To begin with “What is Social Darwinism” one first needs to familiarize oneself with its roots. To understand what is Social Darwinism better, here’s a little history as to what is Darwinian theory.
1. Introduction to Darwinian Theory
Charles Robert Darwin or popularly known as Charles Darwin was a Naturalist from England whose scientific idea of natural selection created the cornerstone of contemporary evolutionary studies.
2. What is Darwinism or Darwinian Theories?
Before understanding what is Social Darwinism, let’s first take a peek into the Darwinian Theories. Darwinism is a biological evolution theory developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin and others, which states that all species of organisms arise and develop through natural selection of small, hereditary variations that improve a person’s capacity to compete, live, and reproduce.
It initially comprised the broad notions of species transmutation or evolution that acquired universal scientific recognition when Darwin published “On the Origin of Species“ in 1859, as well as conceptions that predates Darwin’s Theories. In April 1860, English scientist Thomas Henry Huxley created the word Darwinism.
3. What is Social Darwinism?
The introduction of Darwin’s biological theories to the social and cultural domain is widely characterized as Social Darwinism. In truth, sociocultural evolutionary ideas evolved alongside biological beliefs rather than as a result of them. Social Darwinism is an umbrella term that was given indiscriminately to a range of late-nineteenth-century social ideas that bore little similarity to Darwin’s original views.
Because science cannot be readily isolated from societal impacts, there is no distinct collection of principles that can be described as Social Darwinism. There are reasons to doubt whether the designation referred to a real social movement or was only an abstraction established by historians to read into the past.
The phrase was not widely used until the turn of the century and is associated with negative connotations. Social Darwinism has been associated with Racism, Nazism, and the eugenics movement throughout the twentieth century, which may explain why more modern involvement with evolutionism has been notable by its absence within human geography.
Coming to what is Social Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s biological theories to the sociocultural evolutionary theories developed is widely characterized as Social Darwinism.
In truth, sociocultural evolutionary ideas evolved alongside biological beliefs rather than as a result of them. Because Social Darwinism encompasses a wide range of views that have little to no similarity to Darwinism, researchers argue whether the name refers to a real social movement or one invented by historians.
3.1) A Few Themes are Shared by Social Darwinist Theory and the Practices That Utilized Them as Justifications.
They are as follows:
- The concept is that human society, like plants and animals, competes for survival. As a result, “survival of the fittest” occurs.
- The conviction is that governments should not interfere with human nature’s competitiveness by seeking to control the economy or solve social problems like poverty.
- Advocating for a free-market political and economic system that encourages competition and self-interest in social and corporate matters; and
- A rationale for power disparities between human societies, the human race, and nations.
3.2) Social Darwinism as Perceived by Social Darwinists
Soon, some sociologists and others adopted Darwin’s terms and concepts for describing the biological world and applied them to their thoughts and beliefs about the human social world.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Social Darwinists used evolutionary terminology to explain the rising gap between rich and poor, as well as the various distinctions across civilizations around the world.
They concluded that businesses many of whom were economically and socially successful were so because they were physiologically and socially “naturally” the fittest.
In contrast, they concluded that the poor were “naturally” weak and unsuitable and that allowing the feeble of the species to procreate would be a mistake.
They thought that the principle “survival of the fittest” (a term created by sociologist Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin) meant that only the fittest would survive.
These sociologists and others, unlike Darwin, were not scientists. They were modifying and distorting Darwin’s words to suit their own social, economic, and political justifications. While Darwin’s theory remains a cornerstone of contemporary biology, the Social Darwinists’ beliefs are no longer recognized since they were founded on an incorrect understanding of the Theory of Evolution.
4. Social Darwinism in Different Forms
‘Spencerianism’ and ‘Taylorism’ are two early conceptions of Social Darwinism.
The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer
Even though it was largely influenced by Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian, Spencerianism is the collection of views most usually identified with Social Darwinism.
Spencer published Social Statistics (2021), in which he combined Lamarck’s views about species evolution with laissez-faire economics and produced the metaphor of the social organism.
He employed this synthesis of biological, psychological, and social evolution to explain the origins of racial diversity, departures from Lamarck’s one-line developmental sequence, and the emergence of high-level brain functioning.
According to Spencer, individuals who are the most adept at adjusting to a changing cultural context are more likely to achieve societal success in terms of position and wealth.
