Social Darwinism Classroom Activities & Games

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Social Darwinism is a fascinating and controversial theory. This lesson provides teacher with classroom activities and games that can be used to help teach students about Social Darwinism.

Socialism, Darwin Style

Charles Darwin wasn't the first to propose the theory of evolution, but it could be argued he was the first to organize and popularize evolutionary ideas in the western world. The ideas behind Social Darwinism grew out of Darwin's observations of the natural world. Some would argue Social Darwinism is a distortion of a theory that was meant to apply to plants and animals, and not modern humans.

The activities and games in this lesson are intended to serve as a supplement after your students have already studied the basics of Social Darwinism, including its principles and history.

Social Alternatives

Social Darwinism has been used to justify many horrible things in history including racism, poor treatment of the disabled, and general disregard for the poor. This activity encourages students to come up with an alternative application of Social Darwinism that unites people and society rather than dividing them.

  • Divide the class into small teams.
  • Instruct the teams to brainstorm and come up with a positive application of Social Darwinism with the aim of benefiting all of society instead of just a small, select group. For example, students could create a plan to use the principles of Social Darwinism to celebrate diversity.
  • Have the groups create a poster that illustrates and explains their application of Social Darwinism before each team presents their ideas to the class.
  • End the activity with a discussion about the difficulty of applying Social Darwinism principles in a positive way.

A Famous Quote?

In this game, students will be challenged to identify quotes about Social Darwinism as real or made up.

  • Before you begin, develop a list of six false quotes that relate to Social Darwinism. Make sure you assign the fake quotes to plausible speakers, such as Gandhi, Richard Dawkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph Stalin, and Nelson Mandela. In addition to these fake quotes, include the following real quotes to your list, making sure to mix real and fake quotes in the list:
    • I have always been very concerned that Darwinism gave the basic okay to terrible racism and to the idea of murder based upon race. - Ben Stein (Real)
    • Nothing seemed to offer more striking proof to the late Victorian mind of the infernal truth of social Darwinism than the supposed demise of the Tasmanian Aborigines. - Richard Flanagan (Real)
    • In the post-enlightenment Europe of the 19th century the highest authority was no longer the Church. Instead it was science. Thus was born racial anti-Semitism, based on two disciplines regarded as science in their day - the 'scientific study of race' and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel. - Jonathan Sacks (Real)
    • There was no intellectual movement in American history called social Darwinism. The people who were supposedly the leaders of the Social Darwinist movement never embraced something called Social Darwinism. It didn't exist. - Jonah Goldberg (Real)
  • Put students into pairs and tell them to number a sheet of paper from 1 to 10.
  • Read each of your quotes and their (supposed) originators to the class, asking students to write down their guesses as to whether the quote is either 'real' or 'fake' on their answer sheets.
  • Read through the quotes again, but this time take a class poll as to whether each quote is real or fake, then reveal the correct answer.
  • After you've gone through all of the quotes you can reward the pairs who got the most correct answers. Conclude the activity with a discussion about why or how some of the fake quotes tricked students into thinking they were real.

Survival of the Best

In this game, students will compete to see who is best able to recall information in order to win a prize, applying the concept of survival of the fittest to human behaviors. All students will need to have access to the same text, such as a textbook excerpt.

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