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Social Darwinism
American History Through Literature 1870-1920. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. p1055-1060.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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Social Darwinism is the theory that individual human beings, social groups, and entire ethnic groups are subject in their societies to the same laws of natural selection that govern the survival and evolution of plants and animals in nature. Just as natural selection eliminates weak, sick, impaired, and maladapted individuals of plant and animal species, so it weeds out weak people and races. Social Darwinism is most closely associated with Herbert Spencer, a biologist, sociologist, and philosopher born in England on 27 April 1820, at the height of British industrialism. Although a sickly child and often a physically and mentally frail adult, Herbert Spencer was the only one of nine children to survive infancy. Schooled at home, Spencer would eventually spend ten years as a railroad engineer, during which time he began writing in his free hours. With a particular aptitude for science and math, Spencer's intelligent and inquisitive nature would land him in the company of many nineteenth-century intellectuals, and for some time he was engaged to the Victorian writer George Eliot (1819–1880), author of The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch.

Spencer's intense interest in human behavior focused on elements that comprise any society, including family structure and reproduction, language, education, labor, economic success, political organization, morality, and artistic expression. Early in his career he attempted to explain the natural historic progression of social organization from the individual human being to the family unit, the clan affiliation, the tribal association, and the national identity. Spencer argued that in their natural progression from simple familial units to complex groups, social organizations, like all organisms, become increasingly complicated and therefore are forced to reform not simply by affiliation but by function. For Spencer it logically followed that as social structures become more complex and functionally organized, class hierarchies will form and reform over time, valuing some functions more highly than others. Spencer also saw one crucial difference between social organisms and biological ones: while parts of a biological organism form a unified and concrete whole, different social organisms are free and relatively dispersed. While parts of a biological organism exist to benefit the Page 1056  |  Top of Article
Herbert Spencer. A biologist, philosopher, and rival of Charles Darwin, Spencer developed a doctrine of social evolution. GETTY IMAGES

Herbert Spencer. A biologist, philosopher, and rival of Charles Darwin, Spencer developed a doctrine of social evolution. GETTY IMAGES
whole, Spencer argued that the whole social organism exists for the benefit of the individual.

Because Spencer's primary theoretical premise was that all things progress toward a synthetic and functional organization, the British philosopher's ideas, which became far more popular and influential in the United States than in England, covered many scientific and sociological areas that he felt interacted dynamically. Moreover, his "Development Hypothesis" (1852) argues, as implied above, in favor of an evolutionary explanation for human development preceding Charles Darwin's own evolutionary text (On the Origin of Species, 1859) by seven years. The "Development Hypothesis" was instrumental in presenting Spencer's evolutionary explanation for human development, but its basis in the ideology of inheritance outlined by the early French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), which holds that individuals change and adapt to their physical surroundings and that this adaptation passes to their offspring, makes it a dated and obsolete text. Spencer's related essay, "A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility," also published in 1852, would prove instrumental in the formation of new ideas regarding economic success and social expectations in Europe and even more sweepingly in America. This essay argues that people who invest less energy into reproduction and more into education ultimately prove more economically and socially successful than those who produce more offspring. Consequently those families with fewer and more educated and refined children become the "select" citizens of their generation while those families who produce more prodigiously land squarely at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. This application of the evolutionary process to social organization comprises the essence of Social Darwinism.

Spencer was articulating the facts as he saw them, placing no blame on the poor and uneducated for failure to restrict reproduction and therefore become more economically and socially successful. However, a type of cultural primitivism and economic inferiority stigmatized the large poor family, particularly when Spencer's ideas were embraced by an increasingly wealthy and capitalistic American audience. Effectively the misinterpretation and misapplication of Spencer's evolutionary theories in the form of American Social Darwinism often resulted in the increased misery of the very individuals the sociologist wished to assist. Even as Spencer advocated the abolition of the poor laws in Britain, his theories of success and social selectivity (as in "survival of the fittest") were being used in America to support the eugenics movement that wished to limit the rights of the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally and physically infirm in order for America to progress more rapidly into a civilized and economically successful society.


While many were involved in popularizing ideas about inherited genetic traits, human evolution and progress, and the close association of genetics and behavior, few were more important than the American zoologist Charles Davenport (1866–1944). Davenport was another curious intellect whose interests spanned the entirety of human society. His early biological focus was human evolution, and he spent the first years of his scientific career tracing human characteristics through genealogical surveys of virtually everyone he met. Although Davenport's initial premise was that most physical and psychological traits could be attributed to inheritance, his notions of nationality complicated his theory. Like many of his scientific predecessors and peers, Davenport disfavored individuals whose bloodlines originated in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. His basis for attributing negative behaviors and characteristics to these groups was a Page 1057  |  Top of Article quantitative survey of the populations of asylums, penitentiaries, and ghettos, as well as his own personal surveys. This data was compiled and analyzed by Davenport after he helped establish a eugenics laboratory, the Station for Experimental Evolution, at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, in 1904 with the funding of the Carnegie Institution.

