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Is Darwinism distinct from Darwin?

Updated Wednesday, 11th February 2009

Would Darwin have considered himself a disciple of the tradition that bears his name? Caroline Ogilvie investigates.

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What does it mean to be a Darwinian? If one had been asked this question in 1859 the answer, although controversial for the time, was in many ways simpler.

A Darwinian endorsed Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution, which explained the development of species by natural selection, as opposed to a deistic creationist view, which saw the origin of life on earth entirely initiated by God. However, if this question had been asked towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the answer would have been a great deal more complex.

This complexity arises from the fact that after The Origin of Species (1859), but more specifically after the publication of The Descent of Man (1871), Darwinism had transcended the purely scientific, to become intertwined with practically every aspect of human discourse.

Whilst Darwinian theory scientifically explained the evolution of species, and the development of human form and mental faculty, it also addressed the basis and interaction of relationships and this aspect was to propel it into the political arena, where it continues to be hotly debated to this day.

The application of Darwin’s theory to society was further aided by the fact that, although Darwin was original in his identification of the mechanism of evolution, much of his theory derived from earlier evolutionists.

In blending his ideas with these evolutionary precedents, Darwin made his own theory vulnerable. Not only were some of the earlier theories more easily transferable to human society but, by the end of the century, Darwinism had become an amalgam for non-Darwinian evolutionary ideas.

Evolutionary ideas (in other words ideas which state that varieties of plants and animals, far from having existed in the same state from the beginning of time, have gradually and usually progressively modified over successive generations) existed long before Darwin.

Heraclitus and Anaximander, for example, had long ago suggested that animal species were mutable; Aristotle had outlined a model for an evolutionary process in plants; and the Stoics and Epicureans suggested that man was a part of nature and possessed the same "savage"organs.

By the end of the eighteenth century, theories deduced from the natural world clearly paved the way for Darwin. Debates encompassed the classification of species between Linnaeus (1707-78) and Buffon (1707-88), to discussions surrounding the supposed influences to development and variation involving Lamarck (1744-1829) and Cuvier (1769-1832). Additionally, an examination of the geological record, initiated by Hutton (1726-97), was further developed by Darwin’s friend, Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Therefore, by the time the young Darwin set out on the Beagle, evolutionary ideas had already been embraced by many in the scientific community.

Darwin never claimed to have invented evolution. Indeed, he acknowledged his predecessors and, in various degrees, utilised their ideas when he postulated his own theory. Darwin’s specific contribution was to identify the mechanism by which species adapted to their changing environments: natural selection.

This is the distinctive element, but one which on its own did not create Darwinism. Darwin’s biological theory of evolution encompassed more than this single mechanism and, by the time of Descent ,he placed greater emphasis on sexual selection and Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was therefore possible to agree with Darwin on certain aspects of his evolutionary theory but not on others.

Whilst debate amongst historians around what constitutes Darwinism continued into the twentieth century, as Darwin was formulating, writing and re-writing his theories he aided those who would subsequently seek to apply his ideas to society. He did this by adopting terminology epitomising nineteenth century social language with specific reference to metaphors, borrowed from two renowned social commentators, namely T.H. Malthus and Herbert Spencer.

Far from being the naïve scientist who stumbled into the controversial topic of man’s role in nature, Darwin had always had an intense interest in the origin, development and evolution of man.

Gruber’s work on Darwin’s early unpublished notebooks, particularly Notebook M from 1838, entitled, ‘Man, Mind and Materialism’, illustrates this point exactly and shows that, not surprisingly, man was the ultimate challenge to unravel in terms of his physical, mental and social evolution.

Darwin’s early and continued interest in man, his recourse to earlier evolutionary theories and his eclectic style in utilising the intellectual milieu with which he was so familiar, indicate that man and every aspect of his existence, including his social existence, was of interest to Darwin from his initial forays into science. If one accepts this view, then it is difficult to see how Darwin could be seen as distinct from any discussions relating to the social existence of man.

Darwinism, it can be argued, can therefore be seen as incorporating the same elements which Darwin assimilated. Robert Young puts it succinctly, when he notes his own "weariness, even impatience, that it’s still necessary to argue that: the intellectual origins of the theory of evolution by natural selection are inseparable from social, economic, and ideological issues in nineteenth-century Britain."

It could be supposed that Darwin’s life-long interest in man and, by association, his social existence, ensured the easy transition of Darwinian principles of evolution from the animal and plant world to the more complex world of man. Indeed, many of those who were later labelled Social Darwinists sought such a direct, although narrow, application.

