8.3 Social Evolutionism

Although Auguste Comte (1798-1857) pioneered an evolutionary approach to explain the development of social institutions (see III. 8.7), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was the first key thinker who applied the principles from Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest to society. He believed nature would reveal that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win. This process would lead to a continuing improvement, and the outcome is the natural law of competitive struggle.

Spencer was heavily influenced by concepts in thermodynamics as well as natural selection in formulating his social theories. The natural process starts from the persistence of force. It proceeds to redistribute matter and motion by evolution and dissolution until a final state of equilibrium is achieved. Thus Spencer believed that evolution ends only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness.

Spencer maintained that conscious control of societal evolution is an absolute impossibility. He felt that all attempts to reform social processes are efforts to remedy the irremediable, would interfere with nature, and would lead only to degeneration. In the interest of survival itself, cooperation in industrial society must be voluntary, not compulsory. State regulation and distribution, according to Spencer, is more akin to the organization of a militant society. He believed this would be fatal to the survival [281] of the industrial community. Spencer condones natural right instead of utilitarianism. He tried to reconcile evolution and idealism by forming a bridge between militarism and peace, egoism and altruism.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) incorporated Spencer's emphasis on natural selection with his own interpretation of Protestant ethics. He equated the Protestant ideal with the strongest or the fittest. Sumner argued against natural right and equality on the basis that powers will be developed according to their measure and degree. He believed that better qualified people will be favored if nature provides the environment where all can exert themselves. Sumner concurred with Spencer in opposing legislative meddling with the natural events of society (1).

Some radical Social Darwinists exploited natural selection to justify indifference to the suffering of the poor. Their thinking can be traced to Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population that expounded the tendency of the population to increase faster than the food supply. Malthus's stress on the inevitability of human disaster and perpetual poverty led Darwin to formulate his concept of the struggle for survival in which less durable human organisms would die and fail to reproduce themselves (2).

Critics of Social Darwinism stress the capacity of the human mind to mold the narrow genetic process of natural selection. Lester Ward (1841-1913) maintained that although the human mind lies within the domain of cosmic law, it has deliberately and capably adapted to the social environment of humans and thus directs the process of human evolution (3). William James (1842-1910) believed that the human mind is not just a quiet, cognitive organ. He felt it is intelligent mental reactions that promote survival by arranging internal relations to suit the environment. James believed that humans can change history and society because of their adaptability to the social situation. However, Spencer attributed social changes only to geography, environment, and external circumstances that a human cannot control (2).

With the beginning of the twentieth century and the havoc of the two world wars, the optimism of Social Darwinism was shattered. Old notions of inevitable progress had to be discarded, and evolutionism metamorphosized and reappeared in the functionalistic approach of sociology. Talcot Parsons put social development in an evolutionary context by suggesting a continuity of human ways with those of subhumans. However, support for this hypothesis must include evidence of continuity of cultural patterns as evidenced by cultural artifacts between human and subhuman populations. Cultural evolution among early humans probably represents adaptations to a changing environment (4). [282]

References 8.3

1. Hofstadter, R. Social Darwinism in American thought. Rev. Ed. New York: G. Braziller; 1965.

2. Stromberg, R. N. An intellectual history of modern Europe. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1966: 275.
3. Becker, H.; Barnes, H. E. Social thought from love to science. 2nd ed.Washington: Harren; 1952: 972.
4. Parsons, T. Evolutionary universals in society. Am. Soc. Rev. 29:339; 1964.