The term “social Darwinism” (henceforth simply SD) is a concept predating Charles Darwin. It refers to the application of evolutionary theory to explain the development of superior and inferior cultures and races within society.
SD is associated with the economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), the political theorist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and Darwin’s relative Francis Galton (1822–1911). Galton was inspired by The Origin of Species and developed the theory of eugenics, the idea that the quality of a society can be improved through encouraging the educated classes to have more children and inhibiting the reproductive capacities of the lower classes. Spencer was the first to use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and it only appears in later editions of Darwin’s work, On the Origin of Species. Professor Tina Beattie explains that Darwin’s name has been attached to a particularly negative social theory, something,
“which lent scientific respectability to racist ideologies and to different forms of social engineering, including the widespread popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, culminating in Nazism. Like many great thinkers, Darwin cannot be held responsible for the ways in which his ideas have been used to justify repugnant social practices, but his own relationship to social Darwinism remains ambiguous” (1).
It widely held that SD has been the driving force behind the ideas of imperialism and racism (2).
Some religious critics of evolutionary theory, particularly anti-evolutionary creationists, have tried to impugn the reputation of evolutionary science with the evil committed by those professing SD. According to Diane Paul in the The Cambridge Companion to Darwin,
“Like many foes of Darwinism, past and present, the American populist and creationist William Jennings Bryan thought a straight line ran from Darwin’s theory (‘a dogma of darkness and death’) to beliefs that it is right for the strong to crowd out the weak” (3).
However, as has been noted, evolutionary theory is simply a description of nature and cannot be viewed as a moral guide. Further, SD doesn’t have anything to say on what is good or evil.
1. Beattie, T. The New Atheists. p. 35 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Claeys, G. 2000. “The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism” in the Journal of the History of Ideas. p. 223-240.
3. Paul, D. in Gregory Radick’s The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (2009). p. 219–220.