Why were later 19th century social thinkers attracted to the idea of 'evolution'?

Essay by mrjatinchopra January 2004

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The idea of evolution had two broad attractions for social thinkers, one concerning its intellectual history, and the other concerning the political and social implications of its conclusions. In the former category, evolution provided the relatively new subject of sociology with a way to 'find its feet', while lending the factually-based credibility of the natural sciences to social science. As for the specific conclusions which social thinkers drew from the concept of 'evolution', the biological conclusions of Darwin were used - in the guise of 'Social Darwinism' - to justify both empire-building and a lack of provision for the poor.

It is worth beginning with an definition of what Darwin and Spencer understood as 'evolution', as it differs from the way in which we think about evolution now. Most theories of evolution at the time stemmed from Lamarck, who had arrived at some tentative conclusions many years before The Origin of Species was published.

Lamarck dismissed the concept of what we now know as genetics, and believed instead that characteristics acquired by organisms during their lives would be passed on to their offspring. This argument, which in the light of modern study seems rather ridiculous, suggested for example that a blacksmith's muscles would be passed on to his children, or that an animal which was blinded in an accident before procreation would produce blind offspring. Spencer continued to believe in this philosophy throughout his life, and drew some further conclusions which, with the improved knowledge of evolution that we now have, seem fallacious. He equated the development of an organism during its lifetime with the development of different types of organism through the ages, and paralleled this by equating the development of individual societies to the general succession of society. This philosophy falls apart if Lamarck's conclusion no...