Social Darwinism and its use to Justify Business Practices

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Thesis: Social Darwinism is believed by many to be the theory that justifies the immense wealth of a few individuals alongside the unimaginable poverty experienced by millions.

Definition and origin of Social Darwinism

During the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States, industry experienced significant growth, resulting in numerous patents and inventions and an abundance of new products. However, this era also witnessed a stark contrast between the wealthy displaying their immense riches and the streets filled with poverty-stricken, hungry, and unemployed individuals. Despite the urgent need for reform to address the struggles faced by most Americans, little action was taken.

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The influential bosses managed to sway politicians through bribery and persuasion to vote in their favor. As a result, the rich continued accumulating wealth while poverty worsened for those less fortunate. Politicians observed this growing divide from a distance without implementing substantial measures.

To justify the extreme disparity of wealth among a few and widespread poverty affecting millions, an ideology known as Social Darwinism emerged. This theory of social evolution sparked extensive debates across America but had a short lifespan. Its purpose was to rationalize and legitimize the harsh reality of social stratification by reconciling it with prevailing beliefs in equality.

Charles Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species,” had a significant impact on the social sciences, leading to the development of Social Darwinism (Tax and Krucoff 402). Social Darwinism can be seen as the misguided application of Darwin’s evolutionary principles and natural selection to human society. In his famous work, Darwin presents four main arguments: the emergence of new species, the evolution of these species from older ones, that species evolve through natural selection, and that natural selection depends on variations and maintaining variation despite the tendency to eliminate unfit variants (403).

According to Darwin, natural selection is a process where numerous individuals are born within each species, surpassing their ability to survive. This results in an ongoing struggle for survival. Consequently, any organism displaying even a slight advantage under various life circumstances has a higher chance of surviving and being naturally selected. Furthermore, due to the strong principle of inheritance, any favored variety will likely pass on its advantageous traits to future generations (403).According to Darwin, natural selection relies on the competition for survival among individuals. The “principle of inheritance” explains that organisms who can obtain necessary resources, even if it involves harming others, will survive, reproduce, and pass down desirable traits to their offspring.

The concept of “survival of the fittest” suggests that the weak will perish while the strong will thrive. Herbert Spencer, an educated Englishman, introduced this theory and applied the doctrine of evolution to human society. Alongside William Graham Sumner, they viewed society as a battleground where individuals competed, and only the fittest would succeed. Both believed that businessmen demonstrated their fitness within society. Sumner emphasized that those who fulfilled their obligations in life would always surpass those who did not. Consequently, class distinctions arose from different levels of success in utilizing opportunities.

Their doctrine promoted a non-interventionist government policy and advocated laissez faire practices. They opposed laws assisting the less capable as hindering society and objected to regulations on businesses obstructing natural selection among firms.

Spencer and Sumner faced criticism for their stances on competition, tariffs, trade regulations, state banking, government postal services, and other controversial issues (Bryant, Jr. and Dethloff 253). Critics accused Spencer of applying physiological laws to social science and promoting the adoption of survival of the fittest and natural selection in human society (Cairnes; de Laveleye; Bannister 34-36). However, some scholars, including Charles Darwin, supported Spencer and Sumner’s ideas and even addressed social evolution in later works (Darwin).

In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin addressed the debate about whether society should protect its weaker members in light of the principles of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection”. He observed that primitive societies quickly eliminate weak individuals, resulting in a population with good health. In contrast, civilized societies take measures to prevent this elimination by creating institutions for the disabled and sick, implementing laws to help the poor, and employing medical professionals to prolong life. As a result, weak individuals in civilized societies are able to reproduce, which Darwin believed was detrimental to the human race. He compared selectively breeding domestic animals with these societal practices and emphasized breeding only the strongest individuals. It is worth noting that while Darwin did not explicitly endorse or reject Social Darwinism, historians speculate that his views were somewhere in between. Social Darwinism emerged during industrial growth in the United States during the Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age, which lasted from 1865 to 1901, was a period of notable industrial and economic growth in the United States. It was characterized by inventions, patents, extreme wealth for some individuals, and poverty for others. Matthew Josephson referred to this era as the “Robber Barons” time. One key figure during this period was John D. Rockefeller. Starting with just $5,000, Rockefeller established his first oil refinery at a young age. Despite the prevailing belief that oil had only lighting purposes, Rockefeller recognized its potential as a highly profitable industry. Within a few years, oil became widely used for heating, lubrication, and fueling ships and automobiles.

