The Label of “Social Darwinism”

The bio of Philip Kitcher at the end of his article “The Taint of ‘Social Darwinism’” leads me to believe he is one of those folks who is smart enough to know better. He is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. With that in mind, let’s proceed.

Right off the bat, the man basically accuses all Republicans of disliking evolution. The first phrase of Mr. Kitcher’s opinion piece is, “Given the well-known Republican antipathy to evolution.” Already we know we’re dealing with a ridiculous bias. A few words later, he says:

In the interests of historical accuracy, however, it should be clearly recognized that “social Darwinism” has very little to do with the ideas developed by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species.” Social Darwinism emerged as a movement in the late 19th-century, and has had waves of popularity ever since, but its central ideas owe more to the thought of a luminary of that time, Herbert Spencer, whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read.

As the folk back home might say, pooh yi! Mr. Kitcher is entirely wrong here. As best I can determine, Herbert Spencer never once advocated for a “social Darwinism” movement. In reality, the central ideas of “social Darwinism” owe mostly to Richard Hofstadter’s book Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter’s book is a criticism of “social Darwinism” and in it Hofstadter smears Herbert Spencer. But, as Tim Leonard, a Princeton University economist, has pointed out in his paper “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism”:

Hofstadter declared American social Darwinism dead no later than 1918: “as a conscious social philosophy,” Hofstadter said, “social Darwinism had disappeared in America at the end of the war” (1944, p. 175). It is an irony, then, that the term “social Darwinism” gained meaningful currency only with the book that declared the concept long dead. Historians revising Hofstadter have established that both the term “social Darwinism” and the concept of social Darwinism are unexpectedly rare in the 1860–1915 period surveyed by SDAT [Social Darwinism in American Thought].

First, the term “social Darwinism.” [Robert] Bannister and [Donald] Bellomy established that “social Darwinism” was all but unknown to English-speaking readers before the Progressive Era. Hodgson’s bibliometric analysis identified a mere eleven instances of “social Darwinism” in the Anglophone literature (as represented by the JSTOR database) before 1916. Before 1916 “social Darwinism” had almost no currency whatsoever, so it was, essentially, an anachronism as used by Hofstadter in SDAT.

“Social Darwinism” did not acquire much greater currency between 1916 and 1943; a mere 49 articles and reviews employ the term. Following the publication of SDAT, however, “social Darwinism” goes from obscure to commonplace: there are 4258 citations from 1944 to the present.

The fact that social Darwinism is anachronistic when applied to the pre-1916 period does not prove, of course, that the substance SDAT meant to characterize did not exist, but anachronism should put us on our guard, and Hofstadter’s revisionists, most prominently Bannister, have persuasively argued that, SDAT notwithstanding, Darwinist defenses of laissez-faire were, like the term “social Darwinism” itself, quite uncommon in the American Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

As Bannister and Bellomy detail, “social Darwinism” had Continental not Anglo-American origins, and, its convoluted semantic history notwithstanding, more commonly referred to competition among groups (nations or races) than to competition among individuals within a group. The rare uses of “social Darwinism” before SDAT ordinarily referred to the uses of biology to defend militarism and war. Importantly, “social Darwinism” was applied to Spencer only twice before SDAT, and the first use of the term to describe Sumner appears in Hofstadter’s 1941 publication “William Graham Sumner: Social Darwinist.” In short, though the epithet “social Darwinist” is today more closely associated with Sumner and Spencer than with any other writers, that association was all but non-existent before Hofstadter published SDAT.

In other words, Herbert Spencer did not, as Mr. Kitcher, seems to imply, lead a movement called “social Darwinism.”

Also, Herbert Spencer did not advocate, as Mr. Kitcher also tries to imply, for a “ruthless process” of “fierce competition” among individuals, or for “eugenics (pampering the weak will lead to the ‘decline of the race’) and […] theories of racial superiority (the economic and political dominance of people of North European extraction is a sign that some racial groups are intrinsically better than others)”. As Damon Root at has pointed out:

In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it’s worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill’s famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their “deeds of blood and rapine” against “subjugated races.” To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.

The same can’t be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing “a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms.” In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as “indolent and fickle” and endorsed protectionist labor laws since “competition has no respect for the superior races.”

Similarly, progressive darling Theodore Roosevelt held that the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, was “a mistake,” since the black race was “two hundred thousand years behind” the white. Yet despite these and countless other examples of racist pseudo-science being used by leading progressives, Leonard reports that Hofstadter “never applied the epithet ‘social Darwinist’ to a progressive, a practice that continues to this day.”

Which pretty much destroys Hofstadter’s and Mr. Kitcher’s “Herbert Spencer was a ‘social Darwinist’” argument.

The next mistake Mr. Kitcher makes is the obvious assumption that arguing against government interference is arguing against cooperation among people. His comments throughout the article are based on that erroneous assumption, but he demonstrates it most clearly in this paragraph:

Yet, even if stimulating competition would achieve greater economic productivity, and even if this would, by some miraculous mechanism, yield a more egalitarian distribution of economic resources (presumably through the provision of more remunerative jobs), these welcome material benefits are not all that is needed. To quote a much-cited book, we do not “live by bread alone.” If the vast majority of citizens (or, globally, of people) are to enjoy any opportunities to develop the talents they have, they need the social structures social Darwinism perceives as pampering and counter-productive. Human well-being is profoundly affected by public goods, a concept that is entirely antithetical to social Darwinism or to contemporary Republican ideology, with their mythical citizens who can fulfill their potential without rich systems of social support. It is a callous fiction to suppose that what is needed is less investment in education, health care, public transportation and affordable public housing.

The implication here being that only the federal government can create and support the social structures people need to be successful, healthy and happy. Which reminds me of the paternalism of King Osric in the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” movie. King Osric complains that his daughter is “seeking for the truth of her soul, as if I could not give it to her.” Massive government control of society alone, the words of Mr. Kitcher imply, can provide people with what they need to be happy. And advocating anything else, Mr. Kitcher’s words also imply, is to advocate against all human society and cooperation. Which is, of course, utter nonsense.

Let’s be clear. When people whip out the “social Darwinism” invective, they do not intend a mild critique. They are intending to demonize and to imply the idea to which they apply the label is tantamount to advocating a feral “survival of the fittest” death struggle. And in pretty much all cases, the application of the label is little more than propagandistic lie.

At the very end of Mr. Kitcher’s opinion piece is this sentence:

And all of us, including President Obama and the many people whose less spectacular successes have been enabled by social structures and public goods, should hope that the name leads Darwin-hating conservatives to worry about the Republican budget.

I would turn this around. People who believe in biological evolution as the way nature creates the living things that populate the planet should consider that decentralized order occurs and functions in human society as well. People who extol Darwinism and the like as proof that humanity does not need a God as creator ought to consider that neither does society need a strong central planning government to progress.

If what Republicans have proposed is “social Darwinism” then what the Democrats have proposed is “social feudalism.” The whole of left-wing, big government philosophy is paternalistic in the worst way. Your betters will decide for you what you need to be happy and healthy, and anything you own is a gift from them and which obligates your service to them. Most liberals would, I am certain, argue that is not true. Perhaps it is not. But to quote the same oft-cited book Mr. Kitcher quoted, “why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

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