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Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age

The belief that white, wealthy, Anglo-Saxon Americans were biologically superior to other groups fueled many social and political trends of the Gilded Age. 

Overview

  • Social Darwinism is a term scholars use to describe the practice of misapplying the biological evolutionary language of Charles Darwin to politics, the economy, and society.
  • Many Social Darwinists embraced laissez-faire capitalism and racism. They believed that government should not interfere in the “survival of the fittest” by helping the poor, and promoted the idea that some races are biologically superior to others.
  • The ideas of Social Darwinism pervaded many aspects of American society in the Gilded Age, including policies that affected immigration, imperialism, and public health.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) is one of the most important books in the annals of both science and history. In Origin and in his subsequent writing Darwin offered a revolutionary scientific theory: the process of evolution through natural selection.1
In short, natural selection means that plants and animals evolve over time in nature as new species arise from spontaneous mutations at the point of reproduction and battle with other plants and animals to get food, avoid being killed, and have offspring. Darwin pointed to fossil records, among other evidence, in support of his theory.

Social Darwinism

Soon, some sociologists and others were taking up words and ideas which Darwin had used to describe the biological world, and they were adopting them to their own ideas and theories about the human social world. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Social Darwinists took up the language of evolution to frame an understanding of the growing gulf between the rich and the poor as well as the many differences between cultures all over the world.
Herbert Spencer. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The explanation they arrived at was that businessmen and others who were economically and socially successful were so because they were biologically and socially “naturally” the fittest. Conversely, they reasoned that the poor were “naturally” weak and unfit and it would be an error to allow the weak of the species to continue to breed. They believed that the dictum “survival of the fittest” (a term coined not by Charles Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) meant that only the fittest should survive.2
Unlike Darwin, these sociologists and others were not biologists. They were adapting and corrupting Darwin’s language for their own social, economic, and political explanations. While Darwin’s theory remains a cornerstone of modern biology to this day, the views of the Social Darwinists are no longer accepted, as they were based on an erroneous interpretation of the theory of evolution.

Social Darwinism, poverty, and eugenics

Social Darwinian language like this extended into theories of race and racism, eugenics, the claimed national superiority of one people over another, and immigration law.
Many sociologists and political theorists turned to Social Darwinism to argue against government programs to aid the poor, as they believed that poverty was the result of natural inferiority, which should be bred out of the human population. Herbert Spencer gave as an example a young woman from upstate New York named Margaret, whom he described as a “gutter-child.” Because government aid had kept her alive, Margaret had, as Spencer wrote, “proved to be the prolific mother” of two hundred descendants who were “idiots, imbeciles, drunkards, lunatics, paupers, and prostitutes.” Spencer concluded by asking, “Was it kindness or cruelty which, generation after generation, enabled these to multiply and become an increasing curse to the society around them?”3
These ideas inspired the eugenics movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which sought to improve the health and intelligence of the human race by sterilizing individuals it deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise "unfit." Eugenic sterilizations, which disproportionately targeted women, minorities, and immigrants, continued in the United States until the 1970s.4

Social Darwinism, immigration, and imperialism

The pernicious beliefs of Social Darwinism also shaped Americans' relationship with peoples of other nations. As a massive number of immigrants came to the United States during the Second Industrial Revolution, white, Anglo-Saxon Americans viewed these newcomers—who differed from earlier immigrants in that they were less likely to speak English and more likely to be Catholic or Jewish rather than Protestant—with disdain. Many whites believed that these new immigrants, who hailed from Eastern or Southern Europe, were racially inferior and consequently "less evolved" than immigrants from England, Ireland, or Germany.5
Similarly, Social Darwinism was used as a justification for American imperialism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, as many adherents of imperialism argued that it was the duty of white Americans to bring civilization to "backwards" peoples.
Political cartoon showing Uncle Sam lecturing a group of childlike caricatures depicting the people of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The "more advanced students" of Texas, California and Alaska sit in the back of the classroom, while the African American student is forced to clean the windows, the Native American student is confined to a corner, and the Chinese student is halted outside the door. Art by Louis Dalrymple, Puck magazine, 1899. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
During and after World War II, the arguments of Social Darwinists and eugenicists lost popularity in the United States due to their association with Nazi racial propaganda. Modern biological science has completely discredited the theory of Social Darwinism.

