Social Impacts Of The Theory Of Evolution

This article covers the social impacts of the theory of evolution.

Social Darwinism refers to the attempts to utilize the evolutionary theory of Darwin to give descriptions of society or prescriptions for its best constitution. According to that theory, there is a struggle for existence among animals and plants which results in evolutionary change. This change is not neutral, it entails ‘development’, which may be regarded as ‘progress’. The implied value in ‘progress’ was the cue for some thinkers to argue that evolutionary change should be deliberately nurtured by the more intense prosecution of the struggle for existence which would encourage the ‘best’ out of individuals and societies.

Darwin himself agreed on better adaptation, and increasing complexification, but wholly rejected the idea that the evolutionary progress of organisms had any kind of moral implication. He understood the ‘improvement’ implied in ‘progress through evolution’ in a functional rather than an ethical, moral, or social sense.

Darwinism – Spencerism

By some analogy to its biological counterpart, Social Darwinism argues that the struggle for existence among humans may be expected to yield social progress, just as struggle among human communities does produce evolutionary adaptive results. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English sociologist and philosopher, was the pioneer of this approach, so much so that Social Darwinism might, in many respects, be better called ‘Social Spencerism’. Spencer was raised in the competitive atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution and remained one of the great champions of laissez-faire economics. It was he who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ to describe natural selection, although he was never a convinced Darwinist. He had already accepted a progressive view of human society, and the idea of biological evolution, during the 1850s, before Darwin’s theory became public. For Spencer, Malthus’s ‘law’ of demographic change was the dynamic agent of social development, constantly forcing societies to progress economically in order to escape the pressure of limited resources. At the same time, he was convinced by Lamarck’s arguments for evolution and began to see the possibility of constructing a synthesis that would unite all aspects of natural and human evolution under the same laws.

social darwinism

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism and the American Way

Social Darwinism received some of its widest support in the U.S where the laissez-faire economics developed in England and France in the late 18th century was vigorously espoused, and where, after the successful War of Independence, rights of the individual (especially in the form of freedom from government interference) were enthusiastically promoted. The leading Social Darwinist in American academic circles was William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), Professor of political economy and social science at Yale which, under his influence, became a kind of pulpit for Social Darwinism. His ideas were derived chiefly from Spencer. He viewed the capitalist system with great favour because it allowed the free play of the ‘competition of life’. Unlike Spencer, he was very pessimistic and didn’t look forward to a future state of equilibrium. The well-known industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1 835-191 4), held the view that individualism, private property, the law of accumulation of wealth and the law of competition promoted the highest and best in human achievements. Other businessman liked to see (and present) themselves as successful survivors in the struggle for existence. For example Rockefeller said: ‘The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest…’. Interestingly, many rich American industrialists and businessmen found no difficulty in accommodating Christianity to the Darwinian idea of a competitive struggle which ‘necessarily’ eliminated the weaker parties in the struggle.

War of Nations and Races

It is not surprising that Social Darwinist arguments were readily extended to the conclusion that evolutionary progress of mankind is furthered by inter-racial or inter-national struggles. The theory of evolution could be and was used in justifications of wars for national or racial supremacy. The best known writer in this vein was the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896). In his ‘Politics’, he argued that the weak must perish, and that they perish ‘justly’: ‘The grandeur of history lies in the perpetual conflict of nations, and it is simply foolish to desire the suppression of their rivalry.’

Though Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) never stated explicitly that he was drawing on Darwin’s theory of evolution, we can easily see the Hitlerian doctrine of racial superiority a kind of Darwinism carried to logical extreme of madness. (Darwin himself might have had some racist tendencies. For example, he wrote: ‘The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.’)

Influence on Political Ideology

Spencerian Social Darwinism reached its peak of influence in 1882, when Spencer visited U.S. for an extensive lecture tour. But that tour also coincided with the beginning of questioning and reaction. Leading the reaction was Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913), a geologist and a professor of sociology. Ward took his stand on the side of nurture in the growing controversy of nature vs. nurture. His thoughts can be described as reformed or liberal Social Darwinism, repudiating the struggle doctrines of the laissez-faire school in favour of emphasis on social improvement through attention to the conditions of the social environment.

Australia, in the period from 1860 to 1885, saw the most frequent advocacy of Spencerian evolutionary ideas. Many Spencerian, Darwinian and Malthusian ideas and slogans were repeated by politicians, businessmen, academics, and journalists, just as in the U.S. But the succeeding period of economic depression dampened the enthusiasm, again as in the U.S., and criticisms began to develop and made themselves felt in the 1880s.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, various political and intellectual ideologies were clearly inspired to some degree by Social Darwinism-militarism, colonialism, racism, Nazism. Even socialism and anarchism were influenced by this doctrine. Marx and Engels were much interested in Darwin’s work, and used his theory to underpin their notion of the historical evolution of class struggle.

