Survival of The Fittest & Herbert Spencer: Definition & Examples

Survival of The Fittest & Herbert Spencer: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:01 Darwin & the Fit
  • 0:17 Spencer & the Fittest
  • 0:55 Social Darwinism
  • 2:04 Examples
  • 3:29 Spencer
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

What is Social Darwinism? How is it different than evolution? What does Social Darwinism have in common with Darwin's theories of evolution? Where did Survival of the Fittest come from, and what does it mean?

Darwin and the Fit

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species which included the oft misquoted line 'survival of the fit.' Fit, not fittest, was originally written. The idea here was that one merely needed to be fit enough to reproduce to pass on its genetics in the form of a new generation.

Spencer and the Fittest

Herbert Spencer was a 19th-century philosopher and social idealist. He was known to be a strong supporter of Darwin's methods of evolution and a supporter of the evolutionary process by way of his writings and critiques of others. As mentioned already, Darwin published the oft-misquoted line of 'survival of the fit.' Herbert Spencer would take this concept and begin to apply it in other ways, using evolutionary theory as a means to understand the world in which he lived.

Herbert Spencer's works modified the line, making it 'survival of the fittest.' This idea and quote were then used as the foundation for what would become known as Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism

Survival of the fittest implies that the strong will succeed and the weak shall perish. The 'fittest' will be successful and they shall rule the weaker because they are the most fit to do so. In a brutal world without social hierarchy, class, and social customs, this would mean the person who is the strongest and has the longest spear rules over everyone. But this was high society! We cannot have men in suits attacking each other with clubs; they have rules against that.

So the idea of the 'fittest' was applied to what the highest society valued: capitalism and political power. The leaders of the capitalistic world - the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and many more - took hold of this idea and applied it to themselves. Social Darwinism is the application of one interpretation of the law of evolution; those who succeed in society were superior to those who did not succeed. In the minds of the radical Social Darwinist, to be successful and ruthless at business was no different than a tiger killing for food: it was the way of the world. Those who failed to succeed in business were considered unfit and, it was reasoned, should be treated as such.


The most noteworthy users of the Social Darwinist motto 'survival of the fittest' were the captains of industry, the masters of capitalism - also known as the ultra-rich. We are not talking Steve Jobs wealthy; Rockefeller was worth close to $341 billion in today's currency. How did one accrue this kind of wealth? By exploitation of the workers and using ideology that states 'if you are succeeding, you have moral authority.' This is what it means to be the fittest.

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