Social Darwinism in European Imperialism Term Paper

May 20, 2021 by Essay Writer

Throughout the course of history, the countries were in a continuous struggle for power, prestige, and influence on the international stage. What is more, they always looked for ways to justify their desire to gain more might that became easier with the appearance of the theory of natural selection and struggle for life proposed by Charles Darwin in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The theory known as Darwinism has found practical use in sociology and politics to become known as social Darwinism and win millions of followers all over the world. In this paper, I will show that social Darwinism played a significant role in the expansion of European imperialism through two dimensions – relations of the strongest nations with the weakest ones and with one another.

Darwinism, in general, is a biological theory describing the appearance of new species and extinction of the existing ones defining species through the process of natural selection1 that is the core of Darwin’s theory and is based on:

The belief that each new variety, and ultimately every new species is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those with which it comes into competition; and the consequent extinction of less favored forms almost inevitably follows.2

Within a course of evolution, long before Darwin, the concept of natural selection did not prove its value from the biological perspective because it might have been accompanied by the extinction of the species Homo sapiens. That is why interrelations between human became characterized by sympathy and collaboration.

Nevertheless, the theory was shifted to the social interactions among the members of human society and whole states, thus bringing to life what is known as social Darwinism. This phenomenon refers to the theories that originated after Charles Darwin published his work, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, in 1859.

The followers of social Darwinism, known as social Darwinists, believed that biological rules could be transmitted to sociology and politics. In this case, society is viewed as a single organism with people, and the government is its organs.

As every single organism, society undergoes the process of evolution and change of its organs to become fitter and more powerful and, as a result, survive in the struggle for life and power. The theory of natural selection was supplemented when Darwin in 1871 published his second book, The Descent Man, in which he claimed that the development of medicine and science results in the situation where the weakest of the species are kept alive bypassing the natural selection.

Nevertheless, it was not Charles Darwin who transmitted his biological theory to social and political spheres of life, thus giving impetus to further development of racial confrontation on national and international levels, as well as affecting the distribution of wealth, power, and influence in the international arena among strong and weak countries.

Among those bringing to life social Darwinism, were Herbert Spencer who saw a society as a constantly evolving living organism; Thomas Malthus warning that the rate of growth of population was slower than the rate of growth of food supply that would lead to starvation and the death of the fittest; Francis Galton believing that physical appearances and talents could be used for distinguishing the strongest from the weakest, thus explaining natural selection; Ernst Haeckel with his idea of racial hygiene promoting white supremacy, and many others.

Those people taking Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the basis are considered the fathers of social Darwinism, and becoming more popular this theory:

Has often been understood in this sense: as a philosophy exalting competition, power, and violence over convention, ethics, and religion. Thus it has become a portmanteau of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and dictatorship, of the cults of the hero, the superman, and the master race.3

Further promotion and keeping to this theory by the prominent people of that epoch led to its popularizing throughout the most influential states, and “ultimately, social Darwinists employed their rationalizations to advance every conceivable right-wing –ism: capitalism, classism, elitism, ableism, scientism, racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism, and fascism4.

As of imperialism, broadly speaking, it is the building of the empire, i.e., an extension of power and influence over boundaries and sometimes even continents, that is very often characterized by having politically and monetarily dependent territories. Typically the reason for bringing up imperialism is the increase of wealth.

That, at least, was the case of Europe after the Industrial Revolution. This wave of imperialism became known as the New Imperialism. It was motivated by the desire to boost economic growth by establishing new markets for the European goods and receive cheap raw materials for the factories as well as find a platform for employing the surplus population. What is more, one of the motives was the national rivalry because the more land the country possessed, the more power and influence in the international arena it received.

That is why imperialism was a source for gaining additional land, thus might. But more than that, it was motivated by moral superiority, the responsibility the white people felt to take over representatives of other races to save them from themselves5. That means that Europeans believed they had a moral duty to spread their culture, customs, and morality all over the world no matter what was the desire of those who were to be civilized.

