Social Darwinists Are Harmful To Others But Also To Themselves


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

misunderstanding of man

Social Darwinists operate on a theory of evolution that dismisses the vital role of cooperation. This leads to a view of human relations that damages those around them, but also seems like to be harmful to those who hold the views themselves. Image Credit: robypangy/

Social Darwinism, the application of a simplistic interpretation of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection to human relations, views people as selfish and expendable and values competition over cooperation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who hold these views are usually bad at relating to their fellow humans, a new study has found. Less obviously, social Darwinists also tend to have low self-esteem, usually failing even on their own limited terms.

Social Darwinism is the view that the social world is a competitive "jungle", with people ruthless competing for resources and power, and certain people rising to the top because they are innately better ("survival of the fittest"). It has been used to justify certain political, social, and economic views (imperialism, racism, eugenics, and social inequality, to name a few) over the past 150 or so years.


In the decades after Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), promoters of a wide variety of philosophies attempted to use it to justify their particular views for how humans should operate. The passage of time discredited many of these; those who saw the world as a struggle for dominance by the fittest races, for example, went quiet after the Second World War.

Social Darwinism has proven more enduring, although few biologists – familiar with the cooperation inherent in social species – take it seriously. A study in PLOS ONE reveals the psychological characteristics of those who maintain social Darwinist views, whether or not they would use the term.

The paper describes social Darwinists' mental model of society as: “There are no common benefits in such a view of the world; no good comes in the situation of cooperation...People are 'by nature' selfish, thoughtless and dishonest.. Individuals should care solely for their good, and others must be treated ruthlessly and instrumentally.”

Piotr Radkiewicz of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Professor Krystyna Skarzynska of Warsaw's University of Social Sciences and Humanities conducted four surveys of almost 3,000 Poles selected at random from online databases. Participants were asked 15 questions to test their level of agreement with social Darwinist views, for example how strongly they agreed with statements describing the social world as a “competitive 'jungle' in which the fittest survive and succeed...”. The surveys then tested participants for the “Big Five” and “Dark Triad” personality traits heavily used in psychology studies. There were also self-assessments of the characteristics participants considered most important for themselves and the value they placed on different moral characteristics.


Their results agreed with the view social Darwinists' beliefs are at odds with the principles of liberal democracy and a cooperative, equal society. The social Darwinists appear to live what they believe, treating those around them as means to an end, rather than people with their own rights and needs. Those most likely to see the world that way scored very low for agreeableness and empathy, and to a lesser extent to openness to experience and conscientiousness. This doesn't just make them a danger to those around them, it has plenty of negative consequences for the social Darwinists as well.

Belief in social Darwinism correlated with low self-esteem, contrary to the authors' expectations, and to a fearful attachment style. The authors think a negative view of humanity is probably a defense mechanism based on feeling unworthy of care and love.

This is unlikely to be successful, however. Having a shaky self-image can cause emotional distress to anyone. Combined with what the authors describe as “worship and admiration for strength and power,” it presumably makes for a deeply unpleasant alienation from oneself, as well as others.

 This Week in IFLScience

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