Rockefeller’s goal was to create a monopoly over the American oil industry. At the age of 30, he founded the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio and acquired more than 25 refineries. In just a short time, he became one of the wealthiest and most influential figures worldwide. Rumors circulated that he used his wealth to sway United States Senators and state legislatures in order to exert significant control over influential politicians.

In addition to holding over 90% control of the oil industry, Rockefeller also obtained special discounts on railroad transportation by persuading railroad owners (rebates).

Rockefeller and Carnegie, two influential figures in American business during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had contrasting views on poverty and wealth. Rockefeller, a genuine Social Darwinist, believed that laziness or incompetence were the root causes of poverty. He perceived his immense wealth as a reward for hard work, drawing parallels between the growth of large businesses and the sacrifice of early buds for a beautiful rose. Similarly, Carnegie began with modest beginnings but achieved great success through his expertise in steel, money-making skills, and philanthropy. Starting as a bobbin boy at a young age, he gradually climbed his way up various positions before ultimately entering the steel industry. Through vertical integration tactics in steel production, he established a monopoly in this field and amassed over $400 million. Despite their distinct paths to success, both Rockefeller and Carnegie embodied capitalist ideals of their era; while Rockefeller embraced Social Darwinism theory, Carnegie employed speculation for accumulation on his journey to prosperity.

Both Rockefeller and Carnegie were Social Darwinists and admired Herbert Spencer’s theories of social evolution. In his work “Popular Illusions About Trusts,” Carnegie expressed his belief that the concentration of wealth was a natural progression towards homogeneity and represented progress. While there were other notable figures during this time, Carnegie and Rockefeller were particularly well-known and captivating, possibly due to their representativeness of the American dream of going from poverty to wealth, as well as their philanthropic acts. Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation and contributed to the University of Chicago, while Carnegie focused on building libraries. Carnegie believed that dying with immense wealth was disgraceful, which he avoided by his philanthropic efforts. Over time, many Americans began associating Social Darwinism with justifying unfair and ruthless business practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Businessmen found solace in Social Darwinism as it seemed to give legitimacy to their success and validate their virtues, as seen through the adoption of Spencer and Sumner’s theories by financial titans.According to a history textbook (Current 506-507), the idea that social Darwinism appealed to people was because it aligned with traditional American values of freedom and individualism. However, Irvin G. Wyllie argues that this perception is exaggerated. In reality, only a small number of wealthy entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie occasionally utilized Social Darwinism to justify their actions.

Some individuals defending their actions relied on Christian virtues and “moral platitudes” that did not align with Social Darwinism (Wyllie 157-169). However, it is intriguing to learn about people like Carnegie or Rockefeller who identified themselves as true Social Darwinists. These men simultaneously supported competition as the essence of social Darwinism while eliminating competition within their own industries. They spent their lives engaging in deceit, bribing politicians, and accumulating immense wealth at the expense of impoverishing others. Afterward, they retired and became philanthropists, generously donating hundreds of millions of dollars from their lifetime earnings. Moreover, these intelligent men manipulated the theory of Social Darwinism to justify their ruthless business practices. Unfortunately, there were only a few individuals like them. In reality, Social Darwinism was merely a temporary theory—an exaggerated myth that gained excessive recognition (“Andrew Carnegie: The Principles of Industrial and Social Progress Illustrated by His Career”).

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Social Darwinism and its use to Justify Business Practices. (2018, Jun 23). Retrieved from

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