What is social Darwinism?

He Social Darwinism Is the name given to various theories that emerged from England, Europe and the United States in the 1870s, which attempts to apply biological concepts to society and politics.

His main ideas are based on the theory of evolution of Charles Darwin and his applications are sought in human institutions. It is a term that arose in 1880. Its basic idea is the survival of the most appropriate in relation to social evolution.

What is social Darwinism?

Those who follow this thought consider that it is the natural application of biological bases to society.

In social Darwinism, it deals with exactly the same theory of natural selection as Charles Darwin, but applied to individuals, groups, and races. This thought became very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where the weakest populations were declining and their culture therefore also began to disappear.

On the other hand during the same years, strong groups began to grow in power and their cultural influence to be introduced into the weaker groups. In this way, society would also exist the survival of the strongest.

It was the British philosopher Herbert Spencer who began with the social interpretations of Darwin's theory and applied them in the political sphere, achieving wide diffusion in academic circles and turning these ideas into an influence especially for imperialist countries during that historical epoch.

The major detractors of this theory, such as the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, argue that it was because of these ideas that such debatable facts as genocide and social injustice were justified, since with this argument it is considered an alleged innate inferiority of races and ethnic groups.

Precisely it was the historical moment that began to give validity to that this scientific theory could be applied in the social thing. At the end of the nineteenth century both technology, the economy and the governments of the European white race began to advance in development much more than other cultures. This led to the idea that the European white race had a certain advantage by"natural selection"over other ethnicities, and therefore made it the most apt to survive, to obtain the resources and to rule over other groups.

This apparent advantage was also found in military and economic development, and even social welfare programs that benefited the poorest and most dispossessed sectors were considered to be against natural laws.

Social Darwinism was ultimately the scientific argument that justified the Holocaust in Hitler's Germany, where the slaughter of Jews was explained as a cleansing of a race with inferior genetics. There are many evolutionary points in Hittler's speeches for his mission to eliminate a complete ethnic group.

It is the same idea found in the literature and the sayings of many dictators and criminals worldwide. This shows that the theory of social Darwinism is a dangerous philosophy that can not be applied to human social development.

Scientists and evolutionists who are followers of Darwin's theories of evolution insist that they can only be applied in nature, where natural selection is a constant. Although there is clearly a parallel between this gaze, where only the strong survive over the weakest; In the case of social Darwinism it is considered that those who do not possess the economic means, physical strength or technological development, are condemned to extinction.

This is why Charles Darwin never extended his theory of evolution to any other level - economic or social - other than nature. In this way, the philosophy of Herbert Spencer is based on nothing more than the premises of Darwin's theory.

Theory of social selection

In both theories, that of evolutionary Darwinism and social Darwinism, one sees strongly individualistic ideas. The Lamarckian evolutionary ideas published by Herbert Spencer show a new conception of moral values.

Spencer validated liberal capitalism or"laissez-faire,"a French word that indicates that the state is minimal and does not intervene in the economic system, led by private and individual companies, through free competition in the market. This would lead to more efficient allocation of resources. All social and welfare states oppose this premise, with regulations and interventions.

In these ideas, personal improvement must be stimulated, in the way of being better adapted to survival in the midst of the"natural conflict"between social groups and their ability to remain alive in the same society.

Spencer's ideas are published in"The Social Organism"(1860), where he compares society to a living organism and explains that just as biological organisms must evolve through natural selection, society evolves and Are configured through analogous processes.

His ideas are very similar to the works of Lamarck and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Lamarck was the first to propose evolutionary ideas even before Charles Darwin. In its postulate, it indicates that organisms depend on their ability to adapt to the environment and successive changes to which they are subjected which favors or stops their evolution.

The approaches of social Darwinism also have much to do with the work of Thomas Malthus, who concluded that the overpopulation of the planet would end in a massive catastrophe and extinction of much of the human race by hunger, which is known as the "Malthusian catastrophe". It also indicated that humans, especially males, are naturally competitive and require such power struggles to survive in the future.

In this scenario, the poor and the dispossessed should not be helped, but should naturally be able to survive by their means. In the midst of this thought, ethnic groups that were not European were considered"primitive"and were in an inferior stage of evolution, very far from the European ideal that corresponded to the maximum evolution.

Despite this, one of the branches of social Darwinism considered that a difference should be made between people who are in vulnerable situations due to poor working conditions and poor salaries, than those who fail to overcome by inferiority, weakness or simply laziness .

