SOCIAL DARWINISM IN AMERICAN THOUGHT AND CONTROVERSY By Lisa Menton July 24, 1986 (C) copy
SOCIAL DARWINISM IN AMERICAN THOUGHT AND CONTROVERSY
By Lisa Menton
July 24, 1986
(C) copyright 1991 Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.
A. Justification through reason and nature.
B. Darwin's explanation for evolution.
II. Social Darwinism and the American industrial revolution.
A. Abuses of capitalism and the "work ethic".
B. An excuse for not helping the poor and the weak.
111. The influence of Social Darwinism on racism and sexism.
A. Comparison of man and apes.
B. Brain size and intelligence.
C. The American Eugenics movement.
D. The evolutionary justification for sexism.
IV. The influence of Social Darwinism on fascism and militarism.
A. Justification of war as "survival of the fittest."
B. Hitler and Darwinism.
C. Mussolini based fascism on Darwinism.
V. The influence of Social Darwinism on Marxism and Communism.
A. Correspondence between Engels and Marx.
B. Class struggle and survival of the fittest.
C. The relationship of Marxism and punctuated equilibrium.
A. Darwin's awarness of the social implications of his theory.
B. Evolutionism in the schools.
C. The relationship of atheism to evolutionism.
D. The scientific case against evolutionism.
When people no longer accept God as their Creator, or God's Word as
the standard for morality, they try to justify their behavior and thoughts
in some other way. Appeals to reason or to the assumed nature of the
universe have been used throughout history to justify changing man-made
values and morals. It has been said that no book, other than the Bible,
has had a greater affect on human society than Darwin's 'The Origin of
Species.' The evolutionary ideas of Darwin have been used to justify some
of the most dreadful attitudes and activities in the past 125 years in the
name of "science." The Harvard Evolutionist Steven Jay Gould, says that
following the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' in 1859:
Subsequent arguments for slavery, colonialism, racial differences,
class structures, and sex roles would go forth primarily under the
banner of science.(1)
Whether Darwinism is actually science or not is a much debated matter but
Darwin certainly had no body of experimental evidence on which to base his
evolutionary ideas. Darwin observed that there could be great variation
among the individuals of a species and that in any generation of animals or
plants, some are better suited to their environment and survive while
others die. According to Darwin, the evolution of a new species occurs by
1) Variation among the individuals of a species (Darwin had no
explanation for this).
2) Heredity of traits from one generation to the next (Genetics was
unknown to Darwin so he had no explanation for this).
3) Struggle for existence which determines which variations will
survive in a given environment, thus altering life through a
selective death rate (survival of the fittest through natural
The feature of Darwinism used most by those who attempt to justify their
political and social views with "science" is "survival of the fittest." In
their text book, 'Civilization Past and Present,' authors Wallbank and
Taylor said that Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest:
became a vogue that swept western thought in the late nineteenth
century. It also became a convenient doctrine for justifying various
economic and political theories.(3)
This application of Darwin's principle of the "survival of the fittest" to
human affairs and values is known as Social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism and the American Industrial Revolution:
Our text book, 'The Americans,' describes the use of Social Darwinism,
at the time of the American industrial revolution, to justify the abuses of
capitalism and the protestant work ethic, but nothing is mentioned of its
role in the defense of racism, sexism, fascism and communism.(4) Some
industrialists did in fact take advantage of certain implications of
Darwin's theory to condone their unethical practices. For example, in his
autobiography, the great captain of industry, Andrew Carnegie, described
his conversion to evolutionism on reading Darwin, and its effect on his own
I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only
had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the
truth of evolution. 'All is well since all grows better,' became my
motto, my true source of comfort. Man was not created with an
instinct for his own degradation, but from the lower he had risen to
the higher forms. Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to
Evolutionism not only soothed the consciences of the big industrialists in
their dealings with competitors, it also aided those who took advantage of
the poor. Evolutionism discouraged efforts to improve the working and
living conditions of the poor, the sick and the children because, after
all, it was "natures way" that the strong should prevail over the weak and
even eliminate them. Some have argued that such views are an unfortunate
use of Darwinism that was never suggested by Darwin himself, but this is
not entirely true. Robert E.D. Clark says that:
Darwin often said quite plainly that it was wrong to ameliorate the
conditions of the poor, since to do so would hinder the evolutionary
struggle for existence.(6)
The Influence of Social Darwinism on Racism and Sexism:
Darwin's idea that man evolved from apes was based on observed
similarities in the bodies of man and apes. This naturally invited a
comparison between the "lowest" humans and the "highest" apes and for some,
even blurred the distinction between man and ape. Blacks in particular
were singled out as being inferior to caucasians but eventually indians and
jews were also considered to be inferior (not fully human). In his book
'The Mismeasure of Man'(7), Steven Jay Gould points out that nearly every
question in American life sciences was reformulated in the light of
evolutionism and that some scientists were not above falsifying their data
to support their conclusions about the superiority of the white race.
