Before learning about Social Darwinism, it is important to understand Darwinism. Here is a brief summary, but you can read more in the section in Grade 7 Human Evolution.


Today the theory of evolution is a well supported, unifying principle in biology, which explains how life on earth began and developed. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that all living things share a common ancestry.

Charles Darwin, a British naturalist, is the person most remembered for his contribution to how the process of evolution works. He wrote a book, published over 150 years ago, called On the Origin of Species, which was very controversial at the time.

His scientific explanation of how evolution occurs was essentially correct, but incomplete. On the basis of newer knowledge, and particularly advances in genetics and molecular biology, many of Darwin's concepts have developed into the more complete modern theory of evolution.

Science and religion

In the 19th century, Darwin's discoveries made an enormous impact in England, Western Europe, their colonies, and the USA, where Christianity was the dominant religion. Darwin's theory was seen to be in conflict with the literal interpretation of special creation to be found in the Bible in the Book of Genesis, and even today Darwin's work raises emotional responses among fundamentalists.

It can be argued that religion does not explain how the world works. Religion is about faith and hope and answers questions about 'why'. Science on the other hand, is rational and evidence-based and answers questions about 'how'. Religion and science should not be seen as two different worldviews as they do not provide solutions to the same questions.

Many learners and educators struggle with aligning their religious beliefs with scientific evidence and may find it helpful to read:

One of the world's greatest cosmologists, a South African based at the University of Cape Town, Prof. George Ellis, won the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2005 for advancing the understanding between science and religion. He is a key figure in the discussion of the boundaries between science and theology. 

What is Social Darwinism?

Darwinism and Social Darwinism have very little in common, apart from the name and a few basic concepts, which Social Darwinists misapplied. The theory that there is a hierarchy of human species into 'races' has affected international politics, economics and social development across the globe.

Social Darwinism is a false application of Darwin's ideas such as adaptation and natural selection, and does not really follow from Darwinian thinking in any way. Social Darwinism is a belief, which became popular in England, Europe and America, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher in the 19th century was one of the most important Social Darwinists.

Social Darwinism does not believe in the principle of equality of all human beings. It states that:

  • Some human beings are biologically superior to others

  • The strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society

  • The weak and unfit should be allowed to die

There was a constant struggle between humans and the strongest always would win. The strongest nation was the fittest, therefore the best, and consequently had an inherent right to rule.

Social Darwinism applied the 'survival of the fittest' to human 'races' and said that 'might makes right'. Not only was survival of the fittest seen as something natural, but it was also morally correct. It was therefore natural, normal, and proper for the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak. White Protestant Europeans had evolved much further and faster than other "races."

So-called 'white civilised' industrial nations that had technologically advanced weapons had the moral right to conquer and 'civilize' the 'savage blacks' of the world. Social Darwinism was used to rationalise imperialism, colonialism, racism and poverty.

The beliefs associated with Social Darwinism were discredited during the 20th century, as the increasing knowledge of biological, social, and cultural phenomena does not support its basic tenets.

The concept of 'human races' is scientifically invalid. Physical characteristics do not relate in any way to mental or behavioural attributes. Many people argue that the word 'race' should no longer be used for the following reasons:

  • Most scientists today would say that there is no such thing as race.

  • The misinterpretation of the term 'race' to classify people has gone hand in hand with contempt for human rights.

Social Darwinism is by no means dead, as traces of it can be found in the present.

What is eugenics?

Eugenics is a more extreme form of Social Darwinism, which is linked to the racist doctrines of Nazi Germany. Eugenics was one of the pillars of Nazi ideology, and in Nazi Germany state-run eugenics programs were practiced.

The Englishman, Sir Francis Galton, coined the word eugenics for the study of human improvement by genetic means. Galton believed in:

  • the idea of planned human betterment through selective mating

  • a system of arranged marriages between men of 'distinction' and women of wealth to produce a 'gifted race'

  • mental qualities (such as genius and talent) are inherited.

  • Conscious intervention to avoid over-breeding by "less fit" members of society and the under-breeding of the "more fit" ones.

In Galton's view, social institutions such as welfare and mental asylums were allowing "inferior" humans to survive and reproduce at levels faster than the more "superior" humans in respectable society, and if corrections were not soon taken, society would be awash with "inferiors."

What is Genocide?

In 1948, as a result of the Holocaust, the newly created United Nations Organization adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Genocide includes the following acts 'committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group' by:

  • Killing members of the group

  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Notions of Race: Why is studying human origins important?

The ideas of Social Darwinism also affected South Africa. Because of South Africa's long colonial and apartheid history, the ethnic and racial terms that have been used to categorise us - white, African, coloured, Indian - have in many ways become part of our identities. And because the laws that existed were applied according to these categories, we often still use these racial and ethnic labels. However, it is important to remember that the racial and ethnic categories used to describe South Africans are constructed and based on the false ideas of Social Darwinism.

People often ask 'how does understanding the science of human evolution help us?' A good reason is that it answers the question of 'race'. Scientists say that 'race' is a cultural or social construct and not a biological one. Superficial criteria of physical appearance have been used to create categories of people and classified humans into 'race groups'. The study of human evolution shows us that all humans share a common ancestry - we are all Africans in the sense that we all descended from ancestors who lived in Africa as recently as 100 000 years ago.

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