Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species revolutionised accepted thought about biology. Despite being a highly universal theory, it is widely accepted now that the Darwinian view of the world does not transfer effectively to every element of life.
Historically, some have transplanted Darwin’s ideas uneasily and imperfectly onto social analysis. The product was ‘Social Darwinism’.
The idea is that the evolutionary processes in natural history have parallels in social history, that their same rules apply. Therefore humanity should embrace the natural course of history.
Rather than Darwin, Social Darwinism is derived most directly from the writings of Herbert Spencer, who believed that human societies developed like natural organisms. He conceived the idea of the struggle for survival, and suggested that this drove an inevitable progress in society. It broadly meant evolving from the barbarian stage of society to the industrial stage. Spencer also coined the term ‘survival of the fittest.’
Of the infirm and incapacitated, Spencer once stated, ‘It is better that they should die.’
Although Spencer was responsible for much of the foundational discourse of Social Darwinism, Darwin did say that human progress was driven by evolutionary processes – that human intelligence was refined by competition.
Finally, the actual term ‘Social Darwinism’ was originally coined by Malthus, who is better remembered for his iron rule of nature.
Social Darwinism in action
The most infamous instance of Social Darwinism in action is in the genocidal policies of the Nazi German Government in the 1930s and 40s.
It was openly embraced as promoting the notion that the strongest should naturally prevail, and was a key feature of Nazi propaganda films, some which illustrated it with scenes of beetles fighting each other.
Whoever would live, let him fight, and he who does not want to do battle in this world of eternal struggle, does not deserve life.
This view fed into a worldview shaped also by a fear of communism and a relentless demand for Lebensraum. Germany needed to destroy the Soviet Union to gain land, eliminate Jewish-inspired communism, and would do so following the natural order.
Subsequently, Social-Darwinist language suffused Nazi rhetoric. As German forces were rampaging through Russia in 1941, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch emphasised:
The troops must understand that this struggle is being fought race against race, and that they must proceed with the necessary harshness.
In May 1941, the tank general Erich Hoepner explained the war’s meaning to his troops:
The war against Russia is an essential chapter in the German people’s battle for survival. It is the old struggle between the Germanic peoples and the Slavs, the defence of European culture against muscovite-Asiatic invasion, the defence against Jewish communism.
It was this language that was integral to promulgating Nazism, and especially to gaining the assistance of tens of thousands of regular Germans in persecuting the Holocaust. It gave a scientific veneer to a rabid psychotic belief.
Historical opinion is mixed as to how formative social Darwinist principles were to Nazi ideology. It is a common argument of creationists such as Jonathan Safarti, where it is often deployed to undermine the theory of evolution. The argument goes that Nazi Germany represented the logical progression of a godless world. In response, the anti-Defamation League has said:
Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivialises the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.
However, Nazism and Social Darwinism were certainly intertwined in possibly the most famous example of perverted scientific theory in action.