Perhaps the greatest abuse in America came from the measurement of the
cranial capacity of skulls, both fossil and modern, and the assumption that
the size of the brain was directly related to intelligence. Apart from the
fact that brain size has nothing to do with intelligence (the brains of
women are smaller than those of men), many anthropologists intentionally
exaggerated the size of caucasian skulls and underestimated the size of
skulls from blacks and indians to fit their preconceived notions about
evolution and racial superiority. Darwinism thus came to serve as a
"scientific" basis for racism and has been at least partly responsible for
racial and ethnic strife, not only in America but in Russia and Germany.
Wallbank and Taylor say:
The pseudo-scientific application of biological theory to politics ...
constituted possibly the most perverted form of social Darwinism ...
It led to racism and anti-semitism and was used to show that only
'superior' nationalities and races were fit to survive. Thus, among
the English-speaking peoples were to be found the champions of the
'white man's burden,' an imperial mission carried out by Anglo-Saxons
... Similarly, the Russians preached the doctrine of Pan-Slavism and
the Germans that of pan-Germanism.(8)
Again it is often argued that Darwin would never have supported this
interpretation of his theory, but in the sixth chapter of his 'Descent of
Man,' Darwin predicted that the time would come when the white races of the
world would destroy the black race. Darwin wrote that eventually,
evolution would increase the gap between the human and the ape by the
anticipated extinction of such evolutionary "intermediates" as chimpanzees
The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between
man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the caucasian, and
some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the
negro or Australian and the Gorilla.(9)
Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, carried his uncles ideas to their
logical conclusion and became the father of the American eugenics
movement.(10) Eugenics is the socalled "science" which seeks to improve
the biological make-up of the human species by selective breeding. Galton
even advocated the regulation of mariage and family size according to
genetic quaility of the parents. This was a seemingly logical development
since Darwin believed that the variation he saw among the individuals of a
species was without limit and thus if selective breeding were applied to
humans, as it is to farm animals, the perfect human (superman) was sure to
develop. This concept of the "master race" was put into actual practice by
Adolph Hitler in Germany through his efforts to create a "pure" aryan race
while exterminating the jews who he considered to be inferior. This killed
the interest in eugenics in America until recent years.
Evolutionism has even served to promote sexism. For example, one of
America's most distinguished psychologists, G. Stanley Hall claimed that
suicide rates were higher for women than men because women have a more
primitive evolutionary status than men:
Woman's body and soul is phyletically older and more primitive, while
man is more modern, variable, and less conservative. Women are always
inclined to preserve old customs and ways of thinking. Women prefer
passive methods; to give themselves up to the power of elemental
forces, as gravity, when they throw themselves from heights or take
Clearly, evolutionism can be used to "explain" almost anything, no matter
The Influence of Social Darwinism on Fascism and Militarism:
Social Darwinism was also used by the Nazis and others to justify the
aggressive militarism which plunged America into the Second World War.
