How does natural selection affect a population?

Right-wing extremism

Manuela Lenzen

Manuela Lenzen is a science journalist and works as a research assistant at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University. The doctor of philosophy writes primarily on the subjects of natural sciences and philosophy.

There was long silence about social Darwinism as a theory of a society in which the law of the fittest applies. Today it is back as a core element of right-wing extremism. But there have been very different interpretations in history.

The "bum" was just on everyone's pockets: It sounds like this or similar when the often juvenile perpetrators explain in court why they attacked a defenseless homeless man. Behind it lies a inhuman perspective on fringe groups of society and socially disadvantaged people, who are disparaged as "bums" or "parasites". Again and again, mobbing and violent crimes are associated with it.

For a long time, "Social Darwinism" stood for a happily bygone phenomenon: for attempts to describe the development of societies and social conditions as a "struggle for existence" in which only the best, the strongest or the most successful survive (survival of the fittest). In the meantime, the term is back: it denotes an inhuman perspective on fringe groups of society and socially disadvantaged people. For the state criminal police offices, social Darwinism is a characteristic of right-wing extremist politically motivated crime.

Historically, the term "social Darwinism" can be traced back to the beginning of the 1870s. It is often defined as the transfer of Darwin's theory of evolution to human societies. In fact, evolutionary theories of social change existed even before Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin's theory of evolution, which was quickly and widely received, was not the origin of social Darwinism, but the catalyst for a development that began earlier and in which Darwin was primarily employed as a scientific authority. [1]

Historical Social Darwinism had its heyday in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. At that time there were Social Darwinists in many countries and all political camps, from Socialists to Liberals to National Socialists - each group taking from Darwinian theory what it could use for its goals.

Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin

The British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is considered the father of social Darwinism, who founded a comprehensive social theory, ethics and philosophy of science on the idea of ​​evolution. The competition between people for their livelihoods promotes qualities such as hard work, innovation, adaptability and self-control and thus the progress of mankind. Spencer coined the terms "struggle for existence" [2] and "survival of the fittest", but did not refer to nature, but applied them to humans: the "fittest" are, according to Spencer, those who meet the demands of the Market and social life are best adapted. Because societies are becoming more and more differentiated, so people are increasingly dependent on the actions of others in their actions, this process leads to overcoming egoism and the emergence of cooperative behavior.

Darwin adopted the terms "struggle for existence", "survival of the fittest" and "evolution" from Spencer. [3] However, he received the most important impetus for his theory of evolution from the British pastor and economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834). When he analyzed English society, which was rapidly changing in the course of industrialization, at the end of the 18th century, he came to the conclusion that the population naturally grew faster than the production of food; the resulting overpopulation would be corrected by "lasting hindrances", such as disasters or famines. This in turn leads to an ongoing struggle for space and food. For Darwin (and for Alfred Russell Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolution independently of Darwin at the same time), Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798) was the impetus to see the "struggle for existence" as the engine of evolution Darwin emphasized the use of the term in a broad and metaphorical sense: for predators fighting for prey as well as for a plant trying to survive on the edge of the desert, so Darwin drew on concepts in formulating his theory of evolution , which had been developed for the description of the English society of his time and transferred them to natural history - not the other way around.

Versatile in use

Spencer's theory of social evolution was based on liberalism: all human beings have the same freedom to assert themselves in the struggle for existence; He rejected state intervention in economic life. This laissez-faire or Manchester liberalism is typical of the early forms of social Darwinism, which assumed that just as blind natural events lead to a higher development of living beings, the blind play of market forces also leads to the progress of society.

So social Darwinism did not start out as a reactionary and racist ideology. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), for example, advocated the thesis that the struggle for existence is limited to the struggle between species, within which mutual help is the predominant principle. Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw Darwin's theory as the “scientific basis of the social class struggle” and asked Darwin to dedicate the second volume of “Capital” to him. Darwin, however, did not want to support the atheist basic attitude of "capital" and refused. But social Darwinism was not necessarily anti-church. In the USA a kind of Calvinist Darwinism developed, for example William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) the economic struggle for it Existence as a test in which the character of the individual has to be proven. [4]

In Germany, the biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), also known as the "German Darwin", had a particular influence on Darwin's reception: his goal was a scientifically based worldview in which the theory of evolution should play a central role and replace religious ideas According to Haeckel, only a privileged minority can exist and flourish everywhere, the majority are condemned to starve and perish prematurely - a process that is necessary for the "perfecting" of the human race. Through his popular science lectures and writings, which were printed in large numbers, Haeckel had an enormous influence on broad sections of the population, and because of his anti-church attitude also on the social democratic and socialist workers. His ideas were later to be adopted by the National Socialists,

Eugenics and Racial Hygiene

Most of the early forms of social Darwinism were individualistic and optimistic approaches. The struggle for existence might be brutal, but it was fought between individuals, guaranteed progress and higher development, and mostly also left room for the development of altruism and morality. Eugenics and racial hygiene, on the other hand, were determined by fear of the "degeneration" of a "race". The "struggle for existence" was reinterpreted collectivistically and took place, also under the influence of racial theories such as Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), no longer between individuals but between "races". [5] In nature, the selection ensures that only the strongest can pass on their systems to the next generation. If this filter were to disappear in human societies, if medicine and the concern for the weaker could survive, a people would have to degenerate. From this consideration, eugenicists - who set themselves the task of bringing about an improvement in "race" - drew the conclusion that humans had to take over the function of natural selection for humanity. This conviction grew stronger as the late 19th century the insight prevailed that acquired traits are not inherited, that is, the human genes cannot be improved, for example, through upbringing. [6]

