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.