Anyone with even a moderate background in science has heard of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Since the publishing of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin’s ideas have been debated by everyone from scientists to theologians to ordinary lay-people. Today, though there is still severe opposition, evolution is regarded as fact by most of the scientific community and Darwin’s book remains one of the most influential ever written.
Its influence has even extended into realms other than biology and science. An entire method of looking at and interpreting society has come into being partly from the ideas of Darwin. This methodology is known as social darwinism. One can trace the roots of this idea all the way back to the time of Darwin and his contemporaries, and proponents of the theory remain strong even today. Social darwinism has shown its influence in many ways throughout history and is seen to be just as controversial as Darwinian evolution.
The theory of social darwinism was first introduced to the public in “A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility”, an article by Herbert Spencer published in 1852. This work preceded the publishing of Darwin’s book by seven years, and “given the timing, it is curious that Darwin’s theory was not labeled ‘natural Spencerism’ instead of Spencer’s theory being labeled ‘social Darwinism.’” Spencer’s article, though mainly focused on biology and the ways in which animal populations develop, does include an inkling of the social ideas he would later more fully examine. His main theory of population deals with survival of the fittest, a phrase he coins in this article. During his examination of the topic, Spencer associates races of humans with species of animals in the evolutionary struggle.
“Nature secures each...advance by a succession of trials, which are perpetually repeated, and cannot fail to be repeated, until success is achieved. All mankind in turn subject themselves more or less to the discipline described; they either may or may not advance under it; but, in the nature of things, only those who do advance under it eventually survive. For, necessarily, families and races whom this increasing difficulty of getting a living which excess of fertility entails, does not stimulate to improvements in production - that is, to greater mental activity - are on the high road to extinction; and must ultimately be supplanted by those whom the pressure does so stimulate.”
Here, the basis of Spencer’s social darwinism is seen. Those humans who are less intelligent or prosperous are weeded out by the evolution of society.
Spencer elaborates on societal evolution in his book Social Statics. As society evolves, it is always striving for the ideal. “So long as society is let alone, its various structures will go on developing in due subordination to...