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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class



Learning Objective II:

Compare Herbert Spencer's philosophy of Social Darwinism and his influences with that of of American Darwinist William Graham 

Learning Objective II Notes

Spencer built his philosophy on the biological theory of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859.


Darwin argued the species of life all around us were not created by God, but had gradually evolved over millions of years out of lower orders of life. This was accomplished through the operation of the principles of "natural selection."

According to Darwin, all forms of life were engaged in an unceasing "struggle for existence" in a changing environment. Man of the landed or industrial frontier had to adjust to his environment or perish.


Although some died, those with physical variations that enabled them to adapt to changing conditions survived and passed those characteristics on to their offspring. This process is called natural selection.


In order to understand Darwin's theory of natural selection, four ideas need to be recognized and kept in mind.


  1. Heredity. Like tends to produce like.
  2. Variations. While an animal tends to produce offspring like itself, no two animals are exactly alike. There are always.
  3. Struggle for existence. Because there is not enough food or space for all living creatures, there is fierce competition for life, constituting a struggle for existence.
  4. Survival of the fittest. Offspring with the most favorable variations--that is, those best adapted to the conditions under which they lived--were the ones that survived. The rest of the species fell in the struggle and did not propagate their kind.

The only organisms which remained to have offspring were those with the special ability to adapt themselves to their environment


Because of variations in these offspring , certain of them possessed further special ability to adapt themselves. After this process of variation and selection had gone on for a period of many generations, the organisms which survived differed markedly from those that first struggled to adapt; a new species had arisen.


In other words, nature, in the struggle for existence, selects the organism most capable of adaptation to the environment. Supposedly, this leads to the improvement of each creature in relation to its environment and consequently to the advance of the species.


Social Darwinism used biological laws to justify the workings of the free market. It applied the theory of evolution and the principles of natural selection to society and explained the economic fight between one man and another over nature's scarce resources.

Spencer argued that human society and institutions, like organisms, passed through the process of natural selection, which resulted in his phrase, the "survival of the fittest." Thus, Social Darwinism was a justification for the wealth of the rich as they deserved what they had because they were the fittest within society and produced what society needed.


The poor were weak, and like the rest of nature's processes, had to be weeded out as they were a drag on society. The only acceptable charity was voluntary, and even that was of dubious value.


Spencer warned that


"...fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of the good, is an extreme cruelty."


American businessmen in particular appreciated the application of Spencer's evolutionary ideas to social and economic practices. According to the theory. successful businessmen and corporations were the engines of progress .


If small businesses were crowded out by trusts and monopolies, that too was part of the process.


John D. Rockefeller told his Baptist Sunday school class: "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest.... The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God."


Since Spencer felt success in business demonstrated superior ability to adapt to circumstances, failure implied inferior ability.


He was convinced that intrusion of the state into economic and social spheres only interrupted the process by which nature impersonally rewarded the strong and eliminated the unfit.


Spencer opposed relief for the poor, housing regulations, public education, and even laws to protect consumers from medical quacks.


Spencer felt if society changed at all it must move slowly. Attempts by reformers to hurry it along were futile, as the process of nature was predetermined. Man could not control nature , but could only enjoy what nature allowed him. Social evolution implied progress, ending "only in the establishment of the greatest perfect ion and the most complete happiness."

The most original thinker among the American Darwinists was William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) , who preached a brand of Social Darwinism that was more rigorous and less optimistic than Herbert Spencer


Sumner, like Darwin and Spencer, accepted the theory of competition as a law of nature. But, unlike Spencer, Sumner did not feel that the pressure for food or the struggle for life made for inevitable progress


According to Sumner, there would always be inequities in society, and there would always be a group of people at the bottom of the social pyramid because men are not equal. Sumner felt private property was an important feature of society in the struggle for existence in that it produced inequalities between men . Property allowed some men to enjoy more rights and privileges in society than other men.


Nature grants her rewards to the fittest if there is liberty. "Liberty means the security given to each man that if he employs his energies to sustain the struggle on behalf of himself and those he cares for, he will get from nature in just proportion to his works ."


In other words, liberty means the existence of laissez-faire . For Sumner, this was the system of nature.


The inequalities would be relieved , but survival of the unfit would be furthered and liberty would be destroyed.


Democracy, according to Sumner, was not based on reason, but created by the opportunity founded in the landed frontier. Democracy was created by the opportunity found in the landed frontier. As the landed frontier diminished so would democracy; hence , showing itself to be merely a temporary condition .


As Sumner's arguments became accepted in society , the anti-government

appeal did more than merely paralyze political initiative.


It also shifted the governmental balance away from the executive and legislative branches to the judicial.


"The task of constitutional government ," declared Sumner, "is to devise institutions which shall come into play at critical periods to prevent the abusive control of the powers of a state by the controlling classes in it." Sumner meant the judiciary.


From the 1870's on, the courts increasingly took this protective role of property and the right to acquire it. During the 1870's and 80's, the judicial attack was directed mainly against the social welfare and regulatory laws created by the states.


During the 1870's and 80's, the judicial attack was directed mainly against the social welfare and regulatory laws created by the states.

The major weapon used by the Supreme Court was the Fourteenth Amendment , which prohibited the states from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property , without due process of law." This due process clause, intended to protect the civil rights of the freed slaves. gradually became a tight restraint against state interference with economic and business activity.


In the 1880's and 90's, the Supreme Court erected similar barriers against the federal government through narrow interpretations of the Constitution. As discussed under the development of the railroads. the Court ruled in 1895 that the power to regulate interstate commerce did not cover manufacturing, and the power to tax did not extend to personal incomes.


Finally, since economic success was the mark of fitness and since fitness can be equated with goodness, Sumner felt the rich were not only the highest products of the evolutionary process , but morally they were the best members of society.


The opposite, of course, held true for the poor. As material ¬∑wealth had become a sign of goodness and usually met acceptance within our society, wealth had become an absolute value.