While Davenport had a keen mind, he seemingly did not recognize the shortcomings of his scientific processes and data. Although his accumulation of quantitative information proved helpful in calculating rates of genetic variation, his attribution of amorality and criminality to those of foreign birth or lower class origins was evidence of his failure to prevent philosophy and ethnocentricity from entering his laboratory. For instance, he "believed that the influx of people from southeastern Europe would make Americans darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, . . . more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality" (Caudill, p. 105). Unfortunately the scientific community and the public shared Davenport's shortsightedness regarding his findings.

Drawing upon the work of the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel, Davenport used Experiments with Plant Hybrids (1866), with its insistence on environmental influences on plant behavior and their subsequent impact on plant offspring, as corroboration of his own findings regarding environmental impact on humans and their offspring. Davenport's incorporation of Mendelian genetics and theories of inheritance in tandem with his misinterpretation of Spencerian Social Darwinism laid the groundwork for the American sociologist's arguments against immigration and in favor of the sterilization of the physically and mentally infirm and the lobotomization of the criminally insane. His shallowly researched scientific arguments formed the foundation for the eugenics movement in America and went unchallenged for decades.

The scientific association between "bad blood" and criminal behavior, mental inferiority, insanity, and amorality paved the way for legislation limiting the rights of minorities, immigrants, convicts, and the infirm and was likewise responsible for the government's policies regarding adoption. It also inspired the imagination of a public increasingly interested in evolving into the most prosperous and civilized society on Earth. Inaccuracies, prejudices, and personal preferences would govern the eugenics movement and the beliefs, however faulty, of much of the American public about ethnicity, inherited genetic traits, and human behavior well into the twentieth century.


While numerous ideas inspired by Spencer's Social Darwinism resulted in negative experiences for American minorities, not everyone who read Spencer's theories applied or interpreted them so pessimistically. Some social scientists, philosophers, and cultural critics viewed Spencer's ideas as new ways to approach and ultimately eradicate old social problems, which was ostensibly Spencer's purpose. One such optimistic cultural voice was the journalist and political economist Henry George (1839–1897), who asserted that social and economic evolution could be achieved through a restructured economy based on a single governing tax. George's essay "That We Might All Be Rich," published in 1883, argued that there was no need for poverty to persist. George outlined basic human needs and desires and explained how fair distribution of goods and services, accompanied by fair taxation, would instigate an economy that could provide for all.

While many who read George's ideas regarded the possible eradication of poverty as utopian, there were some who shared his desire for and belief in a more egalitarian social order in America. Among these economic progressivists was the American realist Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose story "Under the Lion's Paw" from Main-Travelled Roads (1891) illustrates the struggle of small individual farms faced with ruthless land speculators and rural hardship. Garland's fictional text undermines the pastoral myth of rural life and demonstrates the need for a more equitable social and economic order in which the enterprise of hardworking farmers would be rewarded.


While Garland was inspired by a desire for social and economic change, other writers focused more on simply observing American life, and this observation was often done through a Social Darwinian lens. Perhaps the most important of these American realists was William Dean Howells (1837–1920), whose prolific works document late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century life in scrupulous detail. In 1865 Howells took a position as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. While in this position and later as editor he began to exercise great influence on American taste in literature and culture by including works in the Atlantic by Mark Twain, Henry James, and other realists.

As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Howells also helped to introduce numerous European writers and thinkers to American readers, most prominently the French journalist, novelist, and critic Émile Zola (1840–1902), whose naturalistic fiction often condemned Page 1058  |  Top of Article Victorian cultural values. Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels (1871–1893) portrays the struggles of the Parisian poor, prostitution, and the depravity and injustice rife within the mining industry. Interestingly, while Howells asserted the importance of Zola's absolute realism in his portrayal of Victorian life, the American critic avoided sordid and explicit scenes in his own works. In fact in his collection of articles on American fiction and culture Howells argued that the presence of detailed scenes of depravity and sexuality had no place in American realism as they would detract from more important thematic elements.

