Social Darwinism

Most people associate the phrase "Survival of the Fittest" with Darwin and the theory of evolution. Actually, Darwin didn't originate nor use that phrase. It was coined by one of the shapers of Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism is the general term which applies to several different ways in which people (not biologists) tried to apply a distorted and narrow interpretation of the concept of natural selection to human cultural systems. None of these political ideologies is actually any part of evolutionary theory.

One of the ways in which some people tried to apply a social version of natural selection formed part of the framework for the development of Nazism. This view embraced the assumption that the strong were superior, and thus ordained to prevail. Thus, if two countries were to make war on each other, the victor was biologically superior to the loser. It was therefore right and proper for that victor to subjugate or even eliminate the inferior opponent. This concept went hand in hand with the development of the notion of eugenics — not only could you prevail over the unfit by making war on them, but you could improve the breed by applying "enlightened" notions of selection and genetics.

A second way pseudo-evolutionary concepts were applied to human interaction was in the development of cut-throat capitalism in the United States. Here the ideology was that the cream naturally rose to the top; the successful made a lot of money simply because they were superior to the unsuccessful. Those who found themselves in poverty were poor because they were intrinsically inferior. This political philosophy resisted suggestions like universal education, welfare, minimum wage — in short, anything which interfered with the business of the "superior" ascending to the top of the heap and squashing the unfit beneath their expensive shoes.

Clearly, these political philosophies have nothing to do with a theory about the origin of biological diversity. The seeds of Social Darwinism were actually planted before the publication of The Origin of Species (though of course the name didn't originate until after). Darwin knew of — and rejected — the notion that his description of natural processes had any useful application in shaping human culture.

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Updated 25 September 2004