Social Darwinism is the idea that some groups of people or races are superior to others and therefore more ‘fit’ to rule over those that are less ‘fit’. For instance, Social Darwinism was used by European nations to explain differences between people based on politics, economics and racial qualities. In fact, as a concept, Social Darwinism was most prevalent as a scientific theory throughout the late 1800s, during the timeframe of the Age of Imperialism (1870 to 1914). As such, historians discuss Social Darwinism alongside other related topics such as the Scramble for Africa and European Imperialism. Today, Social Darwinism is understood to be a flawed theory that was used to justify racist and Eurocentric beliefs of the 19th century.
CHARLES DARWIN & NATURAL SELECTION
Social Darwinism is a theory based on the ideas and writings of Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was a British scientist who lived from 1809 until 1882. He is famous for developing and expressing the Theory of Evolution, which is based on the concept of natural selection. In short, natural selection is a process by which living organisms adapt and change over time. This concept has come to be known in more simpler terms such as ‘survival of the fittest’. Essentially, Darwin argued that living organisms adapt to their environment and other external factors, and those species which adapt the most successfully are the most likely to survive. He further argued that this process is ongoing and occurs over long periods of time. As such, he theorized that all species on the planet are ever-changing and modern species are the result of thousands or millions of years of adaptations.
Charles Darwin expressed his ideas in his famous work, tilted ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’, which he published in 1859. Today, the book is generally known just as ‘Origin of Species’ and considered a foundational work in the field of biology and evolution. Throughout history, the work has sparked much controversy and led to considerable debate. Regardless, Darwin’s theory, along with other scientific advancements were popular and quickly used by others in the fields of politics and economics to explain other unrelated concepts. As such, the ideas behind ‘Social Darwinism’ cannot be attributed to Charles Darwin himself. Rather, it is best associated with others, who used Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and applied it to other concepts.
SOCIAL DARWINISM & ECONOMICS
As stated above, Social Darwinism is the idea that some groups of people or races are superior to others and therefore more ‘fit’ to rule over those that are less ‘fit’. Early supporters of Social Darwinism used Charles Darwin’s notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ and applied it to certain aspects of the European society at the time. For instance, individualism as an ideology was quite popular in Europe in the 19th century and the basis behind Darwin’s theories were used to prove why some people prospered in life and others struggled. At its heart, individualism is a set of principles centered on the belief in the moral worth of the individual. This means, that economic or political systems based on the principles of individualism favor policies that limit the control of the government and instead allow more freedoms for the individual person. Therefore, Social Darwinism is a term used to try to explain why some people are ‘superior’ to others and justify it as natural.
This concept of Social Darwinism was used to justify economic ideologies including laissez-faire capitalism. Simply put, laissez-faire focused on less government intervention in the economy and more freedom to allow individuals to freely carry out their own economic affairs. In fact, laissez-faire capitalists would have used Social Darwinism to explain gaps between the rich and poor during the timeframe of the 19th century, with particular focus on England in the Industrial Revolution. For example, famous English scholar, Thomas Malthus argued for policies and views that were based on ideas behind Social Darwinism.
Today he is best remembered for writing about issues related to the economy and human populations. In particular, he famously wrote about the potential crisis of the human population outpacing food production. He argued in favor of ‘checks’ in society to avoid the crisis. For Malthus, the positive checks included things such as war, disease and hunger. As well, he referred to preventive checks, which lowered the birth rate. While Malthus died before the development of Social Darwin theories, his ideas were often used by others alongside Social Darwinism as a means of promoting competition in society. In short, Social Darwinists of the late 19th century argued that it was natural that some people in England were rich and others were poor do to natural factors, such as work ethic and natural ability.
An example of a supporter of Social Darwinism was Francis Galton. He was an English writer and scientist that promoted the ideas of Social Darwinism in English society. In fact, Galton was also Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. Regardless, Galton argued against programs to assist the poor because he theorized that they only worked to help ‘inferior’ people to survive and reproduce. More specifically, Galton was generally referring to the poor and uneducated. Galton’s views were relatively common at the time (late 1800s) in European society and was used to explain the disparity between the rich and poor.
