U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Elective Affinities of Film Noir and Social Darwinism

[Editorial note: the following essay is a guest post by Mark Thompson.] 

The Elective Affinities of Film Noir and Social Darwinism

by Mark Thompson 

“A resurgence of social Darwinism, in either its individualist or imperialist uses, is always a possibility so long as there is a strong element of predacity in society.”                                                                                    Richard Hofstadter (1944)[1]

When is a cliché not a cliché?  When a picture does actually sum up a thousand words.  The new cover for the Criterion Collection’s hot-off-the-press release of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a case in point: Sterling Hayden (playing Dix Handley) is semi-nestled behind a concrete pillar attempting to evade the “prowl car,” as police vehicles were sometimes labeled during the Depression and War years.  One can easily substitute a tree for the urban-jungle style concrete structure, a predatory lion for the police car, and begin to understand why the term “Social Darwinism” still finds currency in today’s discourse.[2] As William James noted, exhibiting the influence of Darwinian thinking, “agoraphobia,” or fear of open spaces, “has no utility in a civilized man,” yet surmised that “when we notice the chronic agoraphobia of our domestic cats, and see the tenacious way in which many wild animals, especially rodents, cling to cover, and only venture on a dash across the open as a desperate measure . . . we are strongly tempted to ask whether such an odd kind of fear in us be not due to the accidental resurrection, through disease, or a sort of instinct, which may in some of our ancestors have had a permanent and on the whole useful part to play?”[3]

The historiography surrounding Social Darwinism reveals a wide range of disparate and competing explanations for just what it is exactly that is “social” and “Darwinian” about the theories and practices displayed by the variegated and sometimes competing historical ideologies and figures.[4]  A recent history by Mike Hawkins testifies to these varieties: “Anyone consulting the vast literature on Social Darwinism in the hope of resolving them is likely to experience confusion rather than enlightenment.”[5] Most studies of Social Darwinism analyzed in a transatlantic context focus on the social or political implications, whether as an ideology or a broad framework for understanding long-term shifts in Western thought (e.g., the transition from a religious to a secular society, or from a classical-liberal to a New Deal-liberal political state).  Gregory Claeys concedes that, by the turn of the twentieth century, “Social Darwinist ideas of ‘struggle,’ ‘fitness,’ and ‘survival’ . . . had become virtually omnipresent and definitive of one of the most important modern trends in European and American thought.”[6] A more recent summary by Christopher Versen cautions that the use of the term “does more to mislead scholars and readers than it does to better their understanding of either the past of the present.”[7] With disagreements among biologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, and economists, one might throw up their hands and ask: Why continue to use the term?  “The answer,” counters Hawkins, “simply, is: because the term refuses to go away.”[8]


If there were no policemen to patrol the urban zones, “the jungle wins,” says the police chief of The Asphalt Jungle at the conclusion of Huston’s noirish-take on W. R. Burnett’s novel of the same name (published in 1949).   From the opening shot*, one is primed to think of an actual, naturalistic jungle of wild animals roaming around and divided into predators or prey.  A long shot of the jungle-like asphalt “plain” is marked by a slow-moving prowl car searching for signs of trouble that might arise.  It is an urban jungle that finds humans trying to survive, at times by employing any means necessary.  During the screening, viewers might even identify with their socio-economic plight and find justification for the theft of material goods.  How characters navigate the ethics of survival constitutes a syntactic motif of the urban-based, crime or heist noir.

Yet, a “Darwinian noir” might express more clearly what I am trying to communicate.  Not all noir films include this survival plot device.  In addition, there is the metaphoric signifying of the visual world as a jungle.  Of course, this technique is not new, as the fiction of literary naturalists will attest.  In addition, there is actual, physical territory designated “jungle” by scientists, so the conflation of a local space with a physically descriptive term does not derive entirely from separate, incommensurate discourses.  The use of the phrase “urban jungle” has been traced by literary scholar Joseph McLaughlin, who locates its early use in Victorian Britain, whose “writers came to be ‘irritated’ by a particular urban artifact—late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century London—and scratched that imaginative itch by deploying a particular metaphoric discourse—‘the urban jungle’—in order to read the increasingly mysterious nature of their metropolitan world.”[9]

