By far the commonest way out of the dilemma facing the Social Darwinists lay in the notion that the struggle for existence really goes on among human beings organized in groups—as tribes, races, or national states.
The struggle for existence was thus lifted from the biology of the individual to the politics of the group. Accordingly, a group that defeated another group in war had thereby shown itself to be fitter than the beaten group; it had a right— indeed, in evolutionary terms, a duty—to eliminate the beaten group, seize its lands, and people them with its own fitter human beings.
The English imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) once held that a world wholly and exclusively peopled with Anglo-Saxons would be the best possible world. Thus racism held that inherent differences among the various races determined cultural and individual achievement, so that one race might be considered superior to another in a given context.
Racists like Rhodes believed that Homo sapiens had already evolved into what were really separate species. A black skin, for instance, was for them a sign of innate inferiority; and blacks would have to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Intermarriage between the races was forbidden by custom or by law as contrary to God’s intention and because it would degrade the “higher race.” As yet few dared to preach genocide, the wholesale murder of those held to be of inferior race; most racists wished to see the “inferiors” duly subjected to their “superiors,” or “kept in their own place,” or “among their own kind.”
Other Social Darwinists applied their theories to a new form of caste organization that came to be known as elitism. The fit were not limited to any one race, but they were the master group, the elite, the “supermen,” and they should band together against the dull, average people.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who gave currency to the term superman, was a subtle and difficult thinker, neither racist nor Social Darwinist. But like Darwin he was easily misunderstood by the half-educated who used distortions of his arguments to further racist and elitist causes. Scientific “objectivity” came for a time to mean measurement of cranial capacities in order to judge the intelligence of entire races.
Though Darwinism and its offshoots could be misread as the basis for a new doctrine of progress, and though it supported the industrial societies in their expectation of unlimited growth, essentially Darwinism and much of racism were intensely pessimistic. Darwin had emphasized accident, not order, as the nature of causation. Many commentators believed that the “lower races” would eventually triumph, for brute strength would overtake sensitivity.
In 1853 the French count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) published the first part of his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Civilizations fell, Gobineau argued, because of racial mixing; he and many others considered the ultimate degradation of civilization to be inevitable. The “lower races” were breeding faster and less selectively, democratic egalitarianism was leveling down the best while encouraging the worst; consequently, evolution was sliding downward rather than heading upward.
A wide variety of forms of historical determinism accompanied the industrial process. To the pessimistic Social Darwinists, the racists, and the exponents of the “dismal science” were added determinists who were convinced that they knew where history was leading and that they felt they had a duty to lead it there more rapidly, at the cost of massive violence over the short run in order to benefit civilization in the long run.
The extraordinary acceleration of technological improvements, of scientific research, and of more broadly based education that had produced the industrial revolution and the industrial societies lent strength to the view that moral and political improvements could also be speeded up by a drastic redirection of public energies. The doctrine of evolution added to tensions in society by reinforcing the popular conviction that evolution need not be slow, that one could increase the speed of change.
In the age of science and industry many believed that politics was no longer, if it ever had been, an art. They now spoke of “political science.” Just as Darwinism had a massive public impact in a vulgarized form, so did the most sweeping effort to work out a comprehensive philosphical program for the improvement of humanity—positivism, a school of thought that sought to apply evolutionary theory to human governance.