Social Darwinism refers to a set of ideologies constructed around a flawed understanding of Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution. Social Darwinism was created as a means of justifying the social order which emerged in Victorian England and in particular the position of the wealthy captains of industry. Social Darwinism can be summarized as "survival of the fittest", that society works at its best when the "strong" are allowed to thrive and rise above the "weak". In the Victorian case, this meant that industrialists were the apexes of humanity -- smart, ambitious, creative and so forth -- while poor people (in particular colonial subjects) were lazy, incompetent, stupid and fit for exploitation, as they were unable to better their condition. More extreme cases (known as Eugenics) would emerge calling for active removal of "unfit" people from the gene pool, most notably the policies employed by Nazi Germany.
Leaving aside the contempt for human life inherent in such ideologies, among the most damning of Social Darwinism's flaws is the failure to understand the nature of evolutionary theory. The Theory of Evolution is a simple observation of the natural world. It does not make any judgement about whether this state of affairs in nature is right. Darwin spoke poorly of exploitation of local populations by his contemporaries in the British Empire and elsewhere. In the case of Nazi Germany this is particularly telling since despite embracing Eugenics and Social Darwinism, they outlawed Darwin's works.
Another is the fact that, in terms of evolution, fitness is not some universal construct of value but rather how well something is adapted to its environment. A white rhino is ill-suited to survive on the arctic tundra, and a polar bear is poorly suited to survive on the African savannah.
The criteria used by Social Darwinists to determine superiority is arbitrary (and usually of an "insert name here is superior" nature) and typically is more easily explained by non-genetic factors (developmental conditions, social frameworks, acquired skills, luck, etc.). It goes without saying that it is also typically highly racist.
Social Darwinism in Science Fiction
Social Darwinism often comes up in science fiction as an ideology held by villains.
- In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the First Emperor of the Galactic Empire instituted a series of Social Darwinist and Eugenic policies, resulting in the deaths of several billion people.
- The supervillan Apocalypse from Marvel Comics holds to Social Darwinist ideologies.
- In the Star Wars universe, the Neimoidians have Social Darwinian means of raising their children.
- In Mass Effect, the Protheans ascribed to a Social Darwinist ideology known as the "Cosmic Imperative".