Its genealogy passes from late-Victorian Britain to the industrialized cities of the United States.  Film scholar Barbara Creed discusses how the “crowded, dangerous” city environment became “central to the great urban dramas of film noirs in the 1940s, in which an increasingly dense and complex interweaving of events is mirrored in the urban landscape—its alleyways, detours, crossroads and dead ends.”[10] Specific references to “the jungle” appear in the dialogue of noir films.  In addition, Thomas Schatz observes how the hard-boiled detective of films in the 1940s, such as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941), possess a “streetwise savvy and penchant for violence” that allow them to “operate within the urban jungle, while his moral sensibilities and innate idealism align him with the forces of social order.”[11] Commenting on Dashiell Hammett’s original, literary antecedent, James Naremore notes that Spade “behaves more like a survivor in the jungle than like an agent of justice.”[12]

Naremore provided a cursory aside of Social Darwinism in his short book over Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957).  Originally written by Ernest Lehman, the film screenplay was modified by Clifford Odets.   Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is trying to make his way in the urban world of New York City.  Naremore describes Sidney as “a self-created man in a postwar culture of individualism, smouldering with resentment for slights he has suffered and determined to achieve the only success possible in a social-Darwinist world.”[13] Noir historian Sheri Biesen likewise notes how the picture “cooly examined a nocturnal urban jungle.”[14] In his discussion of film genre, Barry Keith Grant suggests that Howard Hawks’s “frontier in Red River is a harsh and contested space, one characterized by a social Darwinist [sic] struggle where only the fittest and fastest survive.”[15] This citation from a western is noteworthy, according to Scott Simmon, who contends not only that A-Westerns in the silent era utilized Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” phrase in their thematic material, but also “ his less popularized argument that law of evolution leads to a world of ‘the greatest perfection,’ toward peace ultimately . . . not war.”[16] In addition, the necessity of pain and suffering as components of this eventual utopian world is spelled out in films of the post-sound decades, including Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), which, argues Simmon, features dialogue by John Wayne promoting this Social-Darwinian view:

The culminating idea of [Wayne’s] speech . . . is that “life” is advanced by “fighting.”  The argument of course is not merely social Darwinist but in line with a whole range of intellectual and popular shifts in thinking at the turn of the twentieth century, toward seeing the essence of life in terms of relatively primitive struggle.  Higher philosophical variations would include Nietzsche’s “will to power,” Henri Bergson’s vitalist élan vital, even Freud’s id.  Within popular variants, the shift has recently been discussed as a wide cultural battle to recover perceived masculine virtues—especially against domestic melodramas authored by women—that the Western both contributed to and mined.[17]

With the noted exceptions above (and below in the foot notes), film noir and Social Darwinism are both elusive and contested terms that have not been systematically analyzed together.  Naremore maintains that “nothing links together all the things described as noir,” such as psychological portraits of the criminal mind or an arresting visual style, leading him to explain how “[l]ittle wonder that no writer has been able to find the category’s necessary and sufficient characteristics and that many generalizations in the critical literature are open to question.”[18] Likewise with Social Darwinism and all of the disagreements it has spawned.  Regardless, contra to Richard Hofstadter’s contention that Social Darwinism went into decline after WWI, Social Darwinian-themes continued to circulate in the United States through the medium of cinema.  In fact, Social Darwinism is one idea that characterizes some varieties of noir films in the United States during its classic phase (1941-1958).         


[1] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, with a new Introduction by         Eric Foner (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992; 1944), 18.

[2] See, for example, Ruth Conniff, “Social Darwinism Returns,” The Progressive 76, no. 7 (July 2012).

[3] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2 (New York: Dover, 1950), 421-422.

[4] The title of an article by Robert M. Young attests to this ongoing debate: “Darwinism is Social.” In The Darwinian Heritage, ed. David Kohn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 610.  Young quotes passages from Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Malthus to argue for the “inseparability of so-called Darwinism from so-called Social Darwinism and . . . between science and ideology.”  Young also references one film noir, The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), when discussing his belief that “individualistic forms of Social Darwinism are not hard to find in the mass media,” 620, 627.  In some circles, Social Spencerism or Lamarckism more accurately describes the constellation of ideas normally identified as Social Darwinism.

[5] Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 3.

[6] Gregory Claeys, “The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and the Origins of Social Darwinism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (April 2000), 226.

[7] Christopher R. Versen, “What’s Wrong with a Little Social Darwinism (In Our Historiography)?” The History Teacher 42, no. 4 (August 2009), 403.

[8] Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 16.

[9] Joseph McLaughlin, Writing the Urban Jungle: Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 1.

[10] Barbara Creed, Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema (Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2009), 13.

[11] Thomas Schatz, Boom or Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 238.

[12] James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 53.

[13] James Naremore, Sweet Smell of Success (London: BFI, 2010), 52.

[14] Sheri Chinen Biesen, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 129.

