What is Social Darwinism? How did it affect conditions in the U.S.?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Social Darwinism is an idea that equates human society with life in nature.  It sees human society as an arena of competition in which the “fittest” survive and thrive.  We can argue that it shaped conditions in America by promoting the rise of big business and restricting government programs to help the poor.

Social Darwinism is based on the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.  Darwin said that, in nature, only the organisms that are best adapted to their environments will survive to reproduce.  Other organisms will tend to die off.  Social Darwinism takes this idea and applies it to human society.  It does not exactly say that the least fit human beings will die before reproducing, but it does say that they will not thrive in society.

If we take Social Darwinism seriously, we believe that the people who are poor and powerless in our society have gotten that way because they are in some way less fit or less adapted to our society. This is often taken as a reason to argue that the government should not try to prevent inequality. Inequality is a sign of a healthy society in which Social Darwinism is acting.

Based on this logic, we can argue that Social Darwinism worked to increase inequality in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the theory was widely accepted.  Because people accepted the idea of Social Darwinism, they accepted the idea that companies should compete with the best companies winning and getting bigger and the smaller companies dying off.  This led to the advent of huge companies in the Gilded Age. Because people accepted Social Darwinism, they believed that the poor deserved their lot in life and that government should not try to help them.  This led to a situation in which government did not enact many programs or policies meant to help the poor.  In these ways, the idea of Social Darwinism shaped conditions in the United States.

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