Spencer proposed that persons adapt to their social surroundings to explain the persistence of inequality. Spencer, who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest,” felt that successful people (those who earn riches and prestige) pass on their proclivity for success to their progeny. The cycle continues, and the most successful become even more prosperous, while the least successful die out in a “perfect” society.
Cultural Evolutionary Theory of Edward Burnett Tylor
Edward Tylor’s cultural evolutionary theory likewise emphasized the linear development of cultures. Tylor claimed that cultural similarities in various parts of the world may be explained by independent innovation; civilizations were driven to evolve in parallel ways because they must follow a hierarchy of cultural stages.
Edward Burnett Tylor’s so-called science of culture was founded on three premises: the presence of a single culture, its evolution through a single progression, and mankind as a single intellect.
Tylor saw all cultures as fundamentally similar. According to Tylor, cultures may be classified based on their level of cultural growth, with less advanced societies providing suggestions as to what previous human evolution looked like.
Tylor employed Social Darwinism to depict the evolution of societies on a grand scale. He thought that all humans shared culture and that societies progressed linearly. Cultural differences, he believes, stem from certain nations being less “advanced” than others.
5. What are the Controversies and Criticism of Social Darwinism in Ethics?
In its early days, evolutionary anthropology was criticized. The German-American anthropologist Franz Boas was the most prominent early critic of Social Darwinism.
Tylor’s views that human culture was universal and that this explained the autonomous formation of distinct society forms were disputed by Boas (Halliday, 1971).
Social Darwinism has also been widely criticized for misinterpreting principles previously articulated in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
One aspect of this critique is the evolutionarily short time scales on which the societal changes described in Social Darwinism are said to occur.
While evolutionary change occurs over many generations, Social Darwinism change is said to occur over a much shorter period.
Many have criticized Social Darwinism as a misnomer since its two founders, Spencer and Tylor, are more influenced by discredited Lamarckian evolutionary notions than Darwinian ones.
In essence, Spencer and Tylor both thought that sociocultural traits acquired during a lifetime could be handed down to offspring, whereas Darwinism thinks that only genetic features can be passed down (Halliday, 1971).
After World War II and the ensuing collapse of Eugenicist governments, Social Darwinism fell out of favor.
As a result, the profession has come to be associated with forced sterilization and a variety of programs that have resulted in the deaths and dominance of many people from “inferior” tribes.
As previously stated, social Darwinism has frequently been associated with nationalism and imperialism. During the New Imperialism Era, evolutionary principles justified the exploitation of “lesser breeds outside the law” by “superior races.” According to Elitists, powerful nations were made up of white people who were successful in expanding their empires, and as a result, these strong nations would survive the war for domination. With this mentality, Europeans, except Christian missionaries, seldom assimilated the habits and languages of the people who lived under their empires.
6. What is Social Darwinism, Immigration, and Imperialism?
Social Darwinism’s destructive ideals also affected Americans’ relationships with people from other countries. During the Second Industrial Revolution, when a large number of immigrants arrived in the United States, white, Anglo-Saxon Americans looked down on these newcomers, who differentiated from earlier immigrants in that they were less likely to speak English and were more likely to be Catholic or Jewish rather than Protestant. Many whites considered that new immigrants from Eastern or Southern Europe were racially inferior and so “less developed” than those from England, Ireland, or Germany.
Similarly, following the Spanish-American War, Social Darwinism was used to justify American Imperialism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, since many supporters of Imperialism felt that it was the duty of white Americans to deliver civilization to “backward” peoples.
Due to their link with Nazi racial propaganda, the views of Social Darwinists and Eugenicists lost favor in the United States during and after World War II. The hypothesis of Social Darwinism has been thoroughly debunked by modern biological research.
6.1) Some Examples of Implications
Eugenics is the philosophy and practice of controlling reproduction to enhance human heredity. Although the idea extends back to the ancient Greeks, the contemporary eugenics movement began in the nineteenth century when Galton (1883) adapted his cousin Charles Darwin’s theories to humans.
Galton argued that through becoming aware of more suited human features, the human species may evolve more quickly than it would otherwise.
While certain versions of Eugenics encourage the breeding of people with “better” genetic attributes, “negative” eugenics dictates the breeding of those with perceived physical, mental, or moral faults.
In reality, Eugenics was heavily influenced by Socioeconomic Darwinist beliefs, notably in reasons for sterilizing persons from “lower” social classes.
