Social Darwinism is a problem. there is the old joke about Darwin after many years of searching finally found evidence of the British social class structure in nature. The thought of Darwin is very common among scientific and technically trained people today. it tends to be part of the interview that nature is converging on the kind of solution that is one that they like. In fact, good Darwinian theory suggests that every point evolution is open to proliferation of new forms, not a convergence.
In 1944, historian Richard Hofstadter publishedSocial Darwinism in American Thought, an aggressive and widely influential critique of the libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his impact on American intellectual life. In Hofstadter’s telling, Spencer was the driving force behind “social Darwinism,” the pseudo-scientific use of evolution to justify economic and social inequality. According to Hofstadter, Spencer was little more than an apologist for extreme conservatism, a figure who told “the guardians of American society what they wanted to hear.” The eugenics movement, Hofstadter maintained, which held that humanity could improve its stock via selective breeding and forced sterilization, “has proved to be the most enduring aspect” of Spencer’s “tooth and claw natural selection.”
A hit upon publication, the book helped make Hofstadter’s name, doing much to secure him his prominent perch at Columbia University, where he taught until his death in 1970. But there’s a problem with Hofstadter’s celebrated work: His claims bear almost no resemblance to the real Herbert Spencer. In fact, as Princeton University economist Tim Leonard argues in a provocative new article titled “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism,” [pdf] which is forthcoming from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Hofstadter is guilty of both distorting Spencer’s free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist Darwinian collectivism.
So what happened? As Leonard notes, Hofstadter was no neutral observer. Rather, he “wrote as an opponent of laissez-faire, and also as a champion of what he took to be its rightful successor, expert-led reform.” A one-time member of the Communist party, Hofstadter himself later admitted that the book “was naturally influenced by the political and moral controversy of the New Deal era.”
At the heart of Hofstadter’s case is the following passage from Spencer’s famous first book, Social Statics (1851): “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
That certainly sounds rough, but as it turns out, Hofstadter failed to mention the first sentence of Spencer’s next paragraph, which reads, “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” As philosophy professor Roderick Long has remarked, “The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial.” This is a far cry from Hofstadter’s summary of the text, which has Spencer advocating that the “unfit…should be eliminated.”
Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer’s famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his view, human society had evolved from a “militant” state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an “industrial” one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus Spencer the “extreme conservative” supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers.