He strayed from biology to society. Spencer’s ideas became known as Social Darwinism. The theory of natural selection holds that only the most well-adapted individuals in a population will survive and reproduce. These successful individuals pass on their adaptive advantage to their offspring. Over many generations, the process ensures the adaptation of the entire population to its environment.
This holds true in the jungle, but it was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the competition among human individuals and groups. He argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of more advanced individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors. Wealth and power were seen as signs of inherent “fitness,” while poverty was taken as evidence of natural inferiority. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Social Darwinism was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the “unfit” poor.
The theory was also used to justify racist and imperialist policies in Europe and the United States. Social Darwinist ideas fell from grace in the early 20th century; Herbert Spencer’s reputation as a philosopher and social theorist toppled with it. Spencer once wrote of society. These are the traits that societies have in common with organic bodies. And these traits in which they agree with organic bodies and disagree with all the things entirely subordinate the minor distinctions: such distinctions being scarcely greater than those that separate one half of the organic kingdom from the other.
The principles of organization are the same and the differences of application. (Spencer. P. 206)Having exhaustively spelled out the elements of the analogy between society and the features of biological organisms, he concludes that there is more than an analogy between them. Societies are organisms. Beyond the exact definition of Darwinism, many people found personal applications to the scientific doctrine.
Not only was survival of the fittest an established truth in nature, it was also more than evident in human society. Many people, after reading the benefits associated with reproduction of the strong, began to place human activity under the scrutiny of science. Those who found that the principles of Darwinism advocated their personal goals in society took great lengths to spread the word of Social Darwinism. This was a doctrine that called for free competition among humans and a setting in which the dominating class was the major contributor of offspring. A further example would be:We see that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious, who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring.
The tribes, which included the largest number of men thus endowed, would increase in number and supplant other tribes. (Crook, 23)The primary supporters of Social Darwinism included the hard-nosed capitalists who fought for laissez faire. These people wanted an economic market that was free from outside regulation. They contended that the system itself, like nature, had inherent systems of checks and balances. Favorable variations would be preserved and unfavorable ones would be destroyed. Because the stronger and more cunning fox survives, he passes on his positive traits and furthers the entire species genetically.
Similarly, the stronger and more successful businessman weeds out his unskilled competitors. This allows the entire system to progress and provides positive examples for future generations to follow. If there was a “natural order” to nature which, if left alone, would progress to the survival of the fittest, then any tampering with that order would strike against natue and weaken society. If nature had an iron law, then justice, equality, and natural rights were fiction. There