Sample Expository Essay on Social Darwinism

EssayExpository Essay
Jul 16, 2013

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged man’s perspective of the world and its origins. The theory describes how the natural world allows the fittest species to thrive while the less adapted tend to struggle. However, the readers of Darwin’s book began to establish the notion of Social Darwinism. This thought system attempts to explain that the strongest population will thrive in society while the weaker ones perish or die out, integrating Darwin’s natural theory into society. Social Darwinism became a tool to justify discriminatory behaviors which may have even contributed to mass genocide.

Definition of Darwinism

The theory of evolution is based on the process of natural selection. In this process, the species that is fittest to the environment will thrive and bear offsprings that are more adapted to the environment. For instance, in an environment where insects are abundant, insectivores will thrive while those that rely on plants and meat will starve. Furthermore, the animals that have better characteristics for hunting insects will thrive more than others. They will be able to produce offsprings that possess the characteristics, creating a new generation that is better suited to the environment. Herbert Spencer (1864) coined the quote “survival of the fittest” which Darwin then borrowed in the fifth edition of the Origin of Species. This quote simplifies the theory to its basic foundation and is an accurate approach to the idea.

In natural selection, the term “fittest” means different for every environment. A tiger may be the strongest in its natural habitat but will struggle to survive in a foreign environment, such as the North Atlantic. Darwin also highlighted that intelligence is a significant component of natural selection. He pointed out that more intelligent individuals will out-perform less intelligent animals, allowing them to survive and reproduce at a better rate (Darwin, 1859). This intelligence advantage explains  humanity’s evolutionary success and how they became the dominant species on Earth. This association between natural selection and human progress also contributed to the establishment of Social Darwinism.

Charles Darwin and Social Darwinism

In discussing the topic, it is important to note that Charles Darwin has no direct relationship with the creation of Social Darwinism. The term “Social Darwinism” comes from the application of “Darwinism”, which is synonymous with the theory of evolution, to society. According to Radick (2018), Darwinism is a science-supported theory while Social Darwinism is a pseudo-science attempting to apply a scientific theory. Charles Darwin did not coin the term “Social Darwinism” nor attempted to establish an idea that applies the theory of evolution to society.

However, Darwin had sentiments where he attempted to apply the theory of evolution to humans. These sentiments are mostly letters to Charles Lyell, an influential figure for Darwin, and are not facts nor part of the Origin of Species. In the letters, Charles Darwin stated that man may exterminate the less intellectual and moral races or the savage races (cited in Radick, 2018). The letters indicate that Darwin perceived intelligence and morality as significant characteristics for the survival of man. The races with less intelligence and morality can be a detriment to humanity, thus resulting in their extermination.

Darwin also had another sentiment regarding the survival of the weak in society. Factors like medicine and charity allow the weak to gain an advantage over the strong (Radick, 2018). The medicine allows humans with birth defects, allergies, serious illnesses, and others to survive environments that they would otherwise struggle in. Charity allows the lower classes or those who cannot work to receive help, giving them a chance to thrive despite their situations. This can even lead the weak to out-reproduce the strong which leads to the inverse of natural selection. This point, as well as the previous one, indicates that Darwin’s attempt to apply evolution to society is not the foundation of Social Darwinism but mere observative speculation of society.

Interpretations of Social Darwinism

The history of Social Darwinism began when Darwin published On the Origins of Species in 1859. Various writers, philosophers, scientists, sociologists, and other thinkers read the book and began to interpret the theory in their own ways. Enrico Ferri, a Marxist and Darwinian criminologist, stated that the class struggle replaces the natural struggles for survival; Herbert Spencer established the idea that societies are similar to organisms which would become more complex over time. He associated natural selection with the adaptation of individuals to a changing society (cited in Radick, 2018). These ideas are direct applications of Darwinism to society in which the most adaptable species or race will survive. However, the ideas also promoted class systems where the lower class are the weak while the higher classes are the strong.

Other thinkers, such as the German scientist Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel and German anthropologist Otto Georg Ammon, interpreted Darwinism through a militaristic scope promoting war and violent domination to define the “fittest” (Badertscher, 2020). They argued that war is the only measure of strength and that the Germans were superior for their prowess in militaristic domination. Alternatively, there were anti-war Social Darwinists who opposed the militaristic view of the Germans. These pacifist Social Darwinists argued that ideas and market competition are the basis for survival in society (Baderstscher, 2020). They suggest that social struggles do not come from violence but issues regarding ideologies and the market. This view focuses more on the struggle for ideas and industrialization which were prevalent during the 19th century.

