Social Darwinism is a theoretical framework that suggests that societal advancement is driven by “survival of the fittest.” It proposes that the most socially adept or powerful individuals or groups tend to succeed.
This perspective borrows from Charles Darwin’s evolutionary biology principle applied to societal constructs. Social Darwinists believe that competition amongst people and factions is crucial for societal growth.
According to Social Darwinism, government policies would actually be seen as detrimental to social advancement. It would support the weak, rather than promoting the strong, and this would weaken society over time.
Social Darwinism has been widely discredited by modern evolutionary biologists who argue that human societies are far more complex than simple “survival of the fittest” concepts can explain.
Moreover, its ideas have been criticized for being used as a thinly-veiled justification for oppressive policies such as colonization and racism towards marginalized groups in society.
Definition of Social Darwinism
The concept of Social Darwinism is based on ideas derived from Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. Its purpose was to introduce natural selection principles into the study of human societies.
According to McCormack and colleagues (2021),
“[Social Darwinism is] the theory that individuals and groups are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection as plants and animals, that is, survival of the fittest” (p. 181).
Social Darwinism proposes that societies and individuals should engage in a free-for-all “struggle for existence.” The belief is that this competition will improve society as a whole by making it stronger and removing the weak.
As argued by Nachtwey and Walther (2023),
“…for the good of the species, nature should be allowed to weed out the weak. In other words: the struggle for resources should be maximized as a way of getting rid of the weaker members of society, which allows the naturally strong to thrive” (p. 2).
It emphasizes the ascent of the most “fit” individuals or groups toward positions of power and wealth while less fit individuals or groups are left behind.
It also suggests that social progress thrives best when governments and external forces remain minimally involved, allowing for a pure meritocracy where the strong succeed and the weak fall behind.
Simply, Social Darwinism holds that only the fittest will survive in the battle for life and resources: those best adapted to their environment survive, the rest die off.
10 Examples of Social Darwinism
- Eugenics: By selectively procreating, human pass on the most desirable traits and eliminatr those deemed undesirable. In essence, the ugly and the weak don’t find a mate! Eugenics took this to an extreme, arguing that the weak should not be allowed to procreate, thereby speeding up this process of strengthening society. In various parts of Europe and North America during the early 1900s (notably by the German regime during WWII), governments embraced these tenets to varying degrees – causing widespread distress and permanent psychological damage.
- Capitalist competition: Free market proponents often compare capitalism to natural selection, asserting that the strongest businesses thrive while weaker ones perish. Consequently, some may oppose welfare initiatives or regulations as interference in this process.
- Imperialism: In various times and places throughout history, empires have justified their conquests by claiming they were spreading a superior culture or religion. This aligns with social Darwinist beliefs about dominant societies being responsible for shaping and improving others.
- Criminal justice reforms: Some Social Darwinists believed in individual responsibility above all else and therefore were skeptical of criminal justice reforms that aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment.
- Immigration restrictions: Certain groups have argued for immigration restrictions based on concerns about preserving a culture or preventing economic competition from foreign laborers – both arguments that can invoke social Darwinist thinking. For example, a racist society might hold that they are the superior race, so other races are not allowed to emigrate to the company and weaken the gene pool.
- Sports fandom: It’s not exactly social policy per se, but sports fans often use evolutionary analogies when cheering for their favorite teams – celebrating triumph as an example of “survival of the fittest.”
- Military efforts: War has been one implementation tool for promoting national strength by decimating opponents. Total war requires great sacrifices by society and thus often results in implementing Social Darwinist thinking when targeting civilians, prisoners of war, etc.
- The deserving vs undeserving poor: This mentality involves dividing poor people into those with good genes, bones, and work ethic vs those who do not. In this mentality, the deserving poor should – despite perhaps being down on their lack – be able to find a way back to wealth without help, while the undeserving poor do not deserve our help because they are the laggards of society. In this mentality, the society should not help the poor, but the poor should instead help themselves.
- Health care rationing: In some countries with limited resources, medical decisions must be made about which patients receive treatment and which do not. In these cases, some decision-makers may prioritize those seen as having a greater potential benefit to society rather than making decisions on strictly medical grounds.
- Educational policies: Educational policies sometimes reflect arguments about meritocracy and intellectual competition – beliefs that align with social Darwinist concepts of individual responsibility and competition. For example, neoliberal education reformers believe the wealthy should pay for better education, allowing the rich to get further ahead, while others advocate for greater equity between students of different backgrounds.
Origins of Social Darwinism
The inception of Social Darwinism can be attributed to the scientific theories and principles of Charles Darwin, the renowned biologist acknowledged for his theory on natural selection (Hofstadter, 1969).
Darwin’s work proposed that living organisms are subject to struggles, and they have variations that allow some individuals to survive better than others.
1. Herbert Spencer
This concept was applied to human society through the works of thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, who suggested applying Darwin’s natural selection concept at a societal level (Leonard, 2009).
Spencer’s staunch support for “survival of the fittest” reflected his conviction that those with superior mental, physical, or financial abilities should be embraced over their weaker ones in order for a society to achieve success.
