Friday, October 06, 2006

Social Inequalities

English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1930), who was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s ideas, coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”.

Spencer and other proponents of social Darwinism viewed social life as a competitive struggle for power, wealth and general well being among individuals and nations. Using this concept, Europeans of the nineteenth century could argue that their dominant position in the world was the result of natural superiority that resulted from natural selection. The Asian, African, Polynesian and other peoples that Europeans ruled or subdued at the time were seen as belonging to earlier and more primitive stages of evolution. Likewise, the social inequalities among individuals within European society were thought to be variations on which natural selection acted. The prosperous were seen as being “fit”, while the poor and powerless was seen as “unfit” individuals that natural selection would select against.

Spencer and other social Darwinists, including the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), believed that government should do nothing to aid the poor or sick. Modern social Darwinists assert that programs such as food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and free public health clinics interfere with the natural weeding out of unfit people and thereby weaken society. Or, said in reverse, a laissez-faire approach to social inequalities would lead to a natural cleansing of a population and hence would lead to a society and a world better adapted to environment pressures. In the United States and Europe, social Darwinism has been used to justify discriminatory actions against women, nonwhites and various ethnic groups. It must be noted, however, that Charles Darwin was not a social Darwinist; at least, he avoided any discussion of the social implications of his ideas.

Scientific studies on human populations have not supported the tenets of social Darwinism. It appears that it is discrimination and the ideas of superiority, as well as differential access to natural resources that produce most inequalities. The fact that some societies are more powerful than others and that some individuals within a society do not have access to necessities and luxuries is due to social history. When populations or classes of people within societies are freed from discriminatory practices, they can reach the same levels of wealth, power and education as those groups who traditionally define them as superiors.

(Quoted from “Social Darwinism”, Physical Anthropology – Sixth Edition by Philip L. Stein and Bruce M. Rowe)



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