Has someone written a monograph on ethics and politics in the social Darwinist tradition?

Edit: The text below was added on 2/21/24:

Social Darwinism in Britannica.com has important information, and at its end it has:

"The theory was used to support laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism. Class stratification was justified on the basis of “natural” inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality. Attempts to reform society through state intervention or other means would, therefore, interfere with natural processes; unrestricted competition and defense of the status quo were in accord with biological selection. The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.

Social Darwinism declined during the 20th century as an expanded knowledge of biological, social, and cultural phenomena undermined, rather than supported, its basic tenets."

Social Darwinism has been thought to have a profound influence upon European fascism, in European discourse which I am familiar with.

Let me make my question more precise: What is a good monograph on the ethical/political movement Social Darwinism, which also treats its impact upon the Europen fascist movements in the first half of the 19th century.

  • 5
    It's an old topic. Only people who don't fundamentally understand natural selection use phrases like 'social darwinism'.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 23:49
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    his account of Social Darwinism is contentious to date because it is mostly understood as "an apology for some of the most vile social systems that humankind has ever known," for instance German Nazism (Ruse, 1995: 228). In short, Spencer elevated alleged biological facts (struggle for existence, natural selection, survival of the fittest) to prescriptions for moral conduct (ibid. 225). For instance, he suggested that life is a struggle for human beings and that, in order for the best to survive, it is necessary to pursue a policy of non-aid for the weak: "to aid the bad in multiplying, is,
    – Sapiens
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 0:16
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    I would support @Richard point of view. Regarding the definition of social Darwinism, one could argue that Liberals also support a kind of economical Darwinism, which would be very close to what you described... but in both cases, this has almost nothing to do with the modern theory(ies) of Darwinism. Generally speaking, application of scientific theories to "human sciences", is either totally wrong due to over simplifications or biased due to ideology.
    – P.Manthe
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 1:14
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    @FrodeBjørdal yes. What P.Manthe says. The issue is that natural selection is a fundamental natural process. It is absolutely a-moral and totally devoid of judgement. Like the force of gravity.. it just 'is'. When people attempt to judge what is weak or inadequate in humans they are judgemental in a way the universe is not. For example.. it could be that intelligence, though selected for in humans, is potentially detrimental to our long term survival. Attempting to 'breed' intelligence then, may simply hasten our demise. Who knows what an 'optimal' human is. Nature doesn't.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 2:16
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    There are many works of political theory involving social Darwinism. Are you looking for some kind of overview or is there some specific facet you are interested in? Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 5:04

1 Answer 1


If you want an overview the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a page on evolutionary ethics that provides an excellent start. However, if you are only interested specifically in social darwinism (and not other interactions between evolutionary concepts and morality) then you should go straight to the page on Herbert Spencer.

Herbert Spencer is a 19th century English theorist who is pretty much synonymous with the subject of social darwinism. Almost ironic given his reputation, his moral theory also strongly argues for the importance of charity and helping the weak. However, since society is a struggle for survival and resources against other groups, people should withhold resources from inferior rival groups.

For more you can search Google Scholar for "social darwinism" to get plenty of published papers. The pages on Wikipedia and IEP also have references that would be worthwhile to follow up on.

Happy reading!

Some Specific Sources

One of Herbert Spencer's earliest works in this vein is an essay called Progress: Its Law and Cause. The entire work was published in a scholarly journal, but you can find an excerpt here.

Although I haven't read it myself, Social Darwinism in American Thought seems useful. It's a scholarly work about social darwinism, rather than a primary text. It's been cited in numerous academic articles, so there's some legitimacy to it.

  • Thanks! As you may see I linked from iep above. The background for the question was an odd discussion i ended up in wherein it was claimed that the distinction between darwinism and social darwinism does not make sense. Wikipedia was useful to me on this.
    – Sapiens
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 19:44
  • A question for a monograph on a topic is not such a broad request, I think.
    – Sapiens
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 20:21
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    @FrodeBjørdal Agreed. I tried to improve the tone of my answer, as well as add a couple of texts. Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 5:07
  • @Indigochild The article on Herbert Spencer in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good supplement to the article in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    – Sapiens
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:35
  • @indigochild Her is another book which looks interesting. It also discusses connections between social darwinism and European fascism, which is particularly interesting to a European as me. Please mention it in your answer if you please.
    – Sapiens
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:22

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