The Danger of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ in Society

Social Darwinism: A Misappropriation of Natural Law onto Human Society

I recently had a conversation with a co-worker about the nature of human society. Was it progressing or regressing? Was it working just fine or was it broken beyond repair? Where are we headed? He had more pessimistic predictions than I did. To make a point during the discussion, he brought up the movie Idiocracy, a 2006 movie about a man who was frozen in a hibernation experiment, and as the Wikipedia article on it summarizes, “only to awaken 500 years later in a dystopian society where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant and that is devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.” Is that where we are headed, as he argued?

My coworker also brought up Social Darwinism to explain his point of view. Humans have stopped living competitively, to our own detriment. No longer do just the fittest survive, but the the weak as well. And the societal welfare system (social security, food stamps, medicaid/medicare, etc.) was ensuring the weak survived and reproduced, hurting our society as a whole.

After thinking about the conversation for a bit, I couldn’t get one question out of my head. Can we stop pretending that human society is guided by the same principles as Darwin’s finches?

Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were developed after researching and observing wild animals out in nature. It was not intended to be a sociological exploration of humans in a complex society. And while some principles in our society may have drawn inspiration from Darwin’s theories, the reverse is not true.

You may have heard some of these phrases before:

  • Survival of the fittest.
  • Greed is good.
  • Eat or be eaten.
  • Nice guys finish last.
  • Sink or swim.
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

They are common phrases, which all allude to some grand competition we are all supposed in, in which the stakes are pretty high. But those stakes are merely illusions. That competition for survival does not actually exist. We have been working, as a species, to protect ourselves from that competition since… forever. Out in nature, weakness could mean death. In human society, things get a bit less extreme. Not just the weakest survive, as my co-worker pointed out. But that’s not a death sentence for humanity.

“Survival of the fittest” is a belief that has led to the abandonment, maltreatment, or even destruction of many people’s lives, all in the name of ‘bettering’ the species. Eugenics programs in Nazi Germany and in the United States were founded on this ideal. Racism finds some of its roots today in Social Darwinism. American imperialism abroad and expansion in North America were justified with Social Darwinism. Even the institution of slavery in the United States was explained and justified with Social Darwinism.

We are not animals out in nature, bending to the will of nature. We are not bound to natural selection. Darwin himself chose not to expand his theory to human society because he knew his theory of evolution only applied to animals. Humans have worked for millennia to develop new technologies and methods to make existence easier; to ensure more people lived, for longer, and free of disease, to provide more and better food for more people, to protect people from the harsh environment and each other, etc.

J. Wes Ulm, a physician-researcher at Harvard Medical School, wrote a piece for Democracy, a “journal of ideas” in Spring 2010. In this piece about the destructive nature of Social Darwinism, he wrote 5 negative consequences it causes. In this post I want to further explore 4 of these effects of Social Darwinism. I will look further into social welfare in another post. But on with the consequences of Social Darwinism.

1. It rewards unscrupulous behaviors.

Ulm points out that profit-maximization can come at the expense of societal improvement, but Social Darwinism always prefers the path that leads to greater profits. Here is one recent example: in September 2015, former hedge-fund manager Martin Shkreli and his start-up company Turing Pharmaceuticals acquired a drug called Daraprim. The drug, “known generically as pyrimethamine, is used mainly to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasite infection that can cause serious or even life-threatening problems for babies born to women who become infected during pregnancy, and also for people with compromised immune systems, like AIDS patients and certain cancer patients”, according to the New York Times. Shkreli and Turing Pharmaceuticals promptly raised the price of a tablet from $13.50 to $750. It is noted further in the same article that this price increase was not the first of its kind:

Cycloserine, a drug used to treat dangerous multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, was just increased in price to $10,800 for 30 pills from $500 after its acquisition by Rodelis Therapeutics. Scott Spencer, general manager of Rodelis, said the company needed to invest to make sure the supply of the drug remained reliable. He said the company provided the drug free to certain needy patients.

In August, two members of Congress investigating generic drug price increases wrote to Valeant Pharmaceuticals after that company acquired two heart drugs, Isuprel and Nitropress, from Marathon Pharmaceuticals and promptly raised their prices by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively. Marathon had acquired the drugs from another company in 2013 and had quintupled their prices, according to the lawmakers, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.

