Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. The theory was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection. [1]

Beginning in 1887, social scientists were using the term "social Darwinism" to apply the Survival of the fittest theory to social situations. Under this theory, the wealthiest or most powerful in society must be biologically superior, and less "fit" persons should die.

Proponents of this particular form of ‘social Darwinism’, such as Herbert Spencer, taught that the powerful and wealthy were this way because they were biologically and evolutionally superior to the struggling masses. They believed that we should therefore do nothing to help improve the working and living conditions of the lesser evolved masses. Charities were clearly evil in helping sustain the lives of those who otherwise would and should die in the natural selection process. In other words, the weak were to do their duty and die while the fittest survived, which would one day lead to an evolutionarily super society and race. [2]

Soon many began to view racial struggles, and war itself, as a perfectly natural example of survival-of-the-fittest in the human race. The horrific wars of the 20th century, employing shockingly brutal tactics, were encouraged by a belief in survival-of-the-fittest among humans. While social Darwinism itself was applied to social and economic situations rather than military ones, it is easy how extreme versions of social Darwinism could justify physical struggles among races.

David Klinghoffer

John Toland’s Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography says this of Hitler’s Second Book published in 1928:

  • "An essential of Hitler’s conclusions in this book was the conviction drawn from Darwin that might makes right."[2]

In his biography, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, Ian Kershaw explains that

  • "crude social-Darwinism" gave Hitler "his entire political ‘world-view.’ "

Hitler, like many other Europeans and Americans of his day, saw Darwinism as offering a total picture of social reality. This view called "social Darwinism" is a logical extension of Darwinian evolutionary theory and was articulated by Darwin himself.

Social Darwinism Today

Most of Social Darwinism’s appeal left it in the early part of the 20th century. There were a number of reasons for this including:

  • Mixed economies became more widely accepted, and often-violent philosophies such as socialism, communism, and anarchism were rising in popularity. Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism and his cousin's Keynesian economics co-opted these movements, ending the previous laissez-faire economy. Social Darwinists often promoted laissez-faire economics as a means of "weeding out" the unwanted of society.
  • It was seen as contributing to German militarism and Nazism during World War II.
  • Humanity came to be seen as socially more aware than animals.
  • Revulsion at Hitler’s attempt to build a "master race," as well as the civil rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s, removed popular support for eugenics over time.

Finally an improved understanding of ethology removed the basis of this “dog-eat-dog” philosophy.

Consequently, with the fall of the fascist states Social Darwinism entered a period of disrepute and few societies, if any, now embrace its ideas that the weak should be disregarded; that there are "superior" and "inferior" races; or that war is an appropriate way to show a country's "virility".

American Liberals and Recent Behavior in Accordance with Social Darwinism

Liberals are more likely to believe in evolution. Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism."[3] Professor Brooks found that American liberals are significantly less charitable than American conservatives despite earning more.[4] American Conservatives also donate more time and donate more blood than American liberals. [5] The results are not entirely surprising given that liberals are more likely to believe in evolution and that Darwinists historically have often displayed behavior in accordance with Social Darwinism.


  1. Social Darwinism at Thinkquest, retrieved on 08/04/2008
  2. [1]

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