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Classroom Connections: The Role of Social Darwinism in European Imperialism (Gr. 9-10)

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Charles Darwin., Digital ID 1220211, New York Public LibraryCharles Darwin - from the NYPL Digital Collections, ID #1220211Between the fall of Rome and the start of the Enlightenment, the issue of religion was commonly employed by Europeans to justify territorial expansion at the expense of foreign peoples. The Crusades against Islam, early efforts to unify Germany, and the colonization of the New World provide ready examples of instances in which claims of sacred mission were used to cover the underlying political and economic motivations of European rulers.

By the early 19th century, however, religion no longer provided appropriate moral cover for Imperialism. Increased literacy in Europe, the widespread use of reason brought on by the Enlightenment, the popular critiques of government sparked by the French Revolution, and religious pluralism made it so that few were willing to risk life and limb on a campaign of foreign conquest out of a sense of religious zeal.

In stepped Charles Darwin. By the late 19th century his evolutionary theories provided a new justification for exploitation. His publications On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) revolutionized European thought. Not only did Darwin theorize that animals and plants evolved into different species through a process of natural selection, he claimed that humans were animals themselves, subject to the same selection process that played out in "nature". It did not take long for other British philosophers, like Herbert Spencer and Karl Pearson, to attempt to apply Darwin's theories to human society. Why were some people rich and others poor? Why were some dark-skinned and others lighter? Why did the inhabitants of some civilizations dwell in tall buildings and others in grass huts? Could it be evolution at work? Government officials across Europe did not wait for proof. By the 1880's "Social Darwinism" was the new justification for imperial conquest around the world.

In order to provide 9th and 10th grade students an opportunity to explore this topic further, we have assembled a collection of primary and secondary source readings to be analyzed and discussed as part of common core-aligned Social Studies units on either the "New Imperialism" of the 19th century or the rise of Fascism in the 20th century.

In particular, this grouping of texts asks:

  • What exactly did Social Darwinists believe?
  • Were these theories based in real science?
  • How did these theories manifest themselves in British policy in South Africa?
  • What role did they play in the formation of Nazi doctrine in the 1920's?

According to Darwin we are descended from monkeys., Digital ID 1190450, New York Public Library"According to Darwin we are descended from monkeys" part of a series, 'Common Fallacies'- From the George Arents Cigarette Card Collection (NYPL Digital Collections), ID# 1190450

Primary Source Texts

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler: This primary source is a detailed description of the Nazi/Fascist principles of Adolf Hitler in 1923. Students will be able to see that Hitler's chapter on Race and Nation are derived from earlier social-Darwinist theories.

Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling: The poem "White Man's Burden" is a well-known example of one version of Social Darwinist belief.

An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus: This primary source is a seminal tract by an Enlightenment era economist and social thinker. The theories described here laid the groundwork for Social Darwinist theories later came later.

National Life from the Standpoint of Science by Karl Pearson: This primary source is a lecture by a 19th century theorist applying the principles of evolutionary biology to the struggle between nations for imperial supremacy. His comments come in the wake of Britain's defeat in the Boer War.

The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes: with Elucidatory Notes to Which are Added Some Chapters Describing the Political and Religious Ideas of the Testator by Cecil J. Rhodes and W.T. Stead: This is a combination of primary and secondary sources. It includes the last will and testament of the diamond magnate who governed Britain's South African colony during the Boer War and left his fortune to the creation of the Rhodes Scholarships. It also includes essays by a personal friend describing the subject's Social Darwinist views and his motives for creating the scholarships.

Primary Source Magazine and Newspaper Articles

 September 1906, from The New York TimesOta Benga: September 1906, from The New York TimesArticles from The New York Times - September 1906: In September of 1906 a man from central Africa named Ota Benga was exhibited in the monkey house of the Bronx zoo as part of an exhibit on evolution. The exhibit and the public's reaction was covered extensively by the New York Times in a series of fascinating daily articles that appeared from September 2nd through September 22nd of that year. They can be located at the New York Public Library through the New York Times online.

"Explorer Verner Home with African Curios" New York Times 9-2-1906 p. 5

"Bushman Shares A Cage with Bronx Park Apes" New York Times 9-9-1906 p.17

"Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy" New York Times 9-10-1906 p.1

"Negro Ministers Act to Free the Pygmy" New York Times 9-11-1906 p. 2

"Send Him Back to the Woods" New York Times Editorial 9-11-1906 p.6

"Mayor Won't Help to Free Caged Pygmy" New York Times 9-12-1906 p. 9

The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo Punch, December 10, 1892The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo Punch, December 10, 1892"The Rhodes Colossus" in Punch vol. 103 December 10, 1892. The popular 19th century British news magazine Punch displayed a now classic satiric cartoon depiction of South African colonial leader Cecil Rhodes and his expansionist goals. The full title of this image, "The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Capetown to Cairo" refers to the new imperialist movement to claim territories throughout the African continent. The original article and image can be located in the Microform Division of the New York Public Library (Punch is also viewable online through Project Gutenberg). This caricature is but one of many drawn of Rhodes - and other imperialists - at the time. Additional caricatures from Punch can be also viewed in the NYPL Digital Collection and through Project Gutenberg. The use of cartoons to discuss/reflect imperialism was very prevalent at the time, and the Rhodes Colossus was widely reprinted.

Secondary Source Texts:

Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard J. Hofstadter: The most popular secondary source narrative on Social Darwinism by the historian who coined the phrase 

Ota Benga the Pygmy in the Zoo by Harvey Blume and Phillip Verner Bradford: Includes primary and secondary source accounts of the 1906 exhibition of an African man in the monkey house of the Bronx zoo. It was not permitted for the public to photograph Benga, making the images in this book particularly rare and touching.

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.3 Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social studies.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.5 Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.10 By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 9–10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Want to use these texts in the Classroom?

The above documents and texts are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Tasks Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: The Role of Social Darwinism in European Imperialism Gr. 9-10 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. This Texts and Task Unit includes information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and a recommended performance task for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards for History/Social Studies.

 Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning (click to view downloadable PDF)The Role of Social Darwinism in European Imperialism: Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning (click to view downloadable PDF)

Additional Resources for Further Reading & Research:

Cecil Rhodes., Digital ID 1200240, New York Public LibraryCecil Rhodes from a series, 'Builders of the British Empire' - From the George Arents Cigarette Card Collection (NYPL Digital Collections), ID #1200240

  • Text List for Lesson Planning—with primary and secondary sources on Social Darwinism for Social Studies Gr. 9-10 (can also be used for Gr. 11-12, or for college-level students)
  • Browse for additional images in the NYPL Digital Collections including Charles Darwin, and Cecil Rhodes
  • "The Scandal at the Zoo," by Mitch Keller in The New York Times August 6, 2006. A one-hundred year retrospective on the case of Ota Benga; features additional photographs from the New York Times archive.
  • The Effects of Charles Darwin on Imperial Policy - from Boston University's Guided History Project (Research History Guides by Boston University students for students)
  • The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power by Robert I. Rotberg. The power and influence of Cecil Rhodes is chronicled in a study of his childhood, his control over South Africa's diamond industry, support of scholarship, as well as the invidious racial laws and the Transvaal raid that destroyed his reputation

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions and educational resources in the comments below.

Stephen Spear teaches U.S. and European History at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Manhattan.

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