Social Darwinism in American History

Toward the end of the 19th century, the United States entered a period of growth and industrialisation. An abundance of natural recourses, cheap labour supply, and a self-sufficient food supply contributed to the industrialisation of the United States. This time was known as the American Industrial Revolution. Due to the growing prosperity of the United States, the American people, in general, adopted a heavily opportunistic and an excessively materialistic view towards life.

Charles Darwin, a British naturalist, developed a theory of evolution through the process of natural selection. His ideas were presented to the public through several manuscripts that he wrote towards the late 19th century. The Origin of the species was one such manuscript, in which Darwin presented his idea that species evolve from more primitive species through the process of natural selection. When Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species reached the United States following its publication in 1859, the reading public quickly gave it a popular reception. The Americans had observed the disarray over political issues in the period before and during the Civil War, and had experienced many hardships later during the Reconstruction in the South. They were now ready to listen to theories that allowed them to enjoy their great, recently settled continent and the new industries that sprang up within it. It was during this age of rapid and remarkable change that Darwin’s theories were popularised in the United States. Darwin developed a theory of evolution through natural selection, in which only the fittest would survive. Although Charles Darwin himself did not write about social factors such as human behaviour in society, his theories were open to interpretation. His ideas were moulded and eventually evolved into a theory known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists believed that people, like animals, compete for survival and those who become rich and powerful are the ‘fittest’ while those left behind in the lower classes must necessarily be "less fit". Social Darwinists came to believe that that human progress depended on competition. It was believed that "Nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement" (Hofstadter 6). Darwin’s theories on the "Survival of the Fittest", interpreted as Social Darwinism, were applied by the American people in the context of their social, economic and political development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Social Theories

Darwinism exerted a profound effect upon America’s social ideology. Darwin’s theories played an important role in the American’s usage of eugenics and in the justification of racial and sexist separateness. Eugenics, the study of human heredity, aimed at "improving" the human race, proved to be one of the most enduring aspects of Social Darwinism. Darwin’s theory of natural selection had greatly stimulated the study of heredity. Early eugenicists accepted the identification of the "fit" with the upper classes and the "unfit" with the lower classes. They contributed the economic deceleration at the end of the century to the increased immigration from countries of "inferior" stock. The American Eugenics Society (A.E.S.), founded in 1924, supported the idea that the wealth and social position of the upper classes was justified by their superior genetic capabilities. They pushed sterilisation laws and laws that severely limited immigration into the U.S. from countries that were not racially "pure". Between 1911 and 1930, 24 states passed sterilisation laws aimed at the mentally retarded, criminals, and the insane ("Eugenics"). William E. Kellicot spoke for the majority when he stated that " the Eugenicist believes that no other single factor in determining social conditions and practices approaches in importance that of racial structural integrity and sanity" (Hofstadter 163). The general belief of those that followed the A.E.S. was that the United States could only reach its highest potential if the nation was comprised of the racially pure "American type" (Hofstadter 163).

The interpretation of Darwin’s theory of the "survival of the fittest" not only justified views on eugenics, but also on racist and sexist ideas. The American Eugenics Society urged the passing of laws that restricted marriages between different racial groups. The United States was made up of a people long familiar with Indian warfare and southern slavery. These experiences had been grounded in views of racial superiority. In a nation where the