Social Darwinism (19TH CENTURY)

Attempted application of theory of the survival of the fittest to public policy.

The provision of social services allowed the ‘unfit’ to survive, and reproduce children who inherited their social characteristics. Such services, therefore, however well-meaning, damaged society.

Also see: eugenics

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Social Darwinism refers to various theories that emerged in Western Europe and North America in the 1870s that applied biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics, and politics.[1][2] Social Darwinism posits that the strong see their wealth and power increase while the weak see their wealth and power decrease. Various social Darwinist schools of thought differ on which groups of people are the strong and which are the weak, and also differ on the precise mechanisms that reward strength and punish weakness. Many such views stress competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism, while others support authoritarianism, eugenics, racism, imperialism, fascism, Falangism, Nazism, and struggle between national or racial groups.[3][4][5]

Social Darwinism declined in popularity as a purportedly scientific concept following the First World War, and was largely discredited by the end of the Second World War—partially due to its association with Nazism and partially due to a growing scientific consensus that it was scientifically groundless.[6][7] Later theories that were categorized as social Darwinism were generally described as such as a critique by their opponents; their proponents did not identify themselves by such a label.[8][7] Creationists have frequently maintained that social Darwinism—leading to policies designed to reward the most competitive—is a logical consequence of “Darwinism” (the theory of natural selection in biology).[9] Biologists and historians have stated that this is a fallacy of appeal to nature, since the theory of natural selection is merely intended as a description of a biological phenomenon and should not be taken to imply that this phenomenon is good or that it ought to be used as a moral guide in human society.[10] While most scholars recognize some historical links between the popularisation of Darwin’s theory and forms of social Darwinism, they also maintain that social Darwinism is not a necessary consequence of the principles of biological evolution.

Scholars debate the extent to which the various social Darwinist ideologies reflect Charles Darwin’s own views on human social and economic issues. His writings have passages that can be interpreted as opposing aggressive individualism, while other passages appear to promote it.[11] Darwin’s early evolutionary views and his opposition to slavery ran counter to many of the claims that social Darwinists would eventually make about the mental capabilities of the poor and colonial indigenes.[12] After the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, one strand of Darwins’ followers, led by Sir John Lubbock, argued that natural selection ceased to have any noticeable effect on humans once organised societies had been formed.[13] However, some scholars argue that Darwin’s view gradually changed and came to incorporate views from other theorists such as Herbert Spencer.[14] Spencer published[15] his Lamarckian evolutionary ideas about society before Darwin first published his hypothesis in 1859, and both Spencer and Darwin promoted their own conceptions of moral values. Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited.[16] An important proponent in Germany was Ernst Haeckel, who popularized Darwin’s thought and his personal interpretation of it, and used it as well to contribute to a new creed, the monist movement.

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