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Social Darwinism

Impact on Culture

Bradley C. S. Watson, St. Vincent College

In late 19th-century America, the old understanding of the nature and permanent limits of politics was dead or dying, at least among the intellectual classes. The death was linked to a reevaluation and reconfiguration of the American Founders’ political categories, including a Constitution dedicated to the preservation of natural rights through the limitation of government power. The death was hastened, and arguably caused, by the arrival on the intellectual scene of various doctrines and philosophic assumptions commonly associated with the term “social Darwinism.”

Soon after it was devised by the nineteenth-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, the model of natural selection of species in the field of biology came to be seen as an all-purpose explanatory tool that could put all the human sciences, especially politics and jurisprudence, on a parallel track with modern natural science. On the foundation laid by the social Darwinists and those in allied philosophical movements, many of the most influential American political thinkers and actors through the twentieth century came to share six core, overlapping understandings of the nature of politics and constitutional government.

First, that there are no fixed or eternal principles stemming from  natural law or natural rights that govern, or ought to govern, the politics of a decent regime. Old political categories are just that, and the understanding of the Constitution as embodying eternal verities (an understanding shared by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln alike) is a quaint anachronism.

Second, that the state and its component parts are organic, each involved in a struggle for never-ending growth. Contrary to the Platonic ideal of stasis, and contrary too to the Aristotelian notion of natural movement toward particular ends (both of which play important roles in the notion of natural law), the new organic view of politics suggests that movement itself, and not conformity to one’s true ends, is the key to survival and what can only loosely be termed the political “good.”

Third, that democratic openness and experimentalism, especially in the expressive realm, are necessary to ensure vigorous growth—they are the fertilizer of the organic state. Such experimentalism implies a particular sort of consequentialism or utilitarianism when judging institutions and laws.

Fourth, that the state and its component parts exist only in History, understood as an inexorable process, rather than a mere record of events.

Fifth, that some individuals stand outside this process and must, like captains of a great ship, periodically adjust the position of this ship in the river of History—to ensure that it continues to move forward, rather than run aground and stagnate. Politics demands an elite class, possessed of intelligence as a method, or reason directed to instrumental matters rather than fixed truth. This elite class springs into action to clear blockages in the path of historical progress, whether in the form of anachronistic institutions, laws, or ideas. These blockages will form in the path of the ship of state when openness or experimentalism proves inadequate.

Sixth, and a direct corollary to the strong historicism just mentioned, is that moral-political truth or rightness of action is always relative to one’s moment in History, or the exact place of the ship in the river of time.

According to the social Darwinists and those who would follow in their footsteps, a new social science was indebted to Darwin, whose organic, genetic, and experimental logic could be brought to bear on an array of human problems heretofore considered insoluble, or at least perennial. Darwin came to be understood less as a biologist and more as a political philosopher and political scientist rejecting old modes and orders. No one more clearly explicates the nature of this new science than John Dewey in his great essay entitled “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.”[1] By the time he wrote it in 1909, he was effectively summarizing the intellectual tenor of his times.

As Dewey avers, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species marked a revolution not only in the natural sciences, but the human sciences as well, which could continue in their old form only under the pressures of habit and prejudice. To speak of an “origin” of species is itself a revolution in thought, implying that the organic sciences as well as the inorganic are defined by change rather than stasis. “The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life.” Darwin, more than anyone else, allows us to move from old questions that have lost their vital appeal to our perceived interests and needs. We do not solve old questions, according to Dewey, “we get over them. Old questions are solved by disappearing, evaporating, while new questions corresponding to the changed attitude of endeavor and preference take their place. Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, new intentions, new problems, is the one effected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in the ‘Origin of Species.’”

