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Social Darwinism

Standard accounts of Social Darwinism often link it to the “rugged individualism” of 19th-century libertarian thought. Social Darwinism has been characterized as an unsavory doctrine that supposedly advocated “survival of the fittest” in matters of social policy, and two sociologists, the Englishman Herbert Spencer and the American William Graham Sumner, are commonly portrayed as its intellectual fathers. Our discussion concentrates on their views.

Neither Spencer nor Sumner held the positions commonly attributed to them. For one thing, Spencer's approach to evolution (which he developed independently of Darwin) was essentially Lamarckian. Unlike Darwin, Spencer believed that acquired characteristics are genetically transmitted from one generation to the next, and he placed relatively little emphasis on the process of natural selection. This Lamarckian approach, whatever its shortcomings as a ...

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