Skip to main content


Beasts In The Jungle

June 2024
6min read

My office is a zoo,” a friend of mine complained a few weeks ago. It’s a sentence I have heard many times, and it makes me think of the good old days, or perhaps they were the bad old days, when instead of talking about offices that reminded them of zoos, people talked about business as a jungle.

Some especially impressive beasts stalked the American business jungle late in the nineteenth century. In his famous essay “Wealth,” originally published in 1889 in the North American Review and frequently reprinted under the title “The Gospel of Wealth,” the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie discussed the “law” of competition: “It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

Survival of the fittest is a concept that tends to enchant the fit, who often feel a special duty to explain its charm to the rest of us. No one has ever fulfilled this duty with more enthusiasm than Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie believed sincerely that “the man who dies … rich dies disgraced,” and he gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to prove it. In “The Gospel of Wealth” he argued that by thus administering his wealth for the community “far better than it could… have done for itself,” the rich man makes himself the instrument of the general good: “We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business … in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., too, saw divine order where others saw savagery. “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest,” he explained on one occasion. Then, warming to his subject, he grew poetical: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

Behind the ideas advanced by Carnegie and Rockefeller loom the shadow of the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer and the larger shadow of Charles Darwin. Spencer was the age’s most vigorous proponent of the idea that life in society follows the same laws of competitive struggle and natural selection that Darwin had seen at work on the Galápagos Islands.

Finding in Darwin proof that history is nothing but a “ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong,” Spencer suggested that we should not only acknowledge this carnage; we should applaud it. He opposed all government aid to the poor: “The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.” Men and women are natural beings, who must submit to the law of nature: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” Compared with Spencer, even the most fervent supporters of recent cutbacks in government welfare programs are exposed as mush-hearted liberals.

Whatever we may think of social Darwinism, we need not abandon the comparison of economic life to a jungle. Especially if we are thinking of American business in the nineteenth century, there is something irresistible about the metaphor, and it’s fun to populate the jungle.

John Jacob Astor, for instance, does not strike me as any kind of predator but as a spider, spinning diligently until at last New York, London, and Canton were linked in a great web of trade, with fur and tea flying around the web.

Astor’s successor as the richest man in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a man blessed with qualities that would have served him well in any jungle. In a long life he never backed away from a fight and never fought with anything less than ferocious energy and determination. The men who opposed him in his prime would have recognized the future lion at sixteen, when he made his living by running a two-masted sailing vessel from Staten Island to the tip of lower Manhattan: “In a competitive business,” writes his biographer Wheaton Lane, “his prices were low and nobody underbid him. He was perfectly willing to undertake any job, however dangerous, and when, in stormy weather, the other boatmen were reluctant to venture upon the bay, Cornele was always ready.”

Anyone familiar with American business in the age of the robber barons can go on with this game until the jungle has been supplied with lions and tigers, bulls and bears, foxes, sharks, snakes, vultures, and rats, not to mention some of the most astonishing reptiles ever to creep upon the earth.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, the doctrines of social Darwinism were subjected to a furious attack. William James, for instance, deplored Spencer’s “dry school-master temperament … his preference for cheap makeshifts in argument, his lack of education even in mechanical principles, and in general the vagueness of all his fundamental ideas, his whole system wooden, as if knocked together out of cracked hemlock boards.” Spencer’s high-sounding jargon might have impressed James’s contemporaries, but to James it was nothing but wind. Evolution as interpreted by Spencer, James charged, mocking the Englishman’s sometimes impenetrable prose, “is a change from a nohowish untalkaboutable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in general talkaboutable not-all-alikeness by continuous sticktogetherations and somethingelseifications.”

The social reformer Henry George had a different criticism. Spencer, George said, was “like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and others artificially loaded with lead.”

The American sociologist Lester Ward launched a fierce attack upon the assumption that lay at the heart of social Darwinism—the assumption that life in the state of nature parallels life in society. “Man and society are not … under the influence of the great dynamic laws that control the rest of the animal world.… If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through the protection of the weak.”

What about the survival of the fittest through a process of natural selection? Look at any cultivated garden, Ward suggested, or look at progress in agriculture. “Wherever competition is wholly removed … great strides are immediately made by the form thus protected, and it soon outstrips all those that depend upon competition.…”

The trouble with the social Darwinists, Ward concluded, was that they knew nothing about biology. In an attack on a book by the foremost American proponent of social Darwinism (Yale professor William Graham Sumner), Ward wrote, “The whole book is based on the fundamental error that the favors of this world are distributed entirely according to merit.… Those who have survived simply prove their fitness to survive; and the fact which all biologists understand, viz., that fitness to survive is something wholly distinct from real superiority, is, of course, ignored by the author because he is not a biologist, as all sociologists should be.”

Half a century ago, social Darwinism seemed dead. In Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), the historian Richard Hofstadter concluded his chapter about William Graham Sumner with the comment that “natural selection in the realm of ideas has taken its toll upon his life work,” and he concluded his chapter about Lester Ward with the comment that “his greatest accomplishment was as a critic of intellectual systems, once pervasive and powerful, which have long since crumbled and been forgotten.” Whatever the course of future social philosophy, Hofstadter wrote, it is generally accepted that “such biological ideas as the ‘survival of the fittest’… are utterly useless in attempting to understand society.”

The survival of the fittest is a concept that tends to enchant the fit, who often seem to feel a special duty to carefully explain its charm to the rest of us.

The competition of ideas in the intellectual jungle is not to be confused, however, with the competition of men and women in the business jungle. In the world of American business, how did we get from a jungle to a zoo?

We began by locking up the lions. By the early years of the twentieth century, it had become apparent that if we left them to their own devices, the most ferocious lions would devour all their competitors. Then they would grow fat. Anyone who understands the role of free enterprise in a market economy understands that we’re all better off if we’ve got a lot of hungry lions competing for the privilege of serving our needs, rather than a few fat lions lounging in the sun.

Louis Brandeis made the key point in an essay written in 1912: ‘The right of competition must be limited in order to preserve it. For excesses of competition lead to monopoly, as excesses of liberty lead to absolutism.…”

In The New Freedom , Woodrow Wilson made the same point in language that echoed the language of social Darwinism but not its conclusions: “American industry is not free, as once it was free.… The man with only a little capital is finding it … more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.”

But that was 1914. Where are we now? I would argue that the beasts who roamed the American business jungle late in the nineteenth century founded organizations that have become the domain, a century later, not of beasts but of comfortably domesticated bureaucrats. Thirty years have passed since William Whyte described this new breed in his study The Organization Man . Today when we hear someone say, “It’s a jungle out there,” we know that we’re probably listening not to a corporate executive but to the owner of a small business or to a salesman stuck in the kind of job that destroyed Willy Loman.

If America has trouble competing in markets that it used to dominate, maybe it’s because too many of us work in offices that remind us of zoos. As a social philosophy, I find social Darwinism unacceptable. But in business, I see nothing wrong with waking a few animals, unlocking their cages, and finding out which of them is fit to compete.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.