Reading on: Social Darwinism
Hofstadter, Richard Social Darwinism in American Thought George Braziller, New York 1955 [abridged 1300 words] the rich and powerful must be the "fittest" - they survive very well.
Almost everywhere in western civilization thinkers of the Darwinian era seized upon the new theory and attempted to sound its meaning for the several social disciplines. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political theorists, economists were set to pondering what, if anything, Darwinian concepts meant for their own disciplines
The social-Darwinian generation, if we may call it that, was a generation that had to learn to live with and accommodate to startling revelations of possibly sweeping import; and neither the full meaning nor the limits of these revelations could be found until a great many thinkers had groped about, stumbled, and perhaps fallen in the dark
In some respects, the United States during the last three decades of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century was the Darwinian country American scientists were prompt not only to accept the principle of natural selection but also to make important contributions to evolutionary science. The enlightened American reading public, which became fascinated with evolutionary speculation soon after the Civil War, gave a handsome reception to philosophies and political theories built in part upon Darwinism or associated with it
An age of rapid and striking economic change [post Civil War], the age during which Darwins ideas were popularized in the United States was also one in which the prevailing political mood was conservative Darwinism was seized upon as a welcome addition, perhaps the most powerful of all, to the store of ideas to which solid and conservative men appealed when they wished to reconcile their fellows to some of the hardships of life and to prevail upon them not to support hasty and ill-considered reforms
It was those who wished to defend the political status quo, above all the laissez-faire conservatives, who were first to pick up the instruments of social argument that were forged out of the Darwinian concepts [and later were] called social Darwinism. The fundamental assumption [of both critics and proponents on social Darwinism was] that the new ideas had profound import for the theory of man and of society
Darwinism was used to buttress the conservative outlook in two ways. The most popular catchwords of Darwinism, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest, when applied to the life of man in society, suggested that nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation. [They] would win and that this process would lead to continuing improvement.
In itself this was not a new idea, as economists could have pointed out, but it did give the force of a natural law to the idea of competitive struggle. Secondly, the idea of development over aeons brought new force to another familiar idea in conservative political theory, the conception that all sound development must slow and unhurried. Society could be envisaged as an organism (or as an entity something like an organism), which could change only at the glacial pace at which new species are produced in nature
[In this view] evolution meant progress and thus assured that the whole process of life was tending toward some very remote but altogether glorious consummation These conclusions, to which Darwinism was at first put, were conservative conclusions. They suggested that all attempts to reform social processes were efforts to remedy the irremediable, that they interfered with the wisdom of nature and could lead only to degeneration.
As a phase in the history of conservative thought, social Darwinism deserves remark. In so far as it defended the status quo and gave strength to attacks on reformers and on almost all efforts at the conscious and directed change of society, social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation But it is 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 wholeheartedly identified with social and economic innovation and experimentnot until after almost 150 years of national development under the Constitution that the old pattern was completely broken.
Social Darwinism embodied a vision of life... [that was] much concerned to facing up to the hardness of life, to the impossibility of finding easy solutions for human ills, to the necessity of labor and self-denial and the inevitability of suffering Hard work and hard saving seemed to be called for while leisure and waste were doubly suspect
The economic ethic engendered (even today fairly widespread among conservatives in the United States) [was that] economic activity was considered to be above all a field for the development and encouragement of personal character. Economic life was construed as a set of arrangements that offered inducements to men of good character, while it punished those who were negligent, shiftless, inefficient silly and 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; we build up an important business, advertising, whose function it is to encourage people to spend rather than save; we devise institutional arrangements like installment buying that permit people to spend what they have not yet earned; and we take up an economic theory like that of Keynes which stresses in a new way the economic importance of spending. We think of the economic order in terms of welfare and abundance rather than scarcity; we concern ourselves more with organization and efficiency than with character and punishments and rewards.
One of the keys to the controversy of our time over the merits or defects of the welfare state is the fact that the very idea affronts the traditions of a great many men and women who were raised, if not upon the specific tenets of social Darwinism, at least upon the moral imperatives that it expressed. The growing divorcement of the economic process from considerations that can be used to discipline human character, and, still worse, our increasing philosophical and practical acceptance of that divorcement, is a source of real torment to the stern minority among us for whom the older economic ethic still has a great deal of meaning. And anyone who today imagines that he is altogether out of sympathy with that ethic should ask himself whether he has never, in contemplating the possibility of a nearly workless economic order, powered by atomic energy and managed by automation, had at least a moment of misgiving about the fate of man in a society bereft of the moral discipline of work
With its rapid expansion, its exploitative methods, its desperate competition, and its peremptory rejection of failure, post-bellum America was like a vast human caricature of the Darwinian struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Successful business entrepreneurs apparently accepted almost by instinct the Darwinian terminology which seemed to portray the conditions of their existence
No doubt there were many to applaud the assertion of the railroad executive Chauncey Depew that the guests at the great dinners and public banquets of New York City represented the survival of the fittest of the thousands who came there in search of fame, fortune, or power, and that it was superior ability, foresight, and adaptability that brought them successfully through the fierce competitions of the metropolis. James J. Hill, another railroad magnate, in an essay defending business consolidation, argued that the fortunes of railroad companies are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest, and implied that the absorption of smaller by larger roads represents the industrial analogy to the victory of the strong.
D. Rockefeller declared in a Sunday-school address:
The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.