The gist of the idea starts with Darwin’s theory that species compete for resources and those that best adapt to their environment (via mutation, procreation, and expansion) will fare better than those who don’t fit. “Social Darwinism” then applies this model to human societies (tribes/races/nations) rather than biological species. Spencer’s phrase: “the survival of the fittest” captures both the original and the adapted theories.
There are a bunch of problems with this conceptual sleight-of-hand, but two stand out. First, groups of people are not different species. Even “races” are more of a social construct than the difference e.g., between a two-toed and a three-toed sloth. In other words, differences and divergences within our species have remained just that: within our species. In the (more-or-less) 10,000 years since humans started settlements, societies, and agriculture, we haven’t had enough genetic time to change very much. And between migration and interbreeding (sexual and cultural) the differences between “nations” are both recent and transient: they just don’t have much meaning. Second, and most significantly, actual (natural) Darwinism acts without consciousness and the adverse effects of evolution on the ‘losing’ species carry no moral weight. In contrast, “social Darwinism” invokes a conscious decision by a society to act in its own interests, knowing that other humans will suffer. In other words, if the essence of humanity is consciousness and moral judgment, then “social Darwinism” is a negation of that humanness.
Still, during its heyday, this approach to life and international relations gained a lot of support and still makes its appearance via a nationalistic perspective that seeks to control/condemn other groups/nations/races/species. What is significant about “”Social Darwinism” is not that countries all of a sudden started to see themselves in competition with each other, but that the spread of “scientific” thinking in Europe in the 19C led some elites to invoke Darwin’s ideas as justification for long-standing aggressiveness and animosity.
Another aspect of his ideas that Darwin (likely) didn’t foresee was the establishment (1993) of the “Darwin Awards" (https://darwinawards.com) as a forum to commemorate “those who improve our gene pool--by removing themselves from it in the most spectacular way possible.” The site contains some remarkable and often amusing stories of individual human stupidity.
I think it’s time to develop a comparable award for countries and leaders who, either through bull-headedness, ego, or a desire to be memorialized for Gotterdammerung-like behavior, put themselves in no-win situations, often leading to the demise of their country, regime, or economy.
Of course, Mr. Putin’s foray into Ukraine is the leading candidate from current affairs. There are many scenarios in which this retro-imperial revival could lead to a fundamental change in the structure of Russia (although there are also plenty of scenarios in which not much happens). We’ll have to check back in a year or two and see what eventuates.
World War II, from the perspective of both Germany and Japan, were long-shot attempts to revise the international order. In each case, the economic power of the aggressor was measurably less than that of the countries they attacked. In each case, questions were raised internally (albeit not too loudly) about the ability of the country to succeed. In each case, ideology and ego (including a good dose of “Social Darwinism”) trumped (so to speak) common sense and economic analysis. In each case, the aggressor was crushed and their government and society were reconstructed following the model of the victors. They both seem like good candidates for the ”Social Darwin” Awards.
Similar cases can be made for the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and (in its own way) the Russian Empire in the context of 1914. Each volunteered; each went down in flames. Napoleon, too, killed his Empire and many thousands of his men by marching all the way to Moscow and coming up empty-handed. Three years later, he was stuck on a tiny speck in the middle of the South Atlantic and the Bourbons had retaken the throne. Of course, the French monarchy itself had virtually bankrupted themselves by supporting the upstart Americans revolting against the British. They were so fixated on their perennial foe that they forgot to check their bank account. Six years after American independence was finally won, the French monarchy went down in flames.
There are undoubtedly many more examples we could draw upon. (I personally would go with Kaiser Wilhelm and the Germans of 1914).
One of the interesting things about the whole “Social Darwinism” thing is the intellectual dexterity of its adherents. Should we, based on the examples given, declare the ineradicable inferiority of the German “race” (or the others “losers”)? All sorts of excuses can be (and were) made (blaming the Jews was always popular). The leader who led his country over the cliff is often blamed, but not the country that followed him. There are few patriots ready to stand up and acknowledge their country’s stupidity and suggest that it should be fully dissolved or taken over by another country/culture.
All of which just illustrates that those who advocated for “Social Darwinism” not only don’t know much about evolutionary theory or basic sociology, but they also don’t actually believe it either.