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Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism is a descriptive term given to a kind of social theory that draws an association between Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and the sociological relations of humanity. Critics of such theories argue that by asserting that societies develop and therefore operate by "natural" laws, the real aim of "Social Darwinism" theories is to rationalize and thereby legitimize the unequal and disproportionate divisions between and within societies. Critics may make note that Darwin's own work never contained the logical and naturalistic fallacies of assuming that the existence of natural processes meant that that they could "naturally" be extended from biological systems to social systems.

"Social Darwinism" is most associated with the writings of Herbert Spencer, although researchers such as David Weinstein have argued that Spencer was not a "coarse Social Darwinist."[1] In (1857) Spencer wrote:

"this law of organic progress is the law of all progress. Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, the development of Society, of Government, ..., this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through a process of continuous differentiation, holds throughout."

Spencer's work also served to renew interest in the work of Malthus, who is also cited as a Social Darwinist author. Malthus's 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, for example, argued that as increasing population would normally outgrow its food supply, this would result in the starvation of the weakest. Some historians have suggested that the Malthusian catastrophe theory and similar concepts were used by the British to justify the continued export of agricultural produce from Ireland, even as the Irish were suffering from famine, in particular the Great Famine of 1845-1849.

Social Darwinism enjoyed widespread popularity in some European circles, particularly among ruling elites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period the global recession of the 1870s encouraged a view of the world which saw societies or nations in competition with one another for survival in a hostile world. This attitude encouraged increasing militarization and the division of the world into colonial spheres of influence. The interpretation of social darwinism of the time emphasized competition between species and races rather than cooperation. In the time since then, evolutionary theory has de-emphasized inter-species competition as well as the importance of violent confrontation in general, which discredits many of the social darwinist theories of that time.

The 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was seen by its author as continuing the debate over Social Darwinism. Diamond formulated a compelling argument that observed differences of technological and social development among populations resulted from environmental factors enhanced by the passage of time.

Because Social Darwinism came to be associated in the public mind with racism, imperialism, eugenics, and pseudoscience, such criticisms are sometimes applied (and misapplied) to any other political or scientific theory that resembles social Darwinism. Such criticisms are often levelled, for example, on evolutionary psychology, even though it makes no political or moral claims. Similarly, capitalism, especially laissez-faire capitalism, is sometimes equated with Social Darwinism because it adopts a "sink or swim" attitude toward economic activity. Supporters of capitalism respond that their goal is specifically to avoid ineffective economic behavior, and does not require or condone "letting the weak starve".

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45