Doxycycline, an antibiotic, went from $20 a bottle in October 2013 to $1,849 by April 2014, according to the two lawmakers. [All links original to the article][Emphasis added]


What was told to those people who relied on those drugs to stay alive and healthy? “Sorry, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” “Survival of the fittest, you know? I guess you aren’t fit enough to survive anymore. Don’t worry though, it’s for the best of everyone else.”

I find these increases in prices to be incredibly inhumane and counterproductive to the betterment of human society. And while it may have certainly been beneficial to a few wallets and company paychecks, it came at a high price for many, many people.

Another illustration of profit-maximization at the expense of human society is the classic example of pollution. I think that beyond a few outlying examples of some companies actively working to reduce pollution levels, most companies will try to produce as much pollution (as a result of making profit) as legally allowed. But that practice is not helping our society. Let’s take air pollution as an example. In an article from Nature (Sept 2015), it is explained that outdoor air pollution led to the premature deaths of over 3 million people worldwide. An article from Epidemiology (the study of the incidence and control of diseases) (Jan 2013) found that reducing air pollution improves life expectancy. According to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2015), air pollution can lead to health problems of the heart and lungs for people who exercise outside. Finally, in an article in Environmental Health Perspectives (a sub-sub-group of the National Institutes of Health) (Nov 2012) found that persistent exposure of chemical pollutants led to fewer actual births. It is apparent then that the societal goal of minimizing pollution to zero is different from the commercial goal of maximizing pollution as long as it maximizes profit.

When operating under the philosophy of Social Darwinism (“Greed is good”; “Sink or swim”; “Eat or be eaten”), it is not hard to make a decision regarding profit-maximization. If it increases profit for you: do it. Yet Social Darwinism incentivizes selfishness to a detriment to society. It encourages people to act nefariously. It rewards unscrupulous behavior.

2. It equates profitability to a company’s utility.

In one article from 2012, Business Insider noted that “by focusing their entire effort on the bottom line, many American companies have reduced their value to the other constituencies that truly great companies serve, namely customers, employees, and society. One result of the profit obsession, for example, is that big American companies are now paying the lowest wages as a percent of the economy in history,” shown in the left chart below, even though corporate profits, as a percentage of the economy, have hit an all-time high, as shown in the right chart below.

The article went on to talk about how profit-maximization may be beneficial to the shareholders, but to increase the value of the company, those profits must be shared by everyone, including the employees.

Walmart employs 1.4 million Americans, approximately 1% of the entire American workforce. The average full-time Walmart associate makes $12 an hour–$480 a week and $25,000 a year. That’s just above the poverty line. These 1.4 million Americans who are dedicating their lives to making Walmart successful, in other words, are paid so little that they’re nearly poor. Walmart itself made $27 billion of operating profit last year. If Walmart were to give each of its US associates a $5,000 raise, it would cost the company $7 billion a year. This would reduce Walmart’s operating profit to a still-extremely-healthy $20 billion. It would also give 1.4 million hard-working Americans another $100 a week to spend. [Emphasis added]

An insurance company can make billions of dollars by not paying out to customers or doing anything of value for society, Ulm points out in his original article. Companies take their profits and spend them on buying their own stock in the stock market, driving up the price of each share, allowing the stockholders to cash in big. It’s no wonder nice guys finish last.

social darwinism pol cartoon
[Image Source]
Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and celebrated capitalist theorist, noted that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable” [Source]. Yet it is capitalists who are spreading the gospel of Social Darwinism. They are ones who once advocated for child labor, unlivable wages, dangerous and lethal working conditions, the weakening of the social safety net, the deregulation of corporate capitalism, and other policies and practices which keeps the majority of society poor.

How do we judge when a company is doing well? When it contributes to human progress and achievement? When it improve the lives of its customers? Or when it merely turns a profit?

It is hard to equate an ability to produce things and make money with an ability to improve our society. As Robert F. Kennedy said of our Gross National Product in March 1968 in a speech at the University of Kansas:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. [Emphasis added]


 3. It makes human beings into commodities.

Humans are valued for their output (labor) rather than for their innate value as people. Herbert Spencer, commonly attributed to as the father of Social Darwinism (who published his ideas 3 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) believed strongly that most “unfit” in society, the poor, disabled, and elderly, should not be aided by public or private charity. He wrote in 1873 that:

Other evils, no less serious, are entailed by legislative actions and by actions of individuals, single and combined, which overlook or disregard a kindred biological truth. Beside an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is physically lowered by the artificial preservation of its feeblest members, there is an habitual neglect of the fact that the quality of a society is lowered morally and intellectually, by the artificial preservation of those who are least able to take care of themselves.


