Social Darwinism and the origins of scientific racism – Daily Times

Posted: June 18, 2020 at 7:47 am

The Origin of species by natural selection, Charles Darwins (1809-1882) masterpiece, was published in Nov 1859- all twelve hundred and fifty copies were sold out on the first day. Since then Darwins ideas have revolutionised the entire premise of evolutionary biology and superseded the concept of naturalism as an explanation of human evolution.

In this article, however, we will discuss the social, economic and cultural impact of Darwins theory. Social Darwinism, as it is called, has an impact in shaping the current geopolitical environment of the world. The current riots in the Unites States and the United Kingdom motivated by racial inequality have deep seated roots. There is no denying the fact that racism has existed since time immemorial, but in this article, we will review the history and impact of social Darwinism on modern day racism.

Thomas H Huxley (1825-1895) also known as Darwins bulldog, coined the phrase Social Darwinism in 1861. However, the first use of the term Social Darwinism in Europe is attributed to a French journalist called Emile Gautier (1853-1937). The concept of social Darwinism borrowed the idea of survival of the fittest and natural selection from Darwins biological theory of evolution and applied this to economics, sociology and politics. It is a mishmash of ideologies that was and still is used to justify colonisation, imperialism, racism, social inequality and eugenics.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was an English economist and an influential scholar. Malthusianism is atheoryof exponentialpopulationgrowth in comparison to the linear growth of food supply and other resources. In his book An essay on the Principle of population Malthus describes this apparent disparity between population growth and food supply. Malthusbelieved that through preventative and positive checks, thepopulation could be controlled to balance the food supply with thepopulationlevel. The Malthusian catastrophe is described as a population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio,so that population soon exceeds its food supply.

Darwin was familiar with Malthuss concepts and was influenced by his ideas. He made the Malthusian struggle for existence the basis of his natural selection. He saw a similarity between farmers picking the best stock inselective breeding, and a Malthusian philosophy. The very extended wording on the title page of his book, by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, are suggestive of his views on race superiority. In The Descent of Man, he wrote We civilised men. do our utmost to check the process of elimination, we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. Thus, the weak members of society propagate their kind.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) an English polymath and a sociologist was the first one to describe the term survival of the fittest. A very big proponent of utilitarian philosophy, Spenser believed that a social system that provides for the poor and needy is eventually detrimental to the overall growth of the society as it promotes the survival of the weak and the infirm leading to an overall retardation of growth. His concept of survival of the fittest implied that nature eliminates inefficiency- any efforts to slow this process will impair the overall benefits to the strong races. In his work,Social Statics (1850), he argued that imperialism had served civilization by clearing the inferior races off the earth.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was an English polymath and Darwins half cousin, fascinated by Darwins work, he made it his lifes mission to study variations in human population and its implication. Galton published his book the Hereditary Genius in 1869- he extensively studied the physical traits of eminent men and the inheritance of physical as well as intellectual attributes. Galton wrote in this book: Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.

Eugenics promotes the exclusion or elimination of human races deemed to be inferior with the preservation of superior races eventually leading to the overall improvement in genetic quality

It was Galton who championed the concept of eugenics (meaning well born). Eugenics promotes the exclusion or elimination of human races deemed to be inferior with the preservation of superior races eventually leading to the overall improvement in genetic quality. Eugenics gained momentum in the early 1900s with the formation of British and American Eugenics societies. Winston Churchill supported the British Eugenics Society and was an honorary vice president for the organization. Churchill believed that eugenics could solve race deterioration and reduce crime and poverty. Eugenics promoted practices such as genetic screening, birth control, marriage restrictions, bothracial segregationand sequestering the mentally ill,compulsory sterilization,forced abortions and pregnancies. Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and many other prominent citizens were outspoken supporters. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote: The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man. He proposed that the state should issue colour-coded procreation tickets to prevent the gene pool of the elite being diluted by inferior human beings. Those who decided to have children with holders of a different-coloured ticket would be punished with a heavy fine.In the United States, scientific racism was used to justify African slavery. Samuel Cartwright (1793-1863) coined the term drapetomania which was descried as a mental disorder of slaves who had tried to run away from their captives- the condition was deemed treatable. Negroes, with their smaller brains and blood vessels, and their tendency toward indolence and barbarism, had only to be kept benevolently in the state of submission, awe and reverence that God had ordained. The Negro is [then] spellbound, and cannot run away, he said.

The ethos of eugenics was incorporated into Nazi Germanys racial policies. Hitler justified the policies of sterilization of defectives, involuntary euthanasia and the holocaust based on racial hygiene, a term that gained tremendous popularity in the Nazi Germany. After the second world war, due to Hitlers adaptation of eugenics, there has been a sharp decline in the popularity of this policy, at least at a state level.

The roots of the idea that the white races are superior, more intelligent, stronger and higher on the evolutionary ladder, are varied and multifactorial.

The age of European enlightenment, followed by imperialism compounded by social Darwinism, has reinforced the concept over centuries. In Sweden, the practice of forced sterilisation was continued till 1970. In the US, involuntary sterilisation of female prisoners occurred as late as 2010.

Modern day evolutionary scientists and molecular biologists dismiss the idea of race superiority based on hereditary genetics. The superiority of a human over another, based on race, colour, creed and sex are morally and ethically wrong. A better world would be world without prejudice and racism.

The writer is a surgeon with an interest in theology and history

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Social Darwinism and the origins of scientific racism - Daily Times

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