Dewey’s Darwin lays hands “upon the sacred ark of permanency” that had governed the West’s understanding of human beings. Darwin challenges the most sacred element in the Western intellectual tradition, one that had been handed down from the Greeks and incorporated into the theory of natural law: the belief in the “superiority of the fixed and final,” including “the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection.” The Greeks dilated on the characteristic traits of creatures, attaching the word species to them. As they manifested themselves in a completed form or final cause, these species were seen to exhibit uniform structure and function, and to do so repeatedly, to the point where they were viewed as unchanging in their essential being. All changes were therefore held “within the metes and bounds of fixed truth.” Nature as a whole came to be viewed as “a progressive realization of purpose.” The Greeks then propounded ethical systems based on purposiveness.

Henceforth, “genetic” and “experimental” processes and methods can guide our inquiries into all human life and action. In fact, on Darwinian terms, change is of the essence of the good, which is identified with organic adaptation, survival, and growth. With maximally experimental social arrangements, change in useless directions can quickly be converted into change in useful directions. The goal of philosophy is no longer to search after absolute origins or ends, but the processes that generate them.[2]

What exists materially becomes more important than what ought to be, because only the former can be the object of the new empirical science. In the absence of fixity, morals, politics, and religion are subject to radical renegotiation and transformation. Essences are no longer the highest object of inquiry, or indeed any object of inquiry. Rather, science concentrates on particular changes and their relationship to particular salutary purposes, which according to Dewey depend on “intelligent administration of existent conditions.”

Philosophy is reduced from the “wholesale” to the retail level.[3] Through the emphasis on administration of concrete conditions, Dewey claims responsibility is introduced to philosophy. Instead of concentrating on metaphysics, or even politics in the full Aristotelian sense, we are in effect freed to concentrate on policy—or, in Dewey’s language, “the things that specifically concern us.”

Darwin broke down the last barriers between the scientific method and reconstruction in philosophy—and in the human sciences generally—because of his overcoming of the view that the human sciences are different from the physical sciences and therefore require a different approach. This is contrary to Aristotle’s understanding that different methods of inquiry are required for different kinds of beings—there is no one scientific or philosophic mode of inquiry that applies across the board. Philosophy or science for Aristotle is the human striving after wisdom or knowledge. It seeks an understanding of the highest things through an examination of all things, according to methods appropriate to each.

One way of understanding the social Darwinists’ enterprise is to view it as an attempt to reintegrate science and philosophy, which had been torn asunder by modernity. While they seek this reintegration, they do so on uniquely modern terms: Philosophy is reduced to empirical, naturalistic science, that is, to the process, without the ends, or essences, or highest things. Their notion is that we can reduce human sciences, including politics, to relatively simple principles, contrary to the Aristotelian or ancient view, which held that politics is much harder than physics precisely because one must take into account unpredictable behavior, as well as choice-worthy purposive behavior toward complex ends—rather than more predictable motions and processes toward simple ends. The human sciences, which at the highest level involve statesmanship, are, for Aristotle, more complex than the physical, and rely on great practical experiential wisdom as well as theoretical wisdom. By contrast, for Dewey and his generation, Darwinism seemed to break down the barriers between the human and the non-human.

Dewey’s elucidation of the utility of Darwinism to social science and the new philosophy of man abstracts from the thought of a number of the major social Darwinist thinkers and actors, including William Graham Sumner, Lester Frank Ward, and W. E. B. DuBois. Their intellectual categories continue to exert a powerful control over political and jurisprudential discourse to the present day. Collectively, they point to a view of society as an organism that, constantly in the throes of change, must grow or die. For the social Darwinists, to look backward—whether to founding principles or any other fixed or otherwise obsolete standard of political right such as natural law—inevitably reflects a death wish. While to some degree borrowing Hegelian historical categories, American social Darwinism shares no rational end point with Hegelianism. Change in itself becomes the end, and is always preferable to its opposite. By the early 20th century, social Darwinism would join forces with philosophical pragmatism, to form a powerful intellectual progressivism that would radically influence the thought and programmatic liberalism of political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as the jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Bradley C. S. Watson holds the Philip M. McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence (ISI Books, 2009), from which this essay is adapted.

