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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.2 (2000) 223-240

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The "Survival of the Fittest" and the Origins of Social Darwinism

Gregory Claeys *

In late September 1838 a young man, aged 29, a former medical student and amateur naturalist, who had spent several years in the South Pacific studying plant and animal life, but who remained puzzled as to why "favourable variants" of each species survived while "unfavourable variants" were destroyed, sat perusing a book, as he later recalled, "for amusement." 1 The work which provoked Charles Darwin was T. R. Malthus's Essay on Population (1798), which he later claimed first suggested to him the idea that "on the whole the best fitted live." This idea Darwin would popularize through the notion of the "struggle for existence," a phrase which he famously claimed to use as a "metaphor" but which meant simply "the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms." 2 That application resulted in the publication [End Page 223] of the Origin of Species in 1859, an occasion hailed as "the greatest event of Queen Victoria's reign," 3 even "by far the most important ... in the history of the modern West." 4 It is well known, too, that Darwin's appreciation of Malthus was not unique even among naturalists. The year before the Origin of Species appeared another young man, Alfred Russel Wallace, aged 25, encountered the very same book. "There suddenly," he later recalled, flashed upon him "the idea of the survival of the fittest." 5 We know Wallace today, thus, as the codiscoverer of theory of natural selection, who presented a paper jointly with Darwin at the Linnean Society on that momentous evening of 1 July 1858 to mark their brilliant achievement. 6

This curious coincidence has often been noted, but its ramifications require further assessment. This article examines some crucial nineteenth-century sources of the idea of the "survival of the fittest," which came to underpin many of the social and political doctrines later associated with the theory of natural selection, and also what were regarded as some of the limits of this idea. 7 It contends that there was in fact far more than mere coincidence in the obviously provocative role played by Malthus's Essay for both Darwin and Wallace. 8 It argues, [End Page 224] therefore, against the presumption of tacit causality--logically implicit in the concept of "Social Darwinism" 9 --that much of the social and political theory which nominally invoked Darwin was fundamentally derived from, as opposed to being reinforced by, the principles of natural selection. It challenges the view that the logic of discovery in the natural sciences, in other words, induced parallel or derivative concepts in the social sciences and that the "survival of the fittest" emerged first as a natural, and then mutated into a social concept. Instead it suggests that what was specific about much of Social Darwinism resulted from several shifts in thought in mid-Victorian Britain to which Darwin himself also responded and which therefore also vitally influenced his own development.

No doubt, of course, this assertion of causation contains some truth. Darwin was extraordinarily widely read and extraordinarily influential. We are all aware of the great theological debates associated with his name in late Victorian Britain, of the counter-attack against Darwin begun by Bishop Wilberforce in June 1860, and of the tenacious war of attrition conducted by "Darwin's bulldog," T. H. Huxley, who coined the term "agnostic" in 1869 to define the lack of scientific evidence for the existence of God. 10 Much has been written of the moral panic and growing loss of religious faith, paralleling the course of Darwin's own "reluctant agnosticism," which followed the conclusion that human beings had been levelled to the status of animals and deprived of a special Providential creation as well as any divine purpose in the perpetuation of their species. In history a tremendous impetus was given to the search for certain laws of social development. In social...


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