Deconstructing Social Darwinism, Part IV

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Richard Hofstadter wrote in Social Darwinism in American Thought that this political theory was "one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation." In this series I have shown many of the inconsistencies that exist in the literature on social Darwinism and have emphasized the main objections that scholars have raised about the utility of the term.

In Part 1 I presented the standard definition of social Darwinism as defined by Richard Hofstadter and R.J. Halliday. In Part 2 I highlighted the common objection that there was very little connection with Darwin or his work in these ideas and that, rather, the key tenets were already in place before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In Part 3 I pointed out how social Darwinism is not a coherent political theory that offers useful predictions about political behavior but is rather an amalgamation of tenuously related ideas. Now, the third category of objection I will discuss is that there is little documentation that exists from proponents of social Darwinism to claim the influence that some scholars assert.

It is notable that in Hofstadter's chapter on imperialism there exists only a single quote that unequivocally makes the connection between Darwinism and imperialism, and that comes from a critic. The closest a proponent of imperialism ever comes is that of Theodore Roosevelt who called on Americans to embrace a "strenuous life" of war in Cuba and the Philippines or "stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world." However, that Roosevelt was familiar with Darwin's work is well documented. He wrote three essays on the subject, "Social Evolution" (1895), "Biological Analogies in History" (1910) and "The Origin and Evolution of Life" (1918). In the first he wrote "the rivalry of natural selection is but one of the features of progress," the most important being "character." These are views taken directly from Herbert Spencer. However, in the latter two essays Roosevelt rejects evolution as an explanation of man in society. Historian David Burton suggests that Roosevelt's inconsistency can be explained because:

[H]e may have embraced some aspects of the doctrine of natural selection out of expediency because they justified actions he judged to be practically in order.

The only other figure that comes close to being an advocate of social Darwinism in this chapter is Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce who states that "strife in one form or another in the organic world seems to be the law of existence," a view that dates back to Plato's Laws. In contrast, the opponents of imperialism were much more blatant. Hofstadter quotes Max Nordau writing in 1889 that:

The greatest authority of all advocates of war is Darwin. . . Since the theory of evolution has been promulgated, they can cover their natural barbarism with the name of Darwin and proclaim the sanguinary instincts of their inmost hearts as the last word of science (p. 171).

Likewise, historian William Roscoe Thayer is quoted condemning the "German mentality" that he said advocated Darwinian imperialism (a view that was false, according to Hofstadter).

They interpreted the doctrine of evolution so as to draw from it a warrant for their aspirations. Evolution taught that 'the fittest survived' (pp. 197-8).

That Darwinian metaphors in Hofstadter's book were only used to speak against imperialism is in fitting with the earliest known usage of the term. In nearly all cases it was used pejoratively as a way to dismiss views with which an author disagreed. However, crucially, these charges of social Darwinism were often talking about very different things, which speaks to its lack of coherence as a political theory. The earliest known appearance of the term "social Darwinism" was in a 1877 book by Joseph Fisher entitled The History of Landholding in Ireland. In it he objects to the view that the Irish chiefs "'developed' into a feudal baron," preferring the view that the English settlers improved the social system from its "inferior owners" in much the same way he believed the British Empire was doing around the world.

I can find nothing in the Brehon laws to warrant this theory of social Darwinism. . . The early Norman and English settlers denounced the tanistry system as barbarous and uncivilized, and acted towards it in the same manner as the English of recent times have acted towards the Hindoo and New Zealand land systems.

The next known use of the term came in a pamphlet written by the French anarchist Ãmile Gautier in 1880. Gautier condemned the Spencerist vindication of extreme individualism and insisted that a Darwinian social theory should be one of cooperation, not competition (a thesis later made famous by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid). The next occurrence was by French psychologist Gabriel Tarde who wrote against social Darwinism in 1884 and likewise advocated cooperation (for a full discussion of these sources see La Vergata's paper "Darwinism and the Social Sciences, 1859-1914").

