Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.

 

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Social Darwinism


core definition

Social Darwinism is the theory that people are subject to the same laws of natural selection that Charles Darwin had proposed for plants and animals.


explanatory context

Social Darwinism was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Social Darwinists propose that society is a struggle for existence based on the notion of th 'survival of the fittest', a phrase proposed by the British philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer.


analytical review

Think Quest (2000) states:

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.


AllAboutScience (2002–2013) states:

Herbert Spencer, a 19th century philosopher, promoted the idea of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is an application of the theory of natural selection to social, political, and economic issues. In its simplest form, Social Darwinism follows the mantra of "the strong survive," including human issues. This theory was used to promote the idea that the white European race was superior to others, and therefore, destined to rule over them.

At the time that Spencer began to promote Social Darwinism, the technology, economy, and government of the "White European" was advanced in comparison to that of other cultures. Looking at this apparent advantage, as well as the economic and military structures, some argued that natural selection was playing out, and that the race more suited to survival was winning. Some even extended this philosophy into a micro-economic issue, claiming that social welfare programs that helped the poor and disadvantaged were contrary to nature itself. Those who reject any and all forms of charity or governmental welfare often use arguments rooted in Social Darwinism.

At its worst, the implications of Social Darwinism were used as scientific justification for the Holocaust. The Nazis claimed that the murder of Jews in World War II was an example of cleaning out the inferior genetics. Many philosophers noted evolutionary echoes in Hitler's march to exterminate an entire race of people. Various other dictators and criminals have claimed the cause of Social Darwinism in carrying out their acts. Even without such actions, Social Darwinism has proven to be a false and dangerous philosophy.

Scientists and evolutionists maintain that this interpretation is only loosely based on Darwin's theory of natural selection. They will admit to an obvious parallel between Darwin's theory of Natural Selection and Spencer's beliefs. In nature, the strong survive and those best suited to survival will out-live the weak. According to Social Darwinism, those with strength (economic, physical, technological) flourish and those without are destined for extinction.

It is important to note that Darwin did not extend his theories to a social or economic level, nor are any credible evolutionists subscribing to the theories of Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer's philosophy is only loosely based on the premises of Darwin's work....

 

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines social darwinism as:

An early and now largely discredited view of social evolution emphasizing the importance of "survival of the fittest" or struggle between individuals, groups, or societies as the motor of development. Social Darwinism became widely popular and was often used to justify existing inequalities.

Bannister (2000) states:

Social Darwinism, term coined in the late 19th century to describe the idea that humans, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natural selection results in "survival of the fittest." Social Darwinists base their beliefs on theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin. Some social Darwinists argue that governments should not interfere with human competition by attempting to regulate the economy or cure social ills such as poverty. Instead, they advocate a laissez-faire political and economic system that favors competition and self-interest in social and business affairs. Social Darwinists typically deny that they advocate a "law of the jungle." But most propose arguments that justify imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations because they consider some people more fit to survive than others.

The term social Darwinist is applied loosely to anyone who interprets human society primarily in terms of biology, struggle, competition, or natural law (a philosophy based on what are considered the permanent characteristics of human nature). Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility....

Social Darwinism originated in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Darwin did not address human evolution in his most famous study, On the Origin of Species (1859), which focused on the evolution of plants and animals. He applied his theories of natural selection specifically to people in The Descent of Man (1871), a work that critics interpreted as justifying cruel social policies at home and imperialism abroad. The Englishman most associated with early social Darwinism, however, was sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" to describe the outcome of competition between social groups. In Social Statics (1850) and other works, Spencer argued that through competition social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history.

In the United States, Spencer gained considerable support among intellectuals and some businessmen, including steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie, who served as Spencer's host during his visit to the United States in 1883. The most prominent American social Darwinist of the 1880s was William Graham Sumner, who on several occasions told audiences that there was no alternative to the "survival of the fittest" theory. Critics of social Darwinism seized on these comments to argue that Sumner advocated a "dog-eat-dog" philosophy of human behavior that justified oppressive social policies. Some later historians have argued that Sumner's critics took his statements out of context and misrepresented his views....


associated issues

 


related areas

See also

Darwinism


Sources

AllAboutScience, 2002–2013, 'What is Social Darwinism', available at http://www.allaboutscience.org/what-is-social-darwinism-faq.htm, accessed 28 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

Bannister, R.C., 2000, "Social Darwinism", Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, available at https://autocww2.colorado.edu/~toldy2/E64ContentFiles/SociologyAndReform/SocialDarwinism.html , accessed 28 April 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/frank.elwell/prob3/glossary/socgloss.htm, page not available 20 December 2016.

Think Quest, 2000, Social Darwinism available at http://library.thinkquest.org/C004367/eh4.shtml, accessed 28 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017


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