Howells's criticism of graphic depravity in works of fiction illustrates the conflicted nature of his relationship with Social Darwinism and other late-nineteenth-century social theories. Even as Howells strove mightily to represent reality as he saw it and to advocate reality in the fiction of his contemporaries, his Victorian sensibilities insisted on propriety and etiquette. While he recognized and appreciated the vulgarity that often accompanied everyday life and its habits, he felt strongly that depravity, like purity, was not the norm of American life; far more commonplace were work, courtship, marriage, birth, and death. Howells also agreed that humans were evolving into a more civilized and socially cultured species that engaged less and less in "low living." Realists should concern themselves therefore with observing more consistent elements of social behaviors, as Howells did, such as ritualized courtship and marriage (Their Wedding Journey, 1872; A Chance Acquaintance, 1873), the focus on and consequence of accumulating wealth (The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885; A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889), and the increasing social problems related to divorce (A Modern Instance, 1882). Virtually all of Howells's thirty-eight novels turned his keenly observant eye to the evolving social scene in America; these works, along with more than sixty other books in varying genres both chronicled and influenced American life.


While less prolific and influential than Howells, the American journalist and fiction writer Harold Frederic (1856–1898) was certainly influenced by contemporary theories such as Social Darwinism as evidenced by the topical nature of many of his fictional plots. Although he wrote numerous novels and over 1,500 newspaper articles, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) was considered to be his masterpiece. Inspired initially by the conflict Frederic noted between Irish Catholics and Protestants, the novel ultimately questions the tenets of both organized religion and science as its main character seeks solace in an idealized work that does not exist. Instead Theron Ware realizes too late that the world around him is often hostile, squalid, and tragic.


One issue tied inextricably to the Spencerian concepts at the heart of Social Darwinism is that of race equality, yet it is an issue too often absent from the texts of many American writers. Ironically, many realists, insistent as they were that fiction should reflect real life, omitted virtually any discussion of race except as a peripheral element of their plots. However, occupying a rather solitary position in late-nineteenth-century fiction, stood Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932), the educated, financially successful, and professionally developed African American author whose best-known work is the collection of short stories The Conjure Woman (1899). The stories reflect the influence of African American folktales, songs, and trickster stories and use dialect and other devices to depict a realistic vision.

While Chesnutt's short stories are still popular, less well known are his novels, which more clearly articulate his desire for racial equality and widespread opportunities for African Americans. At the heart of Chesnutt's novels The House behind the Cedars (1900), a text addressing the need felt by many African Americans to "pass" as white, and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), inspired by the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot of 1898, are the same Georgian economic principles extracted from Spencer's evolutionary theories. Although nearly forgotten today, these novels of Chesnutt's were the most dynamic works of fiction that had then been undertaken by an African American writer.


When Henry George articulated his economic theory, based as it was on Spencerian evolution, many writers began to address the role of women and their contribution to economic prosperity in the form of home labor. No one presented this concept more vividly for an American audience than Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930) in her superb short story "The Revolt of 'Mother'" from A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). In the story Freeman's long-suffering "Mother" finally takes a stand against her hardworking but self-absorbed husband, "Father." After forty years of being promised a new home, the neglected Sarah Penn moves her children and belongings into the beautiful new barn that her husband builds in the place that he so long assured her the new house would be.

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At once meek and devoted yet canny and self-assured, Sarah sees how women have been restricted, repressed, and impaired. While her husband daily leads a full, prosperous, and satisfying life, she is less valued than the horses. She tells her daughter, "You ain't found out yet we're women-folks. . . . You ain't seen enough of men-folks yet." Then she adds ironically,

One of these days you'll find it out, an' then you'll know that we know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an' how we'd ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence, an' not complain of what they do any more than we do of the weather. (Pp. 123–124)

Perhaps because it is written with such wry good humor, Freeman's story is often overlooked as an important portrayal of the oppressed and repressed condition of women alongside the economic value of their work.

Unlike Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) did not rely on Henry George's economic schema; instead in 1898 she published her own, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, which demonstrates how the economic dominance of men and the restriction of women to domestic labors had impaired not only the social evolution of women but of society in general. Because men alone had been the thinkers, artists, inventors, scientists, politicians, and businesspeople, all of these realms had been deprived of the skills, ideas, and personalities of at least half the members of the species. Although primarily known for her story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892), in which the main character is physically restrained and prevented from writing by her husband following the birth of their child, Gilman's economic treatise is considered her master-work; it informed all of her later writing and is still cited as an important contribution to the women's movement. Gilman's utopian novel Herland (1915) might be viewed as a kind of wish fulfillment that envisions a society devoid of men where the environment is pristine, the customs simple, and the people moral, peaceful, and productive.