This early use of social Darwinism is very instructive. We have a conservative imperialist using it to label a liberal theorist whose ideas he disagreed with, an anarchist using it to promote cooperation, and a liberal psychologist using it to dismiss the laissez-faire conservatives. This suggests the term meant whatever it was that people wanted it to mean, and mostly they meant for it to be an epithet. Paul Crook notes that "much of the imagery of Darwinized jingoism was in fact evoked by enemies of imperialism," the evidence from proponents being "rare efforts [that] were relatively uninfluential."

In fact, the term social Darwinism itself was all but unknown to English-speaking readers before the Progressive Era. In an exhaustive bibliometric analysis of the Anglophone literature, Geoffrey Hodgson determined in the Journal of Historical Sociology (pdf here) that the term "social Darwinism" appeared only nine times in any article or review published between 1850 and 1914.

In contrast, the name "Darwin" had 2,458 citations and "Spencer" had 2,786. But, perhaps the term wasn't widely used until the theory had gained more traction and its critics multiplied? Not true. Between the First and Second World Wars there were only 49 articles or reviews citing the term. This amounts to less than one reference per year over the eighty-five year period between Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Hofstadter's Social Darwinism. This is an astonishingly low number for a political theory that Hofstadter insists was "one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation." To put this into context, since Hofstadter published his book in 1944 the term social Darwinism has appeared 4,258 times. This history gives every indication that social Darwinism as a theory was invented by Hofstadter and that it had only negligible influence prior to his book.

Despite these significant concerns in the historiography of social Darwinism, I believe that there is a way to untangle the problem. Historian Mike Hawkins suggests abandoning the standard definition and basing social Darwinism on the application of Darwin's biology to sociology. Hawkins defines social Darwinism as a set of five presuppositions:

(i) biological laws governed the whole of the organic world, including humans, (ii) the pressure of population growth on resources generated a struggle for existence among organisms; (iii) physical and mental traits conferring an advantage on their possessors in this struggle (or in sexual competition), could, through inheritance, spread through the population, (iv) the cumulative effects of selection and inheritance over time accounted for the emergence of new species and the elimination of others. . . [and v] this determinism extends to not just the physical properties of humans but also to their social existence and to those psychological attributes that play a fundamental role in social life, e.g. reason, religion and morality.

The advantage of Hawkins' definition is that it relies exclusively on Darwinian elements, while acknowledging that these core ideas could still be applied in a variety of ways. This is a view shared by Robert Young in which he views social Darwinism as "a broad church" that conveyed optimism by some and pessimism by others. Gloria McConnaughey likewise concurs where she states in the premiere journal for the history of science, Osiris, that:

If by Social Darwinism we merely mean the application of natural selection to ethical and social problems, the answer is obviously yes. If, however, Social Darwinism is taken to refer to the strongly imperialistic, racist and anti-social-reform uses of natural selection, the answer is just as clearly no.

In this way social Darwinism can be useful, not only to understand the history of social applications of evolutionary theory, but used today to study how human evolved characteristics continue to affect our social lives. Not all of these approaches have been or are useful. Some of them have been racist and imperialist, others have been overly utopian. However, dismissing the possibility that evolution has something to teach us for our own lives is a tremendous disservice. What it requires is good science, not a rejection of the very idea because of the junk science that came before.

This is currently being done. In publications such as the Journal of Evolutionary Economics or in books ranging from Paul Rubin's Darwinian Politics, Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left, Michael Shermer's The Mind of the Market or Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy authors are showing how evolutionary principles can be used to consider how best to organize our social system given our fragile planet with its finite resources. This is ultimately an ecosystems question and biologists have many of the skills it will take to find a solution. Previous social planners have come from the assumption that humans were different from all other creatures in the natural world. When they constructed our modern civilizations, what I often refer to as the human zoo, they assumed that understanding how humans interact in their "natural habitat" wasn't important. They made decisions based on economics and utility, not smart science. Some theorists in the past may have borrowed terms from the hottest science of the day to justify their own malevolent goals. That should be a warning for us, but it shouldn't discourage us from using the best information available to construct a world that we all want to live in.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4


ResearchBlogging.orgHawkins, Mike (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodgson, G. (2004). Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term Journal of Historical Sociology, 17 (4), 428-463 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6443.2004.00239.x

La Vergata, Antonello (2009). "Darwinism and the Social Sciences, 1859-1914,"
Rendiconti Lincei: Scienze. Fisiche e Naturali 20, 333-343.

