Natural selection operates in a biological context. Others have applied it to the way people and society behave – often with disastrous consequences
Darwin’s is an unﬂinching view of the world: natural selection only works because the ill-adapted cannot compete and so die off or fail to reproduce. It is not the strong that are selected but the weak that are eliminated.
Darwin made no claims that natural selection could be applied to human society – but others did, including Herbert Spencer. This idea of social Darwinism was popular in the late 19th century. Social conservatives liked the idea as it could be used to support social inequalities – survival of the ﬁttest was the natural order.
It also captured the idea of inevitable social progress. Just as humans were the pinnacle of evolution, so civilised society was the height of human endeavour.
But this was not the only application of evolutionary thinking to humans and human society. Because of the harsher climate, humans from the north were thought to be subject to stronger selection pressures, and so were ﬁtter than those from tropical regions.
Ideas of racial superiority were common. So too was the belief that society depended on the quality of its population. Reproduction by ‘low-grade’ people – the ‘feeble-minded’ or inﬁrm – was thought to be damaging to a nation in a competitive world.
In response, the eugenic movement promoted the idea of selective breeding to preserve and enhance society. Eugenic ideas were common and largely respectable in the early part of the 20th century. They were taken to the extreme by the Nazi Party in Germany during its time in power.
Social Darwinism and eugenics are now discredited. This is due partly to the greater emphasis on individual freedom, and partly to a recognition that society is not shaped by forces outside our control: we decide for ourselves what kind of society we want.Lead image:
Wellcome Library, London CC BY
Questions for discussion
- Is it ever right to think about improving the characteristics of a human population?