Gene Expression

Charles Johnson argues that Richard Dawkins has mischaracterized Herbert Spencer:

First, Spencer was not a Social 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 bearing a 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 as unfit, in the name of survival 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.

But is this always bad? Do facts really matter? Matthew Yglesias seems to say not always:

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).


  1. #1 Colugo
    April 4, 2008

    Herbert Spencer has been reduced to a buzzword referring to a stereotype, rather than a real individual or a system of thought.

    These flaps over history – Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Darwin-to-Hitler – are not really about trying to understand history at all. On both sides of these and similar “debates” it’s mainly about scoring points against contemporary political adversaries, using various figures – Darwin, Hitler, Spencer etc – as stand-ins for current friends and foes and citing their words or secondhand views about them without any regard for the context of their times and places. (“No, YOU’RE a fascist!”)

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    April 4, 2008

    I think that sanitization of historical figures is a natural consequence of the fact that people, even among the educated elite, tend to prefer a good story to complicated, unresolved issue. Triumphalism, regardless of the ideology that expounds it, is typically more inspiring and convenient than reality.

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    April 4, 2008

    Spencer is unduly ignored today but he motivated much thinking in the late nineteenth century. He was all the things that Johnson says he was, and like Malthus is demonised for polemic purposes. The myth that he created social Darwinism is due to Douglas Hofstadter’s 1944 book:Social Darwinism in American thought. [Boston: Beacon Press]. It has been repeated without much critical assessment since, although Robert Bannister’s 1979 book Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought effectively demolished it a long time back.

    As I read Spencer I read someone who was close in ideas to Mill, and who did not identify The Good with a natural [evolved] property, as G. E. Moore famously said he did.

  4. #4 kostya puhov
    April 5, 2008

    But is this always bad? Do facts really matter? Matthew Yglesias seems to say not always:
    ‘do facts matter’ is entirely different question than ‘what part of the picture was dropped’. There is a position that replacing complicated person with somewhat ambivalent views with the legend (assotiated with ‘good’! part of his views) – still may be bad.
    As for me… I think 1) to know/understand reality is better than the opposite
    2) with the exception – when one knows he don’t know something and himself says – ‘it doesn’t matter’. As I do myself listening to song refraining to dig into it’s words – i know, i may dislike them if uderstand the sence… but does the sence matter?
    And 3) Spencer and King surely aren’t happy to be such constructs rather than people:)
    The most distressing this (3) may be to the saints, Jesus Christ and the people alike.
    The message is ‘i’m a man. Like you. I fuck, smoke, swear… but see what beautiful things can do the man! Take an example!’
    Then it ends with ‘quod licet iovi non livet bovi’. If a legend may be good – well. But why me? I don’t want to be a saint, i’m just a man and won’t take example.
    as to my experience – physicists have some troubles with the ‘sciences of man’, simlificating and appelling to the famous ‘physic methodology’ but by the incorrect way. The same sometimes with the biologists.
    My friend, philologist-classicist complained on the naive way physicists understand the nature of poetry… i have to confirm.
    What’s funny – mathematicians often don’t have such troubles. I don’t know why… may be mathematics is really ‘method of methods’ and beinf such is uiversal:)
    Another funny idea – mathematics itself is partly ‘science of man’. At least it’s hard to say the science of what (man/nature) mathematics is.
    It’s just personal experience from conversations, may be some of them still tend to write naive books.
    Again, excuse my English:(

  5. #5 cuchulainn
    April 5, 2008

    Will Durant’s ‘Story of Philosophy’, which i got on itunes a while ago, has a fascinating and fair chapter on Spencer.

  6. #6 Erasmus
    April 6, 2008

    @kostya puhov

    Mathematics isn’t a science. It is as much a branch of philosophy but undertaken by people with “science like” skills. Mathematics is a tool that scientists use, but then so do architects and stockbrokers.


    On Social Darwinism, not necessarily related to Spencer specifically, the thing I find most interesting is social darwinists’ disconnect between the walk and the talk in relation to Darwinian fitness. For example they complain that people with low IQ are having too many children and that this is “dysgenic”, but that makes no sense if you think about it. If people with below 100 IQ have more children then low IQ is an enhancer of Darwinian fitness. Indeed, in the long term, an IQ of 100 will tend to be the most “eugenic” of all almost by definition.