Is the quality of our society lowered, physically, morally, and intellectually, by the “artificial preservation” of people who cannot function in the same capacity as the average factory worker, service employee, or other citizen? Have they no other redeeming quality that makes them beneficial to have around? Do they provide no joy, no comfort, no entertainment, no wisdom, no experience, no insight, or no gift that makes them just as valuable as anyone else?

During the early 20th century, the scientific community was enthralled with the pseudoscience of Eugenics. Eugenics was believed to be the study and science of selective breeding of humanity for its own improvement. It is an idea which stems directly from Social Darwinism. In Europe, Eugenics made a horrifying climax during the reign of Nazi Germany, in which the Nazis committed genocide of Jews, Roma Gypsies, homosexual men, and other “inadequate” people. Because they were viewed as “inferior” to the Aryan race, they had to be exterminated in order to allow humanity to progress more efficiently. Adolf Hitler further talked about these themes in the first volume of Mein Kampf. “He essentially saw the world as one gigantic struggle among the races”, according to an io9 article, “a struggle that would ultimately be won by the strongest.” It went on to explain that:

The acceptance of Social Darwinism by the Nazis goes a long way in explaining the intense brutality meted out during the Second World War. It not only motivated them to unite the Teutonic peoples, but to decimate races altogether, and to claim other lands as the conquerors of more primitive races — including the Slavs who Hitler described as being subhuman, a race suitable for both colonization and, eventually, annihilation (Hitler’s Hunger Plan, which was never put into practice on account of stubborn Soviet resistance, called for the deliberate starvation of tens of millions of Slavs in preparation for the colonization of Ukraine and parts of Russia).

The United States was no innocent bystander when it came to Eugenics. Jim Crow laws forcing racial segregation, the illegality of interracial marriage, and the forced sterilization of criminals were all products of Eugenics. (Side note: It is important to recognize that Eugenics was not the only cause of those things). A study from the 1970s of Puerto Rican residents found that about one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers, ages 20-49, were forcibly sterilized [Source]. Kathryn Krase of Our Bodies Ourselves wrote that as early as 1907,

Policies listed the insane, the “feeble-minded,” the “dependent,” and the “diseased” as incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities, therefore justifying government-forced sterilizations. Legitimizing sterilization for certain groups led to further exploitation, as group divisions were made along race and class lines.

Some states, notably including North Carolina, set up Eugenics Boards in the early 20th century. These boards reviewed petitions from government and private agencies to impose sterilization on poor, unwed, and/or mentally disabled women, children and men. North Carolina alone sterilized over 7,600 individuals between the 1930 and 1970s.


Even in Sweden, thousands of social deviants were sterilized to “make a socially responsible breed of human being” up until the 1960s [Source]. Just in 2013, according to Policy Mic, a “report from the Center for Investigative Studies has shed light on the practice of female sterilization in a California prison during a period of four years (2006-2010). According to pundit Shanzeh Khurram, ‘at least 148 women at the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla received tubal ligation, a surgical procedure for permanent sterilization in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are closed'” [Source].

Are humans nothing more than just machine designed to output labor? Designed to birth another generation? Do we contribute nothing more to the world? Are we judged by only our physical capabilities? Humans are indeed more than just commodities. Not just the fittest should be allowed to survive, because there is not objective way to determine who is fittest. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there because we say it is, but if we chose to live our lives not as a grand competition against each other but a competition against nature’s tendency to kill us all, then our world might be better for everyone.

4. It promotes short-term visions over long-term visions.

It creates an obsession with easily quantifiable, immediate metrics for success.

Ulm had this to say about what he called “short-termism”:

The ravages of short-termism were illustrated with sobering clarity in a late 2009 Harvard Business Review forum titled “Is the U.S. Killing Its Innovation Machine?” Featuring nearly two dozen accomplished panelists, the forum noted that U.S. high-tech companies—driven by unflinching demands for cost cutting—have outsourced even high-end processes, so much so that entire sectors of engineering and computer science effectively lack home-grown expertise. Maintaining leadership in technology and manufacturing requires precisely the sort of long-term investments—in basic R&D and in trained professionals—that cannot be quantified on a balance sheet.


