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Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Society

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Charles Darwin developed the idea of evolution, and his impact on society cannot be understated. This sample short essay from Ultius explores the idea of Social Darwinism and how Darwin's thoughts influenced social and political philosophy in the modern era. 

Darwin’s Legacy

It would be difficult to examine the many spheres of life that Charles Darwin has influenced in modern times. The biologist initially made his mark in science, with his theory of evolution that examined the gradual mutation of characteristics and traits between and within organisms. The religious ramifications of such a theory were formidable, and there were certain points during the 19th century in which Darwin’s name and his theory were more discussed within the formal and informal spheres of theology than in science. Darwin’s work was also extremely influential in social application as the term Social Darwinism was coined to refer to the inherent social conflict that readily occurred within the civilized (and less-civilized) world.

There was also a significant political component of Social Darwinism, as this philosophy was widely espoused and championed by Western Civilization to justify its imperialist appetites that were only growing in  the 19th century. When one considers the fact that imperialism had been taking place well before evolutionary theory and Social Darwinism were ever conceived of, the magnitude of Darwin’s work in this aspect of life seems doubtful. However, when one recalls that Social Darwin was used to justify and to widely encourage the appropriation of land and livelihoods of those on it from a scientific perspective—which many believe still applies to today’s Western powers and contemporary imperialism—it become clear that this aspect of Darwin’s work reverberates the most in 21st century.

In order to properly deconstruct how Darwin’ science and philosophical ideas came to shape and buttress the political agenda of Westerners for centuries, it is necessary to elucidate the central components of his evolutionary theory. Essentially, this theorem refers to the process by which the most dominant and favorable traits of a species—both genetically as well as physically—assert themselves and come to influence the life around them.

Darwin referred to this propensity that takes place in nature as natural selection. The long-term effects of natural selection is that characteristics that are less-used or old will eventually die out, which causes an individual species (including genetic and physical factors relevant to it) and the population as a whole to mutate or evolve from one form to the next.

Darwin claimed that man was merely the evolution of countless centuries of simple-celled organisms, the likes of which may very well have descended from water. Natural selection, however, is the basis of the theory of evolution. It occurs due to the natural struggle for existence that the scientist attributed to the fact that reproduction rates exceed those in which food is produced, and ultimately “determines which members of the species have a better chance of survival”.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is the relation of these same scientific and biological principles to interactions between different civilizations, nations, races, and religious creeds. There is a definite political component of Social Darwinism, in which many globalists with desires for imperialism utilized Darwin’s concepts about a struggle for existence and natural selection to denote their superiority over other groups of peoples.

Social Darwinism played a highly influential role in the eventual settling of the North American continent. During the mid to the latter portion of the 19th century, as westward expansion of the ‘taming” of America  took place, Social Darwinism was aligned with Manifest Destiny as one of the primary beliefs why Americans had to settle the country from sea to sea.

This line of thought naturally extended itself to imperialist pursuits—which began in earnest in the U.S. following the settling of its westward land—and became one of the most highly influential tenets in Western ideology regarding such an ambition. The premise in which proponents of this viewpoint could use Social Darwinism as a means of corroborating their globe-settling desire was based on the fact that they believed themselves politically, socially, ideologically, intellectually, physically and most of all technologically superior to indigenous peoples in distant lands.

Therefore, under the auspices of Social Darwinism, and possibly a belief in phrenology, the desire for Westernized cultures to conquer and claim that which was others was well supported—which may be the most influential application of the scientist’s postulations in the modern world. 

In order to properly contextualize Social Darwin’s eminence in contemporary society one must understand the myriad forms that imperialism, well corroborated by this principle, has come to take. In the early part of the 20th century Western cultural leaders (particularly those in the United States) attempted to supplement if not directly displace conventional imperialism with a monetary based one, such as the dollar diplomacy tactics utilized in Central and Southern America.

Economics has always been at the heart of imperialist tendencies, and after the overt, traditional imperialism that occurred during the two World Wars imperialism was largely related to the economic principles (and clash) of capitalism versus those of communism. This sample short essay from Ultius points out that following the Soviet Union’s decline as a superpower near the end of the 20th century, there was less of a need to attempt to conquer regions to convert or preserve their type of economy. Thus, conventional methods of imperialism, occupying a foreign land and converting all its customs to that of a distant (Westernized) power which garnered immense gains in the process, returned near the end of the century and persist in the early decades of the 21st.

