Social Darwinism

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Related to Social Darwinism: Herbert Spencer, Social Gospel

Social Darwinism

a term for social theories that apply Darwinian principles of NATURAL SELECTION to societies (see also DARWIN). The best-known proponents of this position were SPENCER (1820-1903) in the UK, and W. G. Sumner (1840-1910) in the US, both of whom argued forcefully that society should be viewed as if it were an adaptive organism (see SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST). It is important to distinguish this from more generally evolutionist social perspectives which may not share the hard FUNCTIONALISM inherent in this approach, but simply a belief in some kind of directed social transformation (see EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY, SOCIOCULTURAL EVOLUTIONISM). The term is now almost always used pejoratively by social theorists who object to the importation of the biological analogy into the study of human social life. It is also regarded as politically problematic, since, if individuals and societies are subject to the survival of the fittest, then the status quo is always seen as justifiable. Social Darwinist ideas are now sometimes presented as SOCIOBIOLOGY.

Social Darwinism


an ideological current in bourgeois social thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by reduction of the laws of development of human society to the laws of biological evolution and by the assertion that natural selection, struggle for life, and survival of the fittest are the decisive factors in the life of society.

Social Darwinism traces its earliest origins back to T. Malthus and its immediate origins to H. Spencer. It is marked by extreme diversity. Its adherents include those who advocate social inequality, such as the American sociologist W. Sumner, and those who oppose social inequality, such as the Italian sociologists M. Vaccaro and E. Ferri. They include bourgeois reformers, such as the American sociologist A. Small, and conservative proponents of the need for spontaneous social development, such as Spencer and Sumner. Some of the most reactionary varieties of Social Darwinism are closely associated with racism, as is the case, for example, with L. Woltmann of Germany and G. Vacher de Lapouge of France. Others are linked with the psychological school in sociology, for example, Small, the English sociologist W. Bagehot, and the Austrian sociologist G. Ratzenhofer.

Social Darwinism biologized the social processes in various ways. The German sociologists W. Schallmayer and G. Mazat drew their conceptions directly from the principles of biological evolution. Other Social Darwinists, such as Vaccaro, attempted to demonstrate the differences between the struggle for existence among animals, on the one hand, and the struggle for existence among men, on the other. Finally, still others, such as the Austrian sociologist and legal scholar L. Gumplowicz, reduced social processes to biological processes by emphasizing the primacy of the social conflicts that arise as humans satisfy their needs and strive for dominance.

Social Darwinism provided a certain substantiation to the link between biological and social processes and, in contrast to theories that viewed society as a harmonious whole, emphasized the conflictual and contradictory character of social development. Some Social Darwinists investigated certain aspects of life in primitive societies and the role of social norms and customs in the regulation of human behavior. However, the fundamental principles of Social Darwinism are untenable. Social Darwinism’s main theoretical failings are its naturalistic explanation of social phenomena, its denial of specificity to social phenomena, and, thus, its reductionism, that is, its reduction of social laws to biological laws. The Social Darwinists’ vulgar interpretation of evolutionary theory leads them to a simplistic and distorted approach to social conflict, which they regard as “natural,” eternal, and unavoidable, and whose role they examine apart from its connection with antagonistic social relations. The most reactionary variants of Social Darwinism have been used as ideological justification for the class rule of the bourgeoisie and for militarism and expansionism in foreign policy.


Engels, F. Anti-Dühring. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Darvinizm imarksizm. Kharkov, 1923.
Kon, I. S. Pozitivizm v sotsiologii. Leningrad, 1964.
Hofstadter, R. Social Darwinism in American Thought, rev. ed. New York, 1959.
Rogers, J. “Darwinism and Social Darwinism.” Journal of the His-tory of Ideas, 1972, vol. 33, no. 2.


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