Social Darwinism and ‘Playing the Race Card’

August 4, 2021 Updated: August 5, 2021


A lot of the racist policies and sentiment in the West in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including racism against aboriginals in Canada, had their roots in social Darwinism, an offshoot of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Unfortunately this doctrine is now being revived, this time in the name of critical race theory (CRT).

In his famous 1859 book “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin argues that animals, birds, and plants adapt to their environments. With this observation, he suggests that the success of a species is specifically dependent on its ability to adapt to changing environments. Organisms that adapted survived to parent the next generation, while organisms that failed to adapt had few, if any, offspring.

Darwin called this process “natural selection.”

Soon after the publication of Darwin’s book, Herbert Spencer, an English biologist, expanded the concept of natural selection and coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Applied to humans, Spencer’s thinking was that some races and ethnic groups were more adaptable, both physically and mentally, than others. Thus, he argued that the fittest groups were more likely to survive and reproduce while those not as fit were more likely to dwindle and perish.

Social Darwinism

Spencer’s theory became known as social Darwinism, an ideology which assumes that individuals and their groups respond to the same pressures of natural selection and survival as animals, birds, and plants. This theory has been used to explain why populations differ from place to place, and why some groups have successfully expanded into the territories of other groups.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social Darwinism had become a well-accepted view in Western Europe and provided a strong justification for the colonial expansion of European powers. Nazi Germany, of course, embraced the theory as a justification for its genocidal behaviour toward the mentally handicapped, Jews, and a variety of other “non-Aryan” people.

The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II slowed—but failed to stop—the use of social Darwinist theory in explaining and justifying racial and ethnic differences. The ideology is, in fact, still an implicit assumption underlying much social interaction today.

Surprisingly, minority groups that have been subjected to considerable discrimination in the past now seem to be basing their assessment of others on social Darwinist ideology. The most obvious example is critical race theory, which posits that all “whites” have inherent advantages over all other groups of people, and consequently this belief results in whites discriminating against blacks, indigenous people, etc. CRT accepts this idea as axiomatic.

Playing the Race Card

The argument, even if it is fallacious, is used by minority groups to justify their animosity toward members of the majority group. For example, during the first week of July, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister gave a public statement responding to the toppling of the statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth in Winnipeg:

“We need to respect our heritage, just as we need to respect one another,” he said at a news conference. “The people who came here to this country—before it was a country and since—didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came here to build. They came to build better.”

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) described the premier’s comments as “the worst kind of racist dog-whistling imaginable.” Wab Kinew, the leader of the provincial NDP and an indigenous person, said: “I think the question is, for every remaining PC cabinet minister, do you stand by Mr. Pallister’s racist comments? Or do you agree with Minister Clarke?” He was referring to former minister of indigenous and northern relations Eileen Clarke, who resigned over Pallister’s comments.

Reread the premier’s words.  Do you see disparaging words about indigenous people—or any other race?

He merely said that many immigrants to Manitoba held positive attitudes toward the communities they were building. Even so, the charge of racism continued over the next week or so when the premier and his new minister of indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, Alan Lagimodiere, were condemned, even more harshly, not once, but several times. Are Pallister and Lagimodiere “racist” simply because the AMC and Wab Kinew say so?

Blatant charges like these have become known as “playing the race card.”

This means that people with certain racial and ethnic pedigrees can, very quickly, shut down debates by attacking their opponents in a disparaging way. In other words, these people can freely make ad hominem comments about other people with impunity, forcing them to back down and to even apologize no matter how innocent their remarks.

Activists like the AMC and Kinew are reviving 19th-century social Darwinism to claim that races are fundamentally different and often hostile toward each other. They are engaged in a zero-sum game of power grabbing, which is contrary to the notion of multiculturalism and national harmony that Canada aspires to achieve.

These neo-racists have no time for either civil dialogue or reconciliation, and their objective is to divide Canadians from each other.

Free and Robust Debate

Obviously, in robust discussion and debate, people are easily misunderstood. But for civil discourse to be effective, it is necessary for people to continually work through these inherent difficulties. It is necessary for people to have tolerance, humility, and empathy, especially when interacting with people from different ethnic and racial groups,

But when some people call other people pejorative names, like “racist” and “reacting as a dog to a whistle,” civil discourse, justice, and democracy increasingly become tenuous.

Canada, even with all her faults, needs to preserve free and robust debate where all people can vigorously discuss policies without being called disparaging names implying that they are irredeemable.

Justice and democracy depend on Canadians not making claims from a social Darwinist perspective. For the good of all Canadians, and for the good of our country, it is time to send both social Darwinism and ad hominem remarks to the dustbin of history.

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He is co-editor with Mark de Wolf of the book “From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report,” which can be ordered from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Amazon.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Rodney A. Clifton
Rodney A. Clifton
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.