Social Darwinism in Western History and Politics

It is crucial to note the implicit and overt role that Social Darwinism continues to play in the imperialist appetites of Westernized powers, which are led by the U.S. in its global mission of conquering, which is cleverly euphemized as conducting a “War on Terrorism”. U.S. involvement in places such as the Middle East has traditionally been based on its lucrative natural resources. In the 1970’s America turned towards the Middle East due to gas shortages and accordant high prices; it embarked on Operation Desert Storm in the final decade of the century in order to lower gas prices and gain better access to oil.

Social Darwinism can justify both of these occurrences, and has been so implicitly and subtly ingrained in Westernized culture that it is now simply an afterthought to any aggressive military-based operation. The rationale for U.S. involvement in these aforementioned incidents is quite simple—the country views these natural resources as vital to its survival, and therefore believes that it has the military and economic strength to force those in control of such resources in foreign lands to comply with American wishes. When they are slow to do so or less than cooperative in the terms of their compliance, military force ensures which may result in a lasting occupancy, as more recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan seemingly indicate. The relevance of Social Darwinism in these forms of imperialism is easily discerned in the subsequent quotation. 


The application of Darwin’s biological concepts to the social world…buttressed imperialism, racism, nationalism, and militarism—doctrines that preached relentless conflict. Social Darwinists insisted that nations and races were engaged in a struggle for survival in which only the fittest survive and deserve to survive (Perry).

Thus, America certainly feels justified in demanding resources and taking military action that is necessary to set up economic and traditional methods of imperialism as simply a means of survival. Its current “War on Terror” provides an excellent example of this fact. The U.S. has occupied and enforced its own form of government in both Afghanistan and Iraq in events that can be traced to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Doing so is simply contemporary imperialism in the traditional sense in which countries appropriated foreign territory as their own. Afghanistan was reportedly linked to the origin of the World Trade Center destruction as mandated by Osama Bin Laden. That fact alone does not warrant America’s continuous presence there to this day.

The example of Iraq is even more revealing of the imperialist desire of the U.S. The latter invaded the former reputedly because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction—which were never found, if they were even looked for at all. Instead, the previous leader of the country’s government, Saddam Hussein, was unseated from his position of power and killed, while the U.S. implemented its own democratic form of government. This aspect of imperialism directly relates to Social Darwinism. What this theory presupposes is a difference in quality—with the practice and methods of Westernized culture being inherently superior—is actually just a difference in type. However, it is Westerners who ascribe the superiority of their culture, a tendency that Darwin himself exhibits in the following quotation in which he describes indigenous foreigners.  “These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint…they possessed hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone not of their small tribe” (Burton and Dworkin).

This quotation expresses cultural and sociological differences. However, Darwin, in his Westernized ideal perspective, ascribes a value judgment based on these differences, in which these foreigners are less developed (in the evolutionary scale), less intelligent and less capable of self-determination than Europeans. This same line of thinking continues among Social Darwinians today, and certainly applies to the spread of imperialism through the War on Terror (in Iraq in particular) and justifies the use of force for material gains. Social Darwinism has been thoroughly ingrained in Westernized culture, and readily facilitates any imperialist actions on the part of Westerners. 

Works Cited

Burton, Stacy, Dworkin, Dennis. Trials of Modernity - Europe in the World. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing. 2007. Print. 

Perry, Marvin. The Humanities in the Western Tradition. Independence: Cengage Learning. 2003. Print. 



Ultius, Inc. "Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Society." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 23 May. 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/darwin-s-legacy-evolution-and-society.html

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Ultius, Inc. (2014, May 23). Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Society. Retrieved from Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services, https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/darwin-s-legacy-evolution-and-society.html

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Ultius, Inc. "Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Society." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. May 23, 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/darwin-s-legacy-evolution-and-society.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Society." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. May 23, 2014. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/darwin-s-legacy-evolution-and-society.html.

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