However, they illustrate exactly the problem. Does Social Darwinism mean that all of Darwin’s ideas can be straightforwardly applied to man, or is there a level by which some ideas, for instance natural and sexual selection, are more important than others, such as heredity? As man is far more complex than his animal ancestors, should Darwinian principles incorporate these complexities, particularly in relation to man’s mental faculties? Is it more feasible to apply Darwin’s ideas by adopting a reductionist position, seeing man as part of the animal equation, or should an elevationist approach be adopted, which sees the highly developed mind of man as dichotomising him from his animal ancestry?

Such questions form the tip of the iceberg in discussions relating to Social Darwinism. It too was not a single entity, but rather a field of debate relating to man’s place in the world of evolution.

Though the term Social Darwinism is essentially a label that has been applied retrospectively, those Victorians who were attempting to develop the social applicability of Darwin’s ideas could not merely limit themselves to the acceptance of one tenet whilst ignoring the others.

However, if even during Darwin’s lifetime there was some confusion over the exact meaning of his key terms, then it is likely that people may have thought they were postulating Darwinian ideas when in fact they were espousing a blend of Darwinian, Lamarckian, environmentalist or any other remotely evolutionary concept. Whilst interpretative "generalists" argue that Lamarckism is a legitimate form of Darwinism, "restrictionists" tend to exclude it.

Despite these difficulties, it is possible to identify individuals who attempted to apply what they believed to be Darwinian tenets and interpretations to society. The idea that a continuous struggle for existence was fundamental for all living things - which resulted in a (usually) progressive outcome, in which the fittest of the species survived - was seen to endorse the ideas of those who were keen defenders of laissez faire economics, advocates of competition and individualism, and antagonistic to any form of state intervention, not least in the sphere of welfare. Conventionally, such adherents, epitomised by Herbert Spencer, have been labelled Social Darwinists.

Yet a glance at the historiography shows that this traditional assumption has been challenged. Bannister has argued against the "myth" that Darwinism was "wantonly used by the forces of reaction". He considers that the main legacy of the Origin was adopted by a range of Reform Darwinists, socialists, collectivists and New Liberals, who used Darwinism to endorse their own views whilst pointing out the misapplication of his theory by their opponents, who the reformers labelled as Social Darwinists. On this basis, the Social Darwinists were the invention of the left. Crook has also stressed a different interpretation of Social Darwinism and argues that Darwin’s theories lend themselves to "peace biology" and mutual aid, rather than to brutal imperialism.

The only thing on which historians of Darwinism and Social Darwinism seem fully to agree, is that both terms are difficult to define. As already noted, it is possible to see Social Darwinism as "inclusive", incorporating Darwin’s key tenets and influences, specifically Lamarck, along with the various implications of his metaphoric approach. Others prefer to use a narrower definition, focusing purely on natural selection. Each definition has its own problems and, when applied historically, it is possible to interpret adherents to Darwinism as variously preserving the forces of reaction, advocating selfish individualism, imperialism, racism or advocating reform in terms of mutual aid, peace and collectivism.


In this article, “Man” is used to refer generically to humanity as this was common practice during the Victorian era. Interestingly, Darwin, in Descent refers to “humanity” only in reference to savage tribes being devoid of kindness or mercy.

Carolus Linnaeus was a taxonomist, whose Systema Naturae (1735) and Systema Vegetabilium (1774) set out a system for defining genera or species of organisms.

Georges Louise Leclerc de Buffon, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris, systematically presented all existing knowledge in fields of natural history in his celebrated work Histoire Naturelle (44 vols published between 1749-1804). Buffon placed man in the first rank of animal hierarchy.

Georges Cuvier, Professor of Vertebrate Zoology at the Museum d’Histoire Naturalle, is chiefly remembered as a comparative anatomist who first explored the question of why animals were anatomically different. Although an "anti-evolutionist", David Oldroyd has argued that Cuvier was one of the "theoretical stepping-stones linking Linneaus’s natural history and Darwin’s evolutionism".

Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) was principally important to Darwin because Lyell argued that the earth was millions of years old, therefore refuting a number of his contemporaries who believed the earth had been created much later. Lyell’s work showed Darwin that time was not a problem in considering the origin and gradual evolution of species.

Greene attempts to "lay to rest the naïve idea that Darwin was a ‘pure scientist’ uncontaminated by the preconceptions of his age and culture"

Further reading & references:

The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth
Peter Bowler

R.C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Thought
Robert C Bannister

Darwinism, War and History: The Debate over the Biology of War from the “Origin of Species” to the First World War
Paul Crook

Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity with Darwin’s Early and Unpublished Notebooks
Howard Gruber

Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945
Mike Hawkins

Social Darwinism in American Thought
Richard Hofstadter

The Darwinian Heritage
Edited by David Kohn

Darwinian Impacts: An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution
David Oldroyd

Apes, Angels, and Victorians
William Irvine

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