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How did a study on finches lead to an entire theory of evolution? And how did a valid scientific theory lead to the creation of a pseudoscience hailed by Adolf Hitler? Let's take a look at Darwinism and the historical processes that led to the rise and fall of Social Darwinism.

Darwinism Definition and Theory

Darwinsim Photo of Charles Darwin StudySmarterPhotograph of Charles Darwin,

Darwinism is the term for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his book, The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection. Although Darwin never used the term itself, we can think of the process of natural selection as the “survival of the fittest.”

In this process, organisms produce multiple offspring, some of which are better adapted to their environment than others. Those offspring that are better adapted are the ones that go on to produce. Over multiple generations then, the species evolves as a whole and may even split into different species (speciation).

The Five Points of Natural Selection

Variationrandom mutations occur
Inheritancerandom mutations passed on to offspring
Selectionoffspring with the best traits are the ones to survive and reproduce
Timeprocess continues over multiple generations
Adaptationoverall population becomes better suited to the environment

The Concept of Darwinism in Action

A major inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was his time spent in the Galápagos Islands in the 1830s. We can get a better understanding of Darwinism by looking at this example. While in the Galápagos Islands, he noticed that finch species across the islands had different beaks based on their diet. For example, finches that ate nuts had strong beaks that were best fit for cracking them. And finches that ate insects had narrow beaks that were best fit for finding them.

Darwinism Beaks of Finches StudySmarterBeaks of various finches,

Darwin believed that these finches evolved into different species over time to adapt to each island environment. Finches that had beaks that allowed them to find food easier were the ones to survive and reproduce. The differences in beaks and other traits over time led to the creation of different species of finches on each island.

Darwinism vs Evolution

Darwinism is not the theory of evolution, but rather a particular school of thought. Other theories accept evolution but deny Darwin’s specific process of natural selection. For example, followers of mutationism believe mutations can be much more extreme and cause big changes within one generation, as opposed to Darwin’s slower process over many generations.

Opponents of Darwinism

A particularly vocal critic of Darwinism was Fleeming Jenkin. Jenkin argued that the earth could not possibly be old enough for Darwin's slow process of evolution to take place. (He was under the impression that the earth was millions of years old instead of the billions we know today.) Jenkin also did not believe in the theory of a common ancestor, believing the changes necessary would be far too dramatic. This ideology aligns with the religious, creationist perspective.

Social Darwinism Definition

Social Darwinism is a pseudoscience that applies Darwin’s theory of evolution, particularly the process of natural selection, to human beings. Since the first theories of Social Darwinism, pseudoscientists have used it to justify the inhumane and discriminatory treatment of marginalized groups. Social Darwinists believed that these groups were simply less fit for survival and that trying to help them would interfere with the process of evolution.


a theory or belief that claims to be backed by science, despite a lack of actual evidence

Proponents of Social Darwinism

Proponents of Social Darwinism: Herbert Spencer

Darwinism Photo of Herbert Spencer StudySmarterPhotograph of Herbert Spencer,

Social Darwinism first gained ground under English philosopher Herbert Spencer in the late 1800s. Herbert Spencer used the pseudoscience to explain and defend wealth inequality in England, believing that the poor were poor for a reason. The true creator of the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” Spencer argued that wealthy people were simply better adapted, and therefore, found more success in society.

Going a step further, Herbert Spencer actually opposed helping the poor, believing that it would interrupt natural selection and the overall betterment of society. Laissez-faire capitalism helped weed out “the unfit” so that only the best would thrive and have children. The welfare state threatened this process.

welfare state

a nation in which the government helps ensure the well-being of its citizens, especially those in need

Proponents of Social Darwinism: Sir Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton was the first to introduce eugenics as a way to better society. He proposed that the British elite had the best traits, and therefore, they should focus on reproduction whereas “unfit” groups should not be allowed to have children. Those he and others deemed unfit included minority races, the poor, and the mentally ill.


the practice of allowing only the “most fit” in society to reproduce

Social Darwinism and Eugenics

While Sir Francis Galton did not find much support for eugenics in England, it took off in other places in the early 1900s, namely the United States and Germany.

Social Darwinism and Eugenics: Germany

Perhaps the most devastating and widespread application of eugenics occurred during the Holocaust under Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler blamed the Jewish people as a whole for the difficult position Germany was in following their loss in World War I. Believing that the Aryan race was superior, he set in motion the mass extermination of individuals he thought threatened the betterment of German society. These individuals included the Jewish, but also other groups such as the mentally ill and the disabled.

the Aryan race

in the context of Nazis, the “superior” race of Germany made up of blonde-haired, blue-eyed individuals

Social Darwinism and Eugenics: The United States

In the early 1900s, eugenics was a popular concept in the United States as well. In fact, a large number of states across the U.S. passed laws in the 1920s and 1930s that legalized the forced sterilization of marginalized groups including people of color, immigrants, unmarried mothers, the mentally ill, and the disabled. Additionally, laws against miscegenation used Social Darwinism and eugenics as justification. It was not until the Holocaust that eugenics fell out of favor in the United States.


the term for sexual relations between different races

Darwinism and Social Darwinism - Key takeaways

  • Darwinism refers to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He introduced the process of natural selection or "survival of the fittest" as the means of evolution.
  • Proponents of Social Darwinism applied Darwinism and the idea of natural selection to human beings. Social Darwinists believed that marginalized groups were simply "unfit" for society and that helping them would interfere with evolution.
  • Social Darwinism began under Herbert Spencer but Sir Francis Galton introduced the practice of eugenics, in which only the "most fit" were suitable for reproducing.
  • Adolf Hitler used the concept of eugenics to justify the Holocaust and the mass extermination of the Jewish and other marginalized groups such as the mentally ill and disabled.
  • Eugenics became popular in the United States, and in the early 1900s, state laws across the nation legalized forced sterilization. However, eugenics fell out of favor after the Holocaust.

Frequently Asked Questions about Darwinism

The theory of Social Darwinism is a pseudoscience that applies the theory of Darwinism and natural selection to human beings.

Darwinism is a theory of evolution created by Charles Darwin that proposes the process of natural selection.

The evolution of finches on the Galapagos Islands is a perfect example of Darwinism. On different islands, different species of finches evolved through natural selection to have beaks best suited to their diet and environment.

Darwinism is based on real scientific evidence, whereas Social Darwinism is a pseudoscience.

Social Darwinism is a pseudoscience that applies the theory of Darwinism to human beings.

Final Darwinism Quiz


What was the name of Charles Darwin's book that proposed the concept of natural selection?

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On the Origin of Species

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Where did Darwin develop his theory of evolution?

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The Canary Islands

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Who coined the term "survival of the fittest"?

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Herbert Spencer

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Who first proposed Social Darwinism?

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Herbert Spencer

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Who first proposed eugenics?

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Sir Francis Galton

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Why did Social Darwinists argue against the welfare state?

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They believed that those who were financially or socially struggling were simply "unfit." Helping them would interfere with evolution.

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Where did eugenics find popular support?

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When did eugenics become popular?

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the early 1900s

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What led to eugenics falling out of favor in the United States?

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the Holocaust

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When did Charles Darwin publish his first book on evolution?

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