But as more discoveries were made, scholars developed new ideas about early humans.

Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection

Some of the most controversial new ideas came from the British naturalist Charles Darwin. In 1859, after years of research, he published On the Origin of Species. Darwin argued that all forms of life, including human beings, had evolved into their present state over millions of years. To explain the extremely long, slow process of evolution, he put forward a startling new theory.

Darwin adopted Thomas Malthus's idea that all plants and animals produced more offspring than the food supply could support. As a result, he said, members of each species constantly competed to survive. Natural forces “selected” those with physical traits best adapted to their environment to survive and to pass the trait on to their offspring. Darwin called this process natural selection. Later, some people called it “survival of the fittest.”

The Uproar Over Darwin

Like the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton in earlier times, Darwin's theory ignited a furious debate between scientists and theologians. To many Christians, the Bible contained the only true account of creation. It told that God created the world and all forms of life within seven days. Darwin's theory, they argued, reduced people to the level of animals and undermined belief in God and the soul. While some Christians eventually came to accept the idea of evolution, others did not. Controversy over Darwin's theories has continued to the present day.

Cartoon of a bearded man with the body of a monkey, sitting in a tree while smoking a pipe.

Darwin's theories about evolution sparked much debate.

Analyze Political Cartoons

How does the portrayal of Darwin as a monkey relate to his theories? Do you think the cartoonist accepts the theories?

Social Darwinism

Although Darwin himself never promoted any social ideas, some thinkers used his theories to support their own beliefs about society. The idea that natural selection applied to human society, especially to warfare and economic competition, became known as Social Darwinism. It was British philosopher Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Social Darwinists argued that industrial tycoons earned their success because they were more “fit” than those they put out of business. War brought progress by weeding out weak nations. Victory was seen as proof of superiority.

Social Darwinism encouraged racism, the unscientific belief that one racial group is superior to another, and had horrific consequences for people throughout the world. For example, Social Darwinism was used to justify harsh treatment of the mentally ill and countless acts of violence toward people of “different” religions, races, and ethnicities. By the late 1800s, many Europeans and Americans claimed that the success of Western civilization was due to the supremacy of the white race. Such powerful ideas would have a long-lasting impact on world history.

The Role of Religion

Despite the challenge of new scientific ideas, religion continued to be a major force in Western society. Christian churches and Jewish synagogues remained at the center of communities. Religious leaders influenced political, social, and educational developments.

The grim realities of industrial life stimulated feelings of compassion and charity. Christian and Jewish labor unions and political parties pushed for reforms. Individuals, church groups, and Jewish organizations all tried to help the working poor. Catholic priests and nuns set up schools and hospitals in urban slums. Many Protestant churches backed the social gospel, a movement that urged Christians to social service. They campaigned for reforms in housing, healthcare, and education.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments