The Religion of Nature: Social Darwinism

by Dr. David Menton on September 23, 2017

Editor’s Note: First published in St. Louis MetroVoice 4, no. 9 (September 1994).

It has been said that no book, other than the Bible, has had a greater affect on society than Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859:

Subsequent arguments for slavery, colonialism, racial differences, class structures, and sex roles would go forth primarily under the banner of science. (The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1981, p. 72)

Darwin himself seemed to approve of the application of his evolutionary ideas to moral and social issues. In a letter to H. Thiel in 1869, Darwin said:

You will really believe how much interested I am in observing that you apply to moral and social questions analogous views to those which I have used in regard to the modification of species. It did not occur to me formerly that my views could be extended to such widely different and most important subjects. (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin, D. Appleton and Company, 1896, vol. 2, p. 294).

The feature of Darwinism most often cited by those who attempt to justify their moral and social views with “science” (evolution) is the concept of the “survival of the fittest.” This application of Darwinian dogma to human society and behavior is known as Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism . . . came to serve as a “scientific” justification for racism.

One of the most insidious features of Darwin’s evolutionary speculation was that it sought to erase the fundamental differences between man and animals. This not only invited a comparison between man and the apes, but also between the “highest” and “lowest” humans. Blacks and American Indians were among the first to be singled out as being “lower” than Caucasians. In his book The Mismeasure of Man (chapter 3), Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that some anthropologists were not above falsifying their data to prove the “superiority” of the white race. For example, assuming brain size had something to do with intelligence (it doesn’t), many anthropologists intentionally exaggerated the size of Caucasian skulls and underestimated the size of skulls from Blacks and Indians. Social Darwinism thus came to serve as a “scientific” justification for racism.

It might be argued that Darwin would never have condoned this use of his “theory,” but his own writings reveal profoundly racist implications. In the sixth chapter of his book The Descent of Man, Darwin predicted that eventually evolution would increase the gap between humans and the lower apes through the extinction of such “evolutionary intermediates” as gorillas and Negroes! Darwin declared that

the break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the Gorilla. (The Descent of Man, 1871, p. 201)

In an effort to promote the evolution of “higher forms” of humans, Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, founded the Eugenics Movement. Eugenics is the “science” which seeks to improve the biological makeup of the human species by selective breeding. Galton advocated the regulation of marriage and family size according to the genetic quality of the parents. He believed that if controlled breeding was applied to humans, as it was to farm animals, a perfect human breed could be developed. This concept of the “master race” was put into practice by Adolph Hitler in Germany in an effort to create a “pure Aryan race,” while exterminating “inferior” Jews.

German politicians and scholars first used Social Darwinism around the turn of the century to justify Germany’s increasingly aggressive militarism. The German militarist, Friederich von Bernhardi, praised the virtues of war in strong evolutionary terms in his influential book Germany and the Next War. Bernhardi declared that war, like Darwinian survival of the fittest, was a “biological necessity” and that it “gives a biologically just decision, since its decisions rest on the very nature of things.” Bernhardi dismissed the whole idea of peaceful arbitration as a “presumptuous encroachment on the natural laws of development.”

According to Bernhardi, a study of plant and animal life clearly showed that “war is a universal law of nature” (as quoted by Ashley Montagu in Man in Process, World Publishing Company, 1961, pp. 76–77). Bernhardi’s book, published in 1911, had Germany’s highest official sanction and approval—three years later, Germany plunged the world into World War I.

By the time of the Second World War, we find the full “flower” of Social Darwinism in fascism. Hitler based his fascism on evolutionary theory, as is evident from both his speeches and his book Mein Kampf. Benito Mussolini, who brought fascism to Italy, was also greatly influenced by Darwinism, which he thought supported his belief that violence is essential for beneficial social transformation. Mussolini repeatedly used Darwinian catchwords in his speeches and ridiculed efforts at peace because they interfered with natural evolutionary process.

No discussion of the devastating impact of Social Darwinism on society would be complete without considering its strong influence on the development of Marxism and communism. Frederich Engels and Karl Marx (cofounders of Marxist communism) were exceedingly enthusiastic over Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. Karl Marx wrote a letter to Engels in December of 1860 declaring that On the Origin of Species was “the book which contains the basis in natural history for our views.” In another letter to Engels in January of 1861, Marx declared:

Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis of struggle in history . . . not only is a death blow dealt here for the first time to “Teleology” in the natural sciences, but their rational meaning is emphatically explained (as quoted by Conway Zirkle in Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959, p. 86).

The three things for which Marx was most indebted to Darwinism are as follows: 1) an atheistic explanation for the origin of the Cosmos (Marxism doesn't recognize anything as being higher than the state, so it demands atheism); 2) the struggle for existence; and 3) the progressive development and improvement of man (Marxism insists that man’s well-being is inevitably and progressively improved through a blind process of class struggle and revolution). Indeed, Karl Marx was so deeply indebted to Darwin that he wanted to dedicate his book Das Capital to him, but Darwin declined the “honor.”

The close affinity between Marxism and Darwinism continues to be evident.

The close affinity between Marxism and Darwinism continues to be evident in the currently popular evolutionary speculation called “punctuated equilibrium.” (This declares that evolution occurs by sudden lucky leaps forward, separated by long periods of essentially no change.) Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, who first popularized this notion, recently pointed out that:

Hegel’s dialectical laws, translated into a materialist context, have become the official “state philosophy” of many socialist nations. These laws of change are explicitly punctuational, as befits a theory of revolutionary transformation in human society. In the light of this official philosophy, it is not at all surprising that a punctuational view of speciation, much like our own, but devoid of references to synthetic evolutionary theory, has long been favored by many Russian paleontologists. It may also not be irrelevant to our personal preferences that one of us learned his Marxism, literally, at his daddy’s knee. (Paleobiology 3:145–146)

When man ceases to give credit to God as Creator, he generally gives the credit to nature (evolution). Not only is nature then perceived as “creator,” but also man’s guide for morality and behavior. The “nature god” declares that anything that is “natural” may be considered “moral.” (Thus, elective abortions are moral because spontaneous abortions occur in nature.) As we have seen, the fruit of this religion of nature (in the form of Social Darwinism) has been untold suffering and death. The Bible tells us that this sad state of affairs results from the fact that many have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped the creature (nature) rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

Essays on Origins: Creation vs. Evolution

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