How was Social Darwinism used to justify imperialism?

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Social Darwinism played a key role in the prominence and justification of imperialism. Social Darwinism emerged in the mid-to-late 1800s as the major tenets of Darwinism, namely the concept of natural selection and the idea of survival of the fittest, were applied to sociology and geopolitics.

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Social Darwinism played a key role in the prominence and justification of imperialism. Social Darwinism emerged in the mid-to-late 1800s as the major tenets of Darwinism, namely the concept of natural selection and the idea of survival of the fittest, were applied to sociology and geopolitics.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species explained natural selection as the basis for evolution, where the organisms who have the qualities most desirable for sexual selection and survival will pass on their genes and associated genetic mutations on to future generations.

Humans applied this same theory to different cultures, and the individuals making up those cultures. Cultures with the most money, the most industrial advancement, and the largest militaries are viewed as the “fittest” while smaller, more shut-in cultures are viewed as less “fit.”

The justification for imperialism comes into play because the larger, primarily Western cultures believed their way of life was categorically better, and they had a duty to impart their culture on those they viewed as less fortunate.

In many ways, this theory provides the justification for the idea of Manifest Destiny in the United States of America.

The result of this was not the systematic improvement of all cultures but rather segregated societies where the imperialists took command of both natural resources and the government systems.

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Darwinism, and Social Darwinism in particular, have been used to justify all sorts of evil actions throughout history since its inception. The idea stems from the idea of natural selection—"the survival of the fittest"—and the concept that those who can survive are the ones who propitiate the species.

This idea lead to the assumption (that was not inherent in Darwin's theories) that if someone was weak, they would not prosper in life. This meant that social class and other social strata were perceived as "self-selecting"—for example, it encouraged the idea that people were poor because they were naturally inclined toward behaviors that made them poor (i.e., laziness, drunkenness, etc.).

In the tenants of Social Darwinism, this process was seen to be beneficial for the species overall: i.e., only the "good" traits were allowed to flourish and prosper—because people who were drunk, lazy, or dissolute did not survive to procreate. Essentially, if this idea is followed to its logical conclusion, these weaker people should be discouraged (or even actively prevented) from breeding, since, it was reasoned, this would cleanse the gene pool. This idea becomes especially pernicious when these characteristics become assigned to a certain group of people.

A central aspect of imperialism was the forced subjugation of other nations and cultures. The so called "superior nations," who had more advanced technology, justified their violence and rule over these people who had been conquered by saying they were essentially strengthening the human race. After all, under the tenants of Social Darwinism, this subjugation was justifiable; if these peoples had traits that would allow them to prosper, then they wouldn't have allowed themselves to be subjugated.

Imperialists therefore justified their rule using Social Darwinism by reasoning that they were either enlightening new subjects or removing them from the gene pool (in some cases, systemically exterminating them). Thus, Social Darwinism arose as a justification for acts of extreme barbarism and cruelty under imperialism.

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Social Darwinism gained popularity in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This period saw a huge expansion of European imperialism. Many of these imperialists used the theory to justify their actions. Social Darwinists and imperialists argued that the society with the strongest and most able people was the fittest and therefore had a duty and responsibility to expand their civilization at the expense of "weaker" ones. They often claimed that this superiority was based on biology and race.

Social Darwinism was an attempt to apply a natural law (evolution) to the social, militaristic, and economic actions of imperialists. By claiming that they were merely following a natural law, proponents of this theory were able to dismiss the criticism of those who saw imperialism as unjust and exploitative. They could argue that by taking control of other civilizations they were merely forwarding human evolution and that this was just the natural order of things. In short, Social Darwinism gave imperialism an air of scientific legitimacy. It has been used to justify notions of racial superiority and what Rudyard Kipling dubbed "the white man's burden."

It should be noted that Charles Darwin never intended for his theory to be applied in such a manner. He was concerned with the competition between species and the role that genetic mutation had in creating new species over long periods of time. Darwin's theory of evolution was never meant to be applied in sociological fields, and Social Darwinism has since been dismissed by just about every legitimate sociologist.

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Social Darwinism was used to justify imperialism. The main idea behind Social Darwinism is that the strongest and fittest survive. Those who supported imperialism believed that the places that were being colonized weren’t as fit or as a strong as the imperial country was.

This concept of Social Darwinism is based on the concept of a superior culture and inferior cultures. The imperialists believed their culture, their way of life, their government, and their economic system were the best. Therefore, they had an obligation to spread their superior ways of living to other people who weren’t as good as they were. They had an obligation to show these people how to run a government, how to develop an economy, and how to “properly” live life. They believed these people, whom they deemed as inferior, would benefit by being under the control of a superior group of people. Some people view this concept of imperialism as a racist view because it puts down other people’s ways of living. Social Darwinist ideas were used to justify imperialism.

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