Is social Darwinism a myth?

Few recent concepts have as complicated a historiography as “social Darwinism”. To make a long story short:

Hodgson_Geoffrey_head
Geoffrey Hodgson

– 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.

Hofstadter_Richard
Richard Hofstadter

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.

Robert Bannister
Robert Bannister

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.

Donald Bellomy
Donald Bellomy

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

Tim Leonard
Tim Leonard

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.

The judicial model

pinelliOn the 15th of December of 1969 “an anarchist and railway employee named Pino Pinelli dies by falling from the window of the office of Police Superintendent Luigi Calabresi, on the fifth floor of the Milan police headquarters, where he had been detained for three days.” The story is vividly dramatized in Dario Fo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (part 1, part 2).

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the great masters of history writing. In 1991, the medievalist scholar of witchcraft trials wrote a book about a ongoing court case – The Judge and the Historian. His friend Adriano Sofri, a former leader of the autonomist group Lotta Continua, was on trial as mastermind of the murder in May 1972 of Superintendent Luigi Calabresi. Ginzburg’s book is a lesson on the use of evidence. Reading the transcripts of the trial, and the record of testimonies, Ginzburg reveals contradictions, the interpretative shortcuts of the judge, the lapses of the carabinieri that express their interference, and finally how evidence was weighted and distorted to justify a heavy sentence. One would think that the historian should reconstruct events, urgently tying actions to individual motives. Ginzburg calls it a “judicial model” and rejects it. Unlike the judge, the historian aims at a larger interpretative frame, studying the courtroom drama as “historical experimentation” where evidence, the document, is being actively produced by the interactions of officials, lawyers, witnesses.

The historian shows the judge gets it wrong. The accused were falsely condemned in a new witch hunt. Reading the book more than fifteen years after its publication, I can’t shake a feeling of powerlessness at the indignation of the intellectual. Sofri and his comrades languish in jail, the former is gravely ill. Ginzburg in all his brilliance cannot save the world.