Social Darwinism and the Ideological Legitimization of Neglect

Victoria De Capua


Social Darwinism, though no longer a prominent ideology, is the ethically failed structure underneath many conservative ideologies and attitudes. Social Darwinism is a name given to a now defunct system of political thought, the main thrust of which is the attempt to justify humanitarian injustice by suggesting that those injustices are caused by the inevitable evolution of human society. This ideology was created by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of evolutionist Charles Darwin, and the originator of the now abused adage, “the survival of the fittest.” According to an article on Social Darwinism by Joel Roucloux, Spencer borrowed Darwin’s principles of evolution (progress, competition, adaptation) and tried to synthesize them into his own particular brand of concerted political apathy. Roucloux also remarks that the fourth component and main selling point is freedom:  “in this discourse, “freedom” is that rich dressing that is supposed to make the salad appetizing.”[1]

Iain Stewart, in his article Commandeering Time: The Ideological Status of Time in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, Stewart characterizes the circumstances under which Spencer formulated the basis for his ideology:

“Spencer did not set out to write a “system”. His ideas began as a political doctrine designed as  an antidote to utilitarian “improvers”. The cholera pandemic of 1829-1849 reached Britain in 1831, killing thousands. Returning in 1848, it killed over 50,000 people, mostly in London slums  so fetid that health workers were afraid to enter.”[2]

Spencer rejected the utilitarian ideas about urban improvement and sanitation, setting down the groundwork for conservatism’s intrinsic suspicion of government intervention. Stewart elaborates on Spencer’s criticism of utilitarianism and his assertion that “altruism” is the only virtue humans can truly aspire to if they want to improve themselves and each other, and that it is the private sphere and not the government that should undertake that initiative, including where disease and poverty are concerned.[3]

The ideology, which despite being obsolete when considered historically, still pervades conservative thinking and is an enabling agent of the neglect of human society by virtue of stated permission to discount the need for ethical responsibility towards those less fortunate. It immediately suggests, with the co-opting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, that the current conditions of human kind can be explained by Spencer’s “survival of the fittest”, and that the fittest – those with the most social and financial advantage- evolved thus because of superior social heritage. Spencer’s ideology encourages people to accept the limitations of whatever circumstances they are dealt in life, reject government interference and instead to depend the altruism of individuals. It is a fundamental recipe for the preservation of a class system, and yet “less government” is the rallying cry of the modern populist conservative movement, which ostensibly rejects the primary old conservative tenant of preserving the status quo and honouring tradition.

Those who presently argue the merits of some form of modern Social Darwinism study human behaviour with particular reference to altruism as a natural, evolutionary phenomenon, and in that respect are presenting an explanatory interpretation. In the article A Neglected Difficulty With Social Darwinsim, SJ Louis Caruana discusses the insights of Michael Ruse:

“…begins with the claim that altruistic behaviour in animals can be successfully explained by kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Put simply, this means that one can show how a group of individuals that includes self-sacrificing individuals has a higher chance of survival than a group that does not. Altruistic behaviour results when two principles are at work; it happens when an individual is more likely to help close kin than distant ones, and when an individual helps another with the expectation of having the favour returned. Ruse argues that since humans are animals, it is probably that their behaviour, to some extent, is explainable this way. The approach here is qualified; one cannot accuse Ruse of radical determinism as regards to human culture.”[4]

In spite of this, it becomes clearer, once the political ideation of Social Darwinism is put into practice, that any potential philosophical application becomes mired in the problems of the artifice of human social structures. Caruana addresses this with a quote from Philip Kitcher about the application of Darwin to human social science, concluding that “Darwin deserves his due, nothing more, nothing less”[5] which suggests that even if human behaviour can be studied through a paradigm of Darwinian evolution, the insight gained does not recommend itself to any political ideology. Simply put, Darwin’s findings are scientifically codified and not intended to be synthesized into social policy.