McConnaughey, Gloria (1950). "Darwin and Social Darwinism," Osiris 9, 397-412.


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On the ground, who were the students? which will be made relevant in the last sentences I hope.

I assume the current is the last installment and okay I'm for it, I'm for limiting the use and application of the term social darwinism as advocated.

But how to be "for it?" I will give my opinion where use and application has been located in the past. Hofstadter's book came into a changing American intellectual culture where Vernon L Parrington's "Main Currents in American Thought" was having a wide influence, and its influence was wide because the standard American literature that had come out of New England was being superseded. How does one tell what 'American thought' is and what are the advantages of identifying something called a "main current?" These questions weren't asked much and Parrington found "isms" such as transcendentalism, realism, naturalism. The teachers of the students liked that and taught the isms.

Now who's reading that stuff? Future teachers for one, at normal schools across the US, and their professors. From its appearance in about 1928 when it got the Pulitzer, "Main Currents in American Thought" had a heavy influence in the colleges. [from wiki: Reising (1989) shows the book dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s.]

In that context of Parrington and isms Hofstadter entered and said, in effect, 'Hold on, I've got something here that is also "in American thought" and it's an ism I call social darwinism. Hence the title of course.

Has the nature of the persons who read that stuff changed? I say from observing that the nature of the students and professors has changed, and more than once, and that for one change fathers have sent their daughters to college in far greater numbers than between the wars, and colleges have changed, curriculum, emphasis, all.

The students of the 40's and 50's and some after, and their professors (who had recently been students and remained students in a sense) saw a connection between the alleged attitude of survival of the fittest in business and industry and their own lives, wherever they imagined themselves in the struggle. Those are not the same students of today.

You and your cited sources are saying it is no longer useful to look for this 'current' so vague and vaporous. I hope you are right and am willing to change, and I hope that the change sticks.

There is one small hitch (always is, isn't there?). William Graham Sumner (some books of whom I have read) was without a doubt a social darwinist, and properly so called in his own right by his own writings with no help from Hofstadter whether Hofstadter exists or not. A small, specific exception must be made for Sumner for the sake of accuracy while abandoning the search for a current of social darwinism in the foggy 'in American thought.'

I hope your revision takes hold and that Hofstadter's book comes to be regarded as an out-of-date historical document itself, and that the term darwinism leans more toward the science.

This is a useful approach both to the concept of "social darwinism" and the pervasiveness of its subtle conceptual use in our culture.

To me, Ayn Rand, who may be the cultural catalyst of the Reagan Revolution, is thoroughly based upon the philosophy that is at the core of "social darwinism." Of course, it has nothing to do with darwin, and is a reaction against Darwin's works and humanism. So, it is of limited use to focus only on the literal meanings involved.

Rather, the word "Communist" in the 1950's in the US had little to do with Marxism. It was a code word for evil enemies. It takes decades for a word with such intense meaning to become rehabilitated in the culture so that its original meaning can be discussed in polite company. "Socialism" had been similarly slimed by people with political agendas in the US and it continues to carry a hugely negative association.

Social darwinism, likewise, is a code word meme of free market capitalism, distorting all notion of actual meaning, but conveying the meme of human nature being an inherent "dog-eat-dog" existence. It is really that simple. Read the cultural content - not the textbooks - and certainly not the dictionary definition. Words are embedded with cultural content that have nothing to do with their literal meaning.

Ian, many thanks for this. Excellent summary and good source links. Very informative.

David, a small hitch with your statement that "William Graham Sumner (some books of whom I have read) was without a doubt a social darwinist, and properly so called in his own right by his own writings". That seems to be contradicted by the linked pdf of Hodgson's article, as page 5 of the pdf (p. 432 of the original publication) states that "In fact, neither Spencer nor Sumner used the term 'Social Darwinism'." Have you discovered something that Hodgson missed, and if so can you provide a page number and source?

