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Social Darwinism

Entry updated 16 April 2021. Tagged: Theme.

Social Darwinism is the thesis that social evolution and social history are governed by the same principles that govern the Evolution of species in Nature, so that conflict between and within cultures constitutes a struggle for existence which is the motor of progress. Such ideas are inherent in the socio-economic theories of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who actually coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest", borrowed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin himself was not a Social Darwinist, preferring to stress the survival value of cooperation in human societies. Social Darwinism was popularized in the USA by ardent political champions of laissez-faire capitalism, notably William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) – whose pessimistic anticipation of a coming war between the social classes echoed the Marxist theory of history, and presumably inspired Ignatius Donnelly's apocalyptic Caesar's Column (1890; early editions as by Edmund Boisgilbert) – and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Émile Gautier popularized the term in France with his Le Darwinisme social (1880). Social Darwinist rhetoric was co-opted to the justification of race hatred by the German writer Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), a major source of inspiration for Hitler's Mein Kampf (1925-1926 2vols; trans 1939) and the political ideology of Nazism. There is, however, no logically necessary connection between Social Darwinism and right-wing Politics; it is a versatile analogy which lends itself to many differing opinions as to which group ought to be designated "the fittest", and its arguments can be deployed both for and against calculated Eugenic selection.

The most important sf writer who might be termed a Social Darwinist was the socialist H G Wells, who had no doubt that the "laws of evolution" discovered by Darwin applied to human society. His account of the future evolution of society in The Time Machine (1895) is based on a Social Darwinist logic, and in such Utopias as A Modern Utopia (1905) a "struggle for existence" is artificially maintained – here in the ascetic training of the elite "samurai". Many of Wells's blueprints for the future assume that a better society can emerge only out of the destruction of the present one, by a process of rigorous winnowing; such future histories are sketched in The World Set Free (1914), Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). When Wells finally despaired of his world-saving mission it was the logic of Darwinian law that he invoked to condemn society for its failure in Mind at the End of its Tether (1945). Louis Tracy's The Final War (1896) and M P Shiel's The Yellow Danger (5 February-18 June 1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898) are early Future-War stories deploying a Social Darwinist species of racism, the latter suggesting that there must ultimately be a war between the different races of Homo sapiens for possession of the Earth; but Shiel later modified his Spencerian views and espoused a curiously Nietzschean kind of Social Darwinism most vividly displayed in The Young Men Are Coming (1937). S Fowler Wright is the UK writer of Scientific Romance who most consistently glorified the struggle for existence and railed against the "utopia of comforts".

Opposition to Darwinist analogies is evident in Claude Farrère's late Imperial Gothic tale Useless Hands (1926), a lurid warning of the ultimate effects of applying Darwinian logic to human society, and in Raymond Z Gallun's Pulp-magazine story "Old Faithful" (December 1934 Astounding), which argues that intellectual kinship is more important than biological difference. A fierce attack on Social Darwinism is mounted by C S Lewis in his Ransom trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953) and That Hideous Strength (1945). The last volume – in which the organization N.I.C.E. begins to mould UK society along Social Darwinist lines – is the most direct.

The logic of Social Darwinism has cropped up continually, but rather inconsistently, in Genre SF. One writer particularly fond of invoking such ideas was Robert A Heinlein. The assumptions of Social Darwinism seem to have shaped many of his perspectives – notably his attitude towards Aliens, as displayed in The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990) and Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959), the "robust" Libertarian social theory of TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) propounded in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), and the collection of aphorisms called "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" in Time Enough for Love (1973). Other Libertarian SF writers make less use of this type of supportive logic. Poul Anderson's political views are based on more pragmatic grounds, and the same appears to be true of Jerry E Pournelle, although his collaboration with Larry Niven, Lucifer's Hammer (1977), employs some Social Darwinist arguments. Echoes of Sumner and Carnegie frequently resound in the work of genre libertarians, as they do more plangently in Ayn Rand's Objectivist tracts Anthem (1938) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). L Ron Hubbard's Return to Tomorrow (1954) is the most hysterically Social Darwinist work in genre sf, advocating that the human race commit universal genocide of all alien races to secure its hegemony. John W Campbell Jr was a notorious human chauvinist, but he made relatively little (and rather inconsistent) use of Social Darwinist ideas in his editorials. His variously argued defences of Slavery as an institution inspired some of the odder fiction published in Analog, including Lloyd Biggle Jr's The World Menders (February-April 1971 Analog; 1971), and his opinion that mankind needs some kind of external enemy – if not actual, then imaginary – to maintain the competitive thrust of progress is also reflected in work by writers from his stable, notably Mack Reynolds, as in Space Visitor (1977). Lester del Rey, whose early short stories displayed a strongly humanist outlook, seemingly embraces a kind of Social Darwinism in The Eleventh Commandment (1962; rev 1970).

The idea that aliens should be seen primarily as Darwinian competitors has fallen into considerable disrepute in modern sf, but there was a marked resurgence of Social Darwinist thinking in late twentieth-century Survivalist Fiction, mostly brutal action-adventure stuff in the vein of Jerry Ahern. Dean Ing's Pulling Through (coll 1983) is more level-headed, while David Brin's The Postman (fixup 1985) is profoundly sceptical of the Social Darwinist ethos of survivalism. [BS]

see also: Economics; History in SF; Sociology.

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