    So the question is, if they’re not trying to maximise Darwinian fitness then what ARE they trying to do and why? Like so many interesting questions this has much to do with understandings of the barrier between “natural” and “artificial” but this barrier isn’t really real.

  7. #7 David B
    April 8, 2008

    I don’t think the dysgenic fear can be dismissed that easily. The argument is (was) that under ‘natural’ (competitive) conditions high intelligence etc. is selectively favoured, but that modern societies have created unnatural conditions in which natural selection no longer works (the Welfare State, etc).

  8. #8 Erasmus
    April 8, 2008

    @David B

    I think that this criticism is very questionable. As I said the idea of “natural” comes into play. But it is some kind of imaginary pseudo-Platonic ideal with nothing to do with the real world. At the end of the day “natural” is going to be about as much of a realistic entity as “the Abrahamic god” as far as I can see. A human invention. I much prefer the basic and logical concept of Darwinian fitness.

  9. #9 kostya puhov
    April 9, 2008

    Erasmus, either (1) your Darwinist should be a fatalist (‘idiots have too many children and the civilisation comes to its inevitable end. we can do nothing’) or (2)he wishes to change something.
    there’s another possibility (3) – ‘idiots have many children and nothing wrong with it’:)

    What’s wrong with (2)? As far as i understand – you assume ‘nothing human do is nutural’ or ‘everithing is natural’? So those strange people are free to modify the conditions. E.g. ‘let’s do nothing good and prevent unfit ones from becoming fit’ or ‘let’s do something BAD to fight the ‘bad’ fitness’. Or some other ‘let’s…’, may be not so monstrous:)

  10. #10 Colugo
    April 9, 2008

    There has always been a tension between allowing the free play of “natural” processes and intervening in them to achieve some desired end, whether the economy or biology.

    (Aside: The term “dysgenic” was coined by the Unitarian pacifist eugenicist/racist David Starr Jordan, but of course this concern of “degeneracy” was much older, and was scientifically analyzed by Galton and Darwin.)

    One thing that is becoming clear to me is that while Spencer, Galton, and Haeckel has been made the fall guys of early evolutionary biology’s ugly political associations, their themes appear in Darwin and Wallace.

    Alfred Russel Wallace, The Eclectic Magazine, October 1890:

    “In one of my last conversations with Darwin he expressed himself very gloomily on the future of humanity, on the ground that in our modern civilization natural selection had no play, and the fittest did not survive.”

    That is pretty much the urgent dysgenic warning that eugenicists sounded in the heyday of their nutso movement. There is a lot other Social Darwinist (of various kinds), quasi-eugenicist, racist, and “inevitable genocide” discourse by Darwin and Wallace that would make great fodder for creationists. And Galton and Haeckel were even worse than I thought they were. But as I have argued, it makes no difference what any of those guys believed about these matters. Thomas Jefferson believed some goofy things too, and we are free to dismiss these as eccentricities or the commonplace errors of his time.

    Going too far in defending these figures against the charges of creationists is playing their game – tacitly accepting their argument that the views of “the founders” have any relevance for the truth or “morality” of modern evolutionary biology. But they don’t.

  11. #11 Santos
    April 17, 2008

    “Going too far in defending these figures against the charges of creationists is playing their game – tacitly accepting their argument that the views of “the founders” have any relevance for the truth or “morality” of modern evolutionary biology. But they don’t.”

    I think this is a particularly important point. The polarization of ideas, the us vs. them relationship of the evolution/creationism debate is a major pitfall – a situation that Dawkins has done little to improve.

    I really feel that Dawkins is playing into the hands of religious fundamentalists, and ascribing inaccurate features to historical figures surely is not the best way he can be contributing to science.

    I can say, that i actually LIKE Dawkins’ atheist rants, but i don’t think that they are particularly ‘helpful’. It is fair to wish that he would concentrate on providing new insight rather than more arguments, as he has demonstrated that he is a perfectly capable of doing so.

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