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Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will discuss the work of Herber Spencer and his development of the theory of Social Darwinism.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Herbert Spencer portrait, Public Domain: http://bit.ly/zZxkWQ

Video Transcription

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Hello and welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson we're going to talk about social Darwinism and the work of Herbert Spencer, who really helped to give social Darwinism it's stamp. Spencer took the ideas of Charles Darwin, particularly natural selection, and coined the term Survival of the Fittest and applied Darwin's theories to society. But before we really look at Spencer's work, it will be helpful to look at the work of Charles Darwin and understand his ideas of evolution and natural selection before we can fully appreciate how these ideas were co-opted and applied to society.

Now I want to point out ready to start though that these ideas have been mostly discredited in academia in sociology. Sociologists don't call themselves social Darwinists. Although that's the case, it's important to look at this idea because it was a very important part of Western thought. Charles Darwin here. He spent a lot of time in South America and the Galapagos Islands on that ship. Darwin argued that evolution in animals happens because of natural selection.

Random genetic mutations occur within individuals that give them an advantage over other members of the species making the mutated individual more likely to reproduce and pass on his genes. So for example, suppose there's a bird out there who eats termites and he fishes the termites out of a tree where they live. So it might be advantageous for the bird to have a longer beak. Suppose every bird in the species has a beak that's about two inches long and they use it to fish termites out of the tree.

But then one bird comes along and he's born with a beak that is 2 and 1/4 inches long. And so this allows them to more easily get in there and grab termites. He is going to be more successful at it than anybody else in the species. So he's going to eat more and he's going to be more likely to reproduce and pass on those genes to the offspring, who then themselves might have longer beaks. So in this way over time, over many, many millennia genes like this get spread about the population and then before you know it all the birds have beaks that are that long.

This is how the theory of natural selection works. The bird with the longer beak was selected for because it had a mutation that was advantageous. It allowed it to out compete other finches. In fact Darwin even looked at finches on the Galapagos Islands and their beak shape to help develop this theory.

Contemporaneously with Darwin we have this guy here Herbert Spencer. He comes along and applies Darwin's thinking, particularly natural selection and competition to society as a whole. Giving us this idea of social Darwinism. Spencer wore many hats in his career as a lot of the early thinkers did. He was a philosopher, a mathematician, a natural and a social scientist. And he lived from 1820 to 1903 in England.

Now many people think Darwin gave us this adage Survival of the Fittest but it was actually Herbert Spencer. But it's OK to associate the two because it fits Darwin's theories pretty well. Spencer called evolutionary competition just that. He called it Survival of the Fittest. And thought that such competition like in nature happens in society. So Spencer argued that societies pass through a process of natural selection. And then only the most fit society's will win the competition and advance.

Although it might seem a little strange. I mean let's put this thinking in historical perspective. At the time Spencer was doing is theorizing, explorers had really begun to discover, research, and catalog tribal societies from all over the world. And for the first time in European history people like Spencer, Englishmen and Europeans became aware of the startling array of diversity of human life all over the globe.

So compared to tribal societies that explorers we're discovering, Englishmen like Spencer felt their societies were more evolved, more refined. They had already passed through the stages that the primitive societies they were discovering were currently in. Given this diversity of human life all over the globe, Spencer felt content in his belief that societies progress from simplicity towards complexity. Just like the finch or the natural organism will pass from simplicity to complexity as Darwin argued.

So they thought that this was like a law, rule bound way. Societies are going to develop this way. They're going to compete and progress or they're going to falter. The idea of progress of social evolution was hugely influential among Europeans in late 19th and early 20th centuries. But now like I said it's widely discredited. At that time though the scientific community was obsessed with discovering laws of society that would make society evolve and progress towards a more harmonious state. Like we talked about was Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim. The same way of thinking.

Spencer maintained then that more simple forms of social organization were out-competed and eliminated. Like I said this way of thinking has completely fallen out of fashion because it's easy to see how dangerous it can be for a society. When we look at Hitler for example, who was animated by this line of thinking when he advanced the idea that we could develop an Aryan race that was somehow better or more progressed than the rest of society.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tutorial on the ideas of Herbert Spencer and social Darwinism. So social Darwinism was an important part of the history of Western thought and it's for this reason that we study it. But like I said it has been widely discredited and today only the extreme fringes would subscribe to the tenants of social Darwinism. Well thank you for joining me and have a great rest of your day.

Notes on "Social Darwinism"


(00:00-01:10) Introduction

(01:11-02:44) Charles Darwin and Natural Selection

(02:45-05:47) Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism

Source: Image source: Public Domain

  • Herbert Spencer

    A 19th century thinker who gave us the idea of "survival of the fittest" and applied Darwin's theory of natural selection to society.

  • Social Darwinism

    A theory of society that views society, like nature, to be a survival of the fittest.