Social Darwinism finally corresponded to an attempt to apply a theory focused on nature, on aspects of human society without being able to find a coherent relationship. Darwin's theory of evolution is based on observations of freely found species in nature. It is a scientific theory that can only be applied to its object of observation.

Charles Darwin himself was an opponent of oppression and social injustice. He considered that"social instincts"such as sympathy and feelings of morality had also evolved through natural selection, strengthening the societies in which these feelings had settled.

These social instincts allow animals to feel at ease in a society with their peers, to have a degree of empathy Towards them and to be able to realize activities for the service of them. This indicates a higher level of consciousness and a moral sense that are as much or more important than the intellectual sense developed in men.

Social Darwinism in the World

Social Darwinism was gaining more adherents throughout the world, especially the imperialist countries with sustained growth and development in the early twentieth century. Some of them interpreted the ideas of social Darwinism as a misunderstood nationalism, taking the view that there should be a stronger human group than the others, with a clearly racist and discriminatory style.

That is why his ideology served as the foundation of fascist movements like Nazism. The theory was modified by not being applied to the most adequate to survive or an individualistic style of life, but aimed at a race type that was considered superior and states that sought to improve their citizens through eugenics.

These ideas not only strongly influenced politics, but also the economy. The systems began to favor a policy of free market, with low taxes, and free competition, over welfare states and public companies.


Germany is probably the example where we most clearly find traits of social Darwinism. This theory gained great popularity near the year 1860 and gave the thought of a progressive change and an evolution of the society as a whole.

In Germany, it was Ernst Haeckel who propagated the theory of social Darwinism as part of natural history that was the basis of a Weltanschaung, a modern view of a world based purely on scientific reasoning.

After this, this ideology escalated into radical and racist postulates culminating in Nazism and its approach to the higher race, with the need to eliminate and extinguish other lower ethnic groups that became a threat to natural resources and evolution Of the"Aryan race".


In the United States became popular the figure of Herbert Spencer, especially with the postulate that as the human being was achieving more development, the future would be better.

Other writers, such as William Graham Summer, proposed new applications to the thoughts of social Darwinism, such as what he mentions in his free"What social classes owe". Here it was explained that one social class owes absolutely nothing to another, therefore it is not necessary to provide assistance, resources or care to the poorest classes, since this would only lead to the country being weakened more and more by the weak And lower that would continue to grow in number. This would eventually lead to a collapse.

To avoid this, the best tool was free capitalism, with the existence of individual entrepreneurs, without being limited by taxes or philanthropic works. In the United States, however, entrepreneurs continued to contribute to charitable causes such as the construction of schools, hospitals, schools, parks, and donations to art and institutes, and so the ideas of social Darwinism failed to thrive.


In China, social Darwinism was promoted by the Chinese sociologist Pan Guangdan around the 1920s, where it was considered that a society that was on its way to evolution must have the ability to readapt to new conditions and get rid of the elements that are They become useless in this permanent process of change and adaptation.


Also in the 1920s Japan was influenced by the ideas of social Darwinism in the political, social movements and public health. He arrived in Japan through Ernst Haeckel - as in the United States - and the work of Francis Galton. In this country these ideas justified colonialism and eugenics, that is, the selective method of stronger, healthier and intelligent humans.

Last conclusions

According to Darwin's theory of evolution, nature is a system where the law that prevails is to survive or die. But it does not explain the foundations of our human society, where values ​​such as compassion, morality and charity are fundamental bases for a harmonious coexistence and a constructive society, as well as helping those who need it.

Darwin himself defined these feelings as"social instincts,"which are basic to the survival of a strong society that manages to remain united and to provide support and well-being to all its members.

Although many think that these values ​​have not been sustained in our society, they are the structure that allows opportunities for improvement and subsistence are available to all individuals.

Charles Darwin may not have been the creator of social Darwinism, but his theory of evolution will continue to generate new doubts and questions in our society.


  1. Darwin, Charles (1859). "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life"(1st Ed.). London: John Murray.
  2. Darwin, Charles (1882). "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex"(2nd ed.). London: John Murray.
  3. Fisher, Joseph (1877). "The History of Landholding in Ireland". London: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: 249-50.
  4. Fiske, John. Darwinism and Other Essays (1900).
  5. Hawkins, Mike (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American Thought 1860-1945: Nature and Model and Nature as Threat. London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57434-X.
  6. Hodge, Jonathan and Gregory Radick. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (2003).
  7. Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (December 2004). "Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term"(PDF). Vol. 17 No. 4. Journal of Historical Sociology: 428-63. ISSN 0952-1909. Retrieved 2010-02-17. Social Darwinism, the almost everyone knows, is a Bad Thing.

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