Standard accounts of Social Darwinism often link it to the “rugged individualism” of 19th‐​century libertarian thought. Social Darwinism has been characterized as an unsavory doctrine that supposedly advocated “survival of the fittest” in matters of social policy, and two sociologists, the Englishman Herbert Spencer and the American William Graham Sumner, are commonly portrayed as its intellectual fathers. Our discussion concentrates on their views.

Neither Spencer nor Sumner held the positions commonly attributed to them. For one thing, Spencer’s approach to evolution (which he developed independently of Darwin) was essentially Lamarckian. Unlike Darwin, Spencer believed that acquired characteristics are genetically transmitted from one generation to the next, and he placed relatively little emphasis on the process of natural selection. This Lamarckian approach, whatever its shortcomings as a biological theory, is a better model of social development than its Darwinian counterpart. Humans do “inherit” and build on the adaptations and acquired characteristics of their progenitors—as we see in language, the transmission of knowledge, technology, capital investment, social institutions, and so forth.

Although both Spencer and Sumner used the phrase “survival of the fittest” (it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term), both had cause to regret it, in light of how vulnerable this expression was to misrepresentation. “I have had much experience in controversy,” Spencer wrote in later life, “and my impression is that in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me.” Sumner became so frustrated by the same problem that he stopped using the phrase “survival of the fittest” altogether, so it never appears in his later writings and lectures.

Because of the “survival of the fittest” doctrine, Spencer and Sumner have been labeled (and condemned) as Social Darwinists. We are told that they and their followers were infused with a stern and implacable contempt for the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged—those “unfit” persons who, by an inexorable law of nature, should give way in the struggle for existence to those who are more fit.

This allegation may seem strange to those who have firsthand knowledge of the voluminous writings of Spencer and Sumner. Like Adam Smith and many other classical liberals before them, both men maintained that the poor are among the greatest victims of state interference, and both men argued that free, dynamic markets offer the best prospects for economic betterment.

If Social Darwinism is an inappropriate label for the ideas of Spencer and Sumner, who never used it themselves, what about the expression survival of the fittest, which they did use? What did they mean by this expression? Spencer repeatedly emphasized that, in using the terms fit and fittest, he was not expressing a value judgment, nor was he referring to a particular characteristic, such as strength or intelligence, nor was he expressing any kind of approval or disapproval. In his article “Mr. Martineau on Evolution,” Spencer noted that this doctrine “is expressible in purely physical terms, which neither imply competition nor imply better and worse.” Moreover, “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.”

The law [of survival of the fittest] is not the survival of the “better” or the “stronger.” … It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.

If an organism is to survive and prosper, it must adapt to its external environment. This ability to adapt is what Spencer means by fitness. If an organism is unfit in this sense—if, in other words, it fails to adapt to its environment—then it will live in a diseased or unhealthy condition and perhaps even die. In short, to be fit is to be able to adapt to the conditions necessary to its survival, whatever those requirements may be.

In a social context, the fittest are those persons who are able to adapt to the survival requirements of their society. Suppose a government were to decree that all those with red hair shall be executed. It follows that the persons best fitted for survival in this society would be those without red hair or those who naturally possess red hair who adapt by changing their hair color or shaving their heads. We can state this survival of the fittest principle without condoning the penalty against people with red hair and without regarding those without red hair as superior people. It is a simple, inescapable fact that if a government determines to kill all people with red hair, then (other things being equal) you have a better chance to survive you are more fit—if you do not have red hair. This interpretation, which treats survival of the fittest as a value‐​free description of what in fact does occur, rather than as a prescription or approval of what should occur, also was maintained by Sumner. According to Sumner, the common misapprehension that “survival of the fittest” means “survival of the best” lies at the root of “all disputes about evolution and ethics.”

When Spencer and Sumner applied their survival of the fittest principle to a free, industrial society, they reached conclusions that differ radically from the position supposedly taken by Social Darwinists. True, the sacrifice of one individual for the benefit of another is the general rule for lower life forms. It is equally true of the lower forms of human society—militaristic, authoritarian societies that Spencer and Sumner, following the legal historian H. S. Maine, called regimes of status. But as the regime of status gradually gives way to regimes of contract, as voluntary cooperation replaces coercion as the dominant mode of social interaction, there occurs a fundamental change in the conditions of social survival and in the corresponding standard of fitness.

People in a free society are able to pursue their own interests as they wish provided they respect the equal rights of others. Cooperation in a regime of contract replaces the exploitation that prevails in a regime of status, and the fittest survive not by coercing or exploiting others, but by assisting them through the mutual exchanges that mark a market economy. Survival here is achieved by providing others in society with desired goods and services. Hence, here as elsewhere, survival of the fittest is an iron law of social existence, but the standard of fitness is far removed from that suggested by the specter of Social Darwinism. Voluntary cooperation, not coercive exploitation, is the standard of fitness in a free society.

Spencer, Sumner, and other classical liberals insisted that market competition differs radically from biological competition. Unlike the latter, in which one organism preys on another to survive, market competition is able to produce additional wealth through the division of labor, capital accumulation, and so on, thereby making it possible for many people to survive and prosper who otherwise could not. Moreover, the complex division of labor that evolves in a market economy generates specialization, and this specialization generates social interdependence, a condition in which every person must rely on the cooperation and assistance of others for essential goods and services. The solitary individual cannot produce everything he needs or wants in a market economy, so he must persuade many others to assist him. This condition of survival cultivates the character traits or virtues necessary for peaceful interaction—those civilizing mores, as Sumner called them, that make social interaction not only productive, but pleasant as well.

To associate market competition with the biological competition of Darwinian evolution is to misunderstand how classical liberals viewed the free market. Biological competition, where one individual survives at the expense of another, is a zero‐​sum game, whereas market competition is a positive‐​sum game, a process in which all participants gain from their voluntary transactions with others. It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply. In a complex society marked by an advanced division of labor, where we must give others what they want in order to get what we want, the fit are those who can enlist the voluntary cooperation of others. Where success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, the standard of social fitness is measured by one’s ability to influence and persuade others voluntarily by offering them something of value.

Further Readings

Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo‐​American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Long, Roderick “Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet.” The Freeman 7–8 (July/​August 2004): 25–28.

Smith, George H. Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Ethics. Tibor Machan, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1978.

———. Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1970.

George H. Smith
Originally published