Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a modern name given to various theories of society that emerged in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Western Europe in the 1870s, and which are claimed to have applied biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. Social Darwinists generally argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. Different social Darwinists have different views about which groups of people are the strong and the weak, and they also hold different opinions about the precise mechanism that should be used to promote strength and punish weakness. Many such views stress competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism, while others motivated ideas of eugenics, racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism, and struggle between national or racial groups.

The term social Darwinism gained widespread currency when used after 1944 by opponents of these earlier concepts. Today, because of the negative connotations of the theory of social Darwinism, especially after the atrocities of the Second World War, few people would describe themselves as social Darwinists and the term is generally seen as pejorative.

Creationists have often maintained that social Darwinism—leading to policies designed to make the weak perish—is a logical consequence of "Darwinism" (the theory of natural selection in biology). Biologists and historians have stated that this is a fallacy of appeal to nature, since the theory of natural selection is merely intended as a description of a biological phenomenon and should not be taken to imply that this phenomenon is good or that it ought to be used as a moral guide in human society. Social Darwinism owed more to Herbert Spencer's ideas, together with genetics and a Protestant Nonconformist tradition with roots in Hobbes and Malthus, than to Charles Darwin's research. While most scholars recognize some historical links between the popularisation of Darwin's theory and forms of social Darwinism, they also maintain that social Darwinism is not a necessary consequence of the principles of biological evolution.

Scholars debate the extent to which the various social Darwinist ideologies reflect Charles Darwin's own views on human social and economic issues. His writings have passages that can be interpreted as opposing aggressive individualism, while other passages appear to promote it. Some scholars argue that Darwin's view gradually changed and came to incorporate views from the leading social interpreters of his theory such as Spencer, but Spencer's Lamarckian evolutionary ideas about society were published before Darwin first published his theory, and both promoted their own conceptions of moral values. Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited.

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