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Only, there’s no such thing as Social Darwinism.

[ 83 ] July 30, 2012 |

Erik’s posts (here and here) on the seemingly Darwinian politics of modern conservativism aren’t wrong about the lilt of these contemporary thinkers, but they do a bit of injustice to the historical ones, because there was no such thing as “Social Darwinism” during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. There was such a thing as William Graham Sumner, and his collected essays bear the title Social Darwinism, but those essays were collected in and published in 1963. The editor of those essays was following the lead established by the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) identified Sumner as the brains behind the social Darwinist movement in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The problem is that there wasn’t a Social Darwinist movement during the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era. I’m not just kicking against the pricks here—as people writing dissertations are wont to do—as will become clear if you ask yourself a simple question:

When was the Modern Synthesis formulated?

The Modern Synthesis, if you don’t know, is the combination of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolutionary theory, and represents the moment when the previously theoretical Darwinian model finally found itself a mechanism of transmission. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was elegant, but prior to the Modern Synthesis scientists lacked a means of proving that it could exist in nature. When was it formulated? Between 1936 and 1942. Why is that significant?

Because prior to the Modern Synthesis there was little consensus as to the driving force behind the development of species. Russian scientists, for example, were working under Lamarckian assumptions about the heritability of acquired characteristics well into the 1960s. (The had an ideological commitment to keeping the Lamarckian faith after the Modern Synthesis, but eventually even they relented.) Point being, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Darwinian thought wasn’t the dominant strain of evolutionary theory. It lacked the evidence required to back up its elegance, and so its status in the scientific community was as tenuous then as its competitors are now. Vernon Kellogg, then president of Stanford (or not?), wrote a book entitled Darwinism Today (1908) that basically argued that there really wasn’t any. It devoted itself to explicating “the various new theories of species-forming with … names, such as heterogenesis, orthogenesis, metakinesis, geographic isolation, biologic isolation, organic selection, or orthoplasty.” So why do we associate Darwinism with this period?

Because of the Whigs and their history. The aforementioned Hofstadter wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944 in order to create a bogeyman whose existence would justify the policies of the New Deal. From what Stephen J. Gould called the “maximal diversity” of evoultionary thought during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Hofstadter selected those thinkers whose work contained implications dire enough that politicians in the 1940s could point to them to frighten the masses. Darwinism, as I demonstrated above, wasn’t regnant during the period, much less the social application of it, but Hofstadter had handed New Deal liberals their bogeyman and they weren’t about to give it up.

Ironically, the scientific community bolstered Hofstadter’s claim during the centennial of the Origin in 1959. In a book titled Darwin’s Century, Loren Eiseley and his fellow scientists created a teleological narrative of Darwinism’s development in which all evolutionary thinkers were groping their way towards the Modern Synthesis. Which is ironic because the key insight of Darwinian thought is that development isn’t teleological—that natural selection isn’t based on forethought and doesn’t working according to a plan. Eiseley and his colleagues transformed the development of Darwinian thought into the stuff of Intelligent Design, and when that narrative was welded onto Hofstadter’s, the result was the impression that Darwinism reigned supreme during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

It didn’t. It only seems to have because people have forgotten all the other evolutionary theories that were in play at the time, the most prominent of which was Lamarckian, not Darwinian, prompting prominent medical thinkers (and popular novelists) like Silas Weir Mitchell to declare:

I have sometimes been led to think that over brain-work tends not only to stunt the body and to contract the pelvis, but, by the law of evolution, to develop bigger headed offspring, or at least offspring with heads relatively disproportioned to the pelvis of the mother.

That’s correct. The most prominent neurologist in America opposed educating women because they would become smarter, pass on their larger brains to their children, then die during childbirth. Outside of giraffes, it’s difficult to find a more classic formulation of Lamarckian thought. I could go on for ages—or pages, hundreds of them—but I think I’ve established that “the Social Darwinism movement” is an ahistorical construct designed to justify policies and theories with which I otherwise agree.


Comments (83)

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  1. Malaclypse says:

    Wait, did you actually read the invocation of Spenser in the thread?

  2. hrsn says:

    Vernon Kellogg, then president of Stanford….


    • SEK says:

      Your link was doing something wonky to the blog, so I edited it into your words. Hope you don’t mind.

      As to the content of it, I’m not sure what to say. The title page of Darwinism Today identifies its author as the president of Stanford University, and given that I knew he wrote a book with David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, it never occurred to me to double-check the claim. I’m sure there’s something interesting to it — he was supposed to be president, but then they decided they couldn’t give the position to an entomologist or something — but I lack access to the archives I’d need to figure out what that something is.