Essentialism and Relativism

The influence of Darwinism on philosophical ideas was considerable and many-sided, but the precise way this influence worked is by no means easy to state in simple terms. Generally, Darwinian theory promoted or assisted the decline of Essentialism and the concomitant rise of relativism in many branches of philosophy. The doctrine of essences, all allegedly ‘ultimate explanations’, was driven out of philosophy. The American school of philosophy called ‘Pragmatism’, developed in the 1870s, was self-consciously influenced by Darwinism, some of its proponents being firm believers. Notably, Chauncy Wright (1830-1875), who, to Darwin’s considerable pleasure, defended the Darwinian theory against the perceptive attacks of some Catholic scholars. Charles Pierce (1839-1914), after his careful study of Darwin’s work, envisaged a kind natural selection process acting on ideas.

Ethics Right Wrong Ethical Moral Integrity

Ethics, Right Wrong


Darwin himself was one of the first to consider the relationship between ethical theory and evolutionary doctrines, as when he argued that altruism might have had an evolutionary origin. He tried to show how ethical behaviour would have survival value, and thus might become established in human societies. But Darwin didn’t take the further step and say that one might distinguish between right and wrong by considering what had happened during the course of evolution, or where it was going in future. Evolution in itself did not provide an ethical code. Herbert Spencer, however, went beyond Darwin and hinted that this would be a possibility, as he wrote, ‘The conduct to which we apply the name good, is the relatively more evolved conduct, and … bad is the name we apply to conduct which is relatively less evolved.’

Such opinions were countered by T. H. Huxley in his 1893 essay, ‘Evolution and ethics’, saying that one cannot possibly draw any moral or ethical conclusions from a consideration of the course of evolution, evolution and ethics are quite distinct. Although his arguments were quite persuasive, others went on attempting to derive ethical norms from the evolutionary process.

Exclusion of the Supernatural

Darwinian theory was purely naturalistic; it made no appeal to entities such as God, divine spirits, hypothetical intellects, final causes, souls or Platonic ideas. By providing an alternative naturalistic explanation of design, Darwin made it seem less necessary to construct a view of the world that invoked some kind of supernatural being. Darwin’s theories therefore gave considerable support to materialist interpretations of the world. The old mind/body dualism of Descartes and his followers would be replaced by a monistic materialism. This attitude proved particularly attractive in Germany, in the writings of the members of so-called ‘Monist League’, the work of the philosopher/biologist, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) being particularly prominent. Haeckel, once regarded as a progressive liberal opposed to the excesses of arbitrary state power, has (in the light of more recent studies) come to be considered as one of formative influences on German Nazism. The three main strands in his thought were German Romantic Idealism, scientific positivism and materialism, and Darwinism. But Haeckel’s materialism was interestingly different; for him, atoms were endowed with souls.

Also drawing on biological evolution, although less directly, was the philologist and nihilist professor, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), particularly in his poetic-philosophic discourse work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He believed that by a proper exercise of will, certain men might evolve into a world-elite of ‘Ubermenschen’ or Supermen. Superman would be his own master and might succeed to the rank and authority traditionally associated with God.


Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, (1859-1941), accorded primacy to spirit and intuition, rather than matter and analysis. Metaphysics was concerned with spirit and intuition, and he sided with the metaphysicians. Bergson’s evolutionism, though all-pervasive in his system, was very different from Darwin’s naturalistic, mechanistic or materialistic doctrine of evolution by natural selection. It is clear that Bergson far transcended the hard ground of Darwinian science and moved on to the lusher fields of speculative metaphysics. In its time, his work Creative Evolution aroused considerable excitement and enthusiasm.

On the subject of metaphysics Darwin himself was somewhat sceptical: ‘To study metaphysics as it has always been studied appears to me to be like puzzling at astronomy without mechanics.’ He felt that one who had explained the (biological) origin of man, who knew what a baboon was, had done more to explain man than Locke.


Darwinism’s impact on religion can be summarized by saying that it undermined religious beliefs, and was one of the major influences in encouraging agnosticism. Its naturalistic structure opposed the teleological basis of Christianity and other religions. Between 1830 and 1875, we observe an evolution in British society and particularly British scientific society. In 1830s, science as a profession was just beginning, and because of the peculiarities of British higher education there were strong links between science and organized religion. The next forty to fifty years saw those links weaken and break; and evolutionism, particularly Darwinian evolutionism gained the opportunity to be used. Darwin succeeded where Chambers (who proposed a designed evolution) failed, because Darwin had earned respect as a scientist. So for this change in Victorian Britain, the Darwinian Revolution was part cause and part effect.


Evolution, one of the fundamental discoveries and concepts in modern thought, is central to modem biology and to the use of biology in modern society. Without it, genetics, physiology, ecology, and every other aspect of biology would lack coherence. Evolution has also added new perspectives to the discussions on scientific methodology. More dramatic (and famous) has been the theory’s extra-scientific impacts. Evolution has been and probably will remain a doctrine that has consequences for our understanding of the nature of man, and the purpose (or lack of purpose) in his existence. Also, because of its social implications, as in human genetics, evolution is a subject highly charged with emotion, and much of the literature on it suffers from unspoken and often untested assumptions. It is very difficult to discuss the theory with objectivity. Discussion of it tends to spill over to virtually every area of discourse in the humanities and social sciences: Sociology, Economics, Politics, Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, Literature, and Music.

By Gamze Aras

This article is borrowed from The Fountain Magazine.

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