It was social Darwinism that was used by the European countries as a tool for justification of imperialism. Even more, the followers of this theory portrayed “as a natural law the oppression of the weak, the poor and the so-called ‘inferior’ races, as well as the elimination of the handicapped by the healthy, and small businesses by large companies, suggesting that this was the only way humanity could progress6.

This belief that interracial and international conflict is a source of progress has captured minds on most leaders of the Europeans countries in the nineteenth century. It led to suffering and bloodshed brought by the Europeans to the inferior races instead of civilization and progress that was implied under their imperial activities.

Under the inferior races, they meant any other than white people that demonstrate the extremely high level of white superiority in the world of that epoch. What is more, it can stretch far beyond only interracial relations and reach relations between poor and rich states, weak and strong, those located in the core and on the periphery:

There is a struggle of a race against race and of the nation against nation. In the early days of that struggle, it was a blind, unconscious struggle of barbaric tribes. At the present day, in the case of the civilized white man, it has become more and more the conscious, carefully directed attempt of the nation to fit itself to a continuously changing environment.

The nation has to foresee how and where the struggle will be carried on; the maintenance of national position is becoming more and more a conscious preparation for changing conditions, an insight into the needs of coming environments. This struggle … is the source of human progress throughout the world’s history.7

The influence that social Darwinism had on the pace of European imperialism can be viewed from two different perspectives. First, the way European countries treated smaller countries located in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania.

Second, how these countries built relations with other strong countries of the region in their race for global superiority. One more important issue is how they treated people of the so-called inferior races inside as well as outside the country’s territory.

First of all, the desire to become more powerful in the international arena by gaining more lands and resources led to further expansion of the European states over smaller countries located in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America that found its way to live in a new wave of colonialism.

By 1914, every European country that was considered to be strong had many colonies all over the world. Among such influential countries were Italy, Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Austro-Hungary, Denmark, Netherlands, and Belgium.

All of them were empires. Undergoing Industrial Revolution, they enjoyed additional wealth but at the same time felt the desperate lack of the markets for their goods, sources for cheap raw materials, and suffered from the surplus population that needed to be employed. Solving all of these problems became possible by means of extending control over foreign territories with the bonus of receiving more power and prestige.

Social Darwinism preaching the survival of the fittest, i.e., the survival and dominance of the strongest that have more resources, as well as the superiority of one race over all the others, has become a perfect tool for justifying such imperial aggression. It also justified the cruel way in which the Europeans treated those inhabiting their colonies and the promotion of racist ideology.

Europeans being considered a superior race were allowed to be cruel with the representatives of the inferior races. Among the inferior races were black Africans, East Asians, American Indians, and Australian Aborigines. One of the brightest examples of such cruelty is, of course, slavery.

European countries such as Portugal, France, Spain, Netherlands, and Britain owned millions of slaves that were taken for nothing and treated badly. Even in the case of those of the inferior races did not become slaves, the colonizer ignored their rights to decent life, culture, customs, and language, so the expansion was not only political and economic but also cultural.

At the very core, social Darwinism also justifies it because Europeans felt that it was their moral obligation to civilize the rest of the world by spreading their culture all over the globe. It was represented by the British White Man’s Burden and French civilizing mission (“mission civilisatrice”) preaching the unification of the world culture.

What is even more significant is that social Darwinism also justified the distribution of wealth inside as well as outside the country. That said, poor people or those who were of no economic benefit were allowed to die because they were unfit and could not survive. It was considered to be a representation of natural selection.

That means that those who could not work for the good of the colonizer and to add to its power either by being slaves or in any other way were no big loss. Moreover, the colonies were not allowed to make decisions regarding the use of their natural resources and workforce because the colonizers saw them as their property, not only as of the source of cheap raw materials and labor.

At the same time, one more representation of the survival of the fittest and the rule that the strongest were allowed to control the weakest was the fact that territories under control of the colonizers could not define the course of their foreign policy or make the decisions regarding the lives of their citizens, i.e., domestic policies, by themselves.

In other words, they were considered to be pawns used by the political forces in the cases when it came to solving military conflicts. Together with that, the citizens of the colonies were very often used as the food for the flames, and it was believed that it was better to send them to the battlefield because they were weaker and unfit before sending soldiers from the colonizers who were considered to be stronger and fitter and whose lives were of more value.