  3. I’m not just kicking against the pricks here

    Oh my. I owe you yet another beer, and I’m not sure I can count that high.

  4. Matt McIrvin says:

    Hmm. I’d been wondering a few years ago about the early history of this, as a result of the articles that came out then that claimed that Vladimir Nabokov (who was an expert lepidopterist) was an Intelligent Design proponent.

    He wasn’t, of course; he was just writing in the pre-Modern Synthesis tradition, in which many biologists were skeptical that mutation + sex + natural selection was the only or even the main process driving evolution. Nabokov thought that natural selection was insufficient to produce the variations he saw, which was a more or less respectable position at the time, and had nothing to do with modern crypto-creationist political maneuvering.

    But it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know much about the range of ideas considered in the period of time between The Origin of Species and the mid-20th century. One biologist claimed to have heard somewhere that there was an early period of widespread scientific acceptance of Darwin, which actually waned later on.

    • SEK says:

      There are many interesting books on the subject, but a good place to start would be Robert Richards’ Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior or Peter Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea. People underestimate how messy evolutionary theory was at the time, and what’s fascinating — at least to someone who wrote a dissertation on the subject — isn’t just the mess itself, but the implications of its various bits and bobbles. Much of the early science fiction from the period — like Jack London’s — is strange not because it’s old, but because it’s working with a set of non-Darwinian assumptions that lead to utterly foreign conceptions of what constitutes a utopian or dystopian society.

  5. Robert Halford says:

    I’m sure you address this at length in your dissertation, but I’d always thought that “Social Darwinism” was a rough, possibly a bit inaccurate shorthand for “Herbert Spencer and thought inspired by him.” Which wasn’t strictly “Dariwinian” but did involve things like the concept of “the survival of the fittest” and notions that evolutionary survival justified opposition to a welfare state. And that the popularity of Herbert Spencer was a real thing.

    Whether or not Darwinian theories of evolution were in fact dominant amongst biologists seems neither here nor there as to whether Spencerian and “evolutionary” ideas were popular at the time, and used to justify reactionary anti-welfare state policies, although it might suggest that there’s not a direct relationship between those ideas and Darwin’s stature in the biology departments of the day.

    • DrDick says:

      The term is widely used in anthropology to describe the kinds of unilineal social evolutionary theories proposed by Spencer, which is the sense in which I used it. The irony is that these highly ethnocentric social evolutionary theories substantially predate Darwin and bore little resemblance to his actual theory (they posited progressive evolution and a single mandated evolutionary trajectory).

    • SEK says:

      You’re correct, I do address this at length in the dissertation. The short version would look something like this:

      Spencer’s ideas were Lamarckian, not Darwinian. Did he think they were Darwinian? He did. Were they actually Darwinian? No, they were not. Spencer believed that evolution was teleological, and he posited that a Lamarckian mechanism was driving it.

      For the longer version, I’m just going to self-plagiarize and apologize in advance for the length:

      Significantly absent from Hawkins’s symptomatology is the teleology of Spencerian complexity famously captured in Spencer’s dictum that development marches from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. This aspect of Spencerian thought is crucial to understanding the American application of evolutionary thought to social development, for it is what differentiates a properly Darwinian account from what is, I will argue, a staunchly Lamarckian one. A novel like H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) addresses the effect of evolutionary pressures on human populations; only in place of inevitable progress to a socialist or quasi-socialist regime, as in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) or Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907), Wells represents a dystopian future in which the lower classes evolve into the cattle-minded Eloi, the upper classes into the aggressive and amoral Morlocks. That current social divisions could be exacerbated by evolutionary processes should be commonplace in utopian and dystopian novels if Hawkins’s symptomatology is correct; that so few of them imagined such a result is a testament to the influence of Spencer’s vestigial Lamarckism and its inherently progressive teleology.

      Conventional accounts of Lamarckian thought elide its teleological assumption, focusing instead on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Thus the classic example of Lamarckian evolution is the lengthening of the giraffe’s neck:

      It is known that this animal, the tallest of mammals, inhabits the interior of Africa, and that it lives in places where the earth is almost always arid and without herbage, so that it is obliged to browse the leaves of the trees, and to force itself continually to reach them. It results from this long-continued habit, in all individuals of its race, that the front limbs have become longer than the hind ones, and that its neck is much elongated. (1062)

