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Social Darwinism: The Theory of Evolution Applied to Human Society

Social Darwinism was the application of Charles Darwin`s scientific theories of evolution and natural selection to contemporary social development. In nature, only the fittest survived—so too in the marketplace. This form of justification was enthusiastically adopted by many American businessmen as scientific proof of their superiority. Leading proponents of Social Darwinism included the following:

  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer was an English social philosopher and prime advocate of Darwin`s theories, perhaps doing more than any other figure of his era to gain acceptance for the theory of evolution. Spencer also applied Darwinian theory to human development, arguing that wealth and power were signs of fitness and that mankind benefited from intense competition and removal of the weak and unfit. Spencer was widely popular among American capitalist leaders, but held a much smaller following in his homeland.
  • William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). Sumner was a Yale-based sociologist and political economist who espoused an extreme laissez faire position, arguing that the government had absolutely no role in the economy`s functions. Not only did he argue against antitrust legislation, but also against protective tariffs and government intervention on behalf of management in labor strike situations. To Sumner, the economy was a natural event and needed no guidance in its evolution. In 1907, Sumner published his most influential book, Folkways, in which he argued that customs and mores were the most powerful influences on human behavior, even when irrational. He concluded that all forms of social reform were futile and misguided. Sumner`s views contrasted sharply with those of the advocates of the Social Gospel.