Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. The theory was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection. Its leading proponents opine atheism.
Beginning in 1887, social scientists were using the term "social Darwinism" to apply the survival of the fittest theory to social situations. Under this theory, the wealthiest or most powerful in society must be biologically superior, and less "fit" persons should die.
Proponents of this particular form of ‘social Darwinism’, such as Herbert Spencer, taught that the powerful and wealthy were this way because they were biologically and evolutionally superior to the struggling masses. They believed that we should therefore do nothing to help improve the working and living conditions of the lesser evolved masses. Charities were clearly evil in helping sustain the lives of those who otherwise would and should die in the natural selection process. In other words, the weak were to do their duty and die while the fittest survived, which would one day lead to an evolutionarily super society and race. 
Soon many began to view racial struggles, and war itself, as a perfectly natural example of survival-of-the-fittest in the human race. The horrific wars of the 20th century, employing shockingly brutal tactics, were encouraged by a belief in survival-of-the-fittest among humans. While social Darwinism itself was applied to social and economic situations rather than military ones, it is easy how extreme versions of social Darwinism could justify physical struggles among races.
Social Darwinism has been linked with racism, nationalism, imperialism, and atheism. To elitists, strong nations were composed of white people who successful at expanding their empires, and as such, these strong nations would survive in the struggle for dominance. With this attitude, Europeans, except for Christian missionaries, seldom adopted the customs and lanugages of local people under their empires. Christian missionaries, on the other hand, were the very first individuals to meet new peoples and develop writing systems for local inhabitants' languages that lacked one. Being critics of Darwinism, they ardently opposed slavery and provided an education and religious instruction to the new peoples they interacted with since they felt that this was their duty as Christians.
John Toland’s Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography says this of Hitler’s Second Book published in 1928:
- "An essential of Hitler’s conclusions in this book was the conviction drawn from Darwin that might makes right."
In his biography, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, Ian Kershaw explains that
- "crude social-Darwinism" gave Hitler "his entire political ‘world-view.’ "
Social Darwinism Today
Most of Social Darwinism’s appeal left it in the early part of the 20th century. There were a number of reasons for this including:
- Mixed economies became more widely accepted, and often-violent philosophies such as socialism, communism, fascism and anarchism were rising in popularity. Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism and his cousin's Keynesian economics co-opted these movements, ending the previous laissez-faire economy.
- It was seen as contributing to German militarism and Nazism during World War II.
- Humanity came to be seen as socially more aware than animals.
- Revulsion at Hitler’s attempt to build a "master race," as well as the civil rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s, removed popular support for eugenics over time.
- Social Darwinists often promoted laissez-faire economics as a means of "weeding out" the unwanted of society.
Finally an improved understanding of ethology removed the basis of this “dog-eat-dog” philosophy.
Consequently, with the fall of the fascist states Social Darwinism entered a period of disrepute and few societies, if any, now embrace its ideas that the weak should be disregarded; that there are "superior" and "inferior" races; or that war is an appropriate way to show a country's "virility".
American Liberals and Recent Behavior in Accordance with Social Darwinism
Liberals are more likely to believe in evolution. Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism." Professor Brooks found that American liberals are significantly less charitable than American conservatives despite earning more. American Conservatives also donate more time and donate more blood than American liberals. The results are not entirely surprising given that liberals are more likely to believe in evolution and that Darwinists historically have often displayed behavior in accordance with Social Darwinism.
See also: Atheism and sexism
Marcie Bianco wrote in her Quartz article Brazen sexism is pushing women out of America’s atheism movement:
|“|| There are two predominant reasons that can explain why sexism exists in the atheism movement. The first reason is the influence of social Darwinism. Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, wrote in The New York Times in 2012 that the first tenet of social Darwinism is the belief that “people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop.” A concept such as “men are from mars, women are from Venus” is one version of such gender-essentialist, social Darwinist ideas.
In the atheism movement, social Darwinism has played out as the justifiable assault of women by (naturally) aggressive men. Buzzfeed’s Mark Oppenheimer detailed many accounts of alleged sexism, sexual assault and coercion in his excellent exposé on the atheism movement. “Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks—which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries—are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he writes.
Oppenheimer also writes that James Randi, chair of annual atheist gathering The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), used biological essentialism to rationalize alleged sex crimes and sexual harassment. Randi’s comments were in response to accusations made by multiple women against Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine. “[Shermer] had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know,” Randi muses. “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”
- Social Darwinism at Thinkquest, retrieved on 08/04/2008
- Manfred Berg, Geoffrey Cocks. Medicine and Modernity: Public Health and Medical Care in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “The Christian-conservative Ritter went on to argue that social Darwnism was an aspect of the materialist worldview of the Weimar Republic, which encompassed Marxism and atheism as well and displaced the religious values that he thought had dominated in the imperial period and that alone could guarantee political stablility in the age of the masses.”
- Mohammed Talib. Universal Peace. Lulu. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “At this point, we must recall another atheist ideology-Social Darwinism-which was among the causes for the outbreak of both the First and Second World Wars.”
- Jonas E. Alexis. Christianity's Dangerous Idea. AuthorHouse. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “What is even more interesting to point out is that the leading social Darwinists were not Protestants at all-they were mostly atheists who were trying to force their own ideologies upon society at large.”
- Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Retrieved on 2007–03–25. “The most extreme ideological expression of nationalism and imperialism was Social Darwinism. In the popular mind, the concepts of evolution justifed the exploitation of "lesser breeds without the law" by superior races. This language of raece and conflict, of superior and inferior people, had wide currency in the Western states. Social Darwinists vigourously advocated the acquistion of empires, saying that strong nations-by definition, those that were successful at expanding industry and empire-would survive and that others would not. To these elitists, all white men were more fit than nonwhites to prevail in the struggle for dominance. Even among Europeans, some nations were deemed more fit than others for the competition. Usually, Social Darwinists thought their own nation the best, an attitude that sparked their competitive enthusiasm. In the nineteenth centruy, in contrast to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans, except for missionaries, rarely adopted the customs or learned the languages of local people. They had little sense that other cultures and other people had merit or deserved respect. Many westerners believed that it was their duty as Christians to set an example and to educate others. Missionaries were the first to meet and learn about many peoples and were the first to develop writing for those without a written language. Christian missionaries were ardently opposed to slavery.”
- Hall, Timothy C. (M.A.) "The Complete Idiot's Guide to World History". pg. 248: "Others like Herbert Spenser took Darwin's concepts of survival of the fittest and applied them to human society. Spenser saw social progress coming from the struggle for survival. This application became the rationale for many movements and injustices of the nineteenth century, including imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, and racism." ISBN 978-1-59257-712-5.
- Brazen sexism is pushing women out of America’s atheism movement