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Understanding What 'Social Darwinism' is, With Suitable Examples

Understanding 'Social Darwinism' with Examples
Social Darwinism applies the biological laws of evolution and natural selection to a sociological point of view, to explain the socioeconomic differences seen in society. This post explains this concept with the help of suitable examples.
Komal B. Patil
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Despite being called 'Social Darwinism', the term has no association with Charles Darwin. The concept and term was first used by Joseph Fisher in 1877, in his article 'The History of Landholding in Ireland', which was published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.
The 19th and 20th centuries were witness to a time of unrest, war, and political as well as socioeconomic destabilization, due to the Industrial Revolution. It ushered the era of capitalism. In light of such developments, the theory of Social Darwinism was formulated by drawing inspiration from the works of notable past researchers. Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution by way of natural selection was adapted to help explain the social structure of society, and the hierarchy therein. This was combined with the theory of inheritance of acquired traits given by Jean Baptiste Lamarck. The Social Darwinism theory also had facets from Francis Galton's theory of eugenics (human improvement via selective breeding), and the theory of population dynamics presented by Thomas Malthus.

Social Darwinism is a melting pot of the scientific contributions of all these scientists, despite its fallacious nature. The theory is a fallacy, since one cannot logically apply the laws of biology to a society, since the very laws that govern society and biology are quite separate and diverse in nature. Nevertheless, it gained acceptance and popularity, owing to the economic and political expansion and instability of the 19th century. Also, since it was linked to the theory of natural selection and evolution, it was accepted as a natural process (a prime example of genetic fallacy).
What is Social Darwinism?
Rich and poor girl
✱ On the basis of natural selection, Social Darwinism claims that the best adapted individuals in a given society naturally rise to the top of the social, political, and economic strata. This ascension of societal strata can be due to the merit of either hard work or birth, i.e., life in society is a struggle for existence and advancements, in which only the worthy or capable succeed, while all the others fail. This helps in explaining and justifying the disparity between the social and financial status of individuals.

✱ The position of higher strata of society is justified by claiming that, the control of wealth and property should belong to the superior beings, since they possess the inherent attributes like industriousness, frugality, temperance, etc. This implies that, the lower ranks of society are deemed to be incapable and unworthy of possessing power or money, since if they were capable, they would already have it. The poor are considered to be socially unfit, and hence, do not warrant any form of aid. Also, since the whole phenomenon is deemed to be a natural process, any attempts at reform or intervention are considered an undue interference, thus promoting laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism. Therefore, this theory provides a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist tendencies in society, claiming that certain nations or races were naturally superior in the global hierarchy.

✱ An apt example of this theory can be found in the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler in Germany, prior to World War II. The persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany was a form of Social Darwinism, where Hitler established the German Aryans as the superior race, compared to the race of the Jews, hence, implying that it was natural for the inferior Jews to be driven out and eliminated from society. Hitler took this movement one step further, into the domain of genetic makeup. All those deemed to have an inferior genetic constitution were eliminated, whereas, those with superior and pure Aryan ancestry were encouraged to rise through society and proliferate. This selective breeding of supposedly better humans was a clear instance of eugenics. Hence, Social Darwinism provided a scientific justification for the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Examples in Society
Girls laughing on black man
❖ The racist discrimination by the 'white' Americans and Britishers against the 'black' people of African origins, called Apartheid, claimed that white-skinned Americans and Britishers were superior compared to the darker-skinned Africans, based on the skin color.
❖ The colonization of various third-world countries by first-world countries like the UK and France is another example exhibited through political expansion. The first-world countries deemed themselves superior to other nations and regions.

❖ In the Gilded Age (1870 - 1900), it was common to observe poor people work as slaves or laborers under the rich, who exploited them to work hard in deplorable conditions, and paid them meager wages, while retaining the profits. This made the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

❖ Another example of the Gilded Age is that of the unfettered capitalism present at that time, e.g., the railroad company of Jay Gould and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Individuals controlled entire capitalistic ventures and reaped the profits, while the employees of the venture were given fixed low wages, thus deepening the chasm between the rich and the poor.

❖ Social Darwinism can also be seen in a religious context, where people following religions other than one's own are considered to be pagans, heretics, infidels, or savages.
This theory was discarded after World War II. This was due to the fact that, support for the theory was seen as support for Nazi and anti-Semitic beliefs. Also, further research into the field of sociology yielded results that proved that the rules of biological evolution were ill-suited to explain cultural and social phenomena. The theory also justified the continuing prevalence of poverty and warfare, and this coupled with eugenic connotations caused it to be discredited.