The Gilded Age (approximately 1870-1900) was a time when the gap between the very wealthy and the exceedingly poor was amplified. In addition to major concerns over political corruption and the expansion of cities, the labor movement, and the changing role of women—there was always the pervasive belief in the inferiority of races and civilizations—that people and nations were not equal. In our understanding of Social Darwinism, Charles Darwin’s (On The Origin of Species) natural selection theory of biological evolution, derived from the plant and animal kingdoms, was applied to society as a whole by Herbert Spencer (Sociology). In nature, plants, animals, and organisms adapt, change or die. When applied to individuals and business, there are “losers” because those best equipped to be successful in the competition emerges as the “winner.” By the late 1800s Social Darwinism had become an important philosophy within the large discussions of industrialization, business competition, economic development, reform, mass immigration, class (especially great wealth), and social progress. In a very broad sense, the theory of Social Darwinism suggested that the members of society were in a constant and aggressive struggle for existence. The Gilded Age virtues of hard work, self-denial, and rags-to-riches (i.e. the “myth of the self-made man” in the Horatio Alger novels) fueled ideas supporting the expression “survival of the fittest.” In terms of the public impact, Social Darwinism proposed that social progress comes as a result of this human contest. The theory also posited the ultimate demise of the “unfit” members of society who have “lost” the competition; or, in the worst case scenario, that “unfit” members would cause a strain on society—initiating the demise of the whole social order.
—Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina