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What was Social Darwinism?

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Social Darwinism was an ideology that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Essentially, it applied the principles of national selection and "survival of the fittest" associated with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to human society. Social Darwinism had several implications when applied (most would agree inappropriately) to human relations. Let us look at a few of them.

First, business leaders argued that the world of business ought to be governed by the same allegedly natural laws of "survival of the fittest" that seemed to order the natural world. To attempt to regulate the formation of monopolies, for example, was thus to protect weak businesses, which was bad for society as a whole. So Social Darwinism often went hand-in-hand with what is sometimes called a "laissez-faire" approach to business, where governments essentially kept their hands off the economy.

Second, many people argued that those who lived in poverty had found themselves in that situation because they were in some way weaker than other more fortunate people. The large class of laboring poor that could be found in most cities in the late nineteenth century were seen as less "fit". To help these people, whether through charity, minimum wage laws, or even poor relief actions was to encourage weakness. So Social Darwinists tended to take a rather pitiless stance toward the poorer classes.

Third, Social Darwinism always had racial dimensions. Many nonwhite peoples were viewed as inferior to whites, who were allegedly more advanced. This racial strain of Social Darwinistic ideology was used to justify discriminatory immigration quotas, Jim Crow laws, and even imperialism, which saw European nations extend their influence over nonwhite peoples around the world. 

Finally, Social Darwinism gave rise to pseudoscientific (though many viewed them as legitimate at the time) variants such as eugenics. If some people were viewed as having inferior characteristics, be they racial, physical, mental, or otherwise, then, Social Darwinists argued, they ought to be prohibited from "polluting" the "blood" of superior people. This concept encouraged the passage of laws prohibiting interracial relationships, of forced sterilization laws, and, in its most extreme form, the racial extermination programs carried out by the Nazis in Germany.  

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