AP®︎/College US History
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.
- 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’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.
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.
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.
Photograph of Herbert Spencer.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
- How do these ideas of a race being higher than another even come to be?(18 votes)
- 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.(7 votes)
- 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(7 votes)
- 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.(39 votes)
- This begs the question when/if designer babies become a normal, do yall think social Darwinism will come back to society?(11 votes)
- 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.(8 votes)
- 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.(3 votes)
- "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).(9 votes)
- Apart from mass immigration to America, what other events caused the spread of social darwinism?(2 votes)
- 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)
- Why was social darwinism used as a justification?(2 votes)
- Because without justification, these groups would be perceived as morally wrong, but with Social Darwinism, they had nature on their side and left no room for a conscience.(7 votes)
- Were there any significant people or parties that disagreed with the idea of social darwinism?(2 votes)
- How is racial equality important? What is racial equality?(0 votes)
- Racial equality is treating everyone the same regardless of race. It's important because, well, it's the dignified way to run a society. We don't want to return to the days when Japanese-Americans were kept in camps similar to those in WWII, or to the days where black people were seen as subhuman and kept as slaves.(11 votes)
- How does differ from Hebert's Spencer's idea of social Darwinism(2 votes)
- 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)
- what is the point the view of this carton ?(2 votes)
- It is propaganda depicting white school children as being the "good" students while the children of color are depicted as being less intelligent and capable and in need of strict discipline and treatment by the school teacher who is in the form of "Uncle Sam". This is meant to imply that white Americans are superior to non-white Americans - and the people of color in American possessions like Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Hawaii. It is meant to imply that the US government and white US citizens are superior to these people of color and are thus compelled to assert authority over and control and dictate the lives of these people who are presented as being inferior. Joseph Goebbels would be proud.(2 votes)