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Completely uncool type of Darwinism – social Darwinism – hits popular media hard this spring

Thumbnail for version as of 22:36, 14 February 2012
Jonah Goldberg/Gage Skidmore

… mainly due to US prez Obama accusing political opponents of social Darwinism. (Huge flap as zillions of PR and media hacks run to encyclopedias … )

In “Fantasies of Social Darwinism: Three generations of this imbecilic progressive talking point are enough” (Weekly Standard Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30), Jonah Goldberg tells us, just about everything we think is correct about social Darwinism is wrong:

… the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

But let us start with Herbert Spencer, the man who is always cast as the villain of the tale and the “founder” of the Social Darwinist “movement.”

A writer for one British paper insists Spencer was “a downright evil man …whose passion for eugenics and elimination made him the daydreamer of things to come.” Edwin Black, in his history of eugenics, War Against the Weak, writes that Spencer “completely denounced charity and instead extolled the purifying elimination of the ‘unfit.’ The unfit, he argued, were predestined by their nature to an existence of downwardly spiraling degradation.” Hofstadter himself wrote that the (almost wholly progressive) eugenics movement in America “has proved to be the most enduring aspect” of Spencer’s “tooth-and-claw version of natural selection.”

The truth of the matter, as aggrieved libertarians have been saying for years, is that Spencer was a thoroughly benign classical liberal. Yes, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (a term Darwin embraced), but contrary to generations of propaganda, he did not oppose charity (he celebrated it at great length), did not advocate the mastery of superior races over allegedly inferior ones, did not believe corporations should ride roughshod over the poor (he supported labor unions), and was in fact a great foe of imperialism and a champion of women’s suffrage.

Oh, and he never called himself a Social Darwinist. He didn’t call himself a Darwinist at all (he had a different theory of evolution).

But here’s the interesting part: Almost no one else called himself a Social Darwinist either (including Spencer’s alleged co-conspirator William Graham Sumner). Simply put, there was no remotely serious intellectual movement—at least not in America or Britain—called Social Darwinism, and the evil views attributed to so-called Social Darwinists were not held by its alleged founders. Geoffrey Hodgson conducted a survey of all of the leading English-language academic journals from the mid-1800s until 1937 and couldn’t find any evidence that Spencer and Sumner were part of, never mind leaders of, an intellectual movement called “Social Darwinism.” Even more amazing: In the entire body of Anglo-American scholarly publications spanning more than a century, there is only one article that actually advocates—rather than criticizes—something called “Social Darwinism.” And it not only wasn’t written by Spencer, it doesn’t mention him either.

Well, all kinds of Darwinism have always been a tough sell; figures a politician would want to stick it to his opponents, even if he fronts it himself.


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