Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1860, many political theorists and opportunistic politicians applied his findings to human society. In the 20th century, these ideas were put into practice — and it nearly destroyed us. Here’s why Social Darwinism was one of the worst ideas ever.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was unlike any that had preceded it, the shockwaves of which are still being felt today. Even Copernicus’s terribly upsetting notion — that the Earth revolves around the Sun — only mildly perturbed our sense of the universe and our place within it. The same could be said about Newton’s clockwork physics and Einstein’s relativistic interpretation of the cosmos. These axiomatic shifts certainly changed the way Western society looked at itself, but not to the degree that Darwinian natural selection did.
Indeed, Darwin’s dangerous idea penetrated deeply into a hypersensitive realm that had stubbornly languished beyond human understanding: The origin of life.
Darwin’s theory served not merely as an explainer for life on Earth — it was also a veritable God killer. What’s more, it “reduced” humanity to the level of animals, forever disrupting the Judeo-Christian notion that humanity existed in an exalted place between God and the natural world. Humanity, it was suddenly realized, was not privy to the whims of God, but rather to the laws of nature. Moreover, the human species wasn’t static.
For the 19th Century intelligentsia, this further reinforced burgeoning notions of materialism, the sense of social change and progress, and the inexorable struggle for survival. Feeding off earlier notions posited by the likes of Thomas Hobbes (who argued that the original state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short), Thomas Malthus (whose theories on human population growth served as a kind of proto-sociobiology) Auguste Comte (a positivist), and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (who presented an earlier, but inaccurate, theory of evolution), many thinkers began to apply Darwinian notions to human individuals, society, and races. In the absence of God, went the argument, humanity needed to act to ensure its fitness and ongoing survival. Darwin’s thesis seemed to provide a blueprint on how this could be done.
And thus began the transference of Darwinian theories from animal species to social groups and races — a development that would lead to catastrophic results.
As a term, “Social Darwinism” was used sparingly in the 19th Century; it was only popularized in the United States in 1944 by historian Richard Hofstadter. And indeed, it’s a term that casts a wide net, encompassing several different areas as it pertains to the extension of Darwinism to the social realm.
Indeed, its wide interpretation led thinkers to a number of different conclusions, including the reinforcement of individualism and minimalist government, theories about racial and societal “hygiene” and eugenics, notions of racial superiority and the justified use of force, and the idea that the human species could be moulded by the state.
Part of the problem is that Darwin’s theory arrived at a dangerous time — a time when Western cultural and scientific sensibilities were not entirely ready for it; it was an idea ahead of its time, and by consequence, was misappropriated to realms into which it didn’t belong. The acceptance of Social Darwinism was not only a symptom of an emerging and overly enthusiastic scientism, but also the result of poorly developed conceptions surrounding race, ethnicity, and biological diversity. It appeared during a time of deeply embedded and unquestioned racism, where the conditions of under-developed nations and poverty-stricken visible minorities were attributed to racial inferiority.
It was also driven by a fallacy that exists to this very day, namely the Naturalistic Fallacy. Social Darwinism was often justified on account of evolution being a “natural” process — a very dangerous proposition, to be sure.
During the latter half of the 19th century, Darwin’s biological ideas began to influence not just political theorists, but politicians as well. His theory — which described the process of variation and selection, the struggle for existence, and the need for adaptation and improvement — were applied to human society, primarily to reinforce and rationalize aspects of competition and struggle. It was also used to justify political control by a minority (e.g. imperialism and colonialism) and the capitalistic system itself. What’s more, because Darwinism was (and still is) often misunderstood to imply an evolutionary trajectory, evolution was also equated with social progress.
The chief advocates of Social Darwinism during the 19th century included Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Interestingly, Spencer’s highly influential work, Progress: Its Law and Cause, was released three years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, while his First Principles was printed in 1860. So while Spencer was not immediately influenced by Charles Darwin, the subsequent popularization and legitimization of his ideas were most certainly a direct consequence.
Both Spencer and Sumner asserted the value of the struggle for life which resulted in improvement, a natural consequence of the “survival of the fittest” doctrine. This early form of Social Darwinism had a distinctive laissez-faire character to it, whose supporters advocated for an individualist order of society.
Herbert Spencer in particular was an ardent individualist. He firmly believed that the functions of the state should be limited to protection, and that no restrictions should be placed on commerce, and no provision made for social welfare or education. This individualism was a clear consequence of his application of evolutionary biology to social relationships.
All existence, Spencer argued, grew through a series of transformations from the simple to the complex by successive variations. He saw civilization as an ongoing process in which humans adjusted to an increasingly complex world. This evolutionary process, in the absence of interference, led inevitably to social improvement — an idea that now resonates with modern libertarians.
He also saw the poor as being biologically “unfit.” Public efforts to help them, be it through legislation, charity, and social reconstruction, were undesirable because it might allow them to mature and pass on their weakness. He suggested that the whole thrust of nature was to get rid of the inefficient in order to make room for the superior. The way he looked at it, if they weren’t fit enough to live, they would die — and it was probably for the better.