      A Darwinian account would stress that the circumstances of the giraffe’s environment favor the selection of giraffes with longer necks. In Lamarck’s account, the habits formed in the environment stretch the neck of each individual giraffe. That elongated neck is then passed down to the next generation of giraffes, because “all changes acquired in an organ in consequence of a habit employed sufficiently to have an effect, is [sic] preserved afterward by generation” (1062). The means by which the acquired characteristics become heritable—involving the “excavation” of cellular tissue by “imponderable” fluids—is not immediately relevant. Of concern here is the inadequacy of the conventional account vis-à-vis the mechanisms of Lamarckian evolution. The example of the giraffe only accounts for one of the two mechanisms—and the secondary one at that—Lamarck posited. The other, more important mechanism is what he variously called “le pouvoir de la vie” or “la force qui tend sans cesse a composer l’organisation,” which Stephen Jay Gould translates as “the complexifying force” (181). This complexifying force is distinct from the environmental forces (arid climate, tall trees) described above. Lamarck also argues for a persistent tendency toward greater complexity through non-adaptive evolution. The implication is that even if the environment were to remain stable, evolution would still occur through the spontaneous generation of “more elaborate” and “more complex” organs.

      Lamarck valued complexity, and the complex universe he described is necessarily hierarchical. In the 1809 edition of Philosophie zoologique, the invertebrates are less complex and are therefore ranked below the vertebrates. In the 1815 edition, invertebrate evolution parallels vertebrate evolution, but all invertebrates are confined to the lesser orders or organisms, the “animaux apathiques” and “animaux sensibles.” Numbered among the animaux apathiques, or “insensitive animals,” are all species whose evolution is driven solely by the spontaneous generation of complexity. They do not possess Lamarck’s famous “sentiment intérieur,” the ability to respond to a changed environment by altering their habits, and it follows, their forms. The higher inarticulate or unsegmented animals—the Mollusca and the Acephala, or “headless” Mollusca—can adapt their behavior to suit their environment, and therefore belong to the second order of animal complexity, the animaux sensibles or “sensitive animals.” The lower phylum of articulate or segmented animals—what are now Annelida and Arthropoda—are also merely sensitive. Only the higher articulate phyla—what biologists now call Chordata—consists of “animaux intelligentes” or “rational animals.” Within Chordata, fish are less complex than reptiles, reptiles less complex than birds, and birds less complex than mammals. I detail Lamarck’s taxonomy because its progressiveness cannot be accounted for by “l’influence des circonstances,” or adaptation to local environments, alone. Insensitive species cannot ascend to sensitivity by adapting to the environment because they do not possess the sensitivity necessary to accomplish that ascension. They will become what they will become because they are, essentially, what they are. In a hierarchical model of development, the idea of species as a natural kind remains. Only some species have not realized their full potential. But they will, thanks to what Lamarck called, in the Histoire naturelle, the “predominant prime cause [which] endows animal life with the power to make organization gradually more complex . . . . Occasionally a foreign, accidental, and therefore variable cause has interfered with the execution of the plan, without, however, destroying it” (qtd. in Corsi 189). The “rational animals” atop phyla Chordata are, a few environmental adaptations notwithstanding, the end result of the “execution of the plan.” Secondary environmental factors disrupt the orderly procession of life from the simple to the complex. The primary factor in Lamarckian evolution is thus the complexifying force that compels animals to evolve from the simple to the complex by means of a non-adaptive, spontaneous generation.

      This complexifying force, so vital to Spencer’s theory of universal development, does not appear in accounts of social Darwinism. Yet, as he insists in “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857), “it is settled beyond dispute that organic progress consists in a change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous [and] this law of organic progress is the law of all progress” (3). Although he wrote that before the publication of The Origin of Species, the Lamarckian complexifying force would continue to subtend his thought in spite of his stated commitment to Darwinism. That “from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous” and its semantic kin, “from the homogeneous into the heterogeneous,” occur nineteen times in the cornerstone of his synthetic philosophy, First Principles (1862), demonstrates the continued significance of this force to his thought.i An account of the period emphasizing the influence of the Darwinian “struggle for existence” to the exclusion of the Lamarckian complexifying force fundamentally distorts the process Spencer and his contemporaries thought guided the development of civilization. Despite the contradictions which arise from the wedding of these two evolutionary processes, the resultant theory allows for a more accurate accounting of the forces believed responsible not only for social development, but also, and importantly, its pace.

      Just as species march inexorably from the simple to the complex for Lamarck, so too did societies evolve in a predictable, progressive pattern from (to use Spencer’s terminology) the militant to the industrial or cooperative type. Spencer himself believed socialism an outmoded cooperative mode. In “From Freedom to Bondage” (1891), he claimed it impeded the natural evolution of society, writing that his “opposition to socialism results from the belief that it would stop the progress to a higher state and bring back a lower state” (22). As Regenia Gagnier suggests, one of the foremost ironies of Spencerian individualism is that it endorses a model of social development whose end result is state socialism sans the State.ii Its citizens will be cooperative (in the strongest sense) not because the State mandates it, but because individuals will have cultivated characters that compel them to behave cooperatively. This evolution would take time, as Spencer notes following his objection to socialism: “Nothing but the slow modification of human nature by the discipline of social life, can produce permanently advantageous changes” (22). Spencer here slips into a Darwinian time-frame, one in which change occurs over an almost incalculable burden of years. Had he but turned to his own Lamarckian notion of development, he would have realized he had at hand the tool required to accelerate the “modification of human nature,” such that what formerly took centuries could be accomplished in the span of two or three generations.

