Evolving Thoughts

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.


  1. #1 Matt Silb
    July 30, 2008

    Richard Hofstadter. You have it wrong in the text and right in the reference.

  2. #2 Steve Shope
    July 30, 2008

    … Douglas Hofstadter, whose 1944 Social Darwinism in American Thought set up the idea.

    This threw me for a moment. Douglas Hofstadter is a computer scientist who wrote one of my favorite books, GODEL,ESCHER,BACH. I didn’t think he was old enough to have written a history book in 1944. But this explains it:

    Hofstadter, Richard. 1944. Social Darwinism in American thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Richard, not Douglas. Now I understand, it was a simple typo.


  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    July 30, 2008

    Fixed. I need proffraeders…

  4. #4 QrazyQat
    July 30, 2008

    I think it’s spelled “knead”.

  5. #5 John Landon
    July 30, 2008

    Darwin was the first Social Darwinist, no use trying to evade this fact.

  6. #6 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    July 30, 2008

    That unfairly maligns Darwin
    Spencer referred to the poor as parasites in “Social Statics,” where he argued against government being used to help the poor. He did go for private charity, but felt that the survival of the fittest worked against the poor. So he was a feminist. Libertarians can be wise once in a while.
    His follower, Ayn Rand, furthered his thought,albeit she denied that. Spencer-Randism like Marxist-Leninism is unscientific and worthless. Spencer – no renaissance for him,and not worthy of one, contrary to Durant the historian.

  7. #7 tresmal
    July 31, 2008

    Summarizing Landon:
    1. Is = ought
    2. Malthus
    3. “Favored Races” means…

  8. #8 Rafal Trzeciakowski
    March 11, 2009

    Nonsense, Rand never called poor people parasites, nor did she believe that achievements of the fittest worked against the poor. Furthermore she believed that the better off the men at top are, the better off are the men at the bottom. This is how capitalism works. Your comparison is purely ridiculous. She was not a social darwinist.

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