What Is Social Darwinism AP World History?

Social Darwinism is a term that was coined in the late 19th century to describe a set of beliefs that applied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to human society. The basic idea was that just as natural selection operated in the animal kingdom, it also operated in human society. This meant that the strong would survive and prosper while the weak would perish.

However, this interpretation of Darwin’s theory was controversial and generated much debate. Some people argued that it was a justification for social inequality and discrimination while others saw it as a way to promote progress and development.

Despite its controversial nature, Social Darwinism became popular in many parts of the world including Europe, America, and Japan. It influenced many aspects of society including politics, economics, and culture.

One of the most significant examples of Social Darwinism can be seen in the rise of nationalism in Europe during the late 19th century. Nationalists believed that their nation was superior to others and had a duty to conquer weaker nations in order to expand their territory and influence. This led to many conflicts including World War I and II.

Another example can be seen in the way that some businesses applied Social Darwinist principles to their practices. They believed that competition between companies would lead to the survival of the fittest and ultimately benefit society as a whole. However, this often led to monopolies or unfair business practices which hurt smaller companies and consumers.

Overall, Social Darwinism is a complex concept with multiple interpretations and implications. While some see it as a way to promote progress and development, others see it as a justification for inequality and discrimination. As with any idea or theory, it is important to examine its origins, context, and consequences before drawing conclusions.


Social Darwinism emerged at a time when many people were grappling with new ideas about science, religion, and society. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had challenged traditional religious beliefs and sparked debates about the origins of life and human nature.

Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and sociologist, was one of the first to apply Darwin’s theory to human society. He believed that societies were like organisms that evolved over time through natural selection. This meant that the most advanced societies were those that were best adapted to their environment and had the strongest individuals.

Spencer’s ideas were popularized in America by William Graham Sumner, a sociologist at Yale University. Sumner argued that Social Darwinism was a natural law that applied to all aspects of human society including politics, economics, and culture.


The implications of Social Darwinism are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, it can be seen as a way to promote progress and development by encouraging competition and innovation. This can lead to technological advancements, economic growth, and social mobility.

On the other hand, Social Darwinism can also be used to justify inequality and discrimination. If some people are seen as inherently weaker or less fit than others, they may be excluded from opportunities or discriminated against in various ways.

Additionally, some critics argue that Social Darwinism is based on flawed assumptions about human nature and society. They point out that humans are not simply animals driven by instincts but are also capable of reason, empathy, and compassion.


Despite its controversial nature, Social Darwinism has had a lasting impact on many aspects of society. It has influenced political ideologies such as nationalism and imperialism as well as economic theories such as laissez-faire capitalism.

In addition, Social Darwinism has contributed to debates about social justice and equality. Many people have criticized it for promoting discriminatory practices or justifying inequality based on arbitrary criteria such as race or gender.

Ultimately, Social Darwinism is a complex idea with far-reaching implications for how we understand ourselves as individuals and members of society. As we continue to grapple with issues of inequality, discrimination, and social progress, it is important to examine the origins and implications of this controversial theory.