The term "eugenics" was coined by Francis Galton (1822-1911), a cousin of Darwin, who called for marriage counseling, educational campaigns on inheritance laws and marriage restrictions for disabled and mentally ill people. Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, Japan and Latin America. In the United States, 32 states had passed sterilization laws by 1932, on the basis of which around 38,000 people were sterilized. Eugenicists also advised the government on immigration issues. In England, eugenics was widely discussed, but was not reflected in concrete laws. [7]

The "racial hygiene" is the German variant of eugenics. The yardstick for action is the preservation and perfection of blooming life, wrote Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940), with Walter Schallmayer (1875-1919), founder of racial hygiene. Racial hygiene is necessary for this that contradicts individual hygiene, because what is good for the individual, caring for and healing the sick, caring for the handicapped, is bad for the race. [8] In 1904 the journal "Archive for Racial and Social Biology" was founded , a year later the Society for Racial Hygiene, which campaigned for the legalization of eugenically based sterilizations. When the National Socialists came to power, racial hygiene became an official policy, accompanied by campaigns about the burden that society had to bear on the "hereditary sick." On the basis of the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Offspring" of 1933, between 1934 and 1945 there were around 400,000 Sterilized people and performed 30,000 abortions. According to estimates, almost 300,000 people in Europe fell victim to the euthanasia campaigns of the National Socialists. [9]

Inequality as inequality

With National Socialism, social Darwinism had discredited itself as a theory to explain social change. Theories of social evolution are still among the serious attempts to make social change understandable, but they do not legitimize a "struggle for existence" or a right of the strongest. They reject the idea of ​​goal-oriented development and seek instead, like the neoevolutionists, for example According to recurring patterns in the history of different cultures, the more explosive question today is whether a return of eugenic thoughts is to be feared with the new possibilities of genetics and, above all, genetic diagnostics.

The term "social Darwinism" is used today to designate positions that socially marginalized groups - such as the homeless, welfare recipients or people with disabilities - as "inferior", as those who are left behind, superfluous, "social parasites" or as people who cause society costs without To use it, disqualify. [10] In addition to "social Darwinism", terms such as social chauvinism, social racism or classism are also used for such positions. If they are explicitly represented, these positions are usually accompanied by right-wing extremist ideologies. The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution regards social Darwinism as an essential ideological element of the neo-Nazi scene, alongside racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and anti-pluralism. As in their historical model, National Socialism, it is about a "national community" that excludes the weaker as well as people from other cultures. [11]

How widespread such social Darwinism beyond explicit political partisanship is in society has been and is observed in various projects. For example, as part of the long-term study "German Conditions" (Heitmeier 2002-2012) or most recently in the survey "Fragile Mitte". [12] The researchers found, for example, that 13.3 percent of the population partially agree, 4.4 percent largely agree and 2.6 percent completely agree with the statement "As in nature should prevail in society" "Actually, Germans are naturally superior to other peoples," the figures were 11.9 percent, 5.6 percent and 2.8 percent; for the statement "There is valuable and unworthy life" 9.7 percent, 3.7 percent and 4.5 percent. [13] Overall, the authors stated, the approval of social Darwinist positions and right-wing extremist positions in the German population has been since Slightly declining in 2002. However, you ask whether these are just being expressed more covertly because of the stronger public discussion and the ostracism of such positions.

The authors of the "Fragile Middle" study call the worldview behind positions that defend the rights of the strongest in the "market-conforming and market-like extremism" when assessing people according to their economic performance glorify and despise the economically weaker. Instead of humanistic, civil and democratic values ​​and norms, on the basis of which a decision is made as to who belongs in society and what place he or she should occupy, the value standards of economic efficiency are increasingly emerging The researchers found that 61 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that progress can only be made in competition, and just under eleven percent were of the opinion: "People who are of little use can afford no company. "[14]

According to the researchers, market extremism is not a mass phenomenon; it is shared by about a sixth of the population. However, it reaches into the middle of society via the self-optimization and competitive ideology. The recognition of the equality of people is the foundation of democracy, they emphasize as a central point. Against the background of an ideology of inequality, the full power of stereotypes, prejudices and political ideologies of the inferiority of groups of people could finally unfold.


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  • Timo Heiler (2009): "The indeterminacy of the term" social Darwinism ": problems, research history and practical application for today's social theories", Journal of New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts, Vol 1, 2009, 121-133
  • Wilhelm Heitmeyer (2002–2012): German conditions. Episode 1-10. Frankfurt a. M./Berlin: Suhrkamp
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  • Andreas Zick, Anna Klein (2014): Fragile Middle - Hostile States. Right-wing extremist attitudes in Germany 2014. With contributions by Eva Groß, Andreas Hövermann and Beate Küpper. Published for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation by Ralf Melzer, Bonn