This is Why Everyone is Suddenly Talking about Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism on Google

#notdying4wallstreet brought the straw man of social darwinism back into modern discussion. This time, the philosophy offers layers of historical criticism to sacrificing the poor on the alter of progress.

The history of Social Darwinism has its roots in the 1800s American progressive movement — with the philosophy going through several manifestations. Initially, social scientists felt that natural selection was a necessary mechanism for social progression. During the 1800s, this was used to justify concepts like colonialism and eugenics.

Modern anthropologists and psychologists use the concept Social Darwinism differently. They argue that the human brain may have evolved to adapt to our ancestral environment. So, our current psychological underpinnings are built on this evolutionary history of the human mind. For example, psychologists sometimes incest avoidance (Westermark Effect) as a psychological and social evolutionary hangover meant to diversify the species.

Outside of academia, the term is used more generally to apply the idea of superior humans dominating those who are weaker and building a society that supports that social structure. For example, people who want to cut social programs and welfare and just let the marginalized “die out” may be accused of a social darwinist mindset. Essentially, it’s being used to critique the pressure to reopen America during the COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of the economy.

While this doesn’t hold true to the terms origins, it explains why the concept has resurfaced in 2020.

What is Social Darwinism?

Social Darwinism is a vague term used to describe a cluster of theories related to the biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest — applied to social structures. Under this philosophy strong people should see their wealth and power increase. Weak people would see their wealth and power decrease.

Often, the concepts are used to explain how to succeed in laissez-faire capitalism — based around competition between individuals. Historically, it was used to support authoritarianism, eugenics, racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism, and even extreme nationalism.

As a social philosophy, Social Darwinism has lost popularity over the past century. It carries the baggage of its amoral proponents and disturbing ethical implications.

The most interesting part of Social Darwinism is that Darwin himself probably would not have supported the application of his theories beyond biology to social or political models.

Darwin believed that “social instincts” like sympathy had evolved through natural selection and made society stronger.

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.

Charles Darwin, Descent of Man

Understanding how Darwin’s evolutionary theory became connected to social philosophy begins with semantic history.

The Origin of Darwinism

The term Darwinism originated when Thomas Henry Huxley reviewed On the Origin of Species. Huxley created it as a shorthand to describe evolutionary systems and related principles. It encapsulated those familiar evolutionary topics like “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection.”

Social Darwinism, as a concept, was first used by Joseph Fisher in The History of Landholding in Ireland.

These arrangements did not in any way affect that which we understand by the word ” tenure”, that is, a man’s farm, but they related solely to cattle, which we consider a chattel. It has appeared necessary to devote some space to this subject, inasmuch as that usually acute writer Sir Henry Maine has accepted the word ” tenure ” in its modern interpretation, and has built up a theory under which the Irish chief ” developed ” into a feudal baron. I can find nothing in the Brehon laws to warrant this theory of social Darwinism, and believe further study will show that the Cáin Saerrath and the Cáin Aigillne relate solely to what we now call chattels, and did not in any way affect what we now call the freehold, the possession of the land.

 Joseph Fisher, The History of Landholding in Ireland

He was attempting to explain that early Irish had previously developed the concept of land tenure. Fisher wasn’t advocating for the concept — merely describing the phenomenon.

Over time, this concept morphed — sometimes even linked to people who did not use the term but, whose philosophy aligned with competition-based social structures.

Social Darwinism in America

The United States has embraced aspects of Social Darwinism at different times throughout history. Some people interpret American capitalizism as dependent on Social Darwinism — especially if you’re looking at philosophically (not economically).

Thomas Robert Malthus and An Essay on the Principle of Population (1766-1834)

Malthus noticed an increase in national food production temporarily improved the well-being of the population. However, it also led to population growth. This rebound brought back the per capita production level to the same state as before the food production increase.

He postulated that humans have two ways to hold a population in line with resources. First, he listed positive checks which raise the death rate, including hunger, disease, and war. Second, he listed preventative checks that lower the birth rate, such as birth control, postponing marriage, and celibacy. He also felt that charity was probably compounding social problems.

He believed that society had a propensity to misery (through death and hunger) and a moral obligation to mitigate it. His suggested limiting population growth, especially among the poor. While he did not advocate for extinguishing the lowest classes of society, his work purported that a disjointed relationship between resources and population would result in harsh conditions for human survival.