      • SEK says:

        Before you ask: large block quotations from one’s own dissertation are annoying, but if you’ve ever wondered where the name of my blog originated, well, now you know.

      • StevenAttewell says:

        I thought the morlocks were the workers…

      • Roger McCarthy says:

        Except that the Eloi were the degenerated upper class and that the Morlocks were the proles:

        ‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you—and wildly incredible!—and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end—! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?

        ‘Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people—due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor—is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land. About London, for instance, perhaps half the prettier country is shut in against intrusion. And this same widening gulf—which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich—will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears. Such of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die; and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs. As it seemed to me, the refined beauty and the etiolated pallor followed naturally enough.

        ‘The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man. This, I must warn you, was my theory at the time. I had no convenient cicerone in the pattern of the Utopian books. My explanation may be absolutely wrong. I still think it is the most plausible one. But even on this supposition the balanced civilization that was at last attained must have long since passed its zenith, and was now far fallen into decay. The too-perfect security of the Upper-worlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence. That I could see clearly enough already. What had happened to the Under-grounders I did not yet suspect; but from what I had seen of the Morlocks—that, by the by, was the name by which these creatures were called—I could imagine that the modification of the human type was even far more profound than among the “Eloi,” the beautiful race that I already knew.


        Surprising that your dissertation supervisor didn’t point this out….

        Reading down the comments I see you acknowledge the error – but re-reading the relevant passage from Wells was still interesting so I’ll leave it.

  6. Linnaeus says:

    Here’s Robert Young’s argument that Darwinism is social.

  7. herr doktor bimler says:

    Because prior to the Modern Synthesis there was little consensus as to the driving force behind the development of species.

    My heavily-annotated copy of Wells & Huxley’s The Science of Life (1931) says this is bollocks.

    The most prominent neurologist in America opposed educating women because they would become smarter, pass on their larger brains to their children, then die during childbirth.

    Excuse me? You are citing the ignorance and benighted opinions of a feckin’ neurologist, as indicative of the consensus at the time among biologist? That is akin to citing the opinions of some random geologist about global climate warming, as representative of the views of climatologists.

    • SEK says:

      My heavily-annotated copy of Wells & Huxley’s The Science of Life (1931) says this is bollocks.

      I don’t have your copy of the Wells and Huxley, but Huxley — for that matter, all of the Huxleys — were Darwinian partisans of long-standing, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what’s in your book. It wasn’t a consensus in the scientific community, though, I can assure you.

      You are citing the ignorance and benighted opinions of a feckin’ neurologist, as indicative of the consensus at the time among biologist? That is akin to citing the opinions of some random geologist about global climate warming, as representative of the views of climatologists.

      The so-called father of American neurology and the third most popular novelist, so not only was he well-informed as to the contemporary field of biology, his ideas were widely distributed in their literary forms. Also, remember that at this point the disciplines hadn’t yet balkanized, so this could happen: biology, psychology, sociology, literature, philosophy, botany, you name a department and William James taught the exact same course on Herbert Spencer in it.

      (And, for the record, geologists have quite a bit to say about global warming, and their views on the subject are respected.)

      • herr doktor bimler says:

        None of my biologist ancestors are still alive, so I only have their university textbooks to speak of the contempt in which Lamarckian theories was held in the 1920s.

        Remember, chromosomes had been observed since 1879, and their role as the carriers of genes established by Morgan’s Drosophilia experiments in the 1910s. Fisher’s paper on ‘particulate inheritance’ was in 1918. Haldane’s work on speciation was in the 1920s. Neo-Darwinisn principles were taken for granted as part of UK agricultural policies from the 1920s onwards.

        Perhaps things were different in the US.

        Russian scientists, for example, were working under Lamarckian assumptions about the heritability of acquired characteristics well into the 1960s.

        The fact that Stalin had killed anyone who disagreed with Lamarckian assumptions hardly indicates a scientific dispute.

        • SEK says:

          Remember, chromosomes had been observed since 1879, and their role as the carriers of genes established by Morgan’s Drosophilia experiments in the 1910s. Fisher’s paper on ‘particulate inheritance’ was in 1918. Haldane’s work on speciation was in the 1920s. Neo-Darwinisn principles were taken for granted as part of UK agricultural policies from the 1920s onwards.

