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Social Darwinism

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: On Darwin


In 1859, the world was taken by storm with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin used this forum to explain his theory that all living creatures were descended from a common ancestor. He called this "descent with modification," and claimed it occurred as a result of a natural mechanism, which he termed "natural selection."

Social Darwinism was an ideology that adapted Darwin's theories of natural selection into the realm of social relations. The result was a social theory that was used to provide a "scientific" explanation and social justification for such things as racial and social inequality. It was also the theory from which the Eugenics Movement emerged.

In 1904, Sir Francis Galton—a half-cousin of Charles Darwin—founded the Eugenics Movement in England. The word "eugenics" is derived from the Greek word meaning "well born." Galton was the first person to assert that "intelligence" was a scientifically meaningful concept and that it was inherited. He based this belief on his statistical analysis of biographical encyclopedias and school performance records. Using these to identify exceptionally accomplished people, he often found that the people whom he classified as "most talented" were related. It seemed logical to assume that if intelligence was inheritable, then so too were undesirable characteristics and social traits.

Among the characteristics viewed as almost exclusively hereditary were: mental retardation and mental illness, as well as other social defects like poverty, criminality, prostitution, and alcohol and drug abuse. One of the most dominant and recurring themes of Eugenics philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century was the emphasis on the link between mental retardation and criminality, and the consequent "menace" which mental deficiency posed to society.

As undesirable characteristics were believed to be hereditary, it was thought that, for the good of society, people who had these undesirable traits or "inferior" genes should be discouraged from having children. Some of the methods used to achieve this included segregation in institutions or sexual sterilization. On the other hand, human "thoroughbreds"—who had desirable characteristics and genes—were encouraged to have children in the interests of strengthening and improving "the race."

Many prominent Canadians of the time—including Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Nellie McClung—were advocates of Eugenics philosophy and in the 1920s and 1930s, expressed support for eugenic sterilization. Others advocates included James Woodsworth, founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and leading members of the United Farmers of Alberta.

Although today we know that Social Darwinism and Eugenics were based on a flawed understanding of genetics and heredity—as well a variety of social assumptions—at the time, these ideologies were widely accepted in the Western world, and intelligent Canadians were not immune to them. In fact, because they seemed to be based in science, and science seemed to hold the answer to every question, educated people found these ideologies very appealing.

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