Herbert Spencer’s ideology runs into a myriad of ethical and practical problems. Perhaps the largest problem is the fact that it takes privilege for granted as an evolutionary entitlement. It is an ideology based on an exclusionary premise, and Iain Stewart goes on to explain that one of the fundamental problems- at least with Spencer’s own structure- was his refusal to truly offer any kind of contextualizing opposition to his own ideas.

“Its constitutive effect is…is at once to exclude from even a potential of legitimacy any view that would be incompatible with that recognition…because the real starting point of this new system of the world is an exclusion, any attempt to trace its foundations that will be consistent with it must end in bafflement.”[6]

To suggest that humanity’s ills are the products of distinctive deterministic paths is ethically lethargic at best, and pathologically genocidal at worst, the latter often providing a context for the appalling negligence of the former. Roucloux speaks to the practice of eugenics (something that Spencer himself disapproved of despite its political vogue) noting it is “striking to notice the theories of eugenics appear to give Spencer’s insistent metaphors the force of reality.”[7] Roucloux continues on to describe the worst and most literal manifestation of a normative of evolutionary advancement of the “fittest” put into practice by the Nazi party.

“Most certainly, Nazism did not escape the logic of profitability, but it ought first and foremost to be imprinted on our memories for its murderous dynamic of hatred. And yet the same weapons cannot be used to fight the logic of profitability and the discourse of hatred. The example of Nazi eugenics reminds us just how eugenics can take on a face whose monstrous character is immediately and obviously apparent.”[8]

If that extreme hasn’t seen a 21st century manifestation, there is still plenty of human suffering that is allowed to continue under the auspices of non-interference with the natural order, or more accurately, the status quo. Luis Sanchez, author of Darwin, Artificial Selection, and Poverty, goes straight to the heart of the matter, stating that “human arrangements…impinge on the survival of disadvantaged populations, arguably connected to the way policies and institutions have developed and are maintained.”[9]

In the present day, thanks to 20th century incarnations of Hebert Spencer, conservative ideologues like Ayn Rand[10] , the “free market” has replaced Social Darwinism in the conservative nomenclature. It represents Social Darwinism in practice using financial capability as its metric, an undeniable artifact of human civilization. Sanchez’s argument torpedoes any possible semantic legitimacy Social Darwinism might still cling to:

“In contrast, the bottom half of the world’s adult population owned barely 1 percent of the  global wealth. This contrasting distribution of wealth undoubtedly implies unequal opportunities  to access the finite stock of available resources. Thus, artificial selection should be expected.”[11]

It is clear that the inherent manifest destiny of Spencer’s Social Darwinism is not a destiny tied to evolutionary inevitability or natural selection, but to human choices and human actions. As an ideology, it rejects the agency of a government representing all members of a democratic state, and therefore does not adequately provide for the democratic ideal of freedom. It is fundamentally an ideology that endorses, even glorifies inequality, moral relativism, and social negligence.


Caruana, SJ Louis. “A Neglected Difficulty With Social Darwinism.” Heythrop Journal, 2008: 652-658.

Roucloux, Joel. “Can Democracy Survive the Disgust of Man for Man? From Social Darwinism to Eugenics.” Diogenes, 2002: 47.

Sanchez, Luis. “Darwin, Artificial Selection and Poverty: Contemporary Implications of a Forgotten Argument.” Politics & The Life Sciences, 2010: 61-71.

Stewart, Iain. “Comandeering Time: The Ideological Status of Time in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer.” Australian Journal of Politics & History, 2011: 389-402.




[1] (Roucloux, 47)

[2] (Stewart, 395)

[3] (Stewart, 395)

[4] (Caruana, 653)

[5] (Caruana, 656)

[6] (Stewart, 400)

[7] (Roucloux, 48)

[8] (Roucloux, 49)

[9] (Sanchez, 61)

[10] (Stewart, 391)

[11] (Sanchez, 63)

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