By dave souza (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

If your analysis is correct -- don't try to resuscitate the term "social Darwinism" to be useful.

It's clear that "social Darwinism" applied to a propagandistic trend -- a description of a panoply of justifications for imperialism and genocidal behavior, regardless of their original source.

Do you really want any useful ideas connected, even tangentially, to that propagandistic tradition? Do you want to confuse people, rather than clarify?

The fact that social Darwinism did not exist as a self-conscious explicit theory, but instead as a trend in propaganda identified by its opponents, changes nothing about what the use of the term means today. By creating multiple competing meanings, you would create a dangerous ambiguity only compounding the current ambiguity.

Do you want people to think that a "reasonable" application was a vindication of long discredited notions? Leave it as the propaganda war term that it is today. It would be like trying to define "fascism" clearly and consistently; there's nothing to gain, and the danger of helping the inheritors of that inconsistent and insane panoply of ideas and alliances.

dave, yes I am contradicting what was indicated in the body. They have asserted a negative, I a positive. You will note that I did not claim Sumner used the term social darwinist as you have stated but there was no doubt that he was a social darwinist, and I will add touting 'survival of the fittest' as a sociology concept. It's not necessary that he call himself that to be one. But he wrote a great deal, including in periodicals, and may have called himself one. But I am not going to try to prove it with page and number. The reason is it has been too long and it is not important enough to me to find the books, titles, and read in them again. Let Hodgson prove the negative with non-page numbers if he wishes. But your request is a fair one, aside from changing to usage of exact term; it's just not worth the trouble for me to prove it and you are entitled to decide one way or the other about usage of the exact term, which you brought up, as you wish. And so what is too long? I would be reading, very carefully, groups of books related to darwinism about 1963 to 1967 and Sumner in 63. Sorry it was impossible to word your request as an ace. But good try.

Sumner is a formidable writer and influential. Bannister was wanting to reconsider whether he was a social darwinist as long ago as 1971. You can decide for yourself if he made progress. Bannister had reasons other than science. Whether persons will be willing to change how darwinism is applied will not, I think, come down to inspection of how darwinism was used by the persons themselves in the early 1900's.

earon davis, agreed.

frog, agreed.

And all, I enjoyed reading all comments, which I think enhance Eric's proposition.

Eric, this post is an impressive piece of work. But I have to challenge your conclusion.

You suggest the fact that natural selection has been misunderstood and misapplied many times in the past does not lead logically to the conclusion that it might not provide useful life lessons for the future. You write, âdismissing the possibility that evolution has something to teach us for our own lives is a tremendous disservice.â

In fact you claim that valuable life lessons are being forwarded right now on the pages of the "Journal of Evolutionary Economics," and in the books Darwinian Politics, A Darwinian Left and The Mind of the Market.

But do you not fear just a bit that the ideas being forwarded in these works will look just as obviously socially constructed and ideologically self-serving as that of the racists and imperialists who "misapplied" Darwin in days of yore?

Now, I know there are many scientists and philosophers who share your hope. I guess I just can't understand how anybody can imagine how a theory which accounts for organic evolution (and then only partially) has an application, by any means other than analogy, for problems of human behavior, culture or politics.

I can see how archeologically informed studies might offer, for example, a few sobering and relevant lessons on, say, pushing the environment too far (though even these have proven not secure). However, I think it is odd how really smart people think we can somehow divine better ways to govern our behavior and our cultural interactions, or structure our ethics or politics, based on our species' certainly true, but extremely poorly documented, million year drunken walk. Particularly if we, like Darwin, think that walk was neither purposeful nor progressive.


I'm not answering for Eric. He's on his own.

I see at your link, fascinating histories and reviews, that you found occasion to say this as well:

"Well, since I have the attention of so many, let me state my position clearly. Evolution happened. Happens. It doesnât mean anything, like geocentricism doesnât mean anything. But it is interesting. Good science. Worth contemplating. And should be taught to every 10th grader."

Considering the emerging and appearing positions, I become fonder of what Mark Twain said regarding the descent of man to Darwin in his visit. "What I want to know is, what does the ape think of that?" Which pleased Darwin.

