While many attribute the notion of Social Darwinism as a development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, they would be wrong. Instead, it is important to take note of the work of Herbert Spencer – pre-Darwin – who coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Later Darwin used Spencer’s term to explain biological phenomenon he saw with species groups. (Modern History Sourcebook, Herbert Spencer, 1857 ).
For Herbert Spencer, some writer’s contend, Darwinian findings merely enhanced the argument he’d been waging with John Stuart Mill and further validated Spencer’s ideas about “adaptation” and “survival of the fittest” woven into social thought that followed. Translated this means that the fit have the right to survive built into their very nature. Enter the theory of what came to be known as “Social Darwinism”.
Twentieth Century Spencer
The idea of “social Darwinism” originated from debates surrounding the system of class stratification In England. It has often been used as a general term for any evolutionary argument about the biological basis of human differences. “Drawing on social Darwinism, supporters of the 20th-century eugenics movement sought to “improve” human genetic stock, much as farmers do in agriculture.” (“In the Name of Darwin”, an Essay by Daniel Kavles).
A Question of Ethics
The impetus to draw conclusions relying on Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinian ethic, called Utilitarianism, can be used in a very practical way to justify many choices we make in life. Utilitarianism generally ascribes to the notion of doing what makes you happy. Sort of as if biologically programed to excuse oneself if others get creamed in the process.
In 1903, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica noted about Spencer that his principal reasoning was flawed by a naturalist fallacy. According to Moore, Spencer equates survivability, a natural property, with goodness (a non-natural property. Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955, 41 and 46) argues that due to Spencer’s unfortunate vogue in late nineteenth-century America Andrew Carnegie and William Graham Sumner’s visions of unbridled and unrepentant capitalism were inspired.
“For Hofstadter, Spencer was an “”ultra-conservative”” for whom the poor were so much unfit detritus. His social philosophy “”walked hand in hand”” with reaction, making it little more than a “”biological apology for laissez-faire.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
However, Spencer himself wrote often and much about being a liberal of the progressive era. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes Spencer this way:
“As Spencer was a social evolutionist without question but he was never crudely social Darwinist. He was a liberal utilitarian first who traded heavily in evolutionary theory in order to explain how our liberal utilitarian sense of justice emerges.Though a utilitarian, Spencer took distributive justice no less seriously than Mill. For him as for Mill, liberty and justice were equivalent. Whereas Mill equated fundamental justice with his liberty principle, Spencer equated justice with equal liberty, which holds that the “”liberty of each, limited by the like liberty of all, is the rule in conformity with which society must be organized.”” (Spencer, 1970: 79).
Understanding Social Darwinism Spencer Style
In summing up, and using the analysis of those who wrote of Spencer as the Social Darwinist theoretician, it would seem that whether one is from the far right as Hoffstedler claimed Spender to be or the far left of the Progressive movement, when taking either theory full circle, they meet and come together. They produce the same results. Only the reasoning is different. In this case, one’s happiness is the key to be used in unlocking evolutionary design. Eugenisists rejoice!