The Impact of Social Darwinism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Scientific findings usually have little bearing on society but Darwinism had political, social, and cultural consequences. The publishing of The Origin of Species had profound implications, some of which would be unacceptable to Darwin himself. Read on to learn more about how Social Darwinism was used to justify eugenics, racism, and the holocaust.

Image showing Human evolution with the final figure being Charles Darwin.
Science of Evolution by Charles Darwin. Darwinism is the theory of evolution of species by natural selection.(Image: Nasky/Shutterstock)

Social Darwinism

Several researchers in other parts of the world had begun studies on similar lines to that of Darwinism. In Germany, Father Gregor Mendel laid the foundation for genetics. He researched on hybrids in pea plants and discovered the basic principles of inheritance. In the 1920s, experts in population genetics merged the ambiguous work of Mendel with Darwinian insights. The next important step towards understanding evolution was the discovery of the double helix DNA model in 1953 by James D. Watson and Francis Crick.

While genetics and the discovery of DNA were the positive impacts of Darwinism, there were other implications as well. Some sociologists took up Darwin’s message and adopted them to suit their own ideas of evolution of humans and human society. This was called Social Darwinism, the idea of which in its obscure form would have horrified Darwin himself. These social thinkers misconstrued Darwin’s theory of evolution and used it to justify their social, political, and economic perspectives. They believed that the rich and powerful in the society were superior as they were biologically the best. They feared the flipside of evolution might cause degeneracy and social decline, leading to the threat of extinction.

Learn more about Darwin and the Origin of Species.

Eugenics in the Age of Social Darwinism

Black and white photograph of Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton.
Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin who coined the term ‘eugenics’. (Image: Scanned from Karl Pearson’s The Life, Letters, and Labors of Francis Galton/Public domain)

With Social Darwinism gaining popularity, inequality gained a strong foothold in the society driven by concepts of eugenics and racism. Around the 1900s, sizable populations around the world believed that the quality of human race should be improved by privileging the best human specimens (including themselves). Proponents of this idea thought the weak or the undesirable in the society should be eliminated. This concept was propagated by none other than Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’, meaning good or true birth.

Galton focused on encouraging social policies to build a better human race and discouraging the reproduction of those judged unfit. Negative eugenics gained acceptance in counties such as the United States and Germany. More than 100,000 Americans were forcefully sterilized in hospitals, institutions, and prisons. Germany, on the other hand, was determined to build a new and pure racial state with the practice of eugenics.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Social Darwinism in Nazi Germany

In the 1930s, the Nazis started infusing the idea of racism and eugenic thinking in order to promote their vicious campaign of a new and pure racial state to improve the genetic repertoire of the human race. This genocidal policy of the Nazi government was one of the worst instances of Social Darwinism.

Photograph of Jews after arrival at Auschwitz.
Jews at the selection camp at Auschwitz, May 1944, part of the genocidal policy of the Nazi government; one of the worst instances of Social Darwinism. (Image: Anonymous photographer from the Auschwitz Erkennungsdienst. Several sources believe the photographer to have been SS officers Ernst Hoffmann or Bernhard Walter, who ran the Erkennungsdienst./Public domain)

Once they gained power, the Nazi regime carried out forced sterilization of nearly half a million Germans. They went on to kill about 200,000 Germans by euthanasia (meaning the ‘good death’) – first children and then adults. This ideological state sponsored genocide of millions of Jews, the Holocaust was a ferocious determined campaign to eliminate the races they considered inferior.

When Jews disembarked from crowded trains at the death camp of Auschwitz, the doctors directed prisoners to be divided into two groups, one group was sent to the gas chambers to be killed immediately while the other group was chosen for labor. Ultimately, millions of humans were killed under the pretext of scientific racism. Though Darwin cannot be blamed for the action of Nazis, this is a frightening example of how ideas can be hijacked to further terrible agendas.

Learn more about what Darwin knew and why it still matters.

Anxieties Related to Genetic Manipulation

Cloning and genetically modified food in today’s world of genetic manipulation and its implication on evolution are ongoing concerns. Though sequencing of human genome has paved the way for early diagnosis and preventive care, anxieties on the effect of human intervention remain.

Many of these concerns have been captured by writers of science fiction by the end of 19th century. For instance, in the timeless novel by H.G.Wells, titled The Time Machine, an inventor from the Victorian age crafts a vehicle that can rocket him to the year 802,701 in the future. He lands in an ideal world where he discovers that human race has been split by evolution into two new species: the beautiful, frivolous, peaceful Eloi who live and play in the sunlight and the cannibalistic Morlocks, a technological working class, living in darkness underground, aggressive and eating their cousin species. The protagonist escapes this world and travels thirty million years into the future, to find the human race extinct and the world dying.

An immensely creative H.G. Wells was the pioneer of science fiction and often a prophet of the future. Much of his ideas were the outcome of his training under Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog. The book is a remarkable thought experiment on the long paths of evolution. It depicts the visionary in Wells who is not sure of the benefits of progress and where science would take the human race next. This is so true in today’s times and very much the turning point that we are still working on.

Common Questions about the Impact of Social Darwinism

Q: What distinguishes Darwinism from Social Darwinism?

Darwinism is the theory of evolution of species by natural selection developed by Charles Darwin. Social Darwinism had nothing to do with Darwin and was a misconstrued idea that was applied to humans to further certain vicious sociocultural and political agendas.

Q: How was the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ used by the Social Darwinists?

Social Darwinists believed that some people were inherently better than others. They used the concept to endorse their views of racism, eugenics and social inequality for more than a century.

Q: Was the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ coined by Darwin?

No, the term ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin borrowed this phrase and also acknowledged Spencer in his Origin of Species.

Q: How did the imperialist society of the world use Social Darwinism as a tool to justify their means?

Internationally, the age of imperialism was a struggle for survival between nations, empires and races. In China, some young reformers used Social Darwinism to strengthen the state, while in other imperialist societies; racism was justified using Social Darwinism as the scientific basis for hatred.

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