Bit late to check references for this, but note that Darwin wasn't consistent in whether or not he thought that the "drunkard's walk" was neither purposeful nor progressive. Natural selection is of course purposeful in terms of the environment of the moment, and sometimes Darwin suggested it was progressive, sometimes he questioned whether we could measure progress â as he wondered in his B notebook, we think intelligence is superior to instinct, but what would a bee think? "It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another."

As for Sumner, read through Hodgson's study as cited, and note that "Sumner occasionally adopted Spencerâs phraseology of the 'survival of the ï¬ttest' and less often Darwinâs term 'natural selection', and used them in an imprecise exoneration of individualism, inequality and market competition. In his most important treatise, Sumner (1906) mentioned Darwin only once. Sumnerâs disciple Albert Galloway Keller (1923, p. 137) remarked that his teacher 'did not give much attention to the possibility of extending evolution into the societal ï¬eld'.â From an updated version in Hodgson's recent book Economics in the Shadows of Darwin and Marx, it appears to have been Hofstadter, published in 1944, who first proposed the idea that Sumner was a 'social Darwinist'. Of course, if you use the term as rather vaguely defined by Hofstadter then Sumner is the epitome of Social Darwinism, but if you use the pre-1932 definitions he wasn't a social Darwinist at all. The evolution of language!

By dave souza (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

Dave, I couldn't pass up my nice, neat closing sentence. But yeah, I know there is a fair amount of debate as to whether Darwin held a mental construction of evolution as progressive or natural selection as purposeful. Gould made much of Dawin's marginal reminder to self, "never say 'higher' or 'lower.'" But Robert Richards thinks Origin betrays a conceptualization of evolution as having a purpose and a goal.

Still, to the point, I don't get why is Eric trying to salvage social Darwinism under any definition.

Good discussion! I would like to ask whether we need to reclaim/reform the term "social Darwinism" in order to rescue Darwin's work from cultural oblivion. It seems to me that "social Darwinism" was promoted as a meme to neutralize the impact of Darwin's work (whether by the Church, other fundamentalist religions, free-market economic advocates, capitalism apologists, and perhaps even those promoting scientific and technological "innovations." It seems to have been quite effective at rendering one of the greatest minds of humankind to relative obscurity and to empowering the forces of greed and exploitation.

One of my reasons for seeking to resurrect :) Darwin as a pivotal figure in understanding our natural world and our human nature is that his lessons may be needed in order to move our culture in sustainable directions. I believe that humans are unlikely to decide to change our culture in sustainable directions unless we more deeply recognize our nature as primates. We seem to have a tremendous blind spot about human nature being unconscious/animal as opposed to conscious/rational. So, we may condemn ourselves to behave irrationally simply because we believe that we are basically rational. (That may take some time to process.)

I also have proposed that racism is one of the major cultural forces that relegated Darwin's work to our cultural backwaters. That humans are related to apes is unacceptable to fundamentalists of all religions, which motivated them to find ways to neutralize Darwin's humanism. Perhaps the racist disdain for people with dark skin, and the primate imagery associated with racism, has stood in the way of humans recognizing how we behave quite similarly to apes. Because of racism, our primate nature has become more unattractive. In reality, African people are not a bit more similar to apes than are European people.)

Without this recognition of our human primate nature, the ideologies of religion, politics and even science have fed into our collective ego and emboldened our species to unadvisedly monkey with our very life support systems. Native cultures generally recognize their connection to animal life and nature, but our modern culture has relentlessly attempted to dominate nature and create a new man-made order - as if we were divine beings.

I apologize if I am being off-topic, but I've been struggling with the idea of how to reclaim Darwin's insights (and his wonderful humanism) without inadvertently triggering further empowerment for "Social Darwinism." I don't know that we can afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Earon, I think the lesson Eric emphasises in his last paragraph is that evolutionary insights can and should be applied to understanding society. At the same time we should remember the lessons of so-called "Social Darwinism", that "is" doesn't mean "ought", and because something has evolved doesn't mean that it's a lesson on how to behave. As you say, Darwin had great humanistic insights, and put great emphasis on evolved empathy leading on to learning and ethical behaviour, the "noblest part" of humanity.

