top of page

Social Darwinism


Social Darwinism refers to several ideas and societal practises that attempt to apply biological notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics, and politics, and which were predominantly developed by researchers in Western Europe and North America in the 1870s. Natural selection refers to how plants and animals change over time in nature as new species emerge from random mutations at the moment of reproduction and compete with other plants and animals for food, escape being killed, and produce children. According to the notion, which was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the weak were decreased and their cultures were circumscribed, while the strong expanded in power and cultural influence over the weak. Social Darwinists believed that human life in society was a fight for survival governed by "survival of the fittest," a concept used by the British philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer.

According to Spencer, society exists only for the benefit of the individual and arises in reaction to the social and natural environment. Because the consequences of tampering with the natural social order cannot be foreseen, government interference may alter society's natural and essential adaptation to its environment. As a result, governments, according to Spencer, should not meddle in social problems. Spencer questioned the government's attempts to regulate levies and opposed education and housing assistance. Furthermore, Spencer thought that organisations and institutions that could not adapt to the social context were doomed to fail. Herbert Spencer's beliefs arose from his reading of Thomas Malthus, and his later theories were inspired by Darwin's. Spencer believed that the battle for survival fostered self-improvement that could be passed on. The process includes struggle between individuals for limited resources, which is widely but incorrectly represented by the phrase "survival of the fittest," popularised by sociologist Herbert Spencer.

The Emergence of the Concept

  • The phrase "Social Darwinism" first emerged in Europe in 1880, when it was coined in reference to a health conference held in Berlin in 1877.

  • In 1944, the term was popularised in the United States by American historian Richard Hofstadter. In the ideological struggle against fascism, he used term to signify a retrograde worldview that encouraged competitive rivalry and racism.

  • Others who have been labelled as such include the 18th-century clergyman Thomas Malthus and Darwin's nephew Francis Galton, who established eugenics near the end of the 19th century.

  • Spencer compares society to a live entity in The Social Organism (1860), arguing that, just as biological organisms evolve through natural selection, society evolves and grows in complexity through equivalent processes.

Salient features

A few themes are present in both the activities that are justified by social Darwinist ideas and the beliefs themselves. Which are:

  • According to this theory, people engage in a battle for survival similar to that of plants and animals. As a result, "survival of the fittest" occurs.

  • The idea that governments shouldn't try to control the economy or solve social issues like poverty by interfering with human competitiveness;

  • Promoting a laissez-faire political and economic system that encourages self-interest and competitiveness in social and commercial activities; and

  • A defence of the disparities in power among people, groups of people, and countries.

Enlightenment and Imperialism

  • The scholars of the Enlightenment who came before Darwin, including Hegel, frequently asserted that civilizations developed in phases.

  • The fight for natural resources that Darwin describes seems to be comparable to Thomas Hobbes' 17th-century depiction of the state of nature. Darwin believed that "social instincts" like "sympathy" and "moral feelings," which also evolved through natural selection, strengthened the civilizations in which they happened.

  • The vast increase of Western colonialism during the New Imperialism period was consistent with the social Darwinist theory as a whole, which was developed starting in the 1870s to explain the occurrence of "the Anglo-Saxon and Latin overflowing their borders."

  • The idea served as a helpful justification for what some saw to be the inevitable "disappearance" of the weaker races in front of the stronger, but perhaps not so much as a result of our vices but rather what might be considered the virtues of our civilization.

  • Elitists believed that powerful nations would prevail in the war for domination if they were made up of white people who were effective at building their empires.


  • Europe was able to see the murder of women and children as essential and legitimate because of social Darwinism, which allowed for the eradication of entire population groupings. The practice of eugenics was heavily influenced by Social Darwinist ideas, particularly in the rationale for sterilising people from "lower" social classes. These concepts served as the inspiration for the eugenics movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which attempted to sterilise people it deemed "feeble-minded" or otherwise "unfit" in order to advance the health and intelligence of the human race.

  • Social Darwinist doctrine was accepted by the Committee of Union and Progress in the Ottoman Empire. They were inspired to conduct genocides and ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Greeks, and other communities because they believed there was a life-or-death struggle between Turks and other nationalities.

  • Nazi propaganda films frequently used scenarios like beetles fighting in a lab to show the "survival of the fittest" theory as it is represented in their propaganda films to justify Nazi Germany's aggression. In particular, Action T4, which resulted in the murder of mentally ill and disabled individuals in Germany, used such concepts to advance euthanasia in that country.

  • Social Darwinist theories gained the most traction in American society during the Gilded Age, largely because to the thinking of the late 19th-century industrial giants. These types of national monopolists used Darwin's theory of natural selection to defend their corporate supremacy in their respective industries and to justify the extravagant accumulation of their success and societal advancement.

  • Additionally, up until the 1970s, eugenic sterilisations were still practised in the United States, disproportionately affecting women, minorities, and immigrants.


Social Darwinism was a pretendedly scientific idea that fell out of favour after the First World War and was largely discredited by the end of the Second World War—partly because of its connection to Nazism and partly because there was a growing scientific consensus that eugenics and scientific racism were unfounded. By arguing that sickness might be necessary and even beneficial under some circumstances, Friedrich Nietzsche challenged the ideas of Haeckel, Spencer, and Darwin, sometimes operating under the same flag.

The degree to which diverse social Darwinist ideologies represent Charles Darwin's viewpoints on human social and economic difficulties is a topic of academic discussion. His texts contain portions that could be seen as being against militant individuality, while other paragraphs seem to be in favour of it. Creationists have frequently argued that social Darwinism, which results in laws that favour those who are most competitive, is a logical outcome of "Darwinism." This is a fallacy of appeal to nature, according to biologists and historians, and it should not be interpreted to mean that this phenomenon should be utilised as a moral standard in human civilization.


bottom of page