What Is Social Darwinism?

In 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus published his book “An Essay on the Principle of Population” where he discusses the socio-economic impact of human population growth, and how to keep it under control. He concludes that population growth would continue expanding until disease, famine, war, or calamity stops or reverses it by killing off the weakest members of the population. Little did he know, with the publication of his scientific work he was rolling a snowball that would soon turn into an avalanche.

Eugenic Building
Eugenics Building, Fitter Families Contest, Kansas Free Fair in 1920.
What is the Eugenics Movement?

Eugenics, literally meaning ‘well’, was instigated in the United Kingdom in the 1880s under the influence of Francis Galton’s collected statistical data, and Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution by natural selection. However, it flourished in the US in the early 20th century fuelled partly by then-contemporary ideas on individualism, competitive capitalism, and the survival of the fittest. 

American Eugenicists supported the idea that state control and intervention into the nation’s breeding could reduce the suffering of Americans by “breeding out” diseases, disabilities, and so-called undesirable genetic characteristics through forced sterilization of targeted groups.

In the first instance, sterilization efforts focused on disabled Americans but later grew to include people whose only “crime” was poverty. These sterilization programs found legal support in the Supreme Court. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the state of Virginia sought to sterilize Carrie Buck for promiscuity as evidenced by her giving birth to a baby out of wedlock.

It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind …
Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes, in ruling against Carrie Buck in 1927

After the Eugenics movement gained the legal backing of the US Supreme in 1927, the state of California, which had subjected more people to forceful-sterilization than all other U.S. states combined, began producing literature promoting eugenics and sterilization and sending it overseas to German scientists and medical professionals. The forced sterilization program engineered by the Nazis was partly inspired by California’s.

Chicken or the Egg
Chicken or the Egg?

In the mid-nineteenth century, upon reading Malthus’ essay on human population growth, the English biologist Charles Darwin surmised that the large numbers of offspring are produced in a biological gamble, not all offspring are meant to survive. Within the large numbers of offspring, some will have the traits that will aid in their survival and will pass desirable traits on to their offspring; others will not survive long enough to reproduce. Darwin called this process “natural selection”.

In his 1853 book “On the Origin of Species” Charles Darwin discusses the impact of natural selection on all living organisms, and in his 1871 book “The Descent of Man” he further details the role of natural selection in human evolution.

Social Darwinism Born

Social Darwinism appeared in the late nineteenth century in the UK as a loose set of ideologies that seemingly applied “science” to society. While Darwinism merely explains a natural event supported by facts, Social Darwinism is a movement with a purpose that lacks scientific facts.

According to self-acclaimed Social Darwinists, nature was “perfecting” the species by letting only the fittest ones live and pass their traits on to the next generations. Imposing this approach on to people and letting the fit members of the society have children will improve the welfare of society.

Eugenics Politics
It Is Getting Political

Between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although the majority of scholars accepted the evolution theory, there was no common agreement on what was hereditary. Although Charles Darwin’s Theory stated that in species only physical traits were hereditary, not acquired traits, there were others who still supported Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s proposed hereditary theory, which predates Darwin’s work. Lamarck had based his proposal on the thousands of years false belief that that acquired traits, as well as physical traits, had to be hereditary because, for instance, a bird born in isolation was equipped with the knowledge of how to crack an egg using a pebble.

Combining some elements of Darwinism with Lamarckism, the English biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer proposed Social Darwinism. Members of the society who had hereditary diseases and with objectionable personalities were to be stripped of their right to have children.

Spencer’s Social Darwinism dictates that the son of a carpenter is born with carpenting skills and a daughter of an “immoral” woman is born with “immorality” hardcoded in them. It is possible to improve the physical health and ethics of society by eliminating physically disabled and unethical people respectively.

Eugenics, Class System
Class System

After Darwin published his theories on biological evolution and natural selection, Herbert Spencer drew further parallels between his economic theories and Darwin’s scientific principles.

Spencer applied the idea of “survival of the fittest” to so-called laissez-faire or unrestrained capitalism during the Industrial Revolution, in which businesses are allowed to operate with little regulation from the government.

Unlike Darwin, Spencer believed that people could genetically pass learned qualities, such as frugality and morality, on to their children.

Spencer opposed any law that helped workers, the poor, and those he deemed genetically weak. Such laws, he argued, would go against the evolution of civilization by delaying the extinction of the “unfit.”

Another prominent Social Darwinist was an American economist, William Graham Sumner. He was an early opponent of the welfare state. He viewed individual competition for property and social status as a tool for eliminating the weak and immoral of the population.

Darwin himself was not a "Darwinist"
Darwin himself was not a “Darwinist”

We are proud of our civilization, which we have worked to build for thousands of years. Our civilization provides us with, among others, justice, law and order, equality, safety, individual rights; none of which can be provided by nature. Our civilization exists because humans do not want to be ruled by nature.

Although accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution is a prerequisite to be a supporter of Social Darwinism, being a Social Darwinist is not something Darwin’s Theory of Evolution advises. In fact, virtually all scholars will agree that living in a Darwinist society would not be pleasant.


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