To Spencer, this resulting struggle for existence acted as a catalyst for progress and development – not just at an individual level but also on a larger societal scale.
2. Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus’s work on population growth greatly influenced Social Darwinism ideas (Todes, 1989).
Malthus argued that population growth would lead to a shortage of resources, resulting in a “struggle for existence” among humans similar to what occurs in nature (Hofstadter, 1969).
The concept helped establish Social Darwinists’ idea regarding competition as an inevitable part of life that results in elimination (death) or success (flourishment).
Furthermore, during the 19th century, when Social Darwinism flourished, colonialism played a significant role. Many people believed Western civilization was superior due to advances in science, technology, and industry.
They attributed Europe’s dominance over other continents as a function of an innate natural superiority instead of rooted historical imbalances such as slavery or exploitation.
Principles of Social Darwinism
Followers of this ideology believe that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” should guide human society, leading to progress by ensuring individuals with desirable traits dominated over the weak.
Below are some primary principles associated with Social Darwinism:
1. Natural Competition
Social Darwinists believe natural competition is a basic principle governing all human behavior (rather than social & environmental factors shaping individual human experiences) (Bannister, 1979).
As such, people should be treated based on merit – relying more on maintaining a competitive environment than creating structures that compensate for societal conditions they can’t control.
2. Rugged Individualism
The concepts of individualism and self-reliance are key principles in Social Darwinism, believing when people take responsibility for themselves, they good and worthy will excel above others due to perceived strengths (be it intellectually or physically).
Consequently, individuals who don’t meet certain criteria determined by Social Darwinist belief systems are subjected to exclusion from economic and social benefits (Bannister, 1979).
3. Success as Proof of Superiority
In keeping with selectivity beliefs, success is viewed solely as proof of superiority (and not a result of other aspects like likc, privilege and systemic bias that offer advantages born outside merit or raw talent) (Leonard, 2009).
4. Class Inequality
Some adherents of Social Darwinism see class inequality as a necessary result of differences inherent in one’s abilities and intelligence levels (Bannister, 1979).
They argue that poverty happens because some people simply lack the strength or intellect necessary for wealth creation, thus marginalizing themselves through omission instead inclusion.
Eugenics advocates purging the gene pool from undesirable characteristics so that only superior traits get passed on. This movement started during the era when Social Darwinism was popularized (Bergman, 2014).
6. Social Responsibility
According to Social Darwinists, there’s no individual responsibility outside of fulfilling personal self-interest and well-being. This provides a justification for a competitive social framework where everyone is on their own, responsible for themself, and no one is responsible for anyone else.
Critique of Social Darwinism
Social Darwinism has been criticized substantially, especially concerning its negative effects on society and morality (Mogilski, 2016).
The critique of Social Darwinism can be outlined in the following ways:
- Pseudo-scientific: Critics of Social Darwinism point out that it’s a flawed application of evolutionary principles to human society, something unsupported by scientific research.
- Unscientific claims: Social Darwinism argues people have strong genetic predispositions for wealth, status, and success, which can’t clearly be confirmed or factually identified through scientific testing.
- Anti-democratic: Social Darwinism does not believe in the importance of democracy and views hierarchy as natural and necessary to ensure progress, creating an artificial divide between those viewed as inherently superior versus inferior.
- Discriminatory: Because proponents suggest only certain traits & capabilities lead to social success, minorities, immigrants, or other marginalized people are held back and discriminated against. They don’t embody characteristics associated with societal flourishing based on this belief system’s restrictive criteria, and therefore, they never actually get a fair chance and equal opportunity.
- Immoral: Following Social Darwinist beliefs means constantly improving one’s competitive advantage instead of adopting a values-based approach rooted in fairness and justice. This approach can lead individuals astray from their moral responsibility towards others in their community, and fails to acknowledge our common humanity.
Social Darwinism has been a contentious and polarizing social theory. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s work, it postulates that natural selection, competition, and individualism dictate human society’s progress.
However, applying these principles to society has been criticized because the theory promotes poor value judgments and fails to acknowledge the role of discrimination. Instead, it focuses on flawed ideas of meritocracy and innate talent, which often comes from environmental fortune rather than genetics.
Moreover, critics have pointed out that Social Darwinism’s proponents utilize pseudo-scientific and unproven claims to justify discrimination against marginalized groups and resistance toward community-building.
Bannister, R. C. (1979). Social Darwinism: Science and myth in Anglo-American social thought. Temple University Press.
Bergman, Dr. J. (2014). The Darwin effect. New Leaf Publishing Group.
Hofstadter, R. (1969). Social Darwinism in American thought: 1860-1915. G. Braziller.
Leonard, T. C. (2009). Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 71(1), 37–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2007.11.004
McCormack, M., Anderson, E., Jamie, K., & David, M. (2021). Discovering sociology. Palgrave.
Mogilski, J. K. (2016). Social Darwinism. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_448-1
Nachtwey, P., & Walther, E. (2023). Survival of the fittest in the pandemic age: Introducing disease-related social Darwinism. PLOS ONE, 18(3), e0281072. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0281072
Todes, D. P. (1989). Darwin without Malthus. Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]