed to that of brute individualism”. Meanwhile, Andre Pichot argues that because Darwin developed his theory from common social and economic concepts – for example, competition as a force for progress - it was no surprise that these ideas were incorporated in sociology as facts, once there was a biological basis for them. This is an important point. It places Darwin’s theory within a social context...

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