Is social Darwinism a myth?
Few recent concepts have as complicated a historiography as “social Darwinism”. To make a long story short:
- Thanks to a beautiful bibliometric study by Geoffrey Hodgson published in the Journal of the History of Sociology, we know for sure that the expression “social Darwinism” was not much in use in Anglo-Saxon academic literature before the 1940s – and why.
- In 1944, historian Richard Hofstadter’s wrote a study of evolutionary analogies in American social thought during the 1870-1920s, and called it “Social Darwinism in American Thought.” Since then, the term has been ubiquitous. Because of Hofstadter’s book success, most people inferred that “social Darwinism” was indeed widely used in the historical period covered by the book, and that it designated a corresponding intellectual movement, with its representative figures and texts, etc.
- In 1979, Robert Bannister wrote “Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought”. In my opinion, Bannister’s project was ambiguous.
One could say that he rightly tried to clear up the misunderstanding that had developed since 1944 and Hofstadter’s book. Social Darwinism was not widely used as an expression in the US of the late 19th century, nor did it represent a coherent body of thought, as a too-quick reading of Hofstadter’s book would have it.
But one could also say that Bannister was defending something stronger than that. He really seemed to imply that social Darwinism was a myth – that in fact, the denomination covered no relevant meaning at all.
- In 1984, Donald Bellomy wrote one of the finest pieces in intellectual history that I came across. In “Social Darwinism” revisited, Bellomy ponders Bannister’ claims that social Darwinism was really a myth.
The scholarship Bellomy displays is simply *huge*, and his reflection is so very nuanced. Right from the introduction, he clarifies that the “myth question” is simply not the relevant one:
- There is no consensus on what “Social Darwinism” really is? Far from proving that the concept is a myth, it should merely recall us that “confusion over the definition of a term is not itself cause for dispensing with it; virtually any designation of a broad cultural phenomenon can be distressingly malleable, as Arthur O. Lovejoy demonstrated in his dissections of romanticism, primitivism, and pragmatism.”
- No one thought of himself as a “Social Darwinist”? That “needs not trouble us unduly. After all, medieval schoolman, classical republican, and romantic poet were not categories available to individuals at the time but were imposed, with more or less finesse, by later generations.”
After over 100 pages of careful study, Bellomy concludes that “Whether or not “Social Darwinism” was a myth, in the restricted sense by which Bannister interprets myth, every serious thinker had to come to terms with Darwinism and evolution.”
This is were I had left the historiographical debate on social Darwinism. But in 2009, the “myth” interpretation gets a new boost, with a forthcoming article by one of the most prominent members of our profession:
Leonard, T.C., Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2007.11.004
Leonard’s article focuses on the Hofstadter episode of this historiographic saga, and endorses Bannister’s revisionist views on social Darwinism – that it should be considered a myth, essentially built by scholars from the Left who distrusted laisser-faire policies. Surely, calling something a myth is not an invitation to further historical investigation of the cultural phenomena it pretends to denominate. And I think more historical investigation is precisely what is needed here, as Bellomy had emphasized in his conclusion:
“Finally, a determination of Darwinism’s influence will emerge only through immersion in the intellectual artifacts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They must be studied in their own terms, not simply as antecedents of contemporary social and political arguments or fields or research, if our goal is to comprehend either the past or present.”
In many previous articles, Leonard contributed a marvelous analysis of the eugenic views of the economists in the Progressive Era. We need more of the same kind of work on the intellectuals and businessmen labelled as social Darwinists.
Note: it is a pity that the article by Bellomy, of the size of a small book, was published in a journal impossible to find in most European libraries (except for the LSE library, as far as I can tell). The reference is:
Donald C. Bellomy, “Social Darwinism’ revisited,” Perspectives in American History 1 (1984): 1-129.
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