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...the nineteenth century was a time when the ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, romanticism, nationalism, socialism, and communism competed for supremacy. Although the spokesmen for these conflicting ideologies argued for either the preservation of the status quo or for radical social change, it was a scientist rather than a politician who profoundly altered Western man's conception of his universe. Charles Darwin proposed an evolutionary theory that profoundly affected Western thought and education. Like Marx's dialectical materialism, the theory of evolution was a synthesis that Darwin developed through observation, experimentation, and insight...


Charles Darwin (I809--I882) devoted his life and scientific energies to expositing and substantiating his thesis that life on this planet had evolved slowly through processes of natural selection. In I83I, he sailed on the Beagle and spent five years in the South Atlantic and Pacific collecting, classifying, and studying a wide variety of life forms. Upon returning to his native England, he experimented further in breeding domestic plants and animals. Applying the principle of natural selection to all organic life, ranging from plants, to animals, to man, Darwin concluded that originally simple life forms had grown increasingly differentiated through a long progression of purely natural steps. He published his evolutionary thesis in two works: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (I859) and The Descent of Man (I87I) In expounding his thesis, Darwin wrote:

[Gutek cites Darwin:

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: American Publishers Corporation, n.d.), pp. 69-70]

“Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life. Can it then be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.”

A brief examination of Darwin's theory of evolution illustrates some of the major concepts that were adopted by various social and educational theorists, such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, who applied them to society and education. At first, evolution through natural selection seemed antagonistic to orthodox Christianity's conception of Creation as recorded in the Book of Genesis. Since every organic being is so carefully related to the complex of life conditions, Darwin held it improbable that any being had been "suddenly produced perfect." Within the intimate relationship that exists between the organism and its environment, a struggle for existence occurs as the various species compete for food, water, and other necessities of life. Because of this intense competition, those profitable variations that enhance the survival possibilities of the individual members of a species are transmitted to their offspring. The process of natural selection preserves each useful variation in the species, regardless of how slight. The Darwinian struggle for existence can occur between individuals of the same species or between the organism and the environment. "Struggle for existence" became a key argument of the social Darwinists, for it justified economic and social competition between individuals and condemned any interference with natural laws" as socially disruptive.

Unlike the eighteenth-century philosophers who saw nature as a perfectly functioning world mechanism governed by intrinsic designs and patterns, Darwin held nature to be a dynamic process. Of greatest importance in this process is natural selection, which Darwin also referred to as "survival of the fittest," by which favorable individual differences are preserved and injurious variations destroyed. Describing existence as a "continually recurring" battle, Darwin defined nature as a dynamic struggle that produces constant but slow changes as victorious individuals survive because of their adaptability to the environment. For him, survival of the fittest was not a pessimistic but rather an optimistic and positive process:

“It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

Social Darwinism:

Darwin's evolutionary thesis pertained to biology. However, it was soon appropriated by social theorists who keenly admired what they believed to be the exactness of the natural sciences. The German biologist Ernst H. Haeckel (1834--I9I9), a leading Darwinist on the Continent, asserted that natural law made progress necessary, inevitable, and irresistible. Haeckel also claimed that the developing organism was reliving its evolutionary history as it passed through stages that recapitulated those of its ancestors. In England, Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895), in Malt's Place in Nature, popularized Darwinism for the general public of the late nineteenth century. The historian James Anthony Froude (I8I8--I894), who wrote a twelve-volume History of England, asserted that superior people had a natural right to govern their inferiors. The Russian writer Nicholas Danilevsky (1822-1885), in Russia and Europe (1871), saw human history as a record of particular racial groups, governed by natural laws, passing through different stages of development. Danilevsky made an early application of Darwinism to Pan-Slavic nationalism by asserting that the Slavic peoples were a distinct and superior species. As the largest and leading subspecies among the Slavs, the Russians were obliged to lead all of the Slavic groups. Among those who transferred Darwin's biological theory to social, educational, and political spheres, Herbert Spencer achieved notoriety in both Europe and in the United States.