          They existed, but they were competing with other ideas — not all of which were Lamarckian — and they only seem dominant when we look at them after the fact. Let me put it differently:

          The post-Synthesis Darwinism is a hamburger: top and bottom bun, beef patty, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and condiments. What you’re saying about the pre-Synthesis Darwinism isn’t untrue, it’s just that you’re pointing at an unsliced bun, an uncooked patty, a head of lettuce, a whole tomato, a block of cheese and bottles of ketchup and mustard and mayo and calling it a hamburger. It has all the makings of a hamburger, and once someone realizes how it’ll come together, it’ll be a hamburger, but it’s not a hamburger yet.

          The fact that Stalin had killed anyone who disagreed with Lamarckian assumptions hardly indicates a scientific dispute.

          I just used that example because Lysenkoism is familiar to a lot of people. I could’ve pointed to John Dewey’s theory of education as a social application of a non-Darwinian theory just as easily. And I could point to a dozen others.

  8. Superking says:

    Careful, Erik will be over here suggesting you need to read some history if you don’t stop contradicting him.

  9. robert Halford says:

    I don’t want to be a dick about it, because you know way more about this than me, but I don’t see anything in the quotes from your dissertation that contradict my comment above or Dr Dick’s comment about social Darwinism, which is roughly the sense in which I’ve always heard the term used — IIRC when we first learned the term in high school, the teacher was quick to point out that the ideas didn’t have much to do with, and weren’t really supported by, Darwin himself, but that it was a shorthand. And the shorthand did refer to something real– using biological theories of evolution/survival of the fittest to oppose the creation of welfare states. So maybe “there was no such thing as social Darwinism” is a bit overstated; isn’t it really that “the phenomenon we now call social Darwinism didn’t have that much to do with Charles Darwin, properly understood, but instead involved the application to modern societies of theories of evolutionary biology that Charles Darwin himself probably would not have entirely endorsed.”

    • SEK says:

      There’s that, but then there’s the general principle that “accurate history matters.” Or, as I wrote Erik on Facebook: the problem is that there wasn’t a coherent philosophy that advocated what Social Darwinism is said to advocate: there were a number of beliefs that, combined after the fact, roughly approximate what a Social Darwinist would’ve thought, but it’s important to note that no one actually thought those things in that way.

      I don’t think we should go inventing movements that didn’t exist, then associating people with those movements, much less making them advocates of them.

  10. John says:

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but your argument seems only to demonstrate that the term “Social Darwinism” is a misnomer, not that there was no such thing as Social Darwinism.

    • DrDick says:

      As I said upthread, the term is quite widely used by social scientists to refer to a particular school of unilineal social evolutionary theories and beliefs, best epitomized by the work of Herbert Spencer. That these theories bear little or no relationship to Darwin’s theories is beside the point. It was Spencer, not Darwin who popularized the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

      • SEK says:

        It was Spencer, not Darwin who popularized the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

        He coined it, in fact, but it was in a book that offered as its thesis a Lamarckian view of social evolution. It matters, when discussing early 20th Century social theorists, that their ideas about social development were predicated on a Lamarckian mechanism of social improvement. They believed society would improved not by increased competition, but by taking advantage of what they believed to be the mechanism of evolution: acquired characteristics.

        • Robert Halford says:

          As far as I know, this is a false distinction. Spencer et al. may have believed in the heritability of characteristics, but they also believed in a winnowing of the unfit through competition, and opposed interventions that would hinder that kind of competition. Or so I’ve always learned.

        • DrDick says:

          As I say, given well established usage in social science, the fact that there is little or no relationship between these theories and Darwin’s is irrelevant. I actually teach history of anthropological theory. I do not normally use that phrase in my lectures, using unilineal cultural evolutionary theories instead, which is a broader term. FWIW, sociocultural evolution is inherently Lamarkian in part, in contrast to biological evolution, which is why it is so much more dynamic and flexible than biological evolution.

          It is worth noting that there are in fact actual modern Darwinian social evolutionary theories being developed. Much of that is taking place in archaeology under the broad rubric of Evolutionary Archaeology (there are several competing versions). There are also some spin offs of the work of E. O. Wilson and Dawkins, such as Human Behavioral Ecology and Dual Inheritance Theory. All of these rely on a nondirectional selectionist model but are struggling to identify the units and level of selection.

