Social Darwinism vs. Darwinism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Darwin's name is a familiar one to most people, but it has been attached to a few different ideologies. In this lesson, we'll check out the concepts of Darwinism and social Darwinism, and see how they relate as well as how they differ.


Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a British researcher whose ideas on biology completely changed the way the world views its own history. His name can be found attached to a variety of theories, some of which were never supported by him. So, what was Darwin really about? Let's take a closer look at the theories of a man so famous, he actually got an -ism attached to his name.

Charles Darwin, a man whose mind was as full as his beard


When we are talking about Darwin, we are almost always talking about his theory of evolution. While he did not wholly develop the idea, Darwin was the first to methodically research and describe the ways in which species change across generations in response to environmental pressures.

From his research, Darwin came to the conclusion that species will genetically adapt to their environments, and that these adaptations will become permanent if the individuals displaying them are more successful than those without. This is known as natural selection. Basically, the individuals with the best adaptations thrive and pass on their adaptations to the next generation. According to Darwin, the evolutionary processes of adaptation and natural selection is how all life on earth was formed. While everything we just covered is really 4-5 different theories of Darwin's, we often lump them together under the broad title of Darwinism.

Social Darwinism

Darwinism is purely a biological theory, explaining how species change and develop over time. However, science wasn't the only thing on people's minds in the 19th century. This was also a world of intense competition and one in which the British Empire was at the height of its power.

As a result, it wasn't long before people started asking why the British had risen to dominate the world while other people were still using stone or basic metal technology. In an effort to answer this scientifically, they co-opted Darwin's theories about species and turned them into theories about human societies. The application of Darwin's biological theories on evolution to human cultural groups is known as social Darwinism.

One of the first people to make this connection was Herbert Spencer, who argued that human cultures were created and refined through competition. The groups that were the most competitive thrived and conquered, while those that were uncompetitive were defeated. Sound familiar? Spencer's ideas about competition were incredibly similar to Darwin's, but what Darwin called natural selection, Spencer called the ''survival of the fittest''. Spencer's ideas led to the concept of social evolution, which basically treats human societies like living organisms that can compete against each other, adapt, and evolve.

Off the bat, can you see a problem with using theories designed to explain the evolution of species towards individual human societies? To make this work, you have to basically treat different human cultures as different species, not as social constructions iterated in different ways by the same species. Furthermore, you are able to directly say that certain human groups are more evolved than others, at least in a social sense. That is an incredibly dangerous idea and one which immediately encourages a moral justification for imperialism. In the minds of British social Darwinists, conquering other people was not morally questionable as British culture was more evolved and therefore superior. Taking control of lesser cultures was just a matter of the competition, natural selection, and evolution.

Social Darwinist cartoon from 1899, showing white Americans and Europeans carrying racialized peoples towards civilization
Social Darwinist cartoon

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