Herbert Spencer and Survival of the Fittest (1820- 1903)

Building upon a study of Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer built his own philosophy and related economic models. During the Victorian Era, Spencer advocated for a belief system build around what he felt were principles of the natural world. It was a way to replace the ethics of religion with the ethics of science — or at least Spencer’s view of ethics based in his view of science. He believed society could create “the perfect man in the perfect society” as a peak of human achievement. This could be accomplished through allowing individuals to experience the “natural” consequences of their decisions.

On one hand, this advocates for self-improvement and incentivizing people to contribute to the world around them. It also means that he opposed any aids to human development, such as public education. Spencer felt that the “undeserving poor” should be allowed to die off because they were taking away from society without giving back into it. He asserted that these people had inherited traits that made them incapable of contributing to society.

You can see early libertarian political views in Spencer’s writing although his work predates libertarian concepts. He advocated for ending government social programs and socially-focused charitable organizations. Additionally, his legacy has been connected to “scientific racism” and the idea of “society as an organism.”

Herbert Spencer was described as a Social Darwinist after his death. In fact, he used the phrase “survival of the fittest” even though Darwin never wrote that phrase.

Sir Francis Galton and Eugenics (1822-1911)

Darwin’s half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton merged specific parts of evolutionary theory with his philosophical views on social structures.

He studied the variety of the human form in great length, through a research program that measured mental characteristics, height, facial images, and even fingerprint patterns. He wanted to classify traits and graph the data to better understand the differences between people.

He was obsessed with heredity and conducted twin studies as one of the first scientists to define and explore the concept of “nature vs. nurture”.

Unfortunately, he also coined the term eugenics and he proposed models for improving the human race.

This is, with questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes, namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalised one than viriculture, which I once ventured to use.

— Galton 1883, pp. 24–25

During his time, eugenics became a popular scientific concept although its application varied throughout the movement. Some advocated for a harsh “let nature take its course” approach where society should abandon the poor, disabled, and mentally ill. Others used his work to justify scientific racism, oppose interracial marriage, and even infer that people from lower economic classes carry “family marks” that should not be “bred” into other levels of society.

Overall, Galton was not an outlier for his time. He was well-respected, honored, and influenced his contemporaries.

Richard Hofstadter and “American Thought”

Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Hofstadter popularized the term Social Darwinism in the United States in 1944 when he used it to describe those he opposed — usually fascists. He documented the rise of the philosophy in Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915.

He pointed out how aspects of the American Progressive movement were flawed from within — particularly the links to racism, eugenics, and economics. This created an opening for fascist philosophies that proposed improving society by removing “unfit” people.

The fascists, particularly in Nazi Germany, justified racial aggression by saying it promoted “survival of the fittest”. It complemented their desire to create and maintain a master race. Hofstadter critiqued and documented the popularity of these ideas leading up to World War II.

In the late 19th century, capitalists were searching for ethical support for aggressive economic competition. Social Darwinism was warped to fit business philosophy — implying that weak economic movers (impoverished people) would die off while the strong would survive.

The terminology has continued to fall out of fashion, partly because it is associated with unethical and immoral figures and movements.

Social Darwinism & COVID-19

In April of this year, a news report with a background protester holding a “Sacrifice the Weak” sign, went viral. Although the sign may have been ironic, it prompted a discussion that linked the American right-wing political stance on reopening during the coronavirus to social darwinism.

The response echoes the key concepts, such as:

  • The working poor and unemployed should not be helped because they hold back a capitalist society. Welfare and social programs are causing more problems than they solve.
  • The ones who survive and thrive in society are simply “the strongest” people. Those who struggle are not trying hard enough or are too flawed to help.
  • Viewing society and the economy as an organism (or a metaphor) and believing there is an ideal “natural” state to be achieved through less intervention.

Not surprisingly, this has led to an uptick in use of the phrase during Spring 2020, both as a critique and point of research.

Related queries include:

  • who came up with social darwinism
  • define imperialism
  • social darwinism definition us history
  • when did social darwinism start
  • Natural selection
  • laissez faire

When I noticed the uptick, I was surprised.

I was familiar with the concept from my study of language and strategic communication but, considered it an outdated term that dropped out of use during the last century.

With the debate around reopening during COVID-19, it’s active as a hashtag today.


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Published by Danielle

I'm a writer and artist in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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