[1] John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” in The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1951).

[2] Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” 13.

[3] Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” 16.

German Philosophy of War

Missing the link between Darwin and racism

One Human Family is an in-depth refutation of racism and much much more. Order your copy now

by Warren Nunn

Published: 12 October 2014 (GMT+10)

In an article titled Sorry, atheists, but you’re wrong: The death of Love your neighbour, CMI highlighted how much Australian society had changed for the worse and linked that to the increasing acceptance of evolutionary ideas.

Anthony B., from France, in a comment on the article, said evolution should not be blamed and suggested the ‘religious’ had a part to play in the poor treatment of Aboriginal Australians in the 19th century. He wrote:

The rise in gratuitous violence is a disgrace, but as to whether the theory of evolution is to blame is somewhat controversial. In the 19C in your country the violence meted out to aborigenes [sic] was carried out when people were far more religious than today.
One can see a distinct change for the worse after 1859, with a marked increase in callousness, ill-treatment and brutality towards Aboriginal people

Violence is indeed ‘a disgrace’; but it’s a pity that the perpetrators of the gratuitous violence don’t seem to see it as such. And how is teaching them an evolutionary view of their origins going to change their minds?

But in any case, Anthony B. clearly did not think through his comment and/or chose to ignore the historical record which shows that it was evolutionary thinking that convinced society that indigenous Australians were ‘living missing links’. From that flowed countless heinous acts of murder, etc, many of which were done for the ‘benefit’ of allegedly ‘scientific’ knowledge.

In his book One Human Family, CMI’s Managing Director Dr Carl Wieland reveals the depth of the problem. The following extract shows clearly, with documentation, that it was the rush to adopt Charles Darwin’s ideas that fuelled a dramatic upsurge in shameful actions:

Aboriginals bearing the brunt

An unusual book was published in 1974, called Aborigines in White Australia: A Documentary History of the Attitudes Affecting Official Policy and the Australian Aborigine 1697–1973.1 Apart from a few introductory/editorial comments, it consists almost entirely of substantial excerpts from documents. These are parliamentary transcripts, court records, letters to editors, anthropological reports, and so forth. Far from showing a progressive enlightenment in the attitudes of the colonists as time goes on, one can see a distinct change for the worse after 1859, with a marked increase in callousness, ill-treatment and brutality towards Aboriginal people being evident in official attitudes. This is not lost on the editor of the above book, who writes:

“In 1859 Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species popularized the notion of biological (and therefore social) evolution. Scholars began to discuss civilization as a unilinear process with races able to ascend or descend a graduated scale. The European was … the ‘fittest to survive’ … [The Aboriginal] was doomed to die out according to a ‘natural law’, like the dodo and the dinosaur. This theory, supported by the facts at hand [i.e. that Aboriginal folk were dying out from ill-treatment and disease—CW] continued to be quoted until well into the twentieth century when it was noticed that the dark-skinned race was multiplying. Until that time it could be used to justify neglect and murder.”

At least one prominent evolutionist has admitted to the Darwin-racism connection.

From the book’s transcript of an interrogation of a policeman during a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1861 (p. 83), we read concerning the use of force against tribal Aboriginals:

“‘And if we did not punish the blacks they would look upon it as a confession of weakness?’
‘Yes, that is exactly my opinion.’
‘It is a question as to which is the strongest race—if we submit to them they would despise us for it?’
‘Yes …’”


The lowly state in which some Australians viewed the indigenous population was evident before Darwin’s ideas began to take hold.

The influence of evolutionary thinking can also be seen in another excerpt from Aborigines in White Australia, on p. 100. The writer quoted, also author of an 1888 book, is justifying the killing of the native population in the State of Victoria. He writes:

“As to the ethics of the question, there can be drawn no final conclusion.”

