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Social Darwinism

What was evolutionary thought like in America during the nineteenth century?

Within educated communities, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was broadly accepted as an accurate history of living beings. Since Deism, or the idea that God was suffused throughout nature, was a widespread perspective at the time, there was not an obvious conflict between religious accounts of creation and evolution. Discussion more commonly centered on whether social forms of evolution were ruthlessly competitive or cooperative. As in nineteenth century European thought, there were two perspectives: life in society, as in nature, was "red in tooth and claw" and a matter of "survival of the fittest"; or, life in society, as in nature, evolved through cooperation. It is not surprising that the transcendentalists favored the cooperative view.

What was Social Darwinism?

Social Darwinism was an application of the Darwinian idea of the "the survival of the fittest" to inequalities and opportunities in contemporary nineteenth century society. It was an age in which the enterprising could amass large fortunes in a short period of time, although they had to compete with other capitalists. And those who labored, often in unhealthy and exhausting conditions for barely enough pay to support themselves, also competed among themselves for available jobs.

Social Darwinists wrote popular books, sometimes consisting of what today would be considered racist or class-based eugenics, and their claims made a strong impression on general readers. They shared a belief that competition was valuable in itself and that those who failed in life's contests failed a deeper test of evolutionary survival. Instead of social reform, their ideals were to encourage the traits that enabled success at competition by means of selective human breeding, as well as moral approval of the winners.

Who were the main Social Darwinists?

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), professor at Yale, was the American version of the English evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Sumner was a strong advocate of unrestricted capitalism. He was famous for his essay "The Man of Virtue," which promoted self-interest as a primary duty for individuals. The industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built on these ideas in his "The Gospel of Wealth," which further enshrined the "law of competition" as a natural principle of progress.

Did nineteenth-century American philosophers directly take up evolution?

Yes. Both John Fiske (1842-1901) and Chauncey Wright (1830-1875) believed in the evolution of consciousness and human morality. Fiske was best known as an historian for his two volume The American Revolution (1891). Wright was an empiricist philosopher of science who opposed transcendentalism and was to be influential in subsequent pragmatist thought, although he himself published very little. Lester Ward (1841-1912) was a sociologist best known for Dynamic Sociology (1883), but his main ideas in favor of intervention in social evolutionary processes proved to be relevant for future social and political philosophy.

Was nineteenth century evolutionary thought connected to ideas of progress?

Not directly, because evolution was an external force, whereas progress depended on individual human effort. But the two notions were frequently associated, as in the ideas of American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. In general, notions of progress formed both ideals and practical motivations. Society as a whole was believed to be progressing, and individuals were motivated to advance in life by becoming materially prosperous. The prosperity of society was largely believed to be a matter of technology. The nineteenth century was the first full-fledged "machine age," and it saw the inventions and wide use of the cotton gin, locomotive, telegraph, and electric lights, to name just a few.

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution were adapted to Social Darwinism (Art Archive).

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution were adapted to Social Darwinism (Art Archive).

Was Social Darwinism a beneficial set of beliefs?

Most progressives thought not. First, Social Darwinism tended to accept, if not applaud, the suffering of the poor, as though it reflected their personal weakness rather than the structure of society. And second, Social Darwinism "evolved" into a reactionary type of white supremacy.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Social Darwinism and its associated eugenics merged with white American racialist beliefs that would later be considered racist or discriminatory. For example, in 1916 amateur anthropologist and lawyer Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History. Grant propounded a theory of "Nordic Superiority" and argued for a public eugenic program to save the Nordics from being overrun by non-white racial groups. Grant's book sold 1,600,000 copies by 1937. It was widely influential in individual beliefs and public policy that restricted immigration from Asia and discriminated harshly against African Americans.

Did all nineteenth-century thinkers believe in progress?

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) certainly did. In 1876, when he set up his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he committed himself to "a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so." (Edison did get about 40 patents a year and over 1,000 before he died.)

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about new machines, though. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), for example, wrote in 1829 in "Signs of the Times," an essay that was published in the Edinburgh Review. (the signs being "The Age of Machinery") that "the shadow we have wantonly evoked stands terrible before us and will not depart at our bidding." Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote in Walden (1854): "We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us."

Still, many did share Edison's optimism, and it was the popular national view. Timothy Walker, a lawyer from Ohio, wrote in the North American

The idea of progress through technological innovation was certainly the faith held by such prominent thinkers as inventor Thomas Edison (AP).

The idea of progress through technological innovation was certainly the faith held by such prominent thinkers as inventor Thomas Edison (AP).

Review in 1831 that machines free ordinary people from burdensome labor and promote democracy.

 
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