Moreover, the fathers of social Darwinism laid social hierarchy at its roots. That was one more justification for imperialism. Seeing the natives of the colonized territories as those located on the lower stair of development, it allowed the colonizers to feel free to mistreat them as well as have them as slaves. What is more, it implied that those people were to be controlled and could not make decisions regarding their lives on their own, i.e., they were taken away their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Together with that, social Darwinism promoted the keeping to Status Quo. That meant the further existence of slave trade, disrespect of the rights of the representatives of the inferior race seen as the lower and weaker creatures in comparison to those of the superior, and imperialism as such all over the globe.

So, generally speaking, colonialism was considered to be a natural law that was inevitable on a way to overall progress and the natives were seen as weaker and unfit while expansion and further growth of power and influence of the strongest was as well believed to be a natural process that had to be maintained by any means. What is more, social Darwinism justified imperialism by preaching that the weakest should be ruled by the strongest, as well as the inferior races could be mistreated by the superior.

Furthermore, the desire to acquire more land and power brought into life by the New Imperialism has also led to tightening relations between the strongest European nations. It should be borne in mind that this desire was focused not only on territories under control but also on the colonizers themselves since gaining control over colonialist meant power over all the colonies.

Such strive for becoming a nearly global empire resulted in the outburst of local conflicts between the colonizers to win control over their dependencies, for example, the 1988 Fashoda Crisis with Britain and France being parts to it or British and Dutch military activities in Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But what is even more important, imperialism and desire to receive more power and influence in the world has led to the two devastating World Wars. Nevertheless, Germany’s desire to conquer the whole of Europe led to its fall as the Empire, as well as the fall of empires of its allies.

Oppressing Germany as the result of the World War I gave birth to Nazism that was also justified by social Darwinism because of having racial hygiene as the basis and brought the international community to a global disaster embodied in history as the World War II.

What is more, it resulted in the birth of the eugenics movement that preached that the natural selection should be assisted by a human, thus resulting in genocides8 And demonstrating that sometimes even the superior races could fall victim to their ideology.

So, social Darwinism had a remarkable impact on the pace of European imperialism. Preaching ideas such as the struggle for life, natural selection, the survival of the fittest, superior, and inferior races, it justified all that cruelty and bloodshed that the Europeans brought to the countries they aimed to civilize.

The fact of the matter is that such imperialistic aggression was by no means civilizing, and the only goal it was aimed at achieving was the further expansion of power and influence on the international stage as well as enrichment and establishing a new world order. What is more, it led to not only suffering and bloodshed among the inferior races but also to two World Wars that claimed millions of lives of representatives of all races, inferior and superior.

That said, preaching any ideology based on natural selection and social Darwinism, i.e., the superiority of one species over the other, always leads to cruelty and hostility and never ends in progress. It should be said that history has clearly demonstrated that the survival of the fittest may be a good rule for living among animals in the natural environment, but it fails to prove its value in human society.


Darwin, Charles. Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1896.

Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Hayashi, Stuart K. Hunting down Social Darwinism: Will This Canard Go Extinct? Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. Chicago, IL: Elephant Paperbacks, 1962.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899” in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1929.

Pearson, Karl. “National Life from the Standpoint of Science” in Readings in European History 1789 to the Present: A Collection of Primary Sources. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Pub, 1994.

Yahya, Harun. Social Weapon: Darwinism. Istanbul, Turkey: Global Publishing, n.d.


1. Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 24.

2 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 280.

3 Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin, and the Darwinian Revolution, (Chicago, IL: Elephant Paperbacks, 1962), 416.

4.” Stuart K. Hayashi, Hunting down Social Darwinism: Will This Canard Go Extinct? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)3.

5. Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899” in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1929).

6.” Harun Yahya, Social Weapon: Darwinism (Istanbul, Turkey: Global Publishing, n.d.), 24.

7 Karl Pearson, “National Life from the Standpoint of Science” in Readings in European History 1789 to the Present: A Collection of Primary Sources (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Pub, 1994), 171.

8. Yahya, 26.

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