What do you think?

Describe Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in your own words. How does it differ from Herbert Spencer's idea of Social Darwinism?
How did the ideas of Social Darwinism influence politics and society in the Gilded Age?

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky tree style avatar for user imamulhaq
    How do these ideas of a race being higher than another even come to be?
    (22 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Kelso
      The reasoning can be taken back to many factors, but one is that serfs worked in fields darkening their skin (due to sun exposure) and nobles would lighten their skin with make up and the fact that they were not in the sun for extended periods of time. This is one reason that the idea of darker skin being inferior came to play.
      (14 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Ray
    Charles Darwin is a theory of biological evolution developed in the English naturalist.

    The ideas of social Darwinism had influence politics and society in the Glided Age by the majority of those who have been categorized as social Darwinisms that identify themselves by such a label which helped.

    In my opinion the governments role in aiding the poor, personally I really dont know everybody says the government should be doing more but I doubt its role is aiding the poor because its trying its best
    (8 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
      The government shouldn't try to do anything regarding the genetics of poor people. If anything, the government should try to improve the health, education and living conditions of poor children so that they can excel in the same things as the children of the rich. What the poor need is opportunity.
      (44 votes)
  • mr pants orange style avatar for user Angie Casi
    This begs the question when/if designer babies become a normal, do yall think social Darwinism will come back to society?
    (12 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Frank Tauvar
      I feel like it would in all honesty since, the designer babies would feel they are more developed than other babies and the parents will be like "Hey my kid now has a built-in calculator while your kid still has to do his math by hand... have fun getting your kid into college" and people would act bratty against normals.
      (10 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user rpixley9006
    What exactly does Social Darwinism refer to? I have also heard that it means "some people are inherently better poised to succeed" (an explanation of wealth inequality), but here it just sounds like a synonym for racism.
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Bennett
      "Social Darwinism" refers to a wide range of different beliefs, sometimes at odds with itself. The two major definitions are the idea that there are biological reasons why there is wealth inequality (that rich people are biologically superior), and the other is the idea that there are biological reasons for racial inequality (that white people are biologically superior).
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user fts9074
    Why was social darwinism used as a justification?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user John Ma
    Apart from mass immigration to America, what other events caused the spread of social darwinism?
    (2 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Jonathan Ziesmer
      Big businesses were looking for ways to justify their occasionally questionable acts. Someone realized Darwin's theory of natural selection might be applicable. Lots of businesses started using it to explain their actions, and it kind of took off from there.
      I hope this helps!
      (7 votes)
  • stelly blue style avatar for user Esther Gammelgaard
    Darwin's Theory of Evolution: It's about how animals and plants change over time. The ones with useful traits survive and pass those traits to their kids.

    Spencer's Idea: This is about taking Darwin's ideas to people and society. It says that in society, competition should be free, with little government help.

    Influence in Gilded Age: In the Gilded Age, Social Darwinism was used to justify rich people getting richer and poor people staying poor.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Zeporiah  Braddy
    How does differ from Hebert's Spencer's idea of social Darwinism
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Claudia pelatti
      These ideas inspired the eugenics movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which sought to improve the health and intelligence of the human race by sterilizing individuals it deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise "unfit." Eugenic sterilizations, which disproportionately targeted women, minorities, and immigrants, continued in the United States until the 1970s.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    In accordance with the article aforementioned, the theory of evolution invented by Charles Darwin basically lays foundation for the growth and change of living things, such as plants, and animals, that animals compete to find food,yet not to kill one another. Herbert Spencer's idea of social Darwinism referred to the economic and wealth of people. Evidently, Spencer focused on the business that boomed because those magnates were biologically superior which meant they were fit. On the contrary, the poor were prejudiced as being naturally born with inferior biological structures. From political standpoint, I would simply say that the powerful leaders will be considered as the fittest people in their territories. Perhaps, leaders need to be strong, potent in order to be fit. Likewise, people live in a society where they are separated into different classes like high-income, middle-income, and low-income groups can lead to class divisions.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Julia Isidro
    Were there any significant people or parties that disagreed with the idea of social darwinism?
    (2 votes)
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