Social Darwinism

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, a book hotly debated for decades to come. His theory of evolution, based on the concept of the survival of the fittest, was, by some thinkers, applied to human society. The most eminent proponent of Social Darwinism is Hubert Spencer (1820-1903); in 1857 - two years before Darwin - he published the essay Progress, Its Law and Causes.
Spencer argued that every man (person) was responsible for his own fate; those who lived in misery deserved to die. On the other hand, those who amassed fortunes, deserved these as well. The reasons for economic success or failure - within the individual's family background, his own conscious decisions or his genes - were immaterial. The economy, by the process of selection, would eliminate the weakest. Social Darwinists would argue that charity actually ran counter what they referred to as "the natural process of selection" and they blamed the church for thus having systematically obstructed progress, over centuries.

The same argumentation applied to the European working classes, to the starving Irish peasants of the late 1840es, and to the plantation and mine workers in the colonies. As creation was explained by evolution, Social Darwinism was a branch of atheistic thought.

Social Darwinism, from Shermis Website; from Victorian Web
Biography of Herbert Spencer, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, from Victorian Web
DOCUMENTS Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism (1857), excerpts, from Modern History Sourcebook

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 10th 2003, last revised on November 16th 2004

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