SOCIAL DARWINISM & THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM
As stated above, the ideas of Social Darwinism first emerged in the 1870s, which was also the timeframe of European imperialism in the Age of Imperialism. As such, Social Darwinism is often associated with events such as the Scramble for Africa, which saw the major European powers of the time, race to capture territory on the African continent. More specifically, as Europeans travelled the globe and colonized different regions, they came into contact with all sorts of different indigenous people. As such, European beliefs about their own supposed racial superiority helped inform their interactions with the people they encountered, including native Africans.
The term that best relates to this concept is ‘ethnocentrism’, which is the concept of judging other cultures based upon the views of your own. Further to this idea is the concept of ‘eurocentrism’. Eurocentrism is similar to ethnocentrism but focuses specifically on Europeans and the views of superiority expressed in relation to the timeframe of imperialism. These Eurocentric beliefs were justified by European governments due to the concept of Social Darwinism. As stated previously, Social Darwinism is the idea that some groups of people are superior to others and therefore more ‘fit’ to rule over those that are less ‘fit’. Therefore, supporters of Social Darwinism attempted to use this idea to scientifically justify or prove ethnocentric beliefs. For this reason, modern historians consider Social Darwinism as a means by which the Europeans attempted to justify racist or prejudice actions during imperialism in Africa.
Social Darwinism was particularly popular in the early 1870s, when Europeans were carrying out their massive imperialistic campaigns as part of the Age of Imperialism. The beliefs of ethnocentrism and Social Darwinism can be seen in a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling called ‘The White Man’s Burden’. In the poem, Kipling calls on Europe to ‘send forth the best ye breed’ to ‘take up the white man’s burden’. In general, Kipling is promoting the idea that people of European descent are biologically more superior to other people from around the world, and the ‘burden’ of the white man is to ‘fix’ the uncivilized indigenous peoples. As a result, the beliefs of ethnocentrism and eurocentrism led to the events of the Scramble for Africa in 1870 because the views of superiority on the part of the Europeans empowered them to dominate the people they encountered.
Therefore, Social Darwinism was a contributing factor to aspects of European imperialism in Africa, such as: the Atlantic Slave Trade and the role of Belgian King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. This is because the European people would have viewed African people as inferior.
SOCIAL DARWINISM & NAZISM
The ideas of Social Darwinism continued well into the 20th century and influenced major events such as the Holocaust. The Holocaust is one of the most important events of the 20th century and is perhaps the most significant genocide in human history. A genocide is a mass killing of a group of people for ethnic, religious or racial reasons. The term ‘holocaust’ refers to death by fire in reference to the way that people were executed during the event. It unfolded during the reign of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and the major events of World War II. During the Holocaust, which occurred from 1933 to 1945, over 11 million people were executed. In total, 6 million were Jewish people, while the other 5 million included several other groups, including: disabled people, homosexuals, communists, Soviet and Polish prisoners of war, gypsies, and other religious and ethnic minorities.
Social Darwinism played a role in the Holocaust due to the racist view of the Nazi Party of Germany, which historians refer to as Nazism. As part of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime classified and discriminated against different groups of people based on certain characteristics, including: ethnic heritage, mental and physical disability and genetic background. In his book, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler promoted the idea that Germany should actively seek to create a master race which he referred to as ‘Aryans’. For Hitler, Aryans were northern Europeans who had certain genetic traits, including blonde hair and blue eyes. Hitler believed that Aryan genetic traits should be promoted and that all others should be restricted or removed from society. In order to achieve this, the Nazis practised the theory of eugenics, which is the idea that certain genetic traits should be promoted while others should be removed through selective reproduction.
Eugenics developed as a theory along with the early development of genetics as a field of study, and while it was not unique to the Nazis, Germany was the country that practiced eugenics the most. Essentially, countries who practiced eugenics sought to eliminate certain human traits by preventing ‘undesirable’ people from reproducing. For Nazi Germany, the people with ‘undesirable’ genetic traits included: mentally and physically disabled people, the Jewish, the Polish, and Slavic people. The first victims of the Holocaust were mentally and physically disabled German citizens who the Nazi regime considered to be a burden on society. It was the view of Nazi officials that the care for these people was too expensive and they carried genetic traits that weakened the Aryan race. As such, the Nazis created the Euthanasia Program, which was designed to execute many of these people.
Therefore, Social Darwinism was a central aspect of Nazism and its beliefs around racial superiority and society in general. It was used to justify the terrible treatment and mass killing of millions of people.
CITE THIS ARTICLE