Social Darwinism Essay

This essay has a total of 1524 words and 7 pages.

Social Darwinism

In his most famous book On the Origin of Species, Darwin included four major arguments:
that new species appear; that these new species have evolved from older species; that the
evolution of species is the result of natural selection; and "that natural selection
depends upon variations and the maintenance of variation in spite of the tendency of
natural selection to eliminate 'unfit' variants" (403). After Charles Darwin published On
the Origin of Species in 1859, Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) took hold of Darwin's theory of
natural selection and applied it to society as well as evolution. He strayed from biology
to society. Spencer's ideas became known as Social Darwinism. The theory of natural
selection holds that only the most well-adapted individuals in a population will survive
and reproduce. These successful individuals pass on their adaptive advantage to their
offspring. Over many generations, the process ensures the adaptation of the entire
population to its environment. This holds true in the jungle, but it was Spencer who
coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" to describe the competition among human
individuals and groups. He argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of more
advanced individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors. Wealth and power were
seen as signs of inherent "fitness," while poverty was taken as evidence of natural
inferiority. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Social Darwinism was used to argue
for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the "unfit" poor. The theory was
also used to justify racist and imperialist policies in Europe and the United States.
Social Darwinist ideas fell from grace in the early 20th century; Herbert Spencer's
reputation as a philosopher and social theorist toppled with it. Spencer once wrote of

These are the traits that societies have in common with organic bodies. And these traits
in which they agree with organic bodies and disagree with all the things entirely
subordinate the minor distinctions: such distinctions being scarcely greater than those
that separate one half of the organic kingdom from the other. The principles of
organization are the same and the differences of application.(Spencer. P.206)

Having exhaustively spelled out the elements of the analogy between society and the
features of biological organisms, he concludes that there is more than an analogy between
them. Societies are organisms.

Beyond the exact definition of Darwinism, many people found personal applications to the
scientific doctrine. Not only was survival of the fittest an established truth in nature,
it was also more than evident in human society. Many people, after reading the benefits
associated with reproduction of the strong, began to place human activity under the
scrutiny of science. Those who found that the principles of Darwinism advocated their
personal goals in society took great lengths to spread the word of Social Darwinism. This
was a doctrine that called for free competition among humans and a setting in which the
dominating class was the major contributor of offspring. A further example would be:

We see that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious,
who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were best able to defend
themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes, which included the
largest number of men thus endowed, would increase in number and supplant other tribes.
(Crook, 23)

The primary supporters of Social Darwinism included the hard-nosed capitalists who fought
for laissez faire. These people wanted an economic market that was free from outside
regulation. They contended that the system itself, like nature, had inherent systems of
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