[15] Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre: From Iconology to Ideology (New York: Wallflower, 2007), 69.

[16] Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 117.

[17] Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film, 118.

[18] Naremore, More Than Night, 10.

Mark Thompson is an ABD doctoral student in the History of Ideas program at the University of Texas at Dallas. His areas of interest include American cultural and intellectual history, film studies, and theories of human nature/behavior/consciousness. 

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I don’t know enough about film noir to comment on that aspect of the post, but the glorification of war in some elite circles before WW1 had an element that prob. can usefully be labeled ‘Social Darwinist’, for lack of a better term. On this might look at, e.g.: James Joll, “1914: The Unspoken Assumptions” (a 1968 inaugural lecture at LSE, subsequently published) and his Europe Since 1870 (Harper&Row, 1973), esp. p.164; R. Stromberg, Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914 (1982), and perhaps some parts of D. Pick, War Machine: The Rationalization of Slaughter in the Modern Age (1993).

    Social Darwinism, in the Anglophone world at any rate, does not necessarily “go into decline” after WW1, but finds perhaps different modes of expression than glorification of war as ‘good for the species’, etc. For one thing, it might be interesting to explore to what extent Social Darwinism in some form gets tangled up in justifications of racism and colonialism in different contexts. Then, too, it could find modes of expression that were not overtly political, and film noir, as you suggest, might have been one of those.

    • p.s. And Westerns, definitely, and not only movies but some novels as well. And also should have added the caveat that ‘survival of the fittest’ as an idea taken literally and transposed into the political sphere in the late 19th/early 20th cent is not nec. traceable to a particular writer such as Spencer, whose views on war and peace, to which you allude, were more complicated.

  2. “For one thing, it might be interesting to explore to what extent Social Darwinism in some form gets tangled up in justifications of racism and colonialism in different contexts”

    Thanks for those sources; I’ll be sure to look them up.

    I was thinking more about the post-WWI years because of the observations of Hofstadter (although, as he was writing his dissertation/book in the early 1940s, he can be forgiven for not seeing aspects of his contemporary culture). Hawkins actually says that “there is a dearth of detailed investigations of the role of Social Darwinism in imperialist thought and practice,” although this was back in 1997.* Carl Degler finds a revival of Darwinistic thinking—a “return of biology” in the 1960s— but argues that “Social Darwinism was definitely killed.”**

    However, what you said about seeking out “modes of expression not overtly political” is what I’m aiming for. Although Ayn Rand stated that Social Darwinism was forever relegated to the “junkyard of philosophies,” I actually think her views and ideas could be seen as variations on a Social-Darwinian theme.$

    In Rand’s introduction (1968) to the reissuing of The Fountainhead, she confesses that “only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature—and that the rest will betray it.” What should be done about those who are unable to understand her philosophical longings? “The rest,” she explains, “are no concern of mine; it is not me or The Fountainhead that they will betray: it is their own souls.”$$ Just as Social Darwinists argued that the poor and “unfit” cannot be watched over or made an object of sympathetic contemplation, so does Rand display a similar sensibility.

    Although distinguishing between imperialism, racism, and Social Darwinism is not always clear and simple in the twentieth century, I do believe the phrase in question can be disentangled from the other kinds that might appear to share—with slight tongue in cheek—a common ancestry.

    *Hawkins, 203.

    **Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), ix.

    $ Ayn Rand, “Stimulus and Response” (1972), reprinted in Philosophy:Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 137-138.

    $$ Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Plume, 2005; 1943), xiii.

  3. Hawkins actually says that “there is a dearth of detailed investigations of the role of Social Darwinism in imperialist thought and practice,” although this was back in 1997.

    Don’t know off the top of my head about how many detailed studies are out there, but the connections between Social Darwinism and imperialism have certainly been noted.

    Rodney B. Hall, in National Collective Identity (1999), p.225, cites to a discussion of those connections in Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire (1987), pp.252-58. Might be one good entry point, though I’m sure there’s more recent stuff.

    Sorry I can’t be much help on the angles that you are really interested in, but I guess that’s one of the things a diss. committee is for (if you’re lucky, that is).

  4. Hawkins might have infused a whole lot of meaning into the word “detailed,” as Hofstadter also made a connection earlier.

    I was also curious if anti-civil rights groups in the 1950s/1960s specifically included Social-Darwinian phrases (I’m thinking of protests against the Freedom Riders, SNCC, etc.). As you say, by those looking to justify racism or segregation. I don’t remember the New Left or New Right invoking such imagery, but maybe I should check into those primary sources.

    Thanks for the feedback (particularly the Hobsbawm pages).


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