How has Darwinism affected American ideologies? How does it relate to government, education, and literature today?

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mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two versions of Darwinism to consider in answering this question. One version is Social Darwinism. The other version is Reform Darwinism.

According to Social Darwinism, the strongest and the fittest survive. These people believe in a laissez-faire philosophy that means the government shouldn’t interfere in the economy or with business activities. This is a harsh philosophy that emphasizes that a person is responsible for their situation. Artists and authors who believed in a philosophy of realism would describe things as they really are. In education, a Social Darwinist wouldn’t support having accommodations for those who struggle. They would support having schools that only the elite could afford to attend. To ease the harshness of this philosophy, a concept called the Gospel of Wealth developed. This idea emphasizes that the wealthy have an obligation to help the needy. Through philanthropy, the wealth can help those in need if they choose to do so.

Another view of the Darwinist theory is known as Reform Darwinism. These people believe the government should help those in need. They believe in a spirit of cooperation, not competition. They believe that there are situations that put people in a tough spot that aren’t their fault. In these situations, the government should step in and help these people. The artists and writers reflected an idea called naturalism. This concept emphasizes that there are times people need help, not because of what they did or didn’t do, but because certain events happened to them that were beyond their control. Reform Darwinists would support helping students in need with accommodations and modifications. They would support having equal access to educational opportunities. They believe those who are in need of help should receive it, especially if circumstances beyond their control are involved.

pnrjulius eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are really two broad kinds of "Darwinism" we must consider here.

The first is the scientific theory of evolution by Darwinian natural selection. This theory is absolutely unassailable. It is one of the most brilliant, predictive, and well-supported scientific theories ever devised. This kind of "Darwinism" forms the foundation of biology, neuroscience, and psychology as we know it, and a growing movement among economists seeks to apply it to economics as well. In this sense, it is Darwinism that tells us the nature of what it is to be human and our place in the web of life and the cosmos itself.

The second is the social ideology of Social Darwinism. This is an ideology that emerged in the early 20th century which sought to use the theory of Darwinian evolution to justify various social policies, nearly all of them slanted toward rich White males just as social policies had been slanted toward rich White males for centuries prior. Pseudoscientific theories were devised to justify starving the poor, oppressing women, and discriminating against racial minorities. Some of these theories even contributed to the ideology of "racial superiority" that the Nazis used to rationalize the Holocaust.

It is my personal opinion that Darwinism in the scientific sense actually contributed very little to Social Darwinism. Most of the oppressive and discriminatory policies were similar to those already in place, and simply sought new "scientific" (pseudoscientific) justifications. It is unfortunate that a shallow reading of concepts like "survival of the fittest" can be used in this way, but it isn't really the fault of Darwin or evolutionary biology that a deep and powerful scientific truth can be abused by those in power to oppress others.

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