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What is Social Darwinism?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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Social Darwinism is a set of precepts concerning ethical behavior toward others developed in the 19th century that is derived from a few of the ideas of Charles Darwin. Herbert Spencer is credited with being the first to make this extrapolation of Darwinian thought to human societal and ethical behavior. Particularly in the Industrial Revolution and up through the middle of the 20th century, some people excused careless, neglectful or mass murderous behavior through reliance on Spencer’s theories, which had never been proven. For the most part, Spencer’s ideas have been discarded, though some people still argue his concepts had merit.

The underlying concept driving this idea is based on Darwin’s observations that weaker members of animal populations tend to be weeded out over several generations. Survival of the fittest ensures a stronger species, where the best qualities are selected and reproduced. When this idea is applied to society, it justifies a variety of controversial viewpoints. First, it isn’t necessary to help people who struggle economically, socially, or educationally, because if they are truly fit, they will work it out and overcome whatever problems they have. If not, they sink to lowest social standing and will be less likely to reproduce; this is blatantly untrue, however, as evidenced by high birth rates in disadvantaged populations.

Additionally, Social Darwinism, and its idea of the strong having rights over the weak, means people can excuse many repulsive actions against anyone who is weak. The push of many businesses during the Industrial Revolution to keep governments from setting down any kinds of basic protections for workers is part of this theory. If workers are disadvantaged and weak, it does not matter whether they are abused. The strong have the right to treat the weak in any way they choose and no government should interfere in this process. The “up by the bootstraps” mentality that characterized factory formation and governance during this time suggested that any one of the weak who was truly strong would ultimately rise above adversity and be successful.

Two of the worst applications of this theory involve colonialism and racial extermination. Countries taking the land of others often justified their actions because they had the greater strength and, therefore, were perfectly entitled to take what they could from weaker nations and treat the subjects of those nations with little respect. Even more shocking was applying Darwin’s theories of creating a “fittest” population to justifying mass execution of specific racial groups, as Nazi Germany did in the mid-20th century.

In its mildest applications, Social Darwinism is similar to a Libertarian point of view, where everyone should have equal freedom and no person gets special privileges or supports anyone else. People rise or fall based on their own merits and how these merits interface with societal demands. The most frightening applications of this theory justify things like the Holocaust. These justifications are made worse, if that is possible, because there is little evidence that Darwin’s theories are applicable to human interaction, society, or ethics.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By TrogJoe19 — On Dec 27, 2010

@GigaGold

There is the fine line. If the government were to be a supreme system over the economy, there would be fewer checks and balances and the government itself would be indirectly advocating social Darwinism. The government would be the "strong man" outdoing the weak economy. In a system of checks and balances, charity is maximized and social exploitation of the weak is sought to be minimized. This is all ultimately based on morals of a different kind than would be advocated by Spencer.

By GigaGold — On Dec 25, 2010

@TrogJoe19

In order to avoid social Darwinism or an absolute laissez-faire system, why doesn't our government take more control over the "dog-eat-dog" economy? It would seem that a strong political system could rein in an exploitation of the weak.

By TrogJoe19 — On Dec 22, 2010

In a laissez-faire environment, the economy regulates itself in a libertarian manner. If the members of such an economy are social Darwinists, the rich will naturally seek to exploit everyone else to the hilt. In a strong capitalist system, the government allows businesses and companies to operate on their own, but nevertheless establishes certain important rules about personal freedom and work treatment. There is a minimum wage in place to ensure that people are well paid for their hard work and they are not allowed to be overworked. Our system encourages competition and seeks to avoid allowing businesses to have a monopoly on the market. In short, our politics and economy are the farthest thing from social Darwinism.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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