A closer look at his work will elaborate the social Darwinism thesis that was current in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Herbert Spencer:

Herbert Spencer (I820--I903), a lower-middle-class, nonconformist Englishman, was the most representative and thoroughgoing of the social Darwinists. Although he was educated as a civil engineer, Spencer's predilection for social, economic, and political theorizing led him to attempt to construct an architectonic sociology of knowledge that encompassed evolutionary theory and stressed the concept of survival of the fittest. In seeking to adapt Darwin's biological theory to social science, Spencer incorporated his interpretation of it with a blend of old-fashioned classical liberalism, which comprised free trade, laissez-faire economic theory, antiestablishment nonconformism, and individualism.

Spencer saw the universe as a self-contained system in which indestructible forces of matter and energy exert themselves in constantly changing forms. He built his philosophy on the principle of "persistence of force," which is manifested by matter and motion. According to his theory, the operation of the universe involves a constant redistribution of matter and motion. Evolution--the progressive integration of matter--is accompanied by the dissipation of motion; dissolution --the disorganization of matter--is accompanied by the absorption of motion. Following this universal pattern, the life process is an evolutionary series of stages, developing from simple, incoherent homogeneity to complex, coherent heterogeneity. Spencer believed that these universal principles were applicable to society. In their "natural course," simple, homogeneous societies develop into more complex social systems characterized by an increasing variety of individual roles.

Influenced by Malthus' theory of overpopulation, Spencer asserted that the pressures of subsistence upon population would be beneficial to the progress of the human race. The fittest of each generation survive by their skill, intelligence, diligence, and ability to adapt to change. As a result of the competition for survival, the more intelligent and adaptive individuals will inherit the earth, populating it with equally intelligent and effective offspring.

In the hands of Spencer and his colleagues, social Darwinism became the rationale for those nineteenth-century classical liberals who scrupulously followed Adam Smith's laissez-faire economic doctrines and resisted all attempts at social reform through governmental or educational means. Spencer's Social Statics (I850) gave the economic theories of the Manchester school an apparently "scientific" justification. As a defender of classical liberal economic and social theory, Spencer asserted that every individual has the natural right to do as he pleases if he does not violate the rights of others. True to laissez -faire dicta, the state's only function is to insure the inviolability of the individual's natural freedom. Spencerian social Darwinism was a rationale used by those who opposed the legislative alleviation of poverty and state-supported education, housing, medicine, banking, and postal systems. All forms of governmental control, aid, and regulation were opposed on the grounds that they interfered with natural law, impeded progress, and maintained incompetents whom nature had marked as unfit in the struggle for survival.

In his interpretation of history, Spencer asserted that Western society, in reaching the age of industrial capitalism, was on the threshold of an era that would be most beneficent for mankind. In industrial society, relations are governed by contract rather than by military despotism. The conditions of industrial production provide a greater security for life, liberty, and property. The kind of man who is most likely to survive in an industrial society is independent, thrifty, diligent, kindly, and honest. Successful men, in such an era, are able to adapt to the conditions of life. Evil, resulting from the inability of individuals to adapt to conditions, will eventually disappear as the industrial system expands, and a new civilized, moral state will emerge. While Marx saw capitalism as a predatory stage of history, Spencer saw it as culminating in man's prosperity. Although their ideologies were diametrically opposed, both men believed that social change is produced by inevitable universal patterns over which man has little or no power.

Both Spencer and Marx rejected theology and speculative philosophy as means of explaining the universe and attempted to formulate architectonic "scientific" sociologies of knowledge. Marx's theory of social change was adopted by communists and other "scientific" socialists as a design for revolution. As previously mentioned, Spencer's social Darwinism was adopted by classical liberal ideologists as an apology for unregulated industrial capitalism and a defense against attempts to inaugurate social legislation. In the Study of Sociology (I896), Spencer argued for the claims of social science, resting on a body of sociological theory against the older authorities, which were based on theology, speculative philosophy, or strictly literary history.
His arguments contributed to the demands for a utilitarian rather than a classical or literary education.

Spencer opposed those who held that social ills are the result of some environmental malfunction. Like the eighteenth-century social philosopher Rousseau, these social reformers asserted that man is good by nature and, if he is corrupted, then the source of corruption is in the environment. In the earl!: nineteenth century, the utopian socialist Robert Owen had proclaimed that man is a product of his environment and that a good environment will produce good men.