What is Social Darwinism? – #4 Post of 2009

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Social Darwinism is the theory that persons, societies of people, and races develop and evolve in much the same way that biological organisms evolve due to natural selection.  It is frequently described by the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which was coined by British philosopher Herbert Spencer just a few years after Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

The theory speculates that those people groups who are superior in intelligence, creativity, and industriousness would naturally overcome their weaker neighbors.  In doing so, they would become more successful as measured by wealth and prosperity.  This view led to a belief in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that human “class stratification was justified on the basis of ‘natural’ inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality.”

The ethical ramifications of social Darwinism are immense.  Following its logic, if nature is removing the inferior races of men in order to preserve the superior races, then mankind ought to cooperate.  Even though this is a clear example of the is/ought fallacy, the social Darwinists employed the theory to justify all sorts of behavior.  At the individual level, there was a moral obligation to not help those people who were biologically unfit.  After all, evolution is attempting to remove these people from the population pool.  If a person is born blind, let her die of starvation rather than fit her for glasses.  If she reproduces, she is weakening the gene pool.

With regard to ethnic groups, there arose an ethical basis for racism and nationalism; if a person’s society is shown to be socio-economically superior to others, then ignoring the plight of the inferior races and societies is completely justified.  “At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies.”

Social Darwinism saw its greatest impact in the Nazi and communist regimes of the twentieth century.  According to Sir Arthur Keith, a strong proponent of biological evolutionary theory, “We see Hitler devoutly convinced that evolution produces the only real basis for a national policy. . . . The means he adopted to secure the destiny of his race and people were organized slaughter, which has drenched Europe in blood. . . . Such conduct is highly immoral as measured by every scale of ethics, yet Germany justifies it; it is consonant with tribal or evolutionary morality.”

Nazi Germany is generally thought to have exterminated about twelve million innocent people and the regime largely based its policies on the idea that the Aryan race was superior.   It was the duty of the German people to populate the world and eliminate the inferior races.

Marxist regimes also believed that Darwinism could be used to build a legitimate philosophical framework.  Karl Marx was heavily influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and believed that the dethroning of the bourgeoisie was completely justified to bring about the evolution of mankind that he envisioned.  Marxist governments were responsible for murdering tens of millions of people during the twentieth century.  Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung massacred their own people in order to create a new order that they based ultimately upon the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

Although few people claim to be social Darwinists today, the ideas of social Darwinism still surface from time to time.  Our next post will analyze this theory of ethics to see whether it can be grounded in the seven aspects of morality we discussed in What Do We Know About Morality?

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • Though only few claim they are Social Darwinists, unfortunately the idea has gripped too many people and almost everyone these days behaves like a dedicated Social Darwinist — particularly in the academia in Social Sciences.

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)

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  • Wes

    I would think many believe this theory without realizing it. If we perceive the US to be the premier country in the world, it is because we are better, smarter, more highly developed, right? We may not call it social Darwinism, but it seems intuitive. Thanks for your post – it’s a good reminder.

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  • Herbert Spencer was not a Darwinist but a Lamarckist. He was also opposed to racism, nationalism, imperialism and the like.

    Karl Marx may have been inspired by Darwin, but actual Marxist regimes often had issues with mainstream Darwinism (or neo-Darwinism, I suppose). Lysenkoism in particular led to denunciation of “Mendel-Morganism”. Steve Pinker wrote about their problems with evolutionary theory in “The Blank Slate”.

  • I’m just tempted here to offer a bit of sass to a PhD in physics, which seems to offer little protection from being brainwashed by the “social” sciences, as if physics (or biology) were exempt from the leaven of Herod. Darwin himself held biblical concepts in contempt, and Einstein, however admired as the greatest physicist of all time, was an atheist in spite of his “God does not play dice” idiom. Also, unlike Newton, who was a devout Christian, Einstein’s claims are hotly debated by many scientists of the highest caliber, even though there careers are generally derailed following legitimate objections. I won’t dig into that further due to spacetime limitations, but if you have further comments, I’d be interested – and, by the way, I meant no disrespect, I’m just curious. Alan Foos, BA Botany, MS Soils, MCL

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  • No, you have i wrong. Social Darwinism is a group of utilitarian philosophies and policies that attributed human progress to competition among individuals. It has nothing to do with Darwinism or evolutionary biology.

    Social Darwinism has its roots in the writings of Thomas Malthus. By 1800, Thomas Malthus noted that due to natural limits on resources, there would be losers as well as winners in any social competition. This separated him from Adam Smith, but yet he embraced the idea that the struggle for existence fosters the general good by weeding out the week.

    Even before Darwin published his ideas, Herbert Spencer popularized the Malthusian view of individual and group competition. Social Darwinism was later associated to darwinist biology by its proponent, as biology had greater weight and authority than social sciences.

    With the advent of Darwinism in biology, Spencer’s views on social development became known as social Darwinism, rather than “social spencerianism”, even though Darwin did not publicly endorse the ideas. This is probably because biology carries so much credibility. Tying one’s ideas to biology rather than just social sciences gives them more credibility.

    Social Darwinism in Pablo’s Origins Blog

  • Andrew Ryan

    The Sir Arthur Keith quote is actually several different quotes stitched together. Hence the elipses. This is a misleading way of constructing an argument.

  • Andrew Ryan

    No answer to this point after three months?

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