During the late 19th century, a growing number of theories emerged in Britain and the United States that applied Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of natural selection to societal phenomena. This later became known as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists believed that many societal problems, such as poverty and criminality could be explained by biology. In other words, these traits were inherited. The term “social Darwinism” originated in the 19th century and, as historian Peter Bowler suggests, “was used from the start in a pejorative context. To call someone a social Darwinist was to insult them by implying that they had abandoned all moral standards to make success the only criterion for what is good” (Bowler, 2003, 299). The term was popularized in the 1950s by historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) in his work Social Darwinism in American Thought.
“The survival of the fittest” The term Social Darwinism is often associated with Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English biologist, who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest” after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species. Darwin’s theory of natural selection stated that individuals with favourable variation that allows them to adapt to the demands of the environment will survive and reproduce. During the late 19th and early 20th century, this idea was interpreted in a broad sense and was often misapplied by social theorists to explain the development of society and its differences. For some, it represented the competition between members of the same species, between “superior” and “inferior” nations, and between different economic systems. Many social Darwinists misapplied Darwin’s notion of struggle for existence to justify various social policies. For Spencer, laissez- faire individualism was the driving force of social progress. Many adopted Spencer’s ideas and argued that humanitarian programs protected those who would eventually die off from disease or starvation. By receiving assistance, they survived and reproduced. Many upper-middle class Britons and Americans were alarmed by these developments and argued that the high birthrate among the paupers threatened the future of the race. In other words, the humanitarian measures only stalled the process of natural selection. There has been an ongoing debate about Spencer and social Darwinism amongst historians. For Hofstadter and his supporters, Spencer’s ideas promoted a harsh philosophy of social progress that eventually became influential in the United States. Spencer believed that assisting the “unfit” made them even more dependent. Other historians such as Peter Bowler and Robert C. Bannister, have challenged Hofstadter’s interpretation. Bowler suggests that while Spencer accepted natural selection, he was a biological Lamarckian, who thought that the struggle for existence would encourage individuals to better themselves, and thus pass these acquired characteristics to their offspring (Bowler 2003, 301).
Social Darwinism and Eugenics In many ways, the ideology of social Darwinism laid the foundation for the eugenics movement. While social Darwinists, misapplied the idea of natural selection against the undeserving poor, Francis Galton (1822-1911) added heredity to the argument by suggesting that it was a waste of taxpayer money to fund social programs for the biologically inferior, who were nothing but a burden to society. Both social Darwinists and eugenicists proposed eugenic solutions in dealing with the “unfit” and the “unworthy”. Both called for involuntary sexual sterilization and segregation of the mentally ill, the feebleminded, the poor, immigrants, etc. Unlike social Darwinists some eugenicists supported the establishment of programs that would encourage a healthy lifestyle among the “fit”. For instance, the Race Betterment Foundation in the United States promoted positive eugenic programs (such as regular health check-ups) to ensure well-being and longer life of those with favourable traits.
Conclusion Social Darwinists tried to explain inequality between individuals and groups by misapplying Darwinian principles. Thus, those who were successful were seen as superior to those who were not. This type of thinking helped set the stage for the eugenics movement to emerge. Eugenicists believed that individuals with beneficial traits (white, upper middle class) should be encouraged to have large families, while the reproduction among the “unfit” should be restricted. During the early decades of the twentieth century, this led to the introduction and implementation of compulsory sterilization laws in many countries, including Canada and the United States
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