    • SEK says:

      It’s important to note that there was no coherent philosophy of self-styled “Social Darwinists,” and that the apparent coherence of the set of beliefs that are colloquially referred to as “Social Darwinism” were the creation of political and scientific opportunists four decades after the fact. Again, I don’t disagree with the policy or theory founded in part on these lies, but I don’t consider “political expediency” and “intellectual honesty” to be synonyms.

  11. There’s a pretty great BBC documentary that discusses the time period after Origin, and the competition from rival theories that it endured.

  12. robert Halford says:

    But Herbert Spencer and his followers surely existed. And were influential. So, again, it is difficult to see whether you’re arguing that “social Darwinism” was imprecisely named (which I don’t think anyone would disagree with) or whether you’re arguing that there wasn’t a grouping of evolutionary ideas used to oppose welfare states that can be meaningfully (if somewhat imprecisely, as is the case with all historical generalizations) shorthanded as “social Darwinism.”

    • SEK says:

      I’m arguing both, actually. There weren’t any welfare states when Spencer’s influence was at its height, and his followers didn’t advocate against the policies that would come to define the welfare state. His belief in the necessity of altruism is central to his thought, but because Hofstadter and his heirs elide it, people end up confronting a caricature of Spencer instead of the man himself.

      To be glib for a second, if this matters for no other reason, it’s because arguing with me about this gives you something in common with Jonah Goldberg. He had different reasons for wanting Spencer to be a convenient caricature of himself, I admit, but the desire to warp history to conform to the needs of contemporary political debates needs to be discouraged on principle.

      • John says:

        Let’s leave aside welfare states. As Robert Halford has asked, what did Justice Holmes mean when he said “the 14th Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics?” Was Holmes wrong to think that the economic theory on which the majority threw out New York’s maximum hours law was based on Spencer’s ideas? Is it generally wrong to think that early twentieth century opposition to government regulation of the economy on behalf of the less fortunate often based its ideas on the evolutionary theories of Spencer and the like?

        The argument you’re making here is really imprecise, because you’re acting as if the clear part that nobody disagrees with (that “social Darwinism” has little to do with Darwin’s ideas) somehow demonstrates the other, controversial part (that people influenced by evolutionary ideas opposed various ameliorative social legislation in the early twentieth century, or that opposition to such legislation often couched itself in terms of evolutionary ideas), when, in fact, it does no such thing.

        And I guess you’re just tossing that Jonah Goldberg thing out there without actually meaning anything by it, but I’m sure that even you have on occasion made the same argument about something that Jonah Goldberg did. It’s not actually an argument.

      • firefall says:

        There weren’t any welfare states when Spencer’s influence was at its height


  13. Robert Halford says:

    As I pointed out upthread, if that’s true, what was Holmes referring to in the Lochner dissent?

    Also, this entire essay by Spenser seems to be one long use of evolutionary theory to attack 19th century moves towards what we’d today call the welfare state.

    It’s one thing to point out that intellectual history labels aren’t water tight, and I’d agree, but it’s something else to say that there was never ever any rough grouping of ideas that might be usefully called social Darwinism.

    • SEK says:

      I’m not going to claim that there wasn’t a Spencer vogue, because there was, and I address it at length in the dissertation. I will, however, claim that Spencer’s Darwinism wasn’t Darwinian, if only because it was appended to Spencer’s already complete, very Lamarckian notion of social evolution.

  14. […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}So SEK put me in an unusual position in his post on so-called “Social Darwinism.” My professional persona is very interested in his arguments. SEK present a compelling argument, at […]

  15. Someone should go all Tom Stoppard on this stuff and dramatize it.

    Maybe like cut back and forth across three time periods: a well-meaning-but arrogant Spencer figuring out his stuff, an equally-well-meaning-but-more-ruthless Hofstadter dusting it off for his dark purposes, and a current-day grad student trying to untangle everything.

    The intellectual through-line would be something about the drive to impose order on society/life/relationships and the impossibility of doing so. Spencer struggles early; eventually produces his intellectual vision and becomes one of the world’s most influential thinkers; but his ideas fall by the wayside and in his dotage he becomes disillusioned and lonely; now when his work is remembered at all it’s incredibly misconstrued.

    Hofstadter betrays his sense of intellectual integrity to keep the New Deal consensus alive as long as he can, and succeeds beyond his wildest dreams for awhile, only to be swept away by the events of the 60s which run on the wild impulses he had been fighting his whole career.

    A current-day grad student in neuroscience? burns to understand human behavior but is upset about the conceptual confusion in psychology and is driven to go through the history of psychology, gets caught up trying to follow the twists and turns of the above, eventually concluding that anything we can say about ourselves is distorted by our being the ones having to say it.

