On the genealogy of “Social Darwinism”

In my review of David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution I observe that one of the author’s projects seems to be to educate a more general audience on a revisionist understanding of the history of evolutionary biology as applied to society:

…He notes that the opprobrium hurled at evolution’s application to social problems draws from Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter was a man of left-wing commitments writing in 1944, as the war against Hitler’s regime was still a live concern. His was not a dispassionate scholarly analysis. He aimed to produce something which could be deployed in the fight against “racism, nationalism, or competitive strife.”

This View of Life highlights how men as diverse as Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Thomas Malthus were not united in their views, nor were they the cruel anti-humanitarians that their detractors portray them as (Hitler’s own views were scientifically inchoate at best, and ignorant at worst). Wilson’s arguments are familiar to libertarians in particular, many of whom have long argued that Hofstadter misrepresented classical liberals.

The argument for the defense that one encounters in This View of Life may not entirely convince, at least in the chapter-length treatment Wilson provides. The great evolutionary geneticist R. A. Fisher’s central work, Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, contains a long exposition of eugenicist thought as applied to humanity…

I noticed today that Devang Mehta has put up a review of the same book, and he’s far less positive than I (we notice the same problems, but I’m considerably more charitable). There are many points where I disagree on details of interpretation with Mehta, but I want to highlight the criticism of David Sloan Wilson’s treatment of Social Darwinism:

Of course, this sets off all sorts of alarm bells about “social Darwinism,” the 19th century idea that socially powerful individuals are innately better than weaker ones, which underpinned early 20th century theories of race, justified colonialism, and rationalized eugenics and Nazi-ism. Wilson is at least cognizant of this connotation, and in fact spends a whole chapter early in the book trying to persuade the reader that Nazis (and the eugenics movement) were actually not “social Darwinists.” He claims that social Darwinism was not a term adopted by eugenicists, but in fact used as a pejorative by their opponents. This is a bizarre argument; regardless of who came up with the label, the shoe fit. In fact, it was Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, clearly inspired by Darwin’s work, who sparked the eugenics movement, coining the term, and promoting the idea that eugenically “compatible” couples should be given incentives to marry and procreate. A modern understanding of evolution and genetics utterly refutes eugenicist ideas — but nevertheless, it’s important to not whitewash the field’s grim history.

Mehta zeroes in on exactly the same issue I alluded to above: the relationship between eugenics and what became evolutionary genetics is very close, and the two emerged at approximately the same time. But where I disagree with Mehta is assuming that “Social Darwinism” and eugenics were identical and substitutable. Mehta and the broader public seem to think this equality is warranted, but I disagree.

I was familiar with Richard Hofstadter’s misrepresentation of intellectual history through libertarian critiques long before I read histories of evolutionary biology. Obviously, libertarians take a very different from the stance of David Sloan Wilson. That people with such different ideological commitments agree on a misrepresentation of the historical record should make one come to attention, rather than dismiss Wilson’s attempt at revision as pure sophistry.

Many years ago I read Lee Alan Dugatkin’s book The Altruism Equation. It surveyed the early period, and how evolutionary thought shaped social thought, and it is far more diverse than the reductions to “Social Darwinism” we’re given.

This is relevant because my friend Eric Michael Johnson, a man of the Left himself, has done his own intellectual archaeology of the relationship between early evolutionary biology and social thought. A chapter of his Ph.D. thesis has now been published, The struggle for coexistence: Peter Kropotkin and the social ecology of science in Russia, Europe, and, England, 1859-1922. If you are curious about “Socialistic Darwinism”, then I suggest you read it. It shows exactly how Hofstadter overreached, and what he missed.

7 thoughts on “On the genealogy of “Social Darwinism”

  1. A modern understanding of evolution and genetics utterly refutes eugenicist ideas

    Would this be one of those points of disagreement with Mehta?

  2. i don’t know what ‘eugenicist ideas’ he’s talking about. so no idea.

    a lot of this is dealt with in terminology. no one, to my knowledge, refers to abortion of DS positive fetuses as ‘eugenics’ except people who oppose abortion (with a few exceptions in the disability rights community).

  3. Some years ago I read that Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote an essay, Varieties of Social Darwinism (included in her book Victorian Minds), about how all Victorians claimed that their social views were vindicated by Darwin. I finally got around to reading it last month and I was disappointed. It was exactly what it claimed to be, but I didn’t get anything out of the details.

  4. no one, to my knowledge, refers to abortion of DS positive fetuses as ‘eugenics’

    DS people don’t leave many descendants so that doesn’t seem to be eugenics.

  5. “Between 35 and 50 percent of children born to mothers with Down syndrome are likely to have trisomy 21 or other developmental disabilities.”

  6. I understand, but we are not talking about that many individual descendants, are we? We seem to be in the molehill area rather than the mountain. I won’t bother you anymore on the subject. My real interest is for you to tell us your best thoughts on on multi-level selection.


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