Essay 3, Unit I

Compare and contrast the views of Social Darwinism and its critics during the latter decades of the 19th century.

    In the late 19th century the teachings of a British political and social scientist, Herbert Spencer, began to gain some adherents in the United States. Spencer based his ideas upon the theory of evolution advanced by Charles Darwin. This theory held that all biological organisms evolved over the course of millions of years and that those species that were best able to adapt to the natural environment survived. Spencer broadened this concept to include all social, as well as biological organisms, and asserted that society evolved by adapting to the environment through social selection.

    William Graham Sumner, a professor of political science at Yale University, accepted and expanded Spencer's ideas and was the leading American spokesman for what became known as "Social Darwinism."Sumner insisted that natural laws applied to society and all social organisms and that man should not interfere with the workings of these natural laws. Those social organizations (businesses, races, nations, or any other social group) which survived and prospered were those who best adapted to the social environment. This set of ideas was summed up by the phrase "survival of the fittest." For Spencer, man should not attempt to interfere in any way with the struggle for survival. If a person, race, institution, or nation could not adapt it should not survive.

    These theories fitted in quite well with the political-economic idea of "laissez-faire" which held that government should keep "hands off"the economy and not adopt programs to help the poor or sick or any instituition. If they could not adapt they deserved to perish. It served then as a justification for the unrestrained competition of American corporations and for the poor conditions of workers in the society. To interfere with the "natural laws" which governed survival was wrong, since the "unfit" had to die off in the interests of "progress." For industrial magnates like Carnegie or Rockefeller, or the ruthless "robber barons" like Drew, Fisk and Gould, Social Darwinism provided a rational for eliminating the competition, the "unfit."

    While congenial to business tycoons, Social Darwinism was not widely believed or accepted by the masses. It never gained widespread popularity or had long-range influence. Indeed critics of the concept very quickly emerged from both the Christian churches and from social scientists who questioned both the morality and the validity of the theories. But some of laissez-faire principles to which it offered justification have continued to have adherents and an impact on American society. One need only look at some of the policies and statements of the adminstration of Ronald Reagan to see the persistence of such beliefs.

    Some clergy and laity of the Christian churches in urban areas, confronted by the plight of industrial workers, began to become concerned by their social and economic conditions and to espouse what became known as the Social Gospel movement. They based their concern upon biblical accounts of the actions Jesus Christ took in behalf of the poor, the sick, the social outcasts of his time (the "unfit" of Social Darwinism). Focusing on Christ's feeding the poor, healing the sick, and associating with outcasts, the Social Gospel movement stressed that the church has a moral responsibility for the physical as well as the spiritual well-being of the workers. Social Gospel ministers asserted that the church had to participate actively in society to reform it.

    One of the most active of the Social Gospel ministers was Washington Gladden who felt that if the church could only appeal to the Christian conscience of industrial owners and leaders then they would provide more humane treatment, better wages and conditions for those they employed. Gladden took the lead in trying to improve what today is known as the field of labor-management relations. Another minister of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, felt that Gladden's approach was too naive and unrealistic. Rauschenbusch preached, instead, the need for a complete reform of the capitalistic system which he contended placed concern for profits over concer for people. He advocated a system of "Christian Socialism" stressing cooperation.

    All Social Gospel ministers contended that the teachings of Social Darwinism ran counter to the Christian ethic, stressing the idea of being one's "brothers keeper." The church, they argued, had a moral responbility for the "unfit", the disadvantaged and downtrodden. Actions taken by the Social Gospel church ranged from running soup kitchens for the poor, to providing temporary shelter for the homeless, to preaching the necessity of Christian brotherhood. The Social Gospel remained a minority movement within the churches, had no great impact on the political system, and did not" bring the Kingdom of God to earth" as its proponents hoped. It did, however, stir the nation's social conscience and began to make the idea of reform more acceptable.

    Yet another group of critics of Social Darwinism came from the ranks of social scientists. They agreed with the idea that society evolved but disagreed that there were certain natural laws which governed that evolution. Rather, they asserted, man through the use of his reason could help to shape and channel changes in society. Man, they argued, was not a helpless pawn of immutable natural laws, but had the rational capacity to plan socially desirable goals and work to implement them. And for many social scientists one instrument of social change was the government. This was diametrically opposed to the Social Darwinists' belief in laissez-faire.

    One such critic of Social Darwinism was Richard Ely, an academic economist at the University of Wisconsin, who repudiated the supposed "immutable" laws of laissez-faire economics and argued that the laws of economics could be amended or rewritten by the government. He and fellow economist John Commons advocated governmental intervention in economic affairs. Another critic of the ideas of Social Darwinism was Henry George, author of "Progress and Poverty," who denounced the wide gulf between rich and poor and advocated a single tax on the unearned increment on the value of land. These individuals began the movement to lend academic respectability to government reforms.