For a while now, and in particular since I read Robert Bannister’s Social Darwinism and then actually read Herbert Spencer’s own work, I have been unable to reconcile the mythology about social Darwinism with the actual writings of Spencer himself. Supposedly the founder of the justification for robber baron capitalism, Spencer actually proposes feminism, liberal protection of the poor and weak, and other ideas that are more redolent of Mill than Malthus (who is also the subject of similar demonisation, as Flew showed). Now someone has affirmed my unease: Damon Root, writing in Reason Magazine, reports a paper by Princteon economist Tim Leonard coming out that defends Spencer and places the blame for the myth, as Bannister did, on Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 Social Darwinism in American Thought set up the idea. Hofstadter was using Spencer as a convenient target for his anti-capitalist ideas in the context of the Nazi eugenics. Ironic then that the myth has been used by the religious right.
I disagree with Root that Spencer was a laissez faire capitalist or anything much like a libertarian either. Though his ideas are similar to Mill’s, Spencer is himself, and due a revival as a serious thinker. He has been pilloried and mocked for things he never said or ideas he never held, and he is a much more interesting figure than the myths make out. The only real social Darwinist was William Graham Sumner, and he was extreme without any influence to speak of from Spencer.
Refs below the fold.
Bannister, Robert C. 1988. Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought, American civilization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Original edition, 1979.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1944. Social Darwinism in American thought. Boston: Beacon Press.
Malthus, T. R., and Antony Flew. 1970. An essay on the principle of population; and, A summary view of the principle of population, Pelican classics AC18. Harmondsworth,: Penguin.
Sumner, William Graham. 1963. Social Darwinism; selected essays. With an introd. by Stow Parsons. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,: Prentice-Hall.