Thesis: The need for a justification of enormous wealth of a few and an unimaginable poverty of millions was, as many tend to believe, fulfilled by the emergence of a theory called Social Darwinism.
Definition and origin of Social Darwinism
During the late 19th, and early 20th century, the United States experienced a growth of industry like it has never seen before. New patents and inventions flourished. New products flooded the market. While thousands of poor, hungry, and unemployed crowded the streets, the rich were busy displaying their enormous wealth. Even though the need for reform was overwhelming, for the majority of Americans, nothing was being done. The big bosses were able to buy off the politicians and persuade them to vote in their favor. While the rich were getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, the politicians watched. The need for a justification of the enormous wealth of a few and an unimaginable poverty of millions was, as many tended to believe, fulfilled by the emergence of a theory called Social Darwinism, which on one hand was regarded as a primary defense of business activities, and on the other, was nothing more than a myth. Social Darwinism, the experts say, “was a short-lived theory of social evolution, vigorously discussed in America, which rationalized and justified the harsh facts of social stratification in an attempt to reconcile them with the prevalent ideology of equalitarianism.
The emergence of Social Darwinism was perhaps the most visible effect on the social sciences of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species” (Tax and Krucoff 402). In simple terms, Social Darwinism was an application (many believe a misapplication) of Charles Darwin’s laws of evolution and natural selection to human society. In his most famous book The Origin of Species, Darwin included four major arguments: that new species appear; that these new species have evolved from older species; that the evolution of species is the result of natural selection; and “that natural selection depends upon variations and the maintenance of variation in spite of the tendency of natural selection to eliminate ‘unfit’ variants” (403). Darwin explains the process of natural As many more individuals of each species are born that can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new According to Darwin, natural selection is depended on the struggle for existence among individuals. Any organism that is able to obtain the necessary resources, often at the expense of other organisms, will survive, reproduce and pass on the “favored” qualities onto it’s offspring (the “principle of inheritance”).
In short, the weak, “unfit” will die, and the strong, will continue its existence. This whole theory was summarized in one laconic phrase – “survival of the fittest.” For almost a decade before Darwin’s The Origin of Species was the first published in 1859, a well educated Englishman named Herbert Spencer had been writing about the doctrine of evolution. He was first ever to use the popular phrase “survival of the fittest” and was among the first to apply the doctrine of evolution to human society. Along with William Graham Sumner, they portrayed the society as an arena in which individuals struggled and where the fittest survived. They agreed that from within societies, the businessmen proved to be the fittest. Sumner once said, “The men who have not done their duty in this world never can be equal to those who have done their duty. …The class distinctions simply result from the different degrees of success with which men have availed themselves of the chances which were presented to them.” Their doctrine stated that the government should not interfere, and help the less fit (and by doing so hurting the society). It should maintain a laissez faire policy. There could be no laws to help the poor. There could be no laws to regulate the businesses “for they created artificial barriers to natural selection of the strongest firms.”
Competition would regulate the industry. Others followed with their opposition to tariffs, trade regulations, state banking, government postal services etc,. (Bryant, Jr. and Dethloff 253). Those, at that time very controversial issues, brought them, but especially Spencer, a lot of negative publicity. In 1875, the economist John Elliott Cairnes announced that Spencer “transferred laws of physiology to the domain of social science.” Ten years later, the Belgian sociologist, Emile de Laveleye added that Spencer was “anxious to see the law of the survival of the fittest and of natural selection adopted in human society.” A number of intellectuals and sociologists had later accused Spencer and Summner of supporting the unjust and “brutally individualistic regime of Spencarianism” or Social Darwinism (Bannister 34-36) There were of course scholars who supported the ideas of Spencer and Sumner. Even Charles Darwin who in his The Origin of Species purpously avoided the issues of social evolution later addressed them in his book The Descent of Man in a key chapter titled “On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties.”
Darwin recognized the argument that if one were to apply the laws of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” to society, should the society preserve it’s weaker members? The key passage from The Descent of Man reads as follows: With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. …Thus, the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed (qtd. in Bannister 30) Clearly, even Charles Darwin wasn’t ignorant toward the reasoning behind Social Darwinism. He never really stated whether he fully supported it or were against it. Historians tend to believe that his opinion laid somewhere in between (Bannister 30-31). Social Darwinism in United States goes hand in hand with the Gilded Age and with the rise of the industry.
