The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, Ruse M. (ed.) Cambridge University Press: 2013
“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches...Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” (Darwin 2003 , 488). This statement, which appears in the concluding chapter to the Origin of Species, was Darwin’s only mention of human evolution in the entire book. He was well aware of the difficulties his biological propositions would encounter from believers in special creation, and therefore thought it wise to leave the delicate question of human evolution aside for the time being. Yet Darwin was nonetheless fully conscious that his theory would lead to important insights in this domain, and would probably revolutionise the way we think about ourselves, and our cultures. Enter social Darwinism. The term, which came into fashion after 1940, has been used mainly to decry doctrines that justify some form of individual, social or racial superiority through evolutionary principles with which Darwin’s theory is identified, such as the struggle for existence and natural selection. It has also been used in reference to teleological explanations of the causes of human progress that often carry with them value judgments concerning the degree of civilisation attained by various peoples. However, many of the positions typically attached to social Darwinism do not correspond to this stereotypical description. Even among the main proponents of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century – Darwin, Wallace, Huxley and Spencer - there were important disagreements concerning the process of evolution in humans and its results. This article proposes to take a closer look at the claims of these four seminal figures, and some related and antagonistic viewpoints, in order to tease out the various and complex meanings of social Darwinism. By tuning the microscope to grasp the finer details, a surprisingly different picture from the one usually conveyed by this blanket term will emerge.