Home > Uncategorized > Gregory Claeys “The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism”

Gregory Claeys “The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism”

Claeys, Gregory 2000. The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism. Journal of the History of Ideas, 61(2): 223–240.

The work which provoked Charles Darwin was T.R. Malthus’s Essay on Population (1798), which he later claimed first suggested to him the idea that “on the whole the best fitted live.” This idea Darwin would popularize through the notion of the “struggle for existence,” a phrase which he famously claimed to use as a “metaphor” but which meant simply “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” (223)

[…] we know of course that Darwin was not the inventor of the term, “the survival of the fittest”. That honor belongs to Herbert Spencer, today best known as a founder of sociology, but the greatest polymath – and to Darwin, as well as Wallace, the greatest philosopher – of his day. Spencer coined the term in 1852 in an article on population theory, while suggesting that intraspecific struggle – largely provoked by the pressure of population growth – resulted in “progress”, with the survival of plant and animal species being dependent on their fertility. (227)

The most recent study of the subject, Mike Hawkins’s Social Darwinism and European and American Thought 1860-1945, isolates four main assumptions as composing the Social Darwinist world-view: First, biological laws govern the whole of organic nature, including humans; second, the pressure of population growth on resources generates a struggle for existence among organisms; third, physical and mental traits confer an advantage on their possessors in this struggle, or in sexual competition, which advantages can, through inheritance, spread through the population; and last, the cumulative effects of selection and inheritance over time account for the emergence of new species and the elimination of others. (228)

What unites the various forms of Social Darwinism is not a specific political stance but the application of the idea of evolution to a higher social type on the basis of social competition between “fit” and “unfit” groups and individuals, whose “fitness” or “value” to society can be defined in a number of ways. (229)

In Malthus, Original Sin, in the form of sexual desire, thus returns with a vengeance, pushing population growth relentlessly onwards unless “positive checks” like war and misery curtail it. […] Society is not fashioned by rational, creative designs but always operates within constraints imposed by the lower, animal passions. (230)

[Malthus, Essay, 1803 edition]: “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall. (230)

Malthus viewed society in terms of an organic metaphor in which similar laws governed both animal and human worlds. He strongly distinguished between people who benefitted society (as defined in terms of productivity) and those who did not, and he defined rights as derived solely from productivity, competition-as-natural-selection dictated the survival of the “fittest”, and the starvation of the less successful, unless other factors intervened. We do not, of course, have a theory of inherited characteristics in which this “fitness” is transmitted, but we do very nearly have the symbolic imagery, so suitable to an age that prized usefulness above all else, in which such a concept functioned not as science, but as social theory. (232)

Political economy provided a technical vocabulary and a model for showing how Malthusian ideas of struggle could be understood in terms of social class and economic competition. It is no exaggeration to assert, moreover, that the triumphal conquests of the new science effected a near-seismic shift in perceptions about nations and the international order as well as classes and individuals within nations. (234)

I have contended so far that Darwin’s metaphorical application of the “survival of the fittest” to society was in fact virtually a commonplace by 1859. Malthusianism and political economy in particular created a world-view in which the first three of these components were prominent – mankind being governed by natural laws shared by animals, in a world in which scarce resources were acquired through greater mental and physical effort (or in the case of thrift, abstinence from present pleasures), and in which the most “fit”, “desirable” or “valuable” members of society, the most “useful” or productive, survived or ought to survive. (235)

Yet “Social Darwinism” is not entirely a misnomer. What, then, was novel about, and what remains distinctly “Darwinian” about, Social Darwinism? Four theses suggest themselves.

1) […] what was new in the 1850s (at least at the popular level) was the notion that inherited characteristics, rather than individual and collective moral effort and education, cumulatively played a distinctive role in the character of a people. But this view can of course also be associated with Spencer’s idea of the improvement of type. Malthus had formulated the struggle for existence. Darwin, Wallace, and Spencer added that this struggle improved species as well as generated new species via the hereditary transmission of traits. (236)

2) […] the application of ideas of inherited characteristics to society not only came from sources other than Darwin, but Darwin himself, in the years between the Origin of Species (1859) and the Descent of Man (1871) reformulated his ideas considerably. The Origin was not of course concerned with human, much less social, evolution; nor were its social implications necessarily optimistic. Indeed, as soon as Darwin’s ideas were applied to society, it was widely recognized that if the criterion of “fitness” was fecundity, it was the poorer and most degraded classes, with the largest families, who seemed most likely to dictate the future course of human evolution. By the mid 1860s Darwin was anxious to resist this conclusion. Here he turned for assistance to Wallace’s 1864 research on the tendency of natural selection to promote human intelligence. […] In the mid-1860s Darwin himself became in effect a Social Darwinist, and came increasingly to hope that the optimal outcome of human natural selection would be the triumph of “the intellectual and moral” races over the “lower and more degraded ones.” (236, 237)

3) […] we see that a complex language of race played a pivotal role in this transition. In the Origin Darwin had used the term race very loosely, to denote species in general. Although the language of race in the Descent is overlaid almost exactly on an earlier, familiar language of savagery and civility, which was itself central to the existing justification of imperial expansion, Darwin here presumes that the “civilised races … encroach on and replace” the savage, with the “lower races” being displaced through the accumulation of capital and the growth of the arts. (237)

4) […] what was most distinctive about much (though not all) Social Darwinism was its concern not with “race” as such in the loose sense of a term of general classification but with a new definition of race directly attached to skin color, in which ideas of racial hierarchy and supremacy were wedded to earlier notions of “fitness”. Race was now assumed to be a determinate, independent factor in human evolution. (238)

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