Social Darwinism: Evolution of Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The view of human groups as essentially competitive derived much of its support through an analogy with evolution. Change is an inevitable factor in society. With time, society adapts and molds itself to accommodate new culture that can give birth to a new reality. How do Social Darwinists see the evolution in society?

Image showing the concept of Darwinism and the evolution of humans.
The changing nature of society is most often called Social Darwinism in relation to the theory of evolution that was put forward by Charles Darwin. (Image: Dasha Soma/Shutterstock)

Varying Views of Social Darwinism

Several Social Darwinists such as Andrew Carnegie, Herbert Spencer, and others like H. L. Mencken saw a social version of “survival of the fittest” as advancing society and leading to social progress. They held a teleological view that is non-Darwinian. However, they used Darwinian ideas to support it.

While some saw competition as the basis of human social structures, others saw humans as fundamentally cooperative. Those who held the view that human reality was primarily competitive had to explain in detail how their view of humanity would create better conditions for all, and that the pain induced was not evil, but merely necessary.

The contrary view—that we are primarily cooperative beings who work together to make life better for everyone—had a much more optimistic view of the world. Pyotr Kropotkin, a Russian, strongly believed that humans are cooperative by nature. In his book, Mutual Aid, he says that humans are not the only political animals, but they also lean on each other, holding each other up and helping all to advance.

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Human Beings’ Tendency to Live Together

It may be true that with scarce resources, the survival of the fittest can be difficult, but this challenge is not faced by individual organisms on their own. Humans tend to live together and that is a general truth and not an element of modernity. Looking at the world across centuries, we can find several examples that attest this fact.

The cave paintings in France are some of the best pieces of evidence of what life was like for prehistoric people. They show cooperative hunting parties and evidence of significant social interaction. Similar instances can be found in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe. Everywhere one looks, mutual aid for mutual benefit can be seen.

It does not come as a surprise that people are steadily moving toward embracing all humans as a single-family, a single race, a global village. A contemporary invocation of Kropotkin’s worldview is the lyrics of John Lennon’s song Imagine, wherein people are asked to envision a world without religion, nation-states, and private property—all the things that divide people. In such a world, one would then also have to imagine an end to hunger and greed, and the emergence of a brotherhood of man. Both Lennon and Kropotkin show a progressive picture of human reality. 

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The dichotomy of a progressive view of human reality is still seen in popular literature and film. There are two competing themes. On the one hand, there are stories in which the hero rises up against incredible odds to achieve the unexpected, to achieve greatness, taking competition to bring out the best in this individual. On the other hand, there is the “it takes a village” theme, in which obstacles befall someone and the hero can overcome it with the combined effort of the community. 

The competitive approach is the basic plot for many contemporary action films in which the protagonist is forced to take on villains against unconquerable odds and assert himself by rising to the challenge. Some of the best examples can be seen in Bruce Willis’ Die Hard movie series or in Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne films.

In comedies like The Longest Yard or The Three Amigos, the groups that seem to be oppressed by those in power come together to unexpectedly find how they can come together to be bigger than that which was holding them down individually. In Judy Garland’s most famous role, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it is not Dorothy alone, but with the contributions from her friends, that the wicked witch is defeated, and the world is set right.

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Ferdinand Tönnies’ View on Society

Image of Ferdinand Tönnies, a German sociologist, economist and philosopher.
Ferdinand Tönnies believed that both cooperation and competition exist in the society. (Image: Ferdinand Urbahns/Public domain)

The German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies in his most famous work, Community and Society, gives another perspective on social reality. He considers the debate about the nature of social reality, between competition and cooperation, a false dilemma. He distinguishes between two ways of being in a group. According to the first view, communities are collections of people who are bound together by commonalities. Communities exist because of a defining homogeneity with shared values, beliefs, and history. Members of a community have a sense of belonging.

According to the second view, society is a group defined by its heterogeneous nature. In a society, there are formal rules and formal roles. Structures are artificially created for a goal and the members share a goal, but only by virtue of being in the same society. There is a sense of individuality among the members which comes before identity as a part of the society.

Tönnies states that the industrialized world has moved from a social structure that was primarily organized in rural communities to one that is largely urban. When a community is bound together by commonality, there will always be some dividing line. No group is completely homogeneous, and the distribution of power in the group will lead to what is called an in-group and an out-group.

On the other hand, societies will also become communities. No matter how different people are, there is always some external threat, real or perceived, to unify humanity against it. In Tönnies’ view, the debate between cultural optimists and pessimists—those who think that culture is based on competition and those who think it is based on cooperation—is a non-debate. Both are present all the time. Indeed, they are a flip side to the same social coin. One always gives rise to the other.

Common Questions about Social Darwinism

Q: What is Pyotr Kropotkin’s view on society?

Pyotr Kropotkin shows a cooperative view of the society. In his book Mutual Aid, he says that humans lean on each other, holding each other up and helping all to advance.

Q: What are the two different views of Social Darwinism?

The two different views of Social Darwinism throw some light on human reality. While some social thinkers see competition as the basis of human social structures, others see humans as fundamentally cooperative.

Q: How does the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies view the industrialized world?

Ferdinand Tönnies, the German sociologist states that the industrialized world has moved from a social structure that was primarily organized in rural communities to one that is largely urban.

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