Explain how the concept of Social Darwinism was used to justify conditions in the 1800s.

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the 19th century, Social Darwinism was also closely allied with scientific racism. The prevailing theory was that different races were at different stages in their respective development. This led to the construction of a distinct racial hierarchy with the white Anglo-Saxon race at the very top. The white race was therefore thought superior to "lesser" races in every conceivable respect: culturally, intellectually and spiritually. Popular pseudosciences of the time such as phrenology sought to explain the difference between the races in purely biological terms.

The use of pseudoscience provided the prevailing social and economic conditions with a veneer of justification. If people were impoverished and exploited by the system of unrestrained capitalism (as many were), then it was either through their own lack of intelligence or deficiencies in their genetic inheritance. Racial oppression could be justified on the grounds that some races were simply better than others, more culturally developed and better able to lead. Social Darwinism had always sought intellectual respectability; its close relation, scientific racism, helped to provide it with a foundation which for many years enjoyed the status of irrefutable fact.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social Darwinism draws from the biological theory of “natural selection” and “survival for the fittest” in a society. Supporters of this theory agree that fortunes of the strong should continue to increase while those of the weak should decrease. In essence, the strong should be allowed to take from the weak and keep this acquisition to further their individual interests. The idea of welfare or charity was seen to do more harm than good within the society. This is because it led to preservation of the unfit who became a burden to the fit. Proponents of this theory support a laissez-faire economic and political system that favors self interest and competition.

Competition, Hereditarianism, The Struggle School and Reform Darwinism were schools of Social Darwinism that were used to justify the situation in the 1800s. Competition was seen to automatically promote prosperity. Hereditarianism proposed that biological inheritance was highly importance in determining intellect and character. The Struggle School proposed and supported the notion of imperialism and foreign expansion. Finally, Reform Darwinism proposed a strong role of the government in social policies and supported eugenics, racism and chauvinism.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The major condition in the 1800s that Social Darwinism was used to justify was the condition of massive inequality of wealth.  Social Darwinism justified this by arguing that the people got the status in life that they deserved.

Social Darwinism held that human society was subject to natural selection (survival of the fittest) just as Darwin said nature was.  Social Darwinists argued that those who became rich in human society were the ones who were the most "fit."  Those who became poor got that way because they were not "fit."  Social Darwinists argued, then, that the massive inequality of wealth that occurred during the "Gilded Age" was a natural consequence of human inequalities.  This meant that the government should not try to do anything to reduce inequality since inequality was simply natural.