Social Darwinism was an ideology based on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applied to human society arguing for the “survival of the fittest.” It became popular in the 19th century with the rapid imperialism conquest of the world by European nations. When clashed with native cultures, who were often technologically and militarily weaker, Social Darwinism was the justification for the usurpation of people, assimilation or elimination of the culture, and the establishment of control.
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The policy was not only applied in colonial settings but in Europe as well, to justify economic class stratification in capitalism. Therefore, any state intervention in the attempt to create equality through economic or race-based policies would be intervening with a form of natural selection. Those who were deemed “fit” often viewed themselves as superior human beings with better physical, intellectual, and moral attributes (Ruse, 2017).
Motivations and Consequences
In “The White Man’s Burden,” Kipling attempts to outline the motivations and subsequent outcomes of the intervention of the white man in societies of the natives. In the first two stanzas, he establishes the white man as the representative of a dominant and developed race that has the responsibility to help others at the bottom and this struggle should be tolerated even if it is a difficult process. Kipling argues that it is their duty to bring peace, end famine, and eliminate sickness, but it would be brought through war and conquest, and only then would the white man be able to civilize the natives.
He calls upon the white man to undertake this challenge not for glory but as volunteers for hard work. However, in the end, the design of civilization that the white man implements will be left behind, even if they themselves would not enjoy it. Instead, it would be a legacy through social structures, cities, and roads that will be helping uncivilized locals. Kipling makes an allusion to freeing the natives from the slavery of their own uncivility (Kipling, 1899).
Ethnocentrism is the act of evaluating and judging another culture based on the perceptions and standards of one’s own self-perceived more superior culture. In the very title of the poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Kipling demonstrates ethnocentrism by placing the Caucasian race on the pedestal of human species and by locating everyone else below them, thus requiring white men to help educate and bring culture to other races.
That is the primary theme of the poem based on the “white savior complex” introduced by colonizers. Kipling applies ethnocentrism to various aspects of the native society such as their governance, social structure, healthcare, and religion. He even criticizes their “wars of peace” and “mouth of famine” as uncivilized (Kipling, 1899, para. 3). These perceptions are seen in this manner due to the lack of understanding and inner workings of these societies, resorting to interventions and control disguised as help, which was never asked for. However, in the end, Kipling refers to it all as “wisdom” bestowed upon the natives.
In the modern context of globalization, it would be both incorrect and inappropriate to express that a less developed country or culture is uncivilized. However, during Kipling’s time, that was inherently the way that white men viewed the world, as they thought of themselves as a superior race. While it cannot be argued that the native cultures which Europeans and Americans encountered were commonly lagging behind in technology and science, it does not indicate that they were uncivilized. Their cultures had existed for thousands of years, establishing traditions, beliefs, and a way of life.
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They had social structures, governance, and sometimes ingenious methods to adapt to life within their climate in which white imperialists often struggled. Therefore, these people were not uncivilized in any way, they were just perceived to be so through the lens of Social Darwinism and ethnocentrism of white Europeans.
Kipling, R. (1899). The white man’s burden. Web.
Ruse, M. (2017). Social Darwinism. In M. Tibayrenc & F. J. Ayala (Eds.), On human nature (pp. 651-659). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier.