Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism is a controversial theory first expounded by Herbert Spencer. In many ways, social Darwinism is an elitist concept that justifies the morally corrupt decisions made by the rich and powerful. Based on Darwin's theory of natural selection, it says that only the strong and powerful must survive, while the weak wither away. It is directly borrowed from Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest according to which the favorable traits survive in reproduction over a period of time while unfavorable ones die a natural death. Though applied specially to animals and plants, this theory has since then been used in a variety of ways giving it a new dimension. It is now being extensively applied to a variety of cultural phenomenon.

Social Darwinism thus sprung from originally theory of natural selection and when applied to human beings, it meant that in the course of evolution, only the strongest nations and races must survive while the weaker ones would wither away naturally. The "natural" in this case could be disasters like earthquakes and floods or wars and occupation. This theory had also been used to justify colonialism and imperial views of the colonists. If French, Dutch, Portuguese and English had the power and might to rule over some weaker, unarmed, poor nations then by all means they should because this is natural selection at work. As absurd as this may sound, social Darwinism is given serious consideration. This is evident from the fact that this theory is still discussed and pondered upon in many circles.

But while there was a side of social Darwinism which was absolutely ridiculous and appalling, there was another side which made a great deal of sense. For example the one sensible use of the theory helped government plan welfare reforms. Instead of giving poor free handouts, the reform suggested that assistance should be provided to those willing and able to work so they contribute to the society without becoming a burden. Social Darwinism had a major role to play in this concept. If studied carefully, this theory also hints at man's willingness and ability to survive. Those who lack this ability will naturally face extinction, while those who can fight can work things in their favor and hence improve their lot. If not used harshly, social Darwinism can help us understand man's need and ability to survive.

Social Darwinism is most commonly defined as a theory concerning "eugenic population control" and offers "complete commitment to an exclusive genetic and hereditary explanation of man's evolution." (Offer, p. 142) In other words, social Darwinism says that man will survive if he has the ability or else he will meet some natural phenomenon too forceful for him and wither away. People have used this theory to explain natural disasters in poorest of countries, and in poorest of areas in some rich countries. It may actually be interesting to note that in recent past, some of the worst earthquakes and floods attacked poorest nation and areas. Katrina wiped off a large part of New Orleans which we all know was an underprivileged area. Similarly thousands of people died in Pakistan's 2005 earthquake. Pakistan again is not a strong nation and the region where the earthquake occurred was the poorest of the poor.

But this is one side of the picture. If we apply a tunnel vision approach to the study of social Darwinism, it would make sense. But we need to see beyond the new examples of natural population control to fully understand the weaknesses of this theory. Los Angeles is the richest of the rich but still encounters earthquakes repeatedly. Germany and Japan were strong nations and still faced wars that killed millions. There is no way we can prove that God subscribes to the theory of social Darwinism. But we can definitely say that the theory holds merit when applied to competitiveness which allows societies to evolve.


John Offer, Herbert Spencer. Routledge (2002)[continue]

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