Like Howells and other American realists, Henry James (1843–1916) chronicled the behavior and values of nineteenth-century society; however, unlike his American contemporaries, James set many of his novels in Europe, where he lived for many years. With their detailed accounts of manners, courtship, intrigue, and social climbing, James's novels are among the most popular and widely read works in the American canon. Often at the heart of his early stories is the young and naive American faced with the old and sophisticated European. This theme reflects James's ideas of essential national characters. Europe was old, cynical, highly structured, and politically divided, whereas America was young, optimistic, progressive, and united. The cultural difference was vast and led to fascinating fictional possibilities.

The novel that perhaps most clearly addresses the cultural naïveté of the nouveau riche American in Europe is The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which the main character, Isabel Archer, gains sudden wealth from an unexpected inheritance. As was common for marriageable women, the socially conscious Isabel travels to Europe where she is duped into marrying a middle-aged man by an older and much wiser woman, Madame Merle. Forsaking love for social gain, Isabel becomes the prototype for the class-conscious and upwardly mobile American woman. Like other works by James, such as Daisy Miller (1878), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903), The Portrait of a Lady presents a tangled web of social expectations, financial obligations, family ties, economic success, and personal happiness. Marriage, from James's viewpoint, appears to be more a form of strategic positioning than a step toward personal fulfillment. Also worthy of note is the relative absence of children in the Jamesian novel; while numerous characters have one child, very few have more. This fact alone seems to support James's incorporation of Spencer's economic hypothesis regarding population and financial success; and the relative absence of children in the novels of numerous writers is a lasting reminder of Social Darwinism's important influence on American fiction.

The fascinating rise of scientific theory, social science, philosophy, and progressivism known as Social Darwinism had great impact on all of the arts, but it is most obvious and easily recognizable in the literary works of American realism, saturated as they are with social and economic observation and commentary. The texts of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Charles Chesnutt, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Wilkins Freeman provide a few examples of literature's response to this persistent trend in American thought and culture. It is safe to claim that most works of fiction created in America between 1870 and 1920 were influenced, to varying degrees, by the evolutionary principles articulated by Herbert Spencer and others who gave voice to the turbulent and dynamic culture of a rising world power.


Primary Works

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1879. Reprint, London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. A New England Nun and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. First published under the name Mary E. Wilkins. Reprinted in A Mary Wilkins Freeman Reader, edited by Mary R. Reichardt, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Spencer, Herbert. "Developmental Hypothesis." Essay Scientific, Political and Speculative. London: Williams and Norgate, 1891.

Secondary Works

Caudill, Edward. "Social Darwinism: Adapting Evolution to Society." In his Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

Fleming, Donald. "Social Darwinism." In Paths of American Thought, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Morton White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Gowaty, Patricia, ed. Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev. ed. New York: Braziller, 1959.

Young, H. Peyton. Individual Strategy and Social Structure: An Evolutionary Theory of Institutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Deirdre Ray

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Ray, Deirdre. "Social Darwinism." American History Through Literature 1870-1920, edited by Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 1055-1060. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470800231

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  • Chesnutt, Charles Waddell (continued)
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1058
  • Damnation of Theron Ware, The (Frederic),
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1058
  • Davenport, Charles,
    • 3: 1056-1057
  • "Development Hypothesis, The" (Spencer),
  • ethnicity
    • Charles Davenport and,
      • 3: 1057
    • Herbert Spencer and,
      • 3: 1056
  • Experiments with Plant Hybrids (Mendel),
    • 3: 1057
  • Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins,
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1058-1059
  • Garland, Hamlin,
    • as economic progressivist,
      • 3: 1057
  • George, Henry,
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins,
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1059
  • Herland (Gilman),
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1059
  • Howells, William Dean (continued)
  • James, Henry,
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1059
  • Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste,
    • Herbert Spencer and,
      • 3: 1056
  • Mendel, Gregor,
    • 3: 1057
  • mother, Social Darwinism and role of the,
    • 3: 1058-1059
  • Portrait of a Lady, The (H. James),
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1059
  • race
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1058
  • "Revolt of 'Mother,' The" (Freeman),
  • Rouge-Macquart cycle of novels (Zola),
    • 3: 1058
  • Social Darwinism,
  • Spencer, Herbert,
  • Station for Experimental Evolution (Cold Spring Harbor, New York),
    • 3: 1057
  • "That We Might All Be Rich" (George),
    • 3: 1057
  • "Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility, A" (Spencer),
    • 3: 1056
  • "Under the Lion's Paw" (Garland),
  • Women and Economics (Gilman),
    • Social Darwinism and,
      • 3: 1059
  • Zola, Émile,
    • W. D. Howells and,
      • 3: 1057-1058