First, Spencer was not aSocial Darwinist.He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form.
Second, Dawkins is completely wrong about Spencer’s radical political views, which bear virtually no resemblence to the belligerent Rightism and economic royalism of Thatcher, Bush, Nixon, or Rockefeller. Spencer was in fact a feminist, a labor radical, and a vehement critic of European imperialism (which he described as bearinga very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers). Contrary to the most popular, and most wildly inaccurate, caricature of his social views, Spencer did not believe in cutting off charitable relief to, or mutual aid among, the poor, sick, or other folks whom the powers that be might marginalize and dismiss asunfit,in the name ofsurvival of the fittest.(That is his phrase, but it is being misapplied.) Spencer opposed government welfare programs — because he opposed all forms of government command-and-control — but he believed that voluntary charity and mutual aid were not only a positive moral obligation, but in fact were features of the highest forms of social evolution….
I know the general outlines of this non-revisionist revisionism. The legend of “Spencerian” Social Darwinism is so powerful that the nuance and texture of his genuine views and opinions are pretty much irrelevant today. It’s interesting how this sort of thing happens, and it can lead people to a very subjectivist perception of the past.
Kai Wright has an excellent piece on the forgotten radicalism of Martin Luther King, Jr. — always a point worth making in a day and age when conservatives would like you to think they would have been standing right beside King when he marched on Washington.
That said, to some extent I think the creation of the King Myth and the displacement of the more authentic radical King is a good thing. A country doesn’t get official national hero types without mythologizing and sanitizing them to a large extent, and it’s a good thing, at the end of the day, that King has moved into national hero status. That said, check out King preaching on Vietnam….
Richard Dawkins, trained as a natural scientist, isn’t really equipped to expect these sorts of knotted details when it comes to the sciences of man. My own personal experience with very bright people from the natural sciences is that they generally evince a certain naiveté when it comes to the nested & multi-faceted reality of human relations & history. There is a tendency to use a few very general principles as the base of most heuristics, and lack of interest in collecting a dense network of facts which one might use to check the power of one’s framework. The power of theory in natural science combined with the naked innocence of nature ill equips them for the slyness of man (though one would assume a trained ethologist such as Dawkins would have a bit more sophistication).