He says that this is because it is

“a question of temperament; to the sentimental it is undoubtedly an iniquity; to the practical it represents a distinct step in human progress, involving the sacrifice of a few thousands of an inferior race. … But the fact is that mankind, as a race, cannot choose to act solely as moral beings. They are governed by animal laws which urge them blindly forward upon tracks they scarce can choose for themselves.”

In other words, he is justifying ‘iniquity’ (another word for sin) by appealing to the ‘animal laws’ of the evolutionary struggle for survival. Opposition can be dismissed as ‘sentimental’—lacking understanding of such ‘natural laws’.

There were isolated voices of protest. On p. 93, we read of a letter writer to an Australian newspaper in 1880, who, incensed by the treatment of his fellow man, stated:

“This, in plain language, is how we deal with the aborigines: On occupying new territory the aboriginal inhabitants are treated exactly in the same way as the wild beasts or birds the settlers may find there. Their lives and their property, the nets, canoes, and weapons which represent as much labor to them as the stock and buildings of the white settler, are held by the Europeans as being at their absolute disposal. Their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away, entirely at the caprice of white men. The least show of resistance is answered by a rifle bullet … [those] who fancied the amusement have murdered, ravished, and robbed the blacks without let or hindrance. Not only have they been unchecked, but the Government of the colony has been always at hand to save them from the consequences of their crime.”2

Historian Joanna Cruickshank is no friend of creationists but acknowledges that Christians rightly viewed Australian Aboriginals as fully human.

But such voices were readily drowned out by the fashionable science of the day. Three pages further on, we read of someone else, also writing in an 1880 newspaper, who said:

“Nothing that we can do will alter the inscrutable and withal immutable laws which direct our progress on this globe. By these laws the native races of Australia were doomed on the advent of the white man, and the only thing left for us to do is to assist in carrying them out [i.e. helping the ‘laws’ of evolution by hastening the Aborigines’ doom—CW] with as little cruelty as possible … We must rule the blacks by fear … .”3

Australian secular historian Joanna Cruickshank acknowledges, if somewhat reluctantly, not only the baneful effects of the Darwin-inspired ‘scientific racism’ on Australian Aboriginals, but the way in which belief in our common descent from Adam and Eve operated to temper such thinking. In a recent article4 on the topic, she writes:


This Australian newspaper article highlights how Aboriginals were butchered in the name of science. The article mentions 19th century politician Korah Wills who admitted to killing and dismembering the body of an Aboriginal.

“Supporters of Darwin have understandably often been reluctant to acknowledge how closely entangled Darwinism and social Darwinism were, preferring to distance Darwin from his theory’s evil twin.

“Yet those who debated the theory of evolution in the late nineteenth century were keenly aware of this connection … . Nowhere was this more obvious than in Australia.”

She writes how by 1876, the library of a typical squatter (pastoralist) consisted of books by Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Darwin. The pattern, widespread today, of church leaders anxious to compromise with this new ‘scientific’ ideology, was already evident. She writes how in 1869, a Reverend Bromby gave a public lecture defending Darwin’s book, in which he

“followed Darwin’s logic in using the apparent dying out of Aboriginal people as evidence for evolution.

“In response, the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, Charles Perry, attacked both Bromby’s evidence and his conclusions. Perry critiqued what he saw as the scientific inadequacies of Darwin’s book.

“In particular, however, Perry attacked the view that human beings could be divided by race—or any other category—into ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ … .”

Cruickshank explains that Bromby represented the ‘progressive’ wing of the Church of England. Betraying her pro-evolution bias, she calls him “open to scientific evidence” and “dismissive of biblical literalism.”

She continues:

“Perry, by contrast, was a staunch evangelical, uncomfortable with the theological implications of Darwin’s theory and horrified at what he saw as a threat to the biblical claim that all humanity was formed of ‘one blood.’”

Cruickshank goes on to say that when legislation was passed

“enshrining the ‘White Australia’ policy and effectively denying Aboriginal people the vote, few voices were raised in protest. Progressives and conservatives alike saw the preservation of the more evolved white race as central to national identity.