In Germany, the Nazi administration enacted legislation mandating sterilization for a variety of apparently hereditary disorders. A lot of non-German critics applauded the bill.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Social Darwinism was often employed to justify imperialism. During this period, the British Empire, in particular, ruled over vast swaths of the world, wielding dominance over conquered peoples.
To defend their control of colonial people, Europeans said that the colonial population was underlings and hence required supervision by more clever Europeans.
The discoveries of Charles Darwin and Henry Lamarck — and the sociocultural theorists who built on it, such as Spencer and Tylor — provided a scientific justification for European supremacy.
This offered a moral and logical foundation for the continuation of dominance.
From the nineteenth century to the present, social Darwinism has also played a significant role in rationalizing numerous socioeconomic disparities.
Spencer (2021), for example, argued that laissez-faire capitalism is physiologically and socially superior to the poorer classes and that this superiority is heritable.
Some, such as Rudman and Saud (2020), contend that Societal Darwinism drives some current social phenomena, such as reasons for police brutality and support for lowering social safety nets.
7. Why did Social Darwinism Declined?
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is fully concerned with explaining the biological variety of life. It is a scientific hypothesis intended to explain species findings.
Nonetheless, others have utilized the idea to explain a certain perspective on human social, political, or economic situations. All of these concepts share one fundamental flaw: they employ a scientific theory for an entirely unscientific goal.
They do it by misrepresenting and misappropriating Darwin’s original concepts.
This type of Social Darwinian terminology permeated conceptions of race and racist ideology, eugenics, the asserted national superiority of one people over another, and immigration legislation.
Many sociologists and political philosophers used Social Darwinism to argue against government assistance programs for the poor, believing that poverty was the product of intrinsic inferiority that should be bred out of the human population. Herbert Spencer used Margaret, a young woman from upstate New York, as an example, describing her as a “gutter-child.”
8. What is Social Darwinism’s Impact on The World?
8.1) Impact on Nazi Germany
The claim that social Darwinist concepts profoundly affected Nazi ideology is frequently seen in history and social scientific literature. Hannah Arendt, for example, examined the historical progression from social Darwinist ethics to racist ideology.
8.2) The United States
Ideas of social Darwinism gained popularity in American culture during the Gilded Age, primarily via the thinking of late-nineteenth-century industrial giants like John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) and Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). These types of national monopolists used Darwin’s notion of natural selection to explain corporate domination in their particular industries, and therefore to justify their excessive accumulations of success and societal development. “The growth of a great firm is essentially a survival of the fittest…the working out of a law of nature and a law of God,” said Rockefeller.
Commercial Darwinism works in marketplaces globally, pitting corporates against corporations in survival conflicts based on US philosophy and practice.
Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social Darwinism has affected political, public health, and social movements in Japan. Social Darwinism was first introduced to Japan through the works of Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel, as well as late-nineteenth-century American, British, and French Lamarckian eugenic literary research.
Eugenism as science was passionately argued at the turn of the twentieth century in Jinsei-Der Mensch, the empire’s first eugenics publication. As Japan aspired to align with the West, this approach, along with colonialism and its justifications, was widely embraced.
In the course of an extensive sequence of translations of prominent Western philosophy, Yan Fu’s translation of Aldous Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics formally introduced Social Darwinism to China. Yan’s translation had a significant influence on Chinese scholars because he included national aspects that were not included in the original. In his notes to the translation, Yan Fu critiqued Huxley from the standpoint of Spencerian social Darwinism. Spencer’s sociology, he saw, was “not only analytical and descriptive but also prescriptive.”
Pan Guangdan, a Chinese sociologist, promoted eugenics in the 1920s, expressing social Darwinism. In 1934, Chiang Kai-shek created the New Life movement, returning to Social Darwinist beliefs, saying that “only those who readapt themselves to new circumstances, day by day, can succeed live correctly.” When a people’s life is going through this process of readaptation, it has to correct its flaws and get rid of those components that have become obsolete. Then we refer to it as “new life.”
The scientific world has extensively attacked and universally rejected Social Darwinism for its lack of devotion to Darwinism, as well as its application in rationalizing social injustice, imperialism, and eugenics. Nonetheless, social Darwinistic notions endure in the popular consciousness. We hope it helped you understand and develop a better insight as to what is Social Darwinism better.