The Gilded Age, the period from 1865 to 1901, was an era of great industrial and economic growth for America. It was an era of numerous inventions and patents. It was also an era of extreme riches for some, and of wretched poverty for others. It was an era of the “Robber Barons”, as Matthew Josephson called them. One of such “Robber Barons” was John D. Rockefeller. With his savings of $5,000, at a very young age John D. Rockefeller opened his first oil refinery. At that time oil was used only for lighting and not many expected much more of it. Rockefeller, however, guessed that oil would in a few years become one of the most profitable industries. He was correct — within only a few years, oil was being used for heating, lubrication, fuel for ships and automobiles, etc,. His dream was to control the whole oil industry in America. At age of 30 he founded the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio and bought over 25 refineries. After only a couple of years, Rockefeller was one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet. Rumor had it, that he “had in the palm of his hand” the best United States Senators and state legislatures that money could buy. He not only controlled over 90% of the oil industry, but also was able to persuade railroad owners to grant him special fares on railroad transportation (rebates).
Rockefeller was (what he and others called him) a true Social Darwinist. He believed that everyone was given the same opportunity, and that only those who were too lazy or too stupid were poor. He argued that his millions were a reward for hard everyday work – the famous phrase “God The growth of large business is merely the survival of the fittest. … The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God. (qtd. in Hofstadter 45) Andrew Carnegie’s career was similar to that of John D. Rockefeller. “[He] had three specialties: steel, making money, and giving it away” (Cooke). Carnegie was a son of a poor weaver, born in Scotland. In 1848 his family came to America and settled in Pittsburgh. He started his career at age of 12, as a bobbin boy. Then he became a telegraph messenger, a railroad clerk, a railroad superintendent, a director, and then, steel entered his life. He created a monopoly which throughout his career brought him over 400 million dollars. Carnegie opposed the formation of pools and trusts; “His preferred solution to the problems of consolidation was vertical integration.” He achieved almost a total control of the steel industry in the country. “His road to success was speculation for accumulation” (Cashman 66).
Similarly as Rockefeller, Carnegie was also a Social Darwinist. He was known to idealize Herbert Spencer’s theories of social evolution. Carnegie wrote in “Popular Illusions About Trusts”, “[The concentration of wealth] is an evolution from the heterogeneous to the homogeneous, and it is clearly another step in the upward path of development” (qtd. in Bannister 79). There of course were others besides Carnegie and Rockefeller. Those two, however, were the most famous and their careers most interesting. Perhaps it’s because they represented the American myth of “rags to riches”; perhaps because after making their millions, they gave most of their fortunes away. For Rockefeller it was starting the Rockefeller’s Foundation or the building of the University of Chicago. For Carnegie it was building libraries. “Carnegie believed that a man who dies rich, dies disgraced. By his means, he didn’t die disgraced” (“Andrew Carnegie: The Principles Illustrated by his Career” 5). With time, many Americans came to think that Social Darwinism was a chief defense of the unfair, ruthless and cut-throat business practices of the late 19th and the early 20th century. “The great financial titans themselves seized on the theories of Spencer and Sumner to justify their positions. … Social Darwinism appealed to businessmen because it seemed to legitimize their success and confirm their virtues. It appealed to them because it placed their activities within the context of traditional American ideas of freedom and individualism.” (Current 506-507) – a quotation from a history textbook. This perception, Irvin G. Wyllie argues, is greatly exaggerated. In reality, only a very few elite entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie occasionally used Social Darwinism as an argument to justify their practices.
Others, however, when called upon to justify their activities, fell upon old arguments like Christian virtues and “moral platitudes,” that in no way correlated with Social Darwinism (Wyllie 157-169). It’s interesting to read about men like Carnegie or Rockefeller, who regarded themselves as true Social Darwinists. Men who on one hand promoted the idea of regulating industry by competition (the very essence of social darwinism), and on the other devoted their lives to eliminating competition from within their own industries. Men who spent two thirds of their lives cheating, buying off politicians, and growing enormously rich at the price of making others poor. Men who then retired, and became philanthropists, and gave away hundreds of millions of their lifetime earnings. And finally men who were “bookish” and intelligent enough to use the theory of Social Darwinism to justify their ruthless and unfair business practices. Unfortunately, there were only very few men like that. Social Darwinism, was in fact only a “short-lived theory”; nothing more than a greatly overemphasized myth, given much more credit “Andrew Carnegie: The Principles of Industrial and Social Progress Illustrated by His Career.”