    The relationship stuff could mirror both the times and intellectual dispositions of the above. Something like that funny “heads too big for childbirth” anecdote makes Spencer view women as breeding machines and prevents him from finding a connection on a human level; Hofstadter wants to protect his wife from the realities of the workplace/society and tries to manage her paternalistically which how do you think that ends up; the grad student and his girlfriend have to negotiate a social context where everything is in flux and the only real rules are the ones they impose on themselves.

    I’d see/read that.

  16. SEK says:

    Just to note: I’m loving the fact that y’all are discussing my dissertation with me — It’s a first! — and I’ll respond to comments I haven’t responded to yet tomorrow.

  17. heckblazer says:

    Would the following statements be a fair summary of your position?

    1. While there were people who used evolution to justify 19th and early 20th century laissez faire capitalism, they were neither homogeneous nor using Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

    2. When the term Social Darwinism was coined Darwin had become synonymous with evolution because of the grand synthesis, but the term is anachronistic because the people the term is supposed to refer to were not actually using Darwin’s theories.

    3. A major reason why you think this is a big deal is because figures of the time who held similar theories of evolution came to radically different conclusions as to what that implied about social policy.

  18. bradp says:

    The Herbert Spencer stuff isn’t even accurate. A horrible misrepresentation of his beliefs.

    Read the ten chapters he devoted to “Positive Beneficence” in The Principle Of Ethics. Or refer to the sentence that begins the paragraph following the infamous “they should die” line:

    Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated

    He was an early proponent of spontaneous order and progress according to natural forces, but he also believed man could and should consciously intervene according to their conscience.

    • DrDick says:

      Why doesn’t it surprise me that a libertarian would be sympathetic to the demonstrably false doctrines of Herbert Spencer?

      • bradp says:

        Why doesn’t it surprise me that you would say that even though you have a demonstrable lack of knowledge of Spencer’s doctrines.

        • DrDick says:

          I have in fact read Spencer (and most of the other prominent 19th century social evolutionists) and teach the history of social theory. You put an unreasonably benign reading on his thoughts. See the essay that Robert Halford links to above, though I suspect you agree with most of what he says.

          • Malaclypse says:

            Of all the things about academia I miss, I miss teaching the history of social theory the most.

          • bradp says:

            Sure, I’ll read Man Vs. the State if you read this:


            • DrDick says:

              OK, I read it and it has no bearing on anything I said (indeed, I made many of the same points in my comments). It does not even address my central point that the theories generally grouped under the term serve to rationalize and naturalize existing social hierachies.

              • elm says:

                I skimmed it and agree with you: he’s saying that Hpfstadter had an axe to grind againt Spencer and coined the term for political reasons. I can’t find where Leonard in anyway shows that your reading of Spencer is wrong. He’s not even trying to do any such thing, as far as I can tell. (At most, he can be used as a form of an ad hominen attack on your position: Hofstadter and you agree about Spencer being wrong; Hofstadter was biased and political; therefor he and you are wrong.)

                • elm says:

                  Reading it a little more, it’s becoming clear that Leonard is guilty of what he’s accusing Hofstadter of: allowing the axe he’s grinding to lead to misinterpretation of the source material.

                  Here’s Leonard on p. 47: “Hofstadter1 opined, “men like Cooley and Ross refused to look upon the poor as unfit or toworship at the shrine of the fittest” (1992, p. 160). This was nonsense. Ross, especially, was quite happy to worship at the shrine of fittest, provided the fittest were selected by state experts.”

                  Notice, Hofstadter says nothing about whether Ross worshiped at the shrine of the fittest, just that Ross thought the poor (or at least some of them, it turns out) were also allowed to worship at said shrine.

        • elm says:

          Where does DrDick demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Spencer’s doctrines?

          • bradp says:

            The unifying focus of these theories had nothing to do with the social welfare state, but rather with the rationalization and legitimation of prevailing social hierarchies through reference to the supposed innate superiority of the privileged.

            This, for one, is absurdly incorrect if directed at Spencer.

            • DrDick says:

              Really? You need to go back and read Spencer again, because that is indeed central to his theory and his notions of the “survival of the fittest.” Those at the top of the social hierarchy got there because they were the most fit.

              • bradp says:

                Still very wrong.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Perhaps elaborating beyond three words would lend credence to your otherwise-persuasive argument.

                • bradp says:

                  Perhaps elaborating beyond three words would lend credence to your otherwise-persuasive argument.

                  He wrote a book in 1850 expressing absolute opposition to colonialism, support for completely equal rights for men and women, support for abolition, and proclaiming the illegitimacy of property in land.

                  It also includes this:

                  “It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed ‘the great unwashed’; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen ….”

                • A Random Lurker Temporarily Decloaked says:

                  Brad, I came to the same conclusion. Like yourself, I’d definitely say I am a layperson in this field.

