London, mid-July 1837, Charles Darwin starts a new entry in his diary: “I think” followed by the first visual representation of an evolutionary tree (rendered above). A momentous date for biology. A tragic one for social science.

During the nineteenth century, social science tried to mold itself on natural science. Borrowing experimental methods, argumentative structures and – at times – over-borrowing theories meant to describe the natural world. The crudest example of which is Social Darwinism: a multi-faceted term which shares nothing in common with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Darwinism vs. Social Darwinism: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between Darwinism and Social Darwinism explains why Social Darwinism is such a misnomer, and why Darwin’s name should never have been attached to it in the first place. The infographic below highlights the key differences between Darwin’s theory and later attempts to superimpose his reading of the evolution of species onto social relations:

Infographic Darwin Evolution Social

The key difference is visible in how different Social Darwinism’s visual representation is from Darwin’s original “tree of life” graph. Instead of Darwin’s tree, infinitely branching out, Social Darwinism resembles a tree which is constantly losing branches until only the trunk remains.

Whereas Darwin had depicted species as naturally inclined towards ever greater diversification, with natural selection filtering the trend towards potentially unlimited biological diversity, Social Darwinists depict the social world as inherently geared towards unification with an arguably unnatural selection operating to guide this conformity towards the single, best model.

In short, where Darwin described the natural world operating under the motto “diversify and survive,” Social Darwinists see social relations guided by the principle “conform or perish.”

The Many Faces of Social Darwinism

One of the difficulties in pinning down the term “Social Darwinism” is that it has been used to legitimize multiple different, and at times competing, projects to transform society: colonization abroad and domestic eugenics, laissez-faire capitalism and welfare programs, state-sponsored parenthood incentives and ethnic cleansing.

This incredibly diverse set of policies justified by Social Darwinist arguments rests on the fact that the grid it offers to interpret social issues can be applied on different scales, different types of categorization and with different values. It can be applied on a national scale or on a global one. It can categorize human beings according to race or ethnicity, national or religious belonging, social class or various measurements of character and values. Lastly, it is also determined by what one views as the overarching goal.

In that they all formulate a view of what the world ought to resemble if nature were to run its course – all Social Darwinists share a common, rotten core.

The devastating landscape of Social Darwinism: all trees, no branches
The devastating landscape of Social Darwinism: all trees, no branches

The Common Denominator

What all social darwinists share is: determinism, a strong belief in human agency, as well as a certain form of utopianism.

  1. Their determinism is visible in their belief in a future that is predictable and bound to happen if nature runs its course.
  2. Their belief in human agency is best seen in their view that this outcome can be accelerated by human action and that the natural unfolding of events can, and should, be helped along.
  3. Their utopianism is latent in their unshakable belief that the morose future they often outline will be better than the present and that, in many ways, it will be impossible to further perfect – or only in minor ways that will be clear to everyone and easy to implement in the new order.

Point by point, Darwin refutes all of this.

  1. Far from being deterministic, Darwin outlines a model for change but in no way claims to be able to predict the outcome.
  2. Human agency over this process of change is absent from the framework, the only way a human element can be integrated in Darwin’s chain of events is through the patently involuntary consequences of climate change.
  3. Put in perspective, Darwin’s theory explains human prominence over other forms of life on the planet as being the result of environmental factors. Were those factors to change, this prominence could also be called into question. Not the most utopian view of the future of the species…
Pokemon offers a closer approximation of Darwin's theory of evolution
Pokemon offers a closer approximation of Darwin’s theory of evolution


How Social Darwinism is different from Darwinism Infographic PDF (144 Ko)