Friederich von Bernhardi was a German soldier who wrote the book 'Germany
and the Next War' which praised the virtues of war in strong evolutionary
terms. Of this book, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu says:
'War,' declared Bernhardi, 'is a biological necessity;' it is as
necessary as the struggle of the elements of Nature;' it 'gives a
biologically just decision, since its decisions rest on the very
nature of things. The whole idea of arbitration represents a
presumptuous encroachment on the natural laws of development, for what
is right is decided by the arbitration of war.' In proof thereof such
notions of Darwin's as The Struggle for Existence, Natural Selection,
and the Survival of the Fittest are invoked.. According to Bernhardi,
it is plainly evident that anyone who makes a study of plant and
animal life that 'war is a universal law of nature.' This declaration
and fortification of Germany's will to war - for it had the highest
official sanction and approval - was published in 1911. Three years
later the greatest holocaust the world had ever known was
Hitler based his fascism on evolutionary theory as is evident from his
speeches and his book 'Mein Kampf.' Robert E.D. Clark has pointed out,
however, that in the great number of books covering every phase of the
Hitler regime, there is hardly any mention of the influence of Darwinism,
which Clark attributes to the fear of being considered anti-
Benito Mussolini, who brought fascism to Italy, was also greatly
influenced by Darwinism which he thought supported his belief that violence
is basic to social transformation. Clark says that:
Mussolini's attitude was completely dominated by evolution. In public
utterances he repeatedly used the Darwinian catchwords while he mocked
at perpetual peace, lest it should hinder the evolutionary
The Prussian militarist, Heinrich von Treitsche, used the concept of the
"survival of the fittest" to actually glorify war and to raise the interest
of the state over the individual:
The grandeur of war lies in the utter annihilation of puny man in the
great conception of the State, and it brings out the full significance
of the sacrifice of fellow countrymen for one another. In war the
chaff is winnowed from the wheat.(15)
The intent is not to blame Darwin for all war but if survival of the
fittest is to be applied to man and taken literally, even brutal militarism
seems a logical consequence.
The Influence of Social Darwinism on Marxism and Communism:
Frederich Engels, one of the founders of Communism, wrote to Karl
Marx, December 12, 1859, "Darwin, whom I am just now reading is
splendid."(16) Karl Marx wrote back on December 9, 1860, "Although it is
developed in a crude English style, this is the book which contains the
basis in natural history for our views."(17) Marx again wrote to Engels on
January 16, 1861, "Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a basis
in natural selection for the class struggle in history...not only is a
death blow dealt here for the first time to 'Teleology' in the natural
sciences but their rational meaning is emphatically explained."(18) The
three things then for which Marx was most indebted to Darwinism was 1) an
atheistic "explanation" for the origin of the Cosmos, 2) the struggle for
existence and 3) the progressive development and improvement of man.
Communism cannot tolerate an allegiance to anything higher than the state
so it demands atheism. Marxism also insists that mans well-being is
progressively improved through a blind process of class struggle and
revolution. Marx had such a high regard for Darwin's contributions to the
development of Communism that he wanted to dedicate his book 'Das Capital'
to him but Darwin declined the offer.
Today evolutionism is in trouble because the transitional forms that
ought to exist in the fossil record, showing us how one animal gradually
changed through many intermediate stages into a different animal, simply
are not there. In an effort to get around this difficulty, modern
evolutionists are abandoning classical Darwinism and replacing it with
"punctuated equilibrium." This idea, popularized by the American
evolutionists Niles Eldredge and Steven Jay Gould, simply states that the
reason there are no transitional forms in the fossil record is that
evolution occurs by great fortunate leaps punctuated by long periods of
evolutionary stability (i.e. punctuated equilibrium). This outrageous idea
is perceived as being even more consistent with Marxism, and interestingly,
both Gould and Eldredge are Marxists who are quite aware of the
Hegel's dialectical laws, translated into a materialist context, have
become the official 'state philosophy' of many socialist nations.
