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Social Darwinism: Significance & Movement

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The concept of Social Darwinism found its most committed audience from the late 19th into the mid-20th century. The central tenet of the Social Darwinist philosophy states that some human beings and races are better than others, thus natural selection should be recognized as a mechanism of genetic cleansing.

Darwin Didn't Say That!

Charles Darwin, best known for his treatise, On the Origin of Species in which he sought to explain the origin of the biological diversity observed in the world around us, was the champion of another hypothesis called natural selection. Natural selection is the idea that more naturally fit organisms will out-compete others thereby bringing about the advancement of organisms within that species group.

Unfortunately, this hypothesis was taken and used on a social level by groups who had something else in mind. What if you lived in a country where you were a member of a minority group, whether that group is ethnically different, physiologically different, or religiously different? What if the government of that country decided to enact a policy of oppression, expulsion, and even execution of your group because they had determined that your group was poisoning the genetic makeup of humanity? If you did happen to live in the middle of such a horror, you would be living in a society that upholds Social Darwinism.

But, what many people don't know is that Charles Darwin never endorsed this philosophy. In fact, he wasn't interested in the ideas of competition so much as he was the mechanisms behind species' development.

Charles Darwin was often misunderstood and lambasted for his hypothesis of natural selection.
Darwin Misrepresented

The Beginnings of Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism arose from the idea that human beings are merely animals that should compete for resources and should be left to survive or die with little or no help. Social Darwinists formulated this idea from a logical argument in the late 19th century based on Charles Darwin's mid-19th century hypothesis that species will advance genetically due to natural selection or survival of the fittest.

The beginnings of the Social Darwinist movement were marked by racism, ageism, and general disdain for the physically and mentally ill, all of whom were considered in some way subhuman. This idea became even more popular after Darwin published his work titled The Descent of Man in 1871, leading many critics to condemn it as a justification for the cruel and inhumane treatment of those considered as weak or less than human.

The primary promoter of this philosophy was a sociologist named Herbert Spencer. He is the person who coined the saying, survival of the fittest and managed to convince many rich and powerful people to adopt the same idea. Spencer called the United States government to stop providing for the poor and sick and to let nature take its course. His assumption was that by letting these weaker, drags on the gene pool die and be removed from the human race, the human race would see advanced and rapid evolution and prosperity.

Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, advanced the hypothesis of hereditarianism which states that heredity has a much larger impact on intelligence and fitness than environment. This promoted the idea that only the smartest and most physically fit people should be allowed to have children.

In the 1890s, promoters of Social Darwinism advised military leaders to encourage conflict saying that only through conquest could society advance. Imagine a world in which only the strong militarily could rule and all others were doomed to displacement and ultimately death. This is an overriding principle of Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism is based on the idea that heredity and biology determine fitness and value in humanity.
Natural Selection

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