How did the idea of Social Darwinism fuel Europeans to see themselves as superior to those they ruled?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At its roots, Social Darwinism advocated that there was a social hierarchy.  This structure embraced the idea that those who were believed to be at its apex possessed an intrinsic superiority to others.  Social Darwinism took root in a perceived understanding of Darwinian thought and believed in applying this idea to sociological reality.  European thinkers like Herbert Spencer were able to take the subtle and nuanced complexity of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" and apply it to social reality.  Spencer's use of Darwin's idea in this regard helped to establish groups of Europeans as superior to others.  This same philosophical tract was evident in America.  In both settings, Social Darwinism was used to justify laissez- faire economics, sustain imperialistic practices, and establish "justifications for conquest."

Those in Europe and America used Social Darwinism to fuel a belief in superiority.  The use of Social Darwinism was able to suggest that natural differences existed.  From this, it substantiated a natural superiority for those in the position of power. Spencer spoke to this in his advocacy of Social Darwinism as a sociological reality:  "A nation which fosters its good-for-nothings will end by becoming a good-for-nothing nation."  Spencer's beliefs regarding a distinction between those who were effective as brokers of power and others deemed as "good- for- nothing" was an illumination of the superiority that Social Darwinism imparted to those in the position of power in Europe and America.

Part of the Social Darwinist appeal to Europeans and Americans rested in the validation of the temporal condition of power.  Given how much of the world's power existed in Europe and America, Social Darwinism was able to fuel the perception that the people in these nations were "superior" to others.  Social Darwinism justified the existence of the Status Quo.  It provided the justification to continue practices that denied voice and removed the ability to envision a more transformative condition of being.  Examples of this continuation could be seen in the continuation of the slave trade as well as the establishment of imperialism and colonialism.  These became ways in which Europeans and Americans were able to see themselves as superior to others, and thus justify the continuation of the Status Quo. 

moustacio | Student

The concept of Social Darwinism was derived from the ideas of Charles Darwin, who had propagated theories such as “natural selection” that had vast implications for evolution. It encapsulated several ideas, which revolved around an attempt by Europeans to apply biological concepts to the social world. Most famously promoted by Herbet Spencer, the idea of “survival of the fittest” and theories of evolution were used to study the world at large. He argued that societies, like mankind, too evolved constantly, and that British Victorian society was at the peak. All societies should thus aspire to become like the British since British culture was very much the superior way of life. Such ideas were based on gross racism, as other cultures were viewed to be inferior. These racist mentalities, connoting a sense of Western superiority, were used by the colonial powers to justify colonialism and their exercise of power over the locals. Euphemisms, such as the “White Man’s Burden”, and “mission civilisatrice” (civilising mission), were often used despite being degrading and condescending, to paint colonialism as an act carried out by the West to help other societies become more like Victoria England.