These laws of change are explicitly punctuational, as befits a theory
of revolutionary transformation in human society. In the light of
this official philosophy, it is not at all surprising that a
punctuational view of speciation, much like our own, but devoid of
references to synthetic evolutionary theory, has long been favored by
many Russian paleontologists. It may also not be irrelevant to our
personal preferences that one of us learned his Marxism, literally, at
his daddy's knee.(19)
It might be argued that this study blames Darwinism for too many of
the great social mistakes and atrocities of our century and that, in any
event, Darwin really did not intend for his theory to have social
implications. In a letter to H. Thiel in 1869, Darwin seems to indicate
that he fully appreciated the social implications of his theory:
You will really believe how much interested I am in observing that you
apply to moral and social questions analogous views to those which I
have used in regard to the modification of species. It did not occur
to me formerly that my views could be extended to such widely
different and most important subjects.(20)
Perhaps the most serious impact of Darwinism on our society is its
essentially atheistic view of the Cosmos and its origin. This view makes
man the sole judge of what is right and wrong which is what I have been
taught in many social studies classes. Obviously evolutionism presents a
very different view of our origins and values than that presented in the
Bible. Evolution puts mere chance and the natural properties of matter in
the place of an all powerful and all knowing Creator who creates by the
power of His Word. Some say that belief in Darwinism does not have to
destroy ones Christian faith, but it can and the example of Darwin himself
is not very encouraging. Darwin was not trained as a scientist but as a
clergyman in the Anglican church and claimed that before his voyage on the
Beagle, he did not "doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the
Bible," but after he came to accept the gradualistic origin of all life by
evolution he said:
I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament from
its manifestly false history of the world .. was no more to be trusted
than the sacred books of the Hindus, or the beliefs of the
In his autobiography, written mainly for the benefit of his children,
Darwin said that his study of evolution and the laws of nature made the
miracles of the Bible unbelievable. He concluded:
Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last
complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have
never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was
correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish
Christianity to be true ...(22)
Like most students, I have been taught evolutionism in science and
social studies classes since the fourth grade. In lectures, movies and
textbooks, I have been given the impression that evolution is a "fact," yet
when some student would question evolutionism, the teacher would say that
"its only a theory." In preparing this paper I have learned that even
theories can have dangerous consequences. I was fortunate enough to learn
about our Creator, rather than Marxism, on my Daddy's knee but I feel sorry
that other students who have neither a strong religious or scientific
background can only look upon evolution as the "truth." While many believe
that it is wrong to have prayer and religious instruction in school, I have
to ask is it not just as wrong to teach evolution, given its many dangerous
religious and philosophical implications? Of course it could be argued
that evolution is a "fact" of science and so religious views will simply
have to accommodate it, but there is a growing body of scientific evidence
that is critical of every aspect of evolutionism,(*) unfortunately, none of
this ever reaches the class room. Some insist that evolutionism should be
taught no matter how weak the evidence is because the only real
alternative, creation, is only a matter of faith and not science. It seems
to me that it takes more faith to believe in evolution with its total
dependence on chance and unprovable scenarios, than it does to believe in
the wise and powerful Creator revealed in the Bible. Social Darwinism has
inflicted a great cost on American Society, but it would be all the more
dreadful if Darwinism is not true.
(*) There are many books and magazines articles by scientists and
laymen which are highly critical of all aspects of evolution. The
following books should be available in libraries and book stores and
will document the scientific case against evolutionism: 'Evolution: A
Theory in Crisis' by Michael Denton (Adler & Adler, 1985); 'The Bone
Peddlers: Selling Evolution' by Wm. R. Fix (MacMillan Publishing
Company N.Y., 1984); 'The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went
Wrong' by Francis Hitching (Ticknor & Fields, New Haven, 1982);
'Darwin Retried' by Norman Macbeth (A Delta Book, Published by Dell
Publishing Co., New York, 1971).
