But as more discoveries were made, scholars developed new ideas about early humans.
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.”
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.
Darwin's theories about evolution sparked much debate.
How does the portrayal of Darwin as a monkey relate to his theories? Do you think the cartoonist accepts the theories?
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.
How did science begin to challenge existing beliefs in the late 1800s?
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.