Social Darwinism

In his most famous book On the Origin of Species, Darwin included four major arguments: that new species appear; that these new species have evolved from older species; that the evolution of species is the result of natural selection; and “that natural selection depends upon variations and the maintenance of variation in spite of the tendency of natural selection to eliminate ‘unfit’ variants” (403). After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) took hold of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applied it to society as well as evolution. He strayed from biology to society. Spencer’s ideas became known as Social Darwinism. The theory of natural selection holds that only the most well-adapted individuals in a population will survive and reproduce. These successful individuals pass on their adaptive advantage to their offspring. Over many generations, the process ensures the adaptation of the entire population to its environment. This holds true in the jungle, but it was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the competition among human individuals and groups. He argued that human progress resulted from the triumph of more advanced individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors. Wealth and power were seen as signs of inherent “fitness,” while poverty was taken as evidence of natural inferiority. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Social Darwinism was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the “unfit” poor. The theory was also used to justify racist and imperialist policies in Europe and the United States. Social Darwinist ideas fell from grace in the early 20th century; Herbert Spencer’s reputation as a philosopher and social theorist toppled with it. Spencer once wrote of society. These are the traits that societies have in common with organic bodies. And these traits in which they agree with organic …

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