The term Social Darwinism emerged in the mid-19th century and came to be associated most closely with the philosopher/sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer was born in Derby in the English industrial heartland. He was a descendent of a family of religious nonconformists with strong individualist traits and utilitarian views based on those of social reformer Jeremy Bentham.
Spencer’s childhood ill health led him to be homeschooled by his father until age 13, when he moved to Bath for further education by his uncle, a clergyman who was a social reformer with radical views for the time. His education was geared to math and science and less to Latin and Greek. Spencer did not progress to university but in 1837 joined the London and Birmingham Railway as an engineer.
He was not seen as a cultivated gentleman in terms the existing society. He became interested in radical issues in the 1840s and started writing for the Non-Conformist. He came to view government as a threat to freedom and the individual. Although he returned to the railroad for temporary employment, he secured an editorial job with the London Economist in 1848, which secured a steady income.
Spencer lived at a time when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species introduced evolutionary theory as an explanation for the development of plants and animals. Such evolutionary thoughts had previously influenced Spencer’s speculations on society itself, and he had earlier in Social Statics come to believe that competition in human society also led to social advancement.
Spencer’s application of Darwinism to his own ethical and social thought came to be known as Social Darwinism. What emerged from this conviction in a simplified form was a notion of the survival of the fittest, a phrase Darwin never used.
Darwin’s struggle in nature could be transferred to society, and the strongest or fittest would and should dominate the poor and weak because they were more adaptable. The weak should ultimately disappear, for they could only reproduce those unfit for the competition of life.
Spencer’s theory in its most basic form led some to believe that natural selection, when applied to societies and government, meant that there was a natural dominance in the world that allowed certain races (principally European Protestants), individuals, and nations to dominate because they were superior in the natural order.
In political and economic terms, competition and self-interest advanced the social order. Competition could cure social ills without the need for government social programs or intervention. In society, a liberal economic laissez-faire approach was best.
Some have also come to see 19th-century Social Darwinism as the intellectual rationale behind European colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism itself. This might be labelled the “might makes right” school of thought. A nation is strong because it is the fittest in the struggle for survival and has made the necessary adaptations to become superior.
Spencer’s works gained popularity outside of Britain and had a great influence in the United States. Often Spencer’s ideas were simplified to the point of absurdity, and much like Darwin, he was summarized and not read. He influenced Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist, and helped shape his philanthropic efforts.
The most prominent American convert was William Graham Sumner, and then during the 1890s, historians such as John Fiske, who influenced Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and naval planner Alfred Thayer Mahan. The consequence of this influence was for some a justification of American imperialism.
The publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man saw concepts of natural selection applied to humans, and this gave further impetus to Spencer’s ideas. Other thinkers, primarily biologists such as Sir Francis Galton, entered the fray. Heredity, according to Galton, meant that biology was more important than environment in shaping human destiny.
Nevertheless, Herbert Spencer’s rational utilitarianism did have appeal and influence, and works such as his Principles of Sociology had significant impact on his era. He did define a system of moral rights, and he divorced himself from many, if not most, aspects of popularized Social Darwinism.
To achieve the greatest happiness and to develop their talents Spencer’s humankind needed maximum individual freedom without the heavy hand of government interference, and this did not mean that the fittest were necessarily the best.