Socialist Darwinism is the idea that natural selection promotes societies that cooperate as moral communities. This concept actually predates Social Darwinism, which later emphasized competition and individualism. Socialists throughout the 1860s-70s praised Darwin’s theory as promoting progressive social change.

As Eric Michael Johnson has documented in The Struggle for Coexistence (pdf here), the earliest consistent application of Darwin’s ideas for human society can be classified as Socialist Darwinism. For these authors, evolution demonstrated that the inequality maintained by institutions of God and State were not facts of nature but were imposed by power and privilege. It was therefore necessary for society to be redesigned from the bottom-up following scientific principles.

“I am a Socialist because I am a believer in Evolution,” wrote the women’s rights activist Annie Besant. She saw in Darwin’s work the clearest evidence yet that the status quo was not divinely ordained. Social species had evolved traits for cooperative behavior and humans, the most social of all animals, displayed the most elaborate moral instincts. Because evolution had shaped human physiology, behavior, and mind, Besant concluded, “it was not possible that Evolution should leave Sociology untouched.” Like Besant, many nineteenth-century socialist scholars, scientists, and activists quickly deployed Darwin to challenge the status quo.

The most prominent advocate for Socialist Darwinism was the Russian prince and naturalist Peter Kropotkin. His 1890 papers on “Mutual Aid Among Animals” (later published as the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902) synthesized the argument promoted by the “Darwinian Left” over the previous thirty years. In the process, Kropotkin closely hewed to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and demonstrated how the feeling of sympathy could evolve to form the basis of human morality.

The one factor that united diverse Socialist Darwinists across England, Europe, and Russia was a commitment to building on Darwin’s “moral sense.” For group-living species, natural selection had promoted traits that emphasized sympathy and cooperation. They believed it was wrong to ignore what Darwin called “the noblest part of our nature” in our efforts to improve human society.

In contrast, those who would later be called Social Darwinists (the term did not become widely used until the 1940s) claimed that the state of nature was nothing but brutal competition. Thomas Henry Huxley called nature a “gladiator’s show” and denied that morality had evolved in humans. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Francis Galton differed in their views in important ways, but all believed that natural selection was purely competitive and that society should be organized to ensure that the best rose to the top so the privileged could be protected against the supposed “unfit.”

Modern evolutionary science shows that cooperation is just as important in nature as competition. In group-living species, those traits promoting mutual aid often succeeded over traits promoting individualism. The first advocates of Socialist Darwinism were correct about this aspect of Darwin’s science. Solidarity is a fact of life—even between species. We could not live without our microbiomes, for example.

The first Socialist Darwinists didn’t get everything right. Today we know much more about how cooperation and competition can be blended in the right way. However, the origin of Socialist Darwinism reveals that seeing society through a Darwinian lens does not mean an endorsement of brutal competition. By taking Darwin seriously about “the noblest part of our nature,” we can complete the Darwinian revolution and build upon that which is best in ourselves.