Editor's comment

If human life is a
"struggle for existence" where only the strong survive then the rich are better and the very rich are best. This idea of social Darwinism rings false to us today because we know it is a misreading of evolutionary science.

But Hofstadter points out that remnants of the attitude remain in some people's thinking about public welfare programs.


Hofstadter, Richard Social Darwinism in American Thought George Braziller, New York 1955 [abstract – 320 words] — the rich and powerful must be the "fittest" - they survive very well.

Darwin’s ideas were popularized in the United States just after the Civil War when there was rapid and striking economic change. The prevailing political mood was conservative. Darwinism appealed to the well-to-do and powerful who wished to defend the status quo in politics and laissez-faire in business.

The catchwords of Darwinism, “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest,” when applied to the life of man in society, suggested that those that won where the best and that nature moved toward greater states of perfection without the need of directed reform.

This social Darwinism was one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. Indeed, it was not until the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal that the “liberal” or “progressive” side in American politics was also the side that was identified with social and economic innovation and experiment.

Social Darwinism was used to justify the hardness of life, the necessity of labor and the inevitability of suffering. Economic activity was a field for the development and encouragement of personal character. Economic life punished those who were negligent, shiftless, inefficient or imprudent.

Today we have passed out of the economic framework in which that ethic was formed. We demand leisure; we demand that we be spared economic suffering. But the controversy that surrounds the concept of the “welfare state” is the fact that the very idea affronts the traditions of a great many men and women who still hold to the tenets of social Darwinism. Many, in today’s world still have misgivings about the fate of man in a society bereft of the moral discipline of work although they may not agree with John D. Rockefeller’s pronouncement — that the growth of a large business is a matter of the survival of the fittest. And that it is “merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”