Social Darwinism

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Social Darwinism is a term used for various late nineteenth century ideologies which, while often contradictory, exploited ideas of survival of the fittest.[1] It especially refers to notions of struggle for existence being used to justify social policies which show no sympathy for those unable to support themselves. While the most prominent form of such views stressed competition between individuals in free market capitalism, it is also associated with ideas of struggle between national or racial groups.[2] In sociology it has been defined as a theory of social evolution which asserts that "There are underlying, and largely irresistible, forces acting in societies which are like the natural forces that operate in animal and plant communities. One can therefore formulate social laws similar to natural ones. These social forces are of such a kind as to produce evolutionary progress through the natural conflicts between social groups. The best-adapted and most successful social groups survive these conflicts, raising the evolutionary level of society generally (the 'survival of the fittest')."[3] The term has very rarely been used as a self description.[4]

The term first appeared in Europe in 1877,[5] and around this time it was used by sociologists opposed to the concept.[6] The term was popularized in the United States in 1944 by the American historian Richard Hofstadter who used it in the ideological war effort against fascism to denote a reactionary creed which promoted competitive strife, racism and nationalism. Before Hofstadter's work the use of the term in English academic journals was quite rare.[7] The term "social darwinism" has rarely been used by advocates of the supposed ideologies or ideas; instead it has almost always been used (pejoratively) by its opponents.[4][8]

The term draws upon the common use of the term Darwinism, which has been used to describe a range of evolutionary views, but in the late 19th century was applied more specifically to natural selection as first advanced by Charles Darwin to explain speciation in populations of organisms. The process includes competition between individuals for limited resources, popularly but inaccurately described by the phrase "survival of the fittest", a term coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer.

While the term has been applied to the claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection can be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, social Darwinism commonly refers to ideas that predate Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species. Others whose ideas are given the label include the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who founded eugenics towards the end of the 19th century.


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