The term itself is too ambiguous and disputed to remain useful, as is "Darwinism" which meant different things at different times to different people. Modern evolutionary theory isn't the thoughts of Darwin, and we should be applying current science, not looking to Darwin as a guru.…

Use of evolutionary ideas to investigate society continue, regardless of the label. The search for a genetic predisposition to some forms of religion is one example. One last thought: Bowler discusses how so-called "Social Darwinism" often relied on the inheritance of acquired learning, on the Spencerian idea that self-improvement was hereditary. Darwin would have, wrongly, agreed with that. Modern evolutionary theory has moved on.

By dave souza (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

If all we mean to do in rescuing âsocial Darwinismâ from its racist and imperialist associations is to make sure antievolutionists donât use its black history to close down the teaching of evolution because such teaching offers the easiest path to communicating our inter-species connections and the interdependence of living things, well, I guess.

But that hardly seems to describe the boarders of this mission.

It strikes me that we actually hope, and fully expect, that the study of evolution will lead to proofs of our particular sub-culture's ideological superiority.

My position is this: while I know evolution to be true, and believe my generally liberal views superior, I don't believe the two can be connected. There is simply no way I can prove the relative value of my beliefs by an examination of my speciesâ evolutionary history. Why? Well first, because traits and behaviors, even if they are discrete, probably interact in ways complex beyond prediction. More importantly, all evidence, if indeed any exists at all, it tainted beyond usefulness by my values.

As the great naturalist Marston Bates and others who have explored this path have discovered, the defense of any ecological or ideological or ethical principle cannot rest on the rock of natural selection, or any scientific theory. At the end of the day, we must all rely on gut, instinct or faith -- at best informed by rough and prejudiced clinical evaluation.

Too bad, but donât let it stop you from studying science. Or voting.

So far in this series all we've had has been a history of "social Darwinism" among US intellectuals.

Isn't there also a history of popular (mis-)use of the term? Populist agitators like William Jennings Bryan, famous for his hatred of all things evolutionary, seems to have picked up his prejudices from the resistance of midwestern farmers and industrial workers to the domination of northeastern elites.

The exploitive schemes of bankers and railroad barons, often devastating to rural and small-town areas, were easily (and, I'm sure, often deliberately) conflated with the top-down ideologies being promulgated from the Ivy League, New York publishers, and their ilk. Unable to use the more sophisticated but "foreign" concepts of socialism, many early populists and progressives had little but religion and resentment (and, of course, The Wizard of Oz) to guide their ultimately unsuccessful resistance. It was left to Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken to deliver the coup de grace at the 1925 Snopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee - by which time the underdogs were ready to reorganize, more successfully, with unionism and cooperatives - but my limited reading from that era suggests that "Darwinism" and related terms were debated much more vigorously outside the ivy tower than within it for the preceding two or three generations.

I hope EMJ will exercise his remarkable talents on that aspect of this issue before moving on.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

Dave and Ronald, I am well out of my league here, not being an academic. My own mission is not to develop knowledge, but rather to help remove a major obstacle to what I believe to be the ability of our larger society to survive. Assuming that we are facing drastic pending global climate change and the resulting famine, war and emergence of totalitarian governments, my thesis is that this has all been facilitated by cultural forces (from religions to ideologies and governments to economic, academic and technological systems) that deny our primate origins. Thus, there were immense cultural forces that have had an interest in having Darwin and his insight into our primate nature being neutralized and trivialized.

What if it is our lack of self-understanding (species-awareness) that has enabled us to destroy our global ecosystems and to evolve corporate cultural collectives that are locked into short-term considerations without any regard to the survival of our species? Pardon me if I appear to raise polemics, but the stakes in this issue may be high.

If the denial of our very human nature is a core reason for our inability to live sustainably on this planet, then it is even more than intellectual advancement that is at stake in efforts to neutralize the memes that have cut us off from recognition of the origins of our species.

Does this strike you as a thesis worth investigating, or more as hysterics? I realize that is has some rather preposterous-sounding properties to it.