Social Darwinism and Nazism

One of the most detrimental effects of Social Darwinism is its possible contribution to the Nazi ideology. While most associations between Social Darwinism and Nazism are from speculative claims, there are significant similarities between the two. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925), he mentioned that since nature does not want the weak to mate with the strong, the inferior races should also not intermingle with the superior ones (cited in Radick, 2019). The statement is a direct reference to natural selection while also stating that the Germans were a superior race.  Hitler utilized this idea to categorize the enemies of the Nazi Party , such as Jews, Bolsheviks, black people, and gays, as inferior races.

With this, many claimed that Social Darwinism was a significant contributor to the Nazi death camps. Since Social Darwinism stated that the strong will survive and the weak will die out, some interpreted the death camps as a method to exterminate the inferior races. However, Radick (2019) argued that the association between Darwinism and the Nazi death camps is an attack on the theory of evolution. Since Darwin’s theory sparked social and political arguments regarding human origins, it is plausible that the opposition aimed to attack its authenticity and status. Furthermore, Radick (2019) also argued that Hitler may not have understood Darwinism to the full extent, making the association invalid. Still, the passage from Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925) and the German’s interpretation of Social Darwinism may indicate a minor relationship between Social Darwinism and Nazism.

Social Darwinism and Eugenics

While Social Darwinism and Nazism may or may not have a relationship, eugenics is a field that directly comes from Social Darwinism. Eugenics is the practice of selective human breeding to produce high-quality humans. Today, the field of human genetic engineering has replaced the term eugenics. Francis Galton (1883) coined the term eugenics, explaining that selective human breeding can ensure the growth and survival of the “best” humans while the “worst” die out. (cited in Kantrowitz, 2022). This idea is purely Social Darwinist as it applied natural selection directly to society. Additionally, Social Darwinists established a Eugenics Record Office which handled the segregation and effective reproduction of the American population (Stillwell, 2012, cited in Kantrowitz, 2022). This promoted discriminatory practices that categorized the population based on their biological attributes.

The discriminatory practices that came from the origins of eugenics also made way for ableism. Social Darwinism implied that genetically weak individuals will die. According to Kantrowitz, 2022), Social Darwinism considered individuals with genetic disorders, epilepsy, schizophrenia, blindness, and other disability as inferior to the healthy ones. This was not only present in the West but was also part of the Nazi ideology. The Nazis believed that the Aryan race and their descendants are the superior race and the rest are inferior. Disabled individuals were part of the inferior races, making their lives more difficult under Nazism and Social Darwinism. 

Social Darwinism and the Class System

Furthermore, Social Darwinism led to the promotion of the class system and ableism. As mentioned earlier, Social Darwinism categorized the higher classes as the “strong” while the lower class as the “weak”. This idea allowed the higher classes to justify their wealth and actions despite the poor conditions of the lower classes (Kantrowitz, 2022). They did not have to feel guilty about their wealth and comfortable life since Social Darwinism states that they are the “strong” species. The idea suggests that they are supposed to survive while the lower class or the “weak” are supposed to die out.

Conclusion

Despite Darwinism’s exclusive application to the natural process, various thinkers interpreted the idea and applied it to human society. Social Darwinism promoted the idea of the “strong” and “weak” races, justifying discriminatory behaviors against the lower classes, disabled, less intelligent, and victims of Nazism. Social Darwinism showcases how individuals interpret ideas differently which can lead to the creation of new ideologies which can have detrimental effects. It also shows that certain natural laws are morally inapplicable to society since they can promote practices that others would deem immoral and unjust.

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References

Badertscher, K. (2020). Social Darwinism. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. (Daniel, U., Gatrell, P., Janz, O., Jones, H., Keene, J., Kramer, A., and Nasson, B., Ed). Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. Available at DOI: 10.15463/ie1418.11484. Accessed June 16, 2022.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Murray.

Kantrowitz, J. (2022). The Abuse of Darwinism (and Social Darwinism) for the Purposes of Discrimination. Honors Student Research. Available at https://research.library.kutztown.edu/honorspapers/10/. Accessed June 16, 2022.

Spencer, H. (1864). The Principles of Biology. London: William and Norgate.

Radick, G. (2019). Darwinism and Social Darwinism. The Cambridge History of Modern European Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. Available at https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/136023/2/FINAL%20Shorter%20Darwinism%20%2526%20Social%20Darwinism%201117.pdf. Accessed June 16, 2022

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