1. Gould, Stephen Jay, 'The Mismeasure of Man' (W.W. Norton and Company,
New York, 1981) p. 72.
2. "Darwinism." 'The Encyclopedia Britanica,' 1964 ed.
3. Wallbank, Walter T. and Alastair M. Taylor, 'Civilization Past and
Present,' 4th ed. (Scott, Foresman andCo., 1961), Vol. 2, p. 361.
4. Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam Greenblatt and John S. Bowes, 'The
Americans,' (McDougal, Little and Company, Evanston, IL, 1985) pp.
5. Hofstadter, Richard, 'Social Darwinism and American Thought,' (Beacon
Press, 1955) p. 45.
6. Clark, Robert E.D., 'Darwin: Before and After,' (Poternoster Press,
1958) p. 120.
7. Gould, chapter 3.
8. Wallbank and Taylor, p.362.
9. Darwin, Charles, 'Descent of Man,' 1871, p.201
10. "Galton, Sir Francis." 'The Encyclopedia Britaica,' 1964 ed.
11. Hall, G.S., 'Adolescence: Its Psychology and its Relations to
Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and
Education,' (D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1904) Vol. 2, pp. 589
12. Montagu, Ashley, 'Man in Process,' (World Pub. Co., 1961), pp. 76-77.
13. Clark, p.117.
14. Clark, p. 115.
15. Von Trietsche, H.G., 'Politics,' Translated by B. Dugdale and T. de
Bille (Constable and Co.), Vol. 1, pp. 66-67.
16. Zirkle, Conway, 'Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene',
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), p. 85.
17. Zirkle, p. 86.
18. Zirkle, p. 86.
19. Eldredge, Niles and Stephen Jay Gould, "Punctuated Equilibria: The
Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered" Paleobiology Vol. 3, Spring
1977, pp. 145-146.
20. Darwin, Francis, editor, 'The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin' (D.
Appleton and Co., 1896) Vol. 2, p. 294.
21. Rallings, Christopher, 'The Voyage of Charles Darwin' (Mayflower
Books, New York, 1979) pp. 161-163.
22. Darwin, Francis 'The Life and Letters'. pp. 277-278.
Clark, Robert E.D., 'Darwin: Before and After', Poternoster Press, 1958.
Darwin, Charles, 'Descent of Man', 1871.
Darwin, Francis, editor, 'The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin'. D.
Appleton and Company, 1896.
"Darwinism." 'The Encyclopedia Britanica', 1964 ed.
Eldredge, Niles and Stephen Jay Gould, "Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo
and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered" Paleobiology (Vol. 3, Spring
"Galton, Sir Francis." 'The Encyclopedia Britaica', 1964 ed.
Gould, Stephen Jay, 'The Mismeasure of Man', W.W. Norton and Company, New
Hall, G.S., 'Adolescence: Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology,
Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education', D.
Appleton and Company, New York, 1904.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude, 'Darwin and the Darwinian Revlolution', W.W. Norton
and Company, New York, 1959.
Hofstadter, Richard, 'Social Darwinism and American Thought', Beacon
Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam Greenblatt and John S. Bowes, 'The Americans',
McDougal, Little and Company, Evanston, IL, 1985.
Montagu, Ashley, 'Man in Process', World Pub. Co., 1961.
Rallings, Christopher, 'The Voyage of Charles Darwin', Mayflower Books, New
Sunderland, Luther D., 'Darwin's Enigma'. Master Book Publishers, San
Von Trietsche, H.G., 'Politics', Translated by B. Dugdale and T. de Bille
Constable and Co.
Wallbank, Walter T. and Alastair M. Taylor, 'Civilization Past and
Present', 4th ed. Scott, Foresman and Co., 1961.
Zirkle, Conway, 'Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene',
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.
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