Following Darwin and his contemporaries, they [Aboriginals] were regarded by scientists and other evolutionary enthusiasts as ‘living missing links’

“Those few protests against the policy came from unlikely quarters. The fledgling New South Wales Aborigines Mission, a small evangelical organization, pointed out that while most politicians claimed ‘to be ultrademocratic, they are sadly conservative in democratic practice, and unChristian both in theory and in practice when they say that a native born Australian is not a man and a brother because his skin happens to be a few shades darker than their own.’

Finally, and very significantly for our purposes here, this secular historian states:

“In earlier periods, one of the few persistent barriers to social Darwinist theory in Australia was the Christian doctrine that all human beings were of ‘one blood.’”

A gruesome trade

The body parts of Australian Aboriginal folk were keenly sought after. Following Darwin and his contemporaries, they were regarded by scientists and other evolutionary enthusiasts as ‘living missing links’. The remains of some 10,000 dead Aboriginal people in all were shipped to British museums over the course of this frenzy to provide specimens for this ‘new science’.5

David Monaghan, an Australian journalist, extensively documented these—and far worse—effects of evolutionary belief. He spent 18 months researching his subject in London, culminating in an article in Australia’s Bulletin magazine6 and a TV documentary called Darwin’s Body-Snatchers. This aired in Britain on October 8, 1990.

Pickled Aboriginal brains were also in demand, to try to demonstrate that they were inferior to those of whites.

Along with museum curators from around the world, Monaghan says, some of the top names in British science were involved in this large-scale grave-robbing trade. These included anatomist Sir Richard Owen, anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith, and Charles Darwin himself. Darwin wrote asking for Tasmanian skulls when only four full-blooded native Tasmanians were left alive. (Ever the Victorian gentleman, his request came with a caveat; provided, that is, that it would not upset their feelings.)

American evolutionists, too, were strongly involved in this flourishing ‘industry’ of gathering specimens of ‘sub-humans’, according to Monaghan. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington holds the remains of 15,000 individuals of various groups of people.

Museums were not only interested in bones, but in fresh skins as well. These would provide interesting evolutionary displays when stuffed. Pickled Aboriginal brains were also in demand, to try to demonstrate that they were inferior to those of whites.

Good prices were being offered for such specimens. Monaghan shows, on the basis of written evidence from the time, that there is little doubt that many of the ‘fresh’ specimens were obtained by simply going out and killing the Aboriginal people. The way in which the requests for specimens were announced was often a poorly disguised invitation to do just that. A death-bed memoir from Korah Wills, who became mayor of Bowen, Queensland, in 1866, graphically described how he killed and dismembered a local tribesman in 1865 to provide a scientific specimen.

Monaghan’s research indicated that Edward Ramsay, curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney for 20 years from 1874, was particularly heavily involved. He published a museum booklet which appeared to include his, my and your Aboriginal relatives under the designation of ‘Australian animals’. It also gave instructions not only on how to rob graves, but also on how to plug up bullet wounds in freshly killed ‘specimens’.

Many freelance collectors worked under Ramsay’s guidance. Four weeks after he had requested skulls of Bungee (Russell River) blacks, a keen young science student sent him two, announcing that they, the last of their tribe, had just been shot. In the 1880s, Monaghan writes, Ramsay complained that laws recently passed in Queensland to stop the slaughter of Aboriginals were affecting his supply.

The Angel of Black Death


The 19th century German naturalist Amalie Dietrich was part of the gruesome trade for Australian Aboriginals—one of Darwin’s bodysnatchers.

According to Monaghan’s Bulletin article, that was the nickname given to a German evolutionist, Amalie Dietrich. She came to Australia asking station7 owners for their Aboriginal workers to be shot for specimens. She was particularly interested in skin for stuffing and mounting for her museum employers. Although evicted from at least one property, she shortly returned home with her specimens.

Monaghan also recounts how a New South Wales missionary was a horrified witness to the slaughter by mounted police of a group of dozens of Aboriginal men, women and children. Forty-five heads were then boiled down and the ten best skulls were packed off for overseas.