Companies are thinking so hard about their immediate future and abstract predictions and strategies that they forget the common humanity that still works for them and lives around them. And forgetting their employees and customers and other citizens their company impacts can harm them in that short-term plan. Which I want to argue hurts their long-term plan. Henry Blodget, the author of the Business Review article I linked earlier, makes a point about increasing wages for employees using similar logic:

If companies pay their employees more, they’ll increase loyalty, reduce turnover, and get better employees. Over the long term, this should reduce training and hiring costs. By increasing customer satisfaction, it should also increase revenue. By paying their employees more, companies will also put more money in the hands of American consumers, who will then turn around and use it to buy products and services from American companies. So the companies will help accelerate the growth of the economy as a whole. And as the economy grows, so will the companies. This, in turn, will help create more long-term shareholder value. [Original emphasis]


Thinking about the employees (their health, training, knowledge, well-being, and security) can benefit companies. The struggle for profit-making and success in the short-term can blind people to the long-term goals and processes. Our society is millennia in the making and will hopefully be around much longer. To ensure that it survives, we must stop shooting ourselves in the foot over little things that won’t affect us very much or for very long.


Ulm ended his article talking about the effects of Social Darwinism in our political sphere:

Our system’s zero-sum adversarialism has reached a disastrous endpoint: suffocated by ideological polarization, fruitless partisan bickering, stifling parliamentary obstacles, and the iron grip of moneyed interests.

The result, whichever party grasps the reins, is a fractious, dysfunctional U.S. institutional paralysis, incapable of tackling the fine-grained nuances of 21st-century public policy without collapsing into ham-fisted ideological quarrels.

Subsidized university tuition and high-quality public schools, universal child and health care, job-creating public works projects and infrastructure spending, government-sponsored research and conservation efforts, carefully managed unemployment and social safety nets—all of these are misleadingly cast as crude liberal-conservative battlegrounds, with the outcome interpreted to be benefiting one coalition or another.

In reality, such policies foster the cohesion and resilience that enable a country to weather economic storms, free up its citizens’ talents for creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, and emerge as a more competitive and self-reliant entity.


Our society requires a huge number of minds to come together and hash out the plans for the future. What will we do? What are our goals? Where will we go? We cannot approach these ideological discussions in a competitive mindset. There is no defined finish line to cross, no single medal to receive, no prize money to be earned. We are not just destined to either sink or swim. We can do more than eat or be eaten. Greed is good and bad and a lot of other things.

Social Darwinism tries to simplify our complex and multi-faceted society in simple principles misappropriated from a theory about wild animals in nature.

And unfortunately, if this simplification came to fruition, we wouldn’t have a society anymore. We’d just be wild animals in nature. Let us not forget our humanity and the innate value we all have for being alive. Let us all strive to improve ourselves and along with that, improve our community for all.

Some believe that without Social Darwinism, our society would become “devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.” I think that the opposite is true. Unless we free ourselves from the rigid shackles of Social Darwinist thought, that future may not be so far-fetched.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)


4 thoughts on “The Danger of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ in Society

  1. Reblogged this on Lucky Otters Haven and commented:
    How ironic is it that it’s the same extremists who deny science and Darwinian evolution that are all for Social Darwinism, a dark, nihilistic philosophy that holds that higher values like empathy and altruism are weaknesses to be eradicated. Only sociopaths and psychopaths need apply. Social darwinism can only lead to one thing: mass extinction, not only of humanity, but of all life on earth.
    Without empathy and caring for each other, as a species we would have self destructed long ago. It’s an important survival requirement.
    Even animals have empathy. Without it, we will sink into barbarism and eventual extinction.


  2. “There is much connection certainly between scientific truth, on the one hand, and beauty and morality, on the other: that if a man entertain false opinions regarding his own nature, he will be led thereby to courses of action which will be in some profound sense immoral or ugly. …” ( Gregory Bateson — Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 270)
    In answer to Social Darwinism and other misconceptions, Bateson observed that the proper unit of evolution is not the individual, the family, the tribe, or even the species, but the entire interwoven ecosystem.


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