Tim Leonard on social Darwinism and mythology

The following is a comment sent by Tim Leonard in reaction to a post by Clement published in early June.


Broadly speaking, social Darwinism refers to the use of Darwinian and other ideas about evolution, notably “survival of the fittest,” to explain or to justify aspects of human society. Were the term neutral, the “social” qualifier would be superfluous, since Darwin himself believed that his theory of evolution by natural selection encompassed the human animal too. But “social Darwinism” has, in fact, rarely been a neutral term. Since its first English-language appearance circa 1877, “social Darwinism” has been a term of abuse used by critics to discredit views they opposed.
Darwinism’s reputation has ebbed and flowed in the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species, but social Darwinism remains a slur, used only by critics. I know of no one who has ever described his or her own views as social Darwinist. As historians, this tells us something important. We might wish that “social Darwinism” could be made neutral and refer to ideas that Darwin actually endorsed; but concepts are path-dependent, and, if the past is any guide, “social Darwinism” will survive, and will continue to function an epithet.


While “social Darwinism” has always been used to discredit ideas critics dislike, critics have disliked different things (as Bellomy rightly observed). Thus “social Darwinism” has been applied to phenomena as diverse as plutocracy, racism, eugenics, militarism (especially in the name of national superiority), imperialism, and laissez-faire capitalism. That’s a lot of semantic freight, and the set of intellectuals who endorsed all these things is essentially empty.
Today, “social Darwinism” is most commonly associated with an evolutionary defense of free markets, premised on the critic’s view that economic competition is brutish and amoral, just as competition in nature is “red in tooth and claw.”
The identification of social Darwinism with free markets we owe to Richard Hofstadter’s (1944) Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. It is Hofstadter who gave “social Darwinism” its currency and who made Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner into the arch-social Darwinists. Both Spencer and Sumner defended free markets, and both were, as a result, targets for reform-minded progressives (such as Hofstadter) hostile to individualism and free markets.
(Try this parlor game: ask a scholarly friend to name three social Darwinists. I wager that most (specialists excluded) will not be able to come up with three, but that most will be able to come up with two, and, moreover, that those two will be Spencer and Sumner – a measure of Hofstadter’s success, or, rather the success of a narrow reading of Hofstadter).
Hofstadter’s (or, rather, the narrow reading of Hofstadter’s) mistake was two-fold. First, neither Spencer nor Sumner were especially Darwinian. Spencer was a Lamarckian who preached “bootstraps” self-improvement over natural selection, and who ardently believed in human progress. Sumner’s pro-market arguments were only patchily upholstered with Darwinian sentiments. What is more, Spencer and Sumner were both opponents of imperialism, militarism, plutocracy and other ideas that have been associated with social Darwinism.

Second, Darwin did not see nature as red in tooth and claw. To the contrary, Darwin insisted that the natural competition sometimes called the Struggle for Existence need not involve conflict, much less violence: cooperation could well be the fittest strategy. Darwinian fitness meant far more than mere physical strength, as evidenced by the evolutionary success of a relatively weak species, homo sapiens.
Hofstadter judged the American Gilded-Age economic order a jungle, and therefore judged any defense of it as “Darwinist,” whatever its particulars – “social Darwinism” was simply Hofstadter’s synecdoche for the charge that, as Bannister had it, Spencer and Sumner “wrongly apologized for power and privilege (1979: xvii), where, in the Gilded Age, power and privilege were assumed to reside with the plutocratic captains of industry, and not (yet) with the captains of the ship of state” (Leonard 2009).


None of this is to argue that evolutionary ideas were unimportant to Progressive Era social science. The opposite is true. Ideas drawn from evolutionary science profoundly influenced Progressive Era social science – one could hardly make sense of the eugenic influences upon economics otherwise.
But Darwin was not the only scientific source of evolutionary thought, and laissez-faire economics was not the only corner of social science influenced. This, then, is the [double-sided] myth: that Darwin was the sole source and that Spencer and Sumner (qua paragons of free-market economics) were the sole exegetes.
Progressive Era evolutionary thought was not very Darwinian – indeed, historians of biology refer to the period as the eclipse of Darwinism – natural selection in particular was a minority view until the “Darwinian synthesis” of the 1940s. Progressive Era evolutionary science was protean, fragmented and plural, enabling scholars to enlist evolutionary ideas in support of diverse, even opposed positions in political economy. Many social scientists, including those who cast Spencer and Sumner as bête noirs, were influenced by Darwinian and other evolutionary ideas.
Hofstadter (1944), incidentally, was alert to the latter point – he even had a term for the use of evolutionary ideas by reformers, Darwinist collectivism. (It didn’t catch on). Hofstadter preferred planning to laissez-faire and he preferred cultural to biological explanations in social science. This made for ambivalence with respect to the progressives, who also championed reform, but trafficked heavily in biological explanations.
The burden of Leonard (2009) is two-fold: first, that “there are, in effect, two Hofstadters present in SDAT. The first (call him Hofstadter1) could safely disparage biological justification of laissez-faire, for this was, in his view, doubly wrong . . . .The second Hofstadter (call him Hofstadter2) documented, however incompletely, the [biological] underside of progressive reform: racism, eugenics and imperialism.” Second, in 1944 Hofstadter1’s contempt for free markets was far more developed than Hofstadter2’s still incipient skepticism regarding progressivism, an asymmetry that had consequences for the subsequent fate of ‘social Darwinism’ in social science.
Hofstadter did not make the myth alone – stories are altered in their retelling. But I think it’s fair to say that Hofstadter (as Hoftstadter1) played a leading role in discrediting free-market economics as social Darwinism, and, thereby, wrongly implicating Spencer and Sumner (and sundry plutocrats) as Darwinists and as the social Darwinists. (Geoff Hodgson, incidentally, gives prior credit to Talcott Parsons’ 1930s efforts to purge biology from sociology).
At the same time, however, Hofstadter2 debunked the notion that Darwin influenced only laissez-faire economics. (This is SDAT’s ambiguous legacy). Hofstadter2 showed that some of what looked reactionary to mid-20th century liberal eyes (“collective Darwinism”) had been called progressive forty years earlier. But, perhaps because Hofstadter2’s ideas were undeveloped relative to those of Hofstadter1, it was decades before historians took up the tentative connections Hofstadter2 made between progressivism and eugenics, racism and imperialism.
Debunking the myth of “social Darwinism,” then, does not mean ignoring evolutionary influences on Progressive Era social science. To the contrary, debunking requires documenting evolutionary influences on Progressive Era social science, which were, contrary to myth, plural in origin and diverse in effect.

— Tim Leonard

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