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Benjamin Kidd
Benjamin Kidd.jpg
Born 9 September 1858
County Clare, Ireland
Died 2 October 1916 (aged 58)
South Croydon, England
Nationality Irish
Education Autodidact
Occupation Sociologist
Known for Applying biological evolution theory to social evolution
Notable work
Social Evolution (1894) The Science of Power (1918)
Spouse(s) Maud Emma Isabel Perry of Weston-super-Mare
Children Franklin and twins John and Rolf

Benjamin Kidd (9 September 1858–2 October 1916) was a British sociologist whose first job was a civil service clerk, but by persistent self-education, he became internationally famous by the publication of his book Social Evolution in 1894. Kidd argued that the "evolution of society and of modern civilization" is caused not by reason or science, but by the force of "religious beliefs." The book had worldwide circulation and impacted the Social Gospel movement.

Kidd is reckoned as a founder of sociology as a discipline. Influenced by Darwinism and evolution, Kidd sought and found analogies between the evolution of human society and of the biological organism.

Kidd's prolific writings had a major impact at the time. However, the world was so different after the First World War that Kidd's work became relegated to historical interest.

Early life

Benjamin Kidd was born in County Clare, Ireland, on 9 September 1858, the first of eleven children of Benjamin Kidd (c.1831–1914), a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and his wife, Mary Rebecca (1833–1916). The son did not have "early advantages of education or social position." However, his "self-belief and drive" were so strong that Kidd's life became a "rags to riches" story.

First job

Kidd's first job began in 1878 when he began work as a clerk to the Board of Inland Revenue at Somerset House in London. To get this job, Kidd (at age 18) passed the lower division civil service examination. In London, Kidd's life was "frugal and solitary," but his ambition drove him to attend evening classes and to read incessantly. Kidd's frugality was necessitated by the fact that the salary of a lower division clerk placed him in the lower end of the salary band of the lower middle class, £150 at most. This was barely enough to live on, with no chance of raises for 13 years.

In 1887, Kidd married Maud Emma Isabel Perry of Weston-Super-Mare. They had three sons: Franklin and twins John and Rolf.

Kidd could not be content to remain an unknown clerk. He believed that he had a "mission in life" to be a self-made "social prophet" as were Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He spent his seventeen years as a clerk preparing for his mission. His preparation began as reading books written by others. During the last ten years, Kidd focussed on writing Social Evolution, the book that propelled him into international fame.

Social Evolution

Royalties from the publication of his Social Evolution in 1894 allowed Kidd to leave his job. In short order, he went from being an obscure clerk to the internationally famous social prophet toward which he had long worked.

Kidd wrote Social Evolution with "self-confidence and conviction" that its content was of vast importance. The major theme of the book (and later works), is that religion is "the chief agency in promoting philanthropy and the political enfranchisement." In contrast, Kidd views reason as "selfish and short-sighted."

The book was timely because "evolution and naturalism" were threatening some religious beliefs. Kidd offered a faith that took into account and made use of these new discoveries. Kidd is characterized as a "social darwinist". The term "social evolution" was first used in 1853. It saw parallels between the new theories of biological evolution and the evolution of societies. Kidd wrote about these parallels in the "Application of the Doctrine of Evolution to Sociological Theory" as the Preface to the Encyclopædia Britannica 1902, Vol 5.

Social Evolution passed through several editions and was translated into German (1895), Swedish (1895), French (1896), Russian (1897), Italian (1898), Chinese (1899), Czech (1900), Danish (1900), and Arabic (1913).

One reason for the book's success was its "violent attack on socialism" that appealed to the more conservative population. Another reason was that it appealed to religionists. Kidd ascribed Western civilization's "modern progress toward the equalization of the conditions of life" to the "immense fund of altruism" that had been generated by the Christian religion. A third reason for the book's success was that Kidd predicted a future in workers would have equal rights and opportunities. This optimism appealed to the workers who in the Gilded Age were often "consigned to lives of bitter toil with little hope for advancement."


Because Kidd’s royalties from Social Evolution had enabled him to quit his clerk’s job and be a full-time "social prophet," he was free to travel as a celebrity. Between 1894 and 1902, Kidd traveled extensively in the United States and Canada (1898), and in South Africa (1902). He also became acquainted with many important people in London in the circles of politics, science, and literature.

While in the United States, in an interview with The Outlook (New York), Kidd expressed optimism about the future for the US and England. Both countries, he said, "were heading into a future in which the masses must inevitably enjoy equal political rights and equal social opportunities." Kidd also wrote for The Times a series of articles later published as The Control of the Tropics.

Kidd came into the Social Gospel movement when, during his to America, he met the leading clergymen of the movement including Washington Gladden, Lyman Abbott. William D. P. Bliss, and Josiah Strong.

Kidd was now an international celebrity. As such, he faced numerous requests for interviews, articles, and lectures. His fame so "frightened" him that he mostly declined requests and thus missed out on lucrative fees.

Last years

In 1903, Kidd moved away from London for a life of "ever increasing seclusion." However, he continued to write and lecture. In 1908, he lectured at the University of Oxford on the subject of "Individualism and After." In 1911, he wrote the article on "Sociology" in the Encyclopædia Britannica. From 1910 to 1914, Kidd wrote The Science of Power. However, the beginning of the first World War necessitated revision by his son, Franklin Kidd, for posthumous publication in 1918.

After a short period of ill-health Kidd died of heart disease at South Croydon on 2 October 1916.


One assessment of Kidd summarized his thinking as follows:

  • Kidd was "inspired" by Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer (mostly Spencer), but he also "criticized" them.
  • He agreed with Marxists that the "members of the ruling class were not superior."
  • He believed that the "ruling families were degenerating so that new rulers had to be recruited from below."
  • Kidd thought the "white race" possessed "intellectual superiority" because of its "accumulated knowledge," not (as racists held) because of an innate endowment.
  • He "agreed with racists that the English race was superior" in the "ability to organize and to suppress egoistic instincts to the benefit of the community and the future."


In addition to the five books listed below, Kidd "produced a prolific amount of occasional journalism, contributions to journals, encyclopaedias, reviews, columns, interviews, and letters for weeklies in Britain and America." The interview in the United States that was published in The Outlook: A Family Paper (1 September 1894) under the title of "The Future of the United States" evoked widespread comment for its optimism.

  • Social Evolution (1894)
  • Control of the Tropics (1898)
  • Principles of Western Civilisation (1902)
  • Individualism and After: The Herbert Spencer Lecture 1908
  • Two Principal Laws of Sociology (1909)
  • The Science of Power (1918)
  • A Philosopher with Nature (1921)

See also

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