                  However, I came away with the same impression as two experts in related but distinct disciplines.

                  So there doesn’t seem to be some esoteric knowledge that leads people to these conclusions. It’s something where experts & non-experts seem to reach similar conclusions.

                  Therefore, it’d behoove you when asserting these interpretations are wrong to actually advance an argument, instead of trusting that others will find the weight of your genius and the strength of your conviction persuasive.

                • shah8 says:

                  Dude, Spencer is talked about all the time in my neurology books. That’s why I know you’re wrong. Spencer was half a crank, and he wrote about all kinds of stuff. In grown-up circles, we mostly talk about his more “rigorous” and influential and systemic thought. It is thoroughly undeniable that Spencer had his own “Calvin’s Theory of Evolution As A Reproduction of Calvin” angle to push. Look, if you’re going to do all of this scrip-kiddie philosophy and hang around expecting considered thought, I think you’ll be disappointed. Cool kidz talk about cool kidz topics, with originality, verve, and wit. None of which you display.

                • A Random Lurker Temporarily Decloaked says:

                  Okay, apparently you did at least do one real argument between when I loaded the page and posted a comment.

                  So that’s something.

                • Hogan says:

                  “Talk nicely about the lower orders” isn’t much of a challenge to existing social hierarchies.

                • bradp says:

                  Alright, how about this:

                  Equity knows no difference of sex. In its vocabulary the word man must be understood in a generic, and not in a specific sense. The law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race—female as well as male. The same à priori reasoning which establishes that law for men (Chaps. III. and IV.), may be used with equal cogency on behalf of women. The Moral Sense, by virtue of which the masculine mind responds to that law, exists in the feminine mind as well. Hence the several rights deducible from that law must appertain equally to both sexes.

                • bradp says:

                  How about this on unionism:

                  This is too sweeping a conclusion. They seem natural to the passing phase of social evolution, and may have beneficial functions under existing conditions. Everywhere aggression begets resistance and counter-aggression; and in our present transitional state, semi-militant and semi-industrial, trespasses have to be kept in check by the fear of retaliatory trespasses.

                  Judging from their harsh and cruel conduct in the past, it is tolerably certain that employers are now prevented from doing unfair things which they would else do. Conscious that trade-unions are ever ready to act, they are more prompt to raise wages when trade is flourishing than they would otherwise be; and when there come times of depression, they lower wages only when they cannot otherwise carry on their businesses.

                  Knowing the power which unions can exert, masters are led to treat the individual members of them with more respect than they would otherwise do: the status of the workman is almost necessarily raised. Moreover, having a strong motive for keeping on good terms with the union, a master is more likely than he would else be to study the general convenience of his men, and to carry on his works in ways conducive to their health. There is an ultimate gain in moral and physical treatment if there is no ultimate gain in wages.

                  Then in the third place must be named the discipline given by trade-union organization and action. Considered under its chief aspect, the progress of social life at large is a progress in fitness for living and working together; and all minor societies of men formed within a major society – a nation – subject their members to sets of incentives and restraints which increase their fitness. The induced habits of feeling and thought tend to make men more available than they would else be, for such higher forms of social organization as will probably hereafter arise.

                • DrDick says:

                  None of these examples conflicts with my statement that his theory naturalizes and legitimates existing hierarchies by arguing that the fittest automatically rise to the top. That he has some compassion for the lower orders does not change that.

                  He simply indulges in the same empirical/logical fallacy as libertarianism, which is that social systems naturally evolve to produce the best possible situation. The reality is that social hierarchies are artificially constructed by elites to preserve, protect, and legitimate their own privilege at the expense of everyone else.

                • bradp says:

                  First off, Spencer repeatedly stated that fittest did not mean best. Second off, I’m not sure where you get “automatically rise to the top”. And lastly, that “rise to the top” occurs through mutual aid societies and worker co-ops.

  19. shah8 says:

    What a wonderful thread!

    And then bradp has to go ruin it with his incomprehensible/untopical? interpretation.

    The title of the thread, however, was just too ambitious. Words and themes can have radically different meanings and histories, and we normally use context to pick out the correct meaning and the correct history. That is all.

  20. IM says:

    A question, since I haven’t read your dissertation. How do you deal with Haeckel?

    Here we have someone who was the chief proponent and popularizer of darwinism in Germany. But what he called Darwinismus obviously was his own theory, drawing on Lamarck.

    And Haeckel liked to mix his science with his philosophy and politics. He is often considered a social darwinist.

    Can we really be content with the result that he wasn’t a darwinist when everybody in Germany and many other countries, including Darwin treated him as one?

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