Still in recent times

As much as one would like to think that such attitudes are long gone, remnants still linger, including in the scientific community itself. This is shown by a telling extract from a secular writer in 2004 (emphasis added):

“It has been estimated that the remains of some 50,000 Aborigines are housed in medical and scientific institutions abroad. The Tasmanian Aboriginal remains in particular are there for two reasons. First, at the time of collection they were considered to be the most primitive link in the evolutionary chain, and therefore worthy of scientific consideration. Second, each skull fetched between five and ten shillings. … in anthropological terms, while the remains maintain currency as a museum item, the notion that they are a scientific curiosity remains. Put simply, if it is now accepted that Tasmanian Aborigines are not the weakest evolutionary link, that they are simply another group of people with attendant rights to dignity and respect, there is no longer any reason to keep their remains for study. Institutions should acknowledge that by returning the remains. There are two reasons why this is not as straightforward as it appears. First, the British Museum Act of 1962 did not allow British government institutions to deaccess stored material. Second, a number of scientists haven’t accepted that Tasmanian Aborigines are not on the bottom of Social Darwinist scales, and until they do, feet are being dragged.”8
In the 1880s, Monaghan writes, Ramsay complained that laws recently passed in Queensland to stop the slaughter of Aboriginals were affecting his supply.

Darwinist views about the racial inferiority of Aboriginal Australians drastically influenced their treatment in other ways too. These views were backed up by alleged biological evidences, which were only much later seen for what they were—distortions based on bias. In 1908 an inspector from the Department of Aborigines in the West Kimberley region wrote that he was glad to have received an order to transport all half-castes away from their tribe to the mission. He said it was “the duty of the State” to give these children (who, by their evolutionary reasoning, were going to be intellectually superior to full-blooded Aboriginal ones) a “chance to lead a better life than their mothers”. He wrote: “I would not hesitate for one moment to separate a half-caste from an Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief”.9 Notice the use of the word ‘momentary’ to qualify ‘grief’; such lesser-evolved beings, sub-human as they were, were to him clearly not capable of feeling real grief.

Many genuine Australian Christians and church institutions, though patronizing on occasion, seem to have tried to protect Aboriginal people from the full brunt of the many inhumanities sanctioned by evolutionary thinking. However, like today, most church leaders and institutions compromised in some form or another with this new Darwinian ‘science’. Virtually no Christian voice in Australia did what was required—to affirm boldly the real history of mankind as given in the Bible. For the church to have stressed regarding Aboriginal people that we all go back only a few thousand years, to Noah’s family, would have helped strongly refute both pre-Darwinian racism and the maxi-spurt it received from Darwin. It would also have anticipated the findings of modern genetics, that biologically we are all extremely closely related.

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References and notes

  1. Edited by Sharman Stone, Heinemann Educational Books, Melbourne, 1974. Return to text.
  2. The full text (which makes interesting reading) can be found at to text.
  3. Full text at to text.
  4. Cruickshank, J., Darwin, race and religion in Australia, ABC Religion and Ethics,, 11 Apr 2011, accessed 13 April 2011. Return to text.
  5. Darwin’s bodysnatchers, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 1990, cited in Creation 12(3):21, 1990. The original apparently stated that only 3,000 sets of remains were left after the bombing raids of World War II. Return to text.
  6. Monaghan, D., The body-snatchers, The Bulletin, 12 November 1991, pp. 30–38. Return to text.
  7. ‘Station’ (e.g. cattle station, sheep station) is the Australian designation for what would be termed ‘ranch’ in the US. Many Aboriginal people worked on stations, often as stockmen (the equivalent of ‘cowboys’ or ‘cowhands’). Return to text.
  8. Onsman, A., Truganini’s funeral, Island, No. 96, 2004. Truganini was the last surviving female full-blood Tasmanian. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 6. p.38. Return to text.