The Similarities and Differences Between “Social Darwinism” and the “Eugenics” Movement

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 5
Words: 1147
Reading time:
4 min

Both social Darwinism and eugenics were aimed at applying the principles of selection to society. Social Darwinism was a loose utilization of Darwinian thought to political and social concepts. Most commonly, the application of that approach was used to naturalize and justify the political and social phenomena in question. The explanation of social Darwinism might be borrowed from his work On the Origin of Species. In the book, Darwin mentioned that the production of the higher animals followed directly from famine, death, and the war of nature.

Meanwhile, eugenics was a set of practices and beliefs focused on the enhancement of the human population’s genetic quality. As Popenoe and Johnson mentioned in their book, the mankind should use its knowledge to improve its own species in the same way it had been doing with animals and plants for many centuries. The two approaches had some similar and divergent features due to their key concepts.

The major similarity between eugenics and social Darwinism was based on the principle of selection. However, the very approach to that selection was different under the two views. That is why eugenics and social Darwinism were never considered as equal. Social Darwinism was focused on the ability of people to survive depending on the circumstances. Meanwhile, the major premise of eugenics was that there had to be an artificial selection. According to that view, criminals, mentally and physically disabled people, and those leading an immoral lifestyle were not supposed to survive and, moreover, have any children.

The supporters of eugenics remarked that the progress of medicine and philanthropic spirit were to blame for such a large number of “socially unacceptable” citizens. As Popenoe and Johnson wrote, the measures of getting rid of incurable individuals had been harsh, but they “kept the germ-plasm of the race reasonably purified”. That was another difference between eugenics and social Darwinism: the former had a contemptuous attitude toward some classes of people while the latter did not express any of such opinions.

The problem with eugenics was that the practice was made up by people who diverted too far from the realm of science. While Darwin’s On the Origin of Species explained the basics of natural selection, promoters of eugenics decided that they could regulate the process by themselves. Also, a vital aspect to mention is that Darwin’s reasoning referred to the selection of animals and plants, whereas eugenics focused its selective efforts on humans.

Those were two entirely different endeavors, and it would be wrong to say that eugenics was based on the best principles of Darwinism. Probably the difference between views and Darwin’s principles of natural selection could be regarded as a common feature for eugenics and social Darwinism. The latter, as well as eugenics, was quite far from Darwin’s original thought, which was concerned with plants’ and animals’ selection. Social Darwinists defended the opinion that weak groups and races of people should be diminished, and the strong should grow in power and receive cultural preference over the weak.

Another similarity between eugenics and social Darwinism was their division into several types. However, the number of types and the very classification was different. Social Darwinism took into consideration three kinds of “struggle for existence”:

  1. competition between members of a group for rare resources;
  2. struggle for resources without any competition;
  3. competition between various groups and different species for resources

In this interpretation, the keywords are “competition” and “struggle.” Darwin explained the way in which species were selected to continue existing through their ability to resist difficult circumstances and be strong enough to survive. Meanwhile, eugenics was classified into two types, none of which implied competing:

  • positive eugenics: the improvement of species by promoting the reproduction of those with the most attractive and advantageous characteristics;
  • negative eugenics: the enhancement of the species by preventing the reproduction of the ones with the most unattractive features.

Thus, as it can be seen, the keyword in eugenics approach is “improvement,” which is quite different from Darwin’s “struggle/competition.” Moreover, in Darwin’s position, the emphasis is on the species’ personal activity, while in eugenics, someone is to decide for others.

The supporters of eugenics expressed their disappointment by the fact that the approaches used in “olden days” were no longer employed. Popenoe and Johnson regretted that criminals were no longer “summarily executed,” the weakly children did not die soon after birth “through the lack of proper care and medical attention,” the mentally ill individuals were not dealt with violently, and their chance of becoming parents were not eliminated. Thus, Popenoe and Johnson regretted that there was no “bloody hand of natural selection” to deal with such “undesirable populations”.

Another difference between social Darwinism and eugenics concerned the attitude towards the individual and the group. Social Darwinism was based on the idea that the most successful groups should rule the world. Meanwhile, eugenics stated that specific individuals should be got rid of in order to allow for the successful evolution of mankind. Both of these views reflect Darwinian evolutionary thought to some extent.

The evolutionary idea was concerned with the gradual process of selecting the most attractive features and their development and improvement over the course of time. In this respect, it is possible to say that eugenics had something in common with the evolutionary thought in that eugenics aimed at promoting the best species’ survival. However, the similarity was not very close since Darwin implied a natural process of selection while eugenics wanted to govern the whole process of choosing.

The connection between social Darwinism and Darwinian evolutionary thought was closer than that of eugenics. Social Darwinism presupposed the survival of human races and groups that were more fit. However, it is also not possible to say that the connection of this view to Darwin’s evolutionary thought was too close. In the 18th-19th centuries, when social Darwinism was developed and reached the peak of its popularity, many obstacles were created for some races, which disabled the natural selection and allowed for artificial one.

Therefore, social Darwinism and eugenics had some things in common, but they were generally not the same. Eugenics implied a straightforward and strict selection whereas social Darwinism focused on survival. Although both of the theories were related to Darwinian evolutionary thought to some extent, it is not possible to say that they were based on Darwin’s ideas. Rather, their creators took the concepts Darwin had employed for plants and animals and tried to fit them to humans.