Social Darwinism in American History Toward the end of the 19th century, the United States entered a period of growth and industrialisation. An abundance of natural recourses, cheap labour supply, and a self-sufficient food supply contributed to the industrialisation of the United States. This time was known as the American Industrial Revolution. Due to the growing prosperity of the United States, the American people, in general, adopted a heavily opportunistic and an excessively materialistic view towards life. Charles Darwin, a British naturalist, developed a theory of evolution through the process of natural selection.
His ideas were presented to the public through several manuscripts that he wrote towards the late 19th century. The Origin of the species was one such manuscript, in which Darwin presented his idea that species evolve from more primitive species through the process of natural selection. When Charles Darwins The Origin of Species reached the United States following its publication in 1859, the reading public quickly gave it a popular reception. The Americans had observed the disarray over political issues in the period before and during the Civil War, and had experienced many hardships later during the Reconstruction in the South. They were now ready to listen to theories that allowed them to enjoy their great, recently settled continent and the new industries that sprang up within it.
It was during this age of rapid and remarkable change that Darwins theories were popularised in the United States. Darwin developed a theory of evolution through natural selection, in which only the fittest would survive. Although Charles Darwin himself did not write about social factors such as human behaviour in society, his theories were open to interpretation. His ideas were moulded and eventually evolved into a theory known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists believed that people, like animals, compete for survival and those who become rich and powerful are the fittest while those left behind in the lower classes must necessarily be “less fit”.
Social Darwinists came to believe that that human progress depended on competition. It was believed that “Nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement” (Hofstadter 6). Darwins theories on the “Survival of the Fittest”, interpreted as Social Darwinism, were applied by the American people in the context of their social, economic and political development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Social Theories Darwinism exerted a profound effect upon Americas social ideology. Darwins theories played an important role in the Americans usage of eugenics and in the justification of racial and sexist separateness. Eugenics, the study of human heredity, aimed at “improving” the human race, proved to be one of the most enduring aspects of Social Darwinism.
Darwins theory of natural selection had greatly stimulated the study of heredity. Early eugenicists accepted the identification of the “fit” with the upper classes and the “unfit” with the lower classes. They contributed the economic deceleration at the end of the century to the increased immigration from countries of “inferior” stock. The American Eugenics Society (A.E.S.), founded in 1924, supported the idea that the wealth and social position of the upper classes was justified by their superior genetic capabilities. They pushed sterilisation laws and laws that severely limited immigration into the U.S.
from countries that were not racially “pure”. Between 1911 and 1930, 24 states passed sterilisation laws aimed at the mentally retarded, criminals, and the insane (“Eugenics”). William E. Kellicot spoke for the majority when he stated that ” the Eugenicist believes that no other single factor in determining social conditions and practices approaches in importance that of racial structural integrity and sanity” (Hofstadter 163). The general belief of those that followed the A.E.S. was that the United States could only reach its highest potential if the nation was comprised of the racially pure “American type” (Hofstadter 163).
The interpretation of Darwins theory of the “survival of the fittest” not only justified views on eugenics, but also on racist and sexist ideas. The American Eugenics Society urged the passing of laws that restricted marriages between different racial groups. The United States was made up of a people long familiar with Indian warfare and southern slavery. These experiences had been grounded in views of racial superiority. In a nation where the whites and blacks were “separate but equal”, the Social Darwinists ideas served to justify their separateness. The ideas demonstrated that because there were physical differences between the blacks and the whites and since the whites were in control of the nation, the whites were the fittest of the two races, and were thereby justified in their leadership.
Although Darwinism was not the primary source of the racism in the United States, it was used as an instrument in the hands of those who sought to justify a policy of separateness. The blacks were seen as racially inferior and remained separate in their jobs and schools. The American Indians were seen as lesser people than the Americans were because they were not “civilised” by western standards. Their land was exploited and they were treated as a simple annoyance that had to be dealt with during the expansion of the west. Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 in an attempt to protect the American Indians during the time that it took them to “adopt the habits of civilised life” (Dawes Severalty Act of 1887). This act failed of course, because an entire culture grounded in tradition could not be changed by an enactment by Congress.
The feeling that the American Indians were lesser people originated from colonial times in America. Social Darwinism gave the American people a means by which to justifying these feelings. Separateness between men and women was also justified by Darwinist ideas. In his writings Darwin noted, “The female is less eager than the male” (B.Ke). He eventually concluded that males were more evolved than women. The American men used this to justify a womans inferior place in society.
In spite of the crucial role that women played in human evolution with their ability to give birth, they were viewed by men as intellectually inferior. Men used the idea that because women were physically different and had an inferior role in society, men were thus justified in their rule over women. Consequently, racist and sexist social separateness in the U.S. influenced economic factors, resulting in the white men dominating the business life of the country. Economic Implications In addition to Darwins influence on the social issues in the United States, …