Other evils, no less serious, are entailed by legislative actions and by actions of individuals, single and combined, which overlook or disregard a kindred biological truth. Beside an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is physically lowered by the artificial preservation of its feeblest members, there is an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is lowered morally and intellectually, by the artificial preservation of those who are least able to take care of themselves.”
Similarly, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician, argued in 1876 that born criminals were essentially proto-humans — a throw-back in evolution. Similar sentiments were also used to justify slavery in the United States.
These ideas would go on to influence the eugenics movement, an early 20th century initiative designed to prevent those deemed too unworthy to pass their deleterious genes to the next generation, lest the overall health of human society be compromised.
Additionally, the burgeoning Social Darwinism of the time would go on to influence such politicians as Otto von Bismarck, Joseph Chamberlain, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was often used in the political arena to justify eugenic or racial differences, imperialist expansion, colonialism, and war. These politicians, whether they did so opportunistically or sincerely, used these sentiments to stress competitive relationships and struggles between nations and groups in order to ensure the survival of the physically and mentally worthiest people.
And to further the cause of their nation.
Without question, the most infamous application of Social Darwinism was in Nazi Germany. By the early 20th century, the pseudoscientific generalities of Social Darwinism remained popular in Europe — and it spoke to those advocating for racial purity.
Indeed, Social Darwinism served to heighten race consciousness to a greater degree; anti-semitism during this time was justified on biological grounds.
Historian Alan Cassels writes:
Above above all, German Volkish cultists excoriated Jews as “a pestilence and a cholera” which threatened to pollute the race. To accomplish this corruption, Jewish males were supposed to lust perpetually after Aryan women. A logical recommendation to be drawn from this view was the destruction of German Jewry in order to preserve the purity of the German race — a proposal made by some fanatics before 1914 and ultimately implemented by the Nazis.
Using such thinking, Jews could then be persecuted not for their actions or beliefs, but simply for who they were.
Adolf Hitler further articulated these beliefs in the first volume of Mein Kampf. He essentially saw the world as one gigantic struggle among the races — a struggle that would ultimately be won by the strongest.
And therein lay one of the most nefarious ideas to take root in modern politics — the notion that force could always be justified in this context, with no room for ethics, law, or humanitarian scruples. The acceptance of Social Darwinism by the Nazis goes a long way in explaining the intense brutality meted out during the Second World War. It not only motivated them to unite the Teutonic peoples, but to decimate races altogether, and to claim other lands as the conquerors of more primitive races — including the Slavs who Hitler described as being subhuman, a race suitable for both colonization and, eventually, annihilation (Hitler’s Hunger Plan, which was never put into practice on account of stubborn Soviet resistance, called for the deliberate starvation of tens of millions of Slavs in preparation for the colonization of Ukraine and parts of Russia).
So severe, was Naziism, that its political opponents deemed it an existential risk. It had to be wiped out lest its tentacles spread to all corners of the Earth, spawning a culture-crushing and science-stifling Dark Age. The resulting war — the first to feature apocalyptic weapons — was the greatest human-instigated disaster to befall our civilization.
But fascists weren’t the only totalitarians to be influenced by Darwin. The misapplication of biology to politics was also committed by the communists. Karl Marx read On the Origin of Species and absolutely loved it. Not only did it speak to his materialist sensibilities, it also affirmed his theory of class struggle — an agenda that was put into full force by Joseph Stalin during the Great Terror period, a time when millions of people were murdered by the Soviet apparatus as a means of self-colonization.
Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle...Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.
What’s more, it also affirmed in Marx’s mind that humanity is a work in progress. It supported his conception of the utopian New Man — the next iteration of the human species. But rather than have it come about through the haphazard processes of natural selection, it could be enforced through state imposition.
Sadly, Darwin never intended for this to happen. For the most part, he limited the theory to the biological realm (though he did delve into speculative sociology in his later work, The Descent of Man).
But like so many things in life, it takes only a few people to ruin it for everybody else. To this day, Darwinism has its detractors, including Creationists who wrongly blame Darwin and his theory for the travesties committed last century. Quite obviously, equating natural selection — a remarkably potent theory that’s accepted wholeheartedly by any serious biologist — with the ills of Social Darwinism is a tragic mistake. The science is still science, while Social Darwinism, with its gratuitous generalizations and misreadings of how natural selection works (e.g. it completely fails to account for group selection theories and the rise of such characteristics as empathy) will forever remain in the realm of pseudoscience.
What’s more, the application of Darwinian processes to human morality is about as facile an exercise as it gets. As a moral maxim, “survival of the fittest” is as unenlightened as it gets. If anything, the general tendency of human society is remove itself as far away from possible to this process. If anything, Social Darwinism is anathema to civilized society.
And the fact that it nearly destroyed us should serve as a potent lesson.
[Other sources: Alan Cassels: Fascism; Michael Curtis: The Great Political Theories]