In general, the term “organic” implies a relation to a living organism. In social science theory, this usually means a philosophical attempt to conceptualize some process as analogous to the life cycle of a living creature. It is often associated with the philosophy of Social Darwinism, a theory popularized in the 19th century that applied the precepts proposed by Charles Darwin regarding “natural selection” and “evolution” to human social, cultural, and political systems. But in fact, organic theories date to a much earlier era, and suggestions of the application of “organic” qualities to human institutions and behavior may be found as far back in history as the writings of Aristotle and Plato, and continue well into the Middle Ages in the work of Niccolo Machiavelli and Ibn Khaldun. Organic theory has been frequently directed at the origin and nature of the state as a means of organizing political space and regulating activity. The concept reappeared in the philosophy of Friedrich Hegel at the beginning of the 19th century, who clearly had a significant influence on a wide group of scholars and writers. Hegel proclaimed the state as an “ideal” means of organizing political authority and made clear that he regarded the state as a living thing, when he stated directly that the “state is an organism.” To Hegel, the state could be examined and understood only in this context. In the discipline of geography, this concept was adopted in the positions of many early theoreticians in political geography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Friedrich Ratzel, a prominent thinker in political geography in the 19th century, produced a detailed organic theory of the state and international relations. Ratzel developed the Hegelian concept of the state as an organism to amuch greater degree, declaring that states experience a kind of “life cycle” with stages representing “youth, maturity and old age.” His claim that states, like living organisms, require lebensraum (“living space”) would have enormous ramifications in the 20th century, when the notion was incorporated into the geopolitics of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party (Nazi) in Germany. Ratzel identified what he termed “laws” that governed the dynamics of state growth and expansion, including the idea that states must grow by absorbing smaller, weaker neighbors (a view seemingly derived from Darwin’s observations on natural selection), and that “youthful” states are characterized by population growth and a stable cultural identity. Ratzel’s great admirer, the Swedish scholar Rudolf Kjellen, carried the metaphor even further in his study entitled The State as an Organism, published during the First World War.
Kjellen believed that the state was sustained by “organs” just as a living body would be, and that over time more powerful states would simply absorb weaker ones, leading eventually to a global political geography consisting of only a few large powerful states, thereby applying the concept of “survival of the fittest” to international relations. Political geographers today mostly reject the application of organic theory to the functions of the state and relations between countries as an oversimplification of much more sophisticated processes.