Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age


Social Darwinism is a term scholars use to describe the practice of misapplying the biological evolutionary language of Charles Darwin to politics, the economy, and society. This belief that white, wealthy, Anglo-Saxon Americans were biologically superior to other groups fueled many social and political trends of the Gilded Age.

Many Social Darwinists embraced laissez-faire capitalism and racism. They believed that government should not help the poor because aid interfered in the “survival of the fittest.”

The ideas of Social Darwinism pervaded many aspects of American society, including policies related to immigration, imperialism, and public health.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinists believed that some people were successful because they were biologically and socially the “naturally” fittest, while the poor were “naturally” weak and it was unwise to allow them to breed. These “Darwinists” were corrupting Charles Darwin’s language for their own social, economic, and political explanations.

Social Darwinism, poverty, and eugenics

Many sociologists and political theorists used Social Darwinism to argue against government programs to aid the poor, for they believed that poverty was the result of natural inferiority, which should be bred out of the human population. These ideas inspired a movement called eugenics, which promoted sterilization of individuals it saw as “unfit.” Eugenic sterilizations disproportionately targeted women, minorities, and immigrants.

Social Darwinism, immigration, and imperialism

As a massive number of immigrants came to the United States, many whites believed that these new immigrants were racially inferior.

Social Darwinism was also used as a justification for American imperialism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, as imperialists argued that it was the duty of white Americans to bring civilization to "backwards" peoples.

Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany’s quest for an Aryan “master race” reflected Social Darwinist ideas. Modern biological science has completely discredited the theory of Social Darwinism.

Source: Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age
© 2021 Khan Academy

Back to top