Charles Darwin

Social Spencerism

Tim Delaney relates how Herbert Spencer, inventor of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, originally applied evolutionary thinking to human society and culture.

I cringe whenever I hear the term ‘social Darwinism’, and I ask myself (and my students) “Why do we use the term ‘social Darwinism’ when the works of Herbert Spencer already describe human adaptation to the social environment?”

‘Social Darwinism’ implies the application of Darwinist ideas to the study of human society. Darwin’s theory of evolution developed in earnest from his empirical observations of the natural world, especially those made during an extensive voyage of exploration aboard the HMS Beagle in the early 1830s, famously in South America and the Galapagos Islands. He noticed that various closely-related species of birds, tortoises and other animals differed from one another in ways that seemed to particularily ‘fit’ their specific environment. Darwin concluded that they had been evolving over many millions of years. The essence of Darwin’s theory of how this evolution works is that mutations (random inheritable physical changes) occasionally occur.

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