Social Darwinism

by David N. Menton, Ph.D.

One of the worst features of Darwin's evolutionary theory was that it invited not only a comparison between man and the apes, but also between the "highest" and "lowest" humans.  The feature of Darwinism most often used by those who attempt to justify their moral and social views with science is the concept of the "survival of the fittest."  This application of Darwinian ideas to human society and behavior is known as Social Darwinism.  Evolutionist Steven Jay Gould, wrote that following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, "arguments for slavery, colonialism, racial differences, class structures, and sex roles would go forth primarily under the banner of science." 

Blacks and American Indians were among the first to be singled out as being "lower" than Caucasians.  In his book The Mismeasure of Man (Chap. 3), Steven Jay Gould pointed out that some anthropologists were not above falsifying their data to prove the "superiority" of the white race.  For example, assuming brain size had something to do with intelligence (it doesn't), many anthropologists intentionally exaggerated the size of Caucasian skulls and underestimated the size of skulls from Blacks and Indians.  Social Darwinism thus came to serve as a "scientific" justification for racism. 

It might be argued that Darwin would never have approved this use of his theory, but his own writings are profoundly racist.  In the sixth chapter of his book The Descent of Man, Darwin predicted that eventually evolution would increase the gap between humans and the lower apes through the extinction of such "evolutionary intermediates" as gorillas and Negroes!  Darwin declared that "the break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state… and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the Gorilla" (The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin, 1871, p.  201). 

In an effort to promote the evolution of "higher forms" of humans, Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, founded the Eugenics Movement.  Eugenics is the "science" which seeks to improve the biological makeup of the human species by selective breeding.  Galton advocated the government regulation of marriage and family size according to the genetic quality of the parents.  He believed that if controlled breeding was applied to humans, as it was to farm animals, a perfect human breed could be developed.  This concept of the "master race" was put into practice by Adolph Hitler in Germany in an effort to create a "pure Aryan race," while exterminating "inferior" Jews. 

 That Hitler based his fascism on evolutionary theory is evident from both his speeches and his book Mein Kampf.  Benito Mussolini, who brought fascism to Italy, was also greatly influenced by Darwinism, which he thought supported his belief that violence is essential for beneficial social transformation.  Mussolini repeatedly used Darwinian catchwords in his speeches and ridiculed efforts at peace because he thought they interfered with natural evolutionary process. 

No discussion of the devastating impact of Social Darwinism on society would be complete without considering its strong influence on the development of Marxism and Communism.  Frederich Engels and Karl Marx (co-founders of Communism) were exceedingly enthusiastic over Darwin's book On the Origin of Species.  Karl Marx wrote a letter to Engels in December of 1860 declaring that On the Origin of Species was "the book which contains the basis in natural history for our views."  In another letter to Engels in January of 1861, Marx declared: "Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a basis of struggle in history”  (As quoted by Conway Zirkle in: Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959, p.  86). 


Originally published in St. Louis MetroVoice, September 1994, Vol.  4, No.  9