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The Evolution of Ideas

jaferr's picture

Charles Darwin's original theory of evolution has been thoroughly and undeniably integrated into modern society and modern thought.  In the United States, although the theory of evolution is still heavily debated when it applies to biology, Darwin's theory has been transformed and applied to everyday life and fields of study outside of the biological sciences, where it is met with little resistance.  I am sure that most teenagers have joked with their friends about the latest winners of the Darwin Award (the catch-phrase being "Honoring those who improve the species... by accidentally removing themselves from it!"), and that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the concept and term "social Darwinism."  Less familiar-but thanks to the discovery of genes, also just as uncontested-is the concept of "neo-Darwinism."  Both social Darwinism and neo-Darwinism pay homage to Darwin's original theory of evolution and natural selection as presented in On the Origin of Species, and yet neither of these theories is present in Darwin's original text.  In fact, social Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are concepts proposed by persons other than Darwin, some predating Darwin's text, that, through their use of Darwin's name, have caused an evolution in our societal and cultural perception of what Charles Darwin himself proposed in On the Origin of Species.

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel C. Dennett writes, "if there is one thing which Origin of Species is not about, it is the origin of species," (Dennett, 42).  The idea that Darwin in his manifesto did not even explain what the title On the Origin of Species leads one to expect can be shocking to a modern reader.  In our class discussions, it became apparent that many students were disappointed with the actual text, having been led to believe that Darwin's ideas and theories that he proposed in On the Origin of Species were much more definitive, decisive, and controversial than the pages of empirical evidence describing the minute differences between variations of pigeons that they found.  Why were so many students so disappointed?  I believe that this disappointment was due to our cultural perception that Darwin himself extrapolated his observations all the way back to the beginnings of life, claiming that all living things on Earth share one common ancestor, which is believed to have come into being through a series of fortuitous chemical reactions that took place in an ancient, hydrothermal vent.  The debates about teaching evolution in schools that seem even more heated today lead one to believe that it was Darwin himself who, from his theory of evolution, decisively declared that evolution proves that God cannot exist.  I know that I certainly expected a much more sensational reading experience than the one that I encountered upon finally reading On the Origin of Species, and I now realize that many of the things that I thought I knew about Darwin's theories, ideas, and original text were in fact heavily influenced by the disparities between modern, cultural perceptions of his ideas that have been enhanced by new scientific knowledge as well as misinformation and the actuality of Darwin's text.

Examples of these disparities can be found in the definitions of the concepts of social Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.  Social Darwinism is defined as "various ideas and ideologies based on a concept that competition among all individuals, groups, nations, or ideas drives social evolution in human societies," (Social Darwinism).  Although the name pays homage to Darwin, "the term first appeared in Europe in 1879 and was popularized in the United States in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstadter."  Additionally, "while the term has been applied to the claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection can be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, social Darwinism commonly refers to ideas that predate Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species... includ[ing] 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton."  Neo-Darwinism is defined as "a term used to describe certain ideas about the mechanisms of evolution that were developed from Charles Darwin's original theory of evolution by natural selection," (Neo-Darwinism).  Although the theory bears Darwin's name, "the term was first used by George Romanes in 1895 to refer to the idea that evolution occurs soley through natural selection, as proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace and August Weismann, in other words, without any mechanism involving the inheritance of acquired characteristics resulting from disease or disuse."

Even the modern definition of Darwin's theory of natural selection has evolved to fit modern purposes.  In the article "Neo-Darwinism," one of the tenets of natural selection is that traits acquired in the organism's lifetime are not heritable.  However, in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, Darwin writes, "I am strongly inclined to suspect that the most frequent cause of variability may be attributed to the male and female reproductive elements having been affected prior to the act of conception," (Darwin, 99).  In other words, Darwin himself proposed that in order to have inherited variation, the inherited traits must be traits acquired within the parent organism's lifetime.  This is exactly the opposite of the theory of natural selection that we all know and sometimes embrace today, thanks to modern scientific discoveries in the field of genetics.

The preconceptions of Darwin's theories, expectations of On the Origin of Species, modern theories bearing Darwin's name, and current definitions of Darwin's own theories are all evidence that since Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, his own ideas and theories have evolved and will continue to evolve far beyond the scope of anything Darwin himself may have imagined.


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Broadview Press Ltd., 2003.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.

"Neo-Darwinism." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 5 Mar. 2009 <>

"Social Darwinism." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 13 Mar. 2009 <>


Anne Dalke's picture

beyond wikipedia


I like your gesture, here, to look @ the evolution of Darwin’s ideas beyond what he himself proposed: that’s an important playing out of the central question of this course, about the ways in which, and degrees to which, biological and cultural change intersect. Although you don’t acknowledge it, you write here from the perspective of a biology major who can appreciate—more than others of us, trained in other fields might be able to do—how much we have learned since Darwin “got the ball rolling.”

If you are interested in thinking further in these directions, I’d suggest teasing apart these two very different ideas, placing them in historical relation, not just to Darwin, but to one another. You might do so, first, by going beyond the “Wikipedia” descriptions on which you rely so heavily here: useful as starting points, they are certainly not places to end your analysis.

What strikes me, as I begin thinking about the historical distinctions between “social Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism,” is that the former is an idea that preceded Darwin (drawing on some of the same sources—particularly the work of Malthius—that he did), while the latter is a refinement of his concepts. The former idea is also now generally suspect, while the latter is very much embraced. Neo-Darwinism, as I’m sure you know, reconciles Mendelian genetics, in a “modern evolutionary synthesis” that is accepted today by most working biologists.

But social Darwinism, on the other hand, was popular in the late Victorian era, was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer (our introduction to On the Origin actually says it should be called “social Spencerism”), and it always had an elistist and competitive quality that Darwin himself never embraced (he briefly, and mistakenly, borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” for a later edition of On the Origin, but then later removed it again). Neo-Darwinism, in other words, is consistent w/ Darwin’s own thinking, and an expansion of it, while social Darwinism is not. If you want to go on w/ this study, you might get considerable mileage out of contrasts such as these.