Friday, July 07, 2017

There Was No Nineteenth-Century 'Social Darwinism' Movement

There Were Eugenics and 'Scientific Racism' Movements But No Free-Marketers Citing Biology to Justify Cruelty 

Stuart K. Hayashi



There was no nineteenth-century "social Darwinism" movement.

To many who attended university, that claim must sound outlandish.  Is there not undeniable evidence that from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, scholars in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany had invoked the science of genetics to lobby for governmental policies that initiated the use of force upon whites born with disabilities and able-bodied nonwhites as well?  Even prior to then, did not many intellectuals try to cite biology-related evidence to justify the notion of white superiority over nonwhites?  And did not the two intellectuals, Herbert Spencer of England and William Graham Sumner of the United States, not cite the sciences of evolution and zoology to argue that unrestricted capitalism was more natural, and therefore better, than the welfare state and socialism?  As they appealed to the sciences of natural selection to bolster free enterprise, did Spencer and Sumner not reprimand various philanthropic efforts, both private and governmental, to save the poor from starvation?  And was it not the politically right-wing promotion of ruthlessness toward the poor, on the part of Spencer and Sumner, that inspired the even farther-right eugenics movements and the Nazis?

Clarification is in order.

The faces that inspired Prof. Richard Hofstadter and his loyal readers to launch a thousand falsehoods.

There was indeed a eugenics movement from the late 1800s to early 1900s.  Yes, starting in the 1700s, there was already a movement underway in the West to find scientific evidence of whites' dominance over nonwhites.  But, as far we go by how social Darwinism has been defined and connoted since the New Deal era, there was no intellectual movement in the nineteenth century that truly fits that description.  Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner did apply their knowledge about natural selection in the study of human society, and they did exhibit biases toward political-economic liberalization.  But, contrary to the false imputations about them, Spencer and Sumner did not condemn philanthropic assistance to the poor, as such, as some crime against Nature.  Nor were the eugenics and "scientific racism" (really, racist pseudoscience) movements any sort of logical outgrowth of the free-market advocacy of Spencer and Sumner.

It is accurate to say there were -- and, as I written about on this very blog, still are -- eugenics and "scientific racism" movements in the West, even though no one actually used the label scientific racist for himself.  But insofar as social Darwinism refers either to (a) free-marketers citing biology to condemn charity or (b) an umbrella term for the ostensibly related ideologies of laissez-faire political economy and eugenics, it follows that Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner were not social Darwinists, and there was no over-arching "social Darwinist" movement, ideology, school, approach, method, or trend in either of their lifetimes.

In her essay "Philosophic Detection," Ayn Rand notes, "All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations."  That definitely applies to how academia and intellectuals have employed the phrase social Darwinism from Richard Hofstadter in 1944 to his successors into the present.  People who employ the expression social Darwinism use different -- and sometimes, mutually contradictory -- definitions of that term according to how it suits the political message they intend to convey.

The first definition of social Darwinism normally given is, "An inappropriate attempt by writers, usually on the political Right, to apply scientific knowledge about natural selection to the social sciences, often in regard to their prescriptions on what should be done about society's problems."

However, exactly because Hofstadter, John Kenneth Galbraith, and their successors have imputed that this supposedly inappropriate application of natural-selection rhetoric has been performed initially and chiefly by free-market advocates such as Spencer and Sumner, the social Darwinism label is invoked with nastier connotations.  It is, first, to stigmatize any advocacy of political-economic liberalization or cutback on the welfare state as predation upon the poor, and, second, to impugn the application by some free-marketers of biology to the social sciences as the inevitable precursor to measures by politically right-wing and openly racist governments to harm the poor.  Those right-wing governmental policies include the cartelization of industry by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and the implementation of racist and eugenicist policies by governments of Western Europe and the United States.

When writers mention social Darwinism, the implicit meaning is normally along these lines (this is my own phrasing of ideas I do not hold):
We should oppose politically left-leaning government policies purported to help the poor and infirm, be they the welfare state and Social Security established under Otto von Bismarck to humanitarian socialist policies such as those enacted under Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  The reason for this is that such policies obstruct the implementation of Nature's fundamental biological law -- that of "the survival of the fittest" -- a term which Herbert Spencer coined and which Charles Darwin himself adopted for later editions of The Origin of Species. The proper form of government is therefore one that the political Left would deem a right-wing one, such as a monarchy, a constitutional liberal republican Night Watchman State (which Herbert Spencer and, to a lesser extent, William Graham Sumner, both favor), or a fascist military dictatorship such as the ones that Hitler and Mussolini led. 
In this properly right-wing political environment, most people start off poor.  Some rise from poverty to great wealth.  Among them we properly attribute, as the cause of that rise, an inborn biological superiority.  People who climb their way from poverty to wealth necessarily hold superior genes, no matter the method they applied to attain their fortunes.  That applies whether a poor person gets rich through consistently selling products in high demand, such as the inventor George Westinghouse did, or by scheming and manipulating and violence, such as in the cases of Al Capone and the billionaire drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. To say one of Donald Trump's favorite words, all those men are winners.  As a result of winning the genetic lottery, they win at life.   
By contrast, if people who started off poor remain poor by the time they reach sexual maturity, they hold inferior genes; they remain poor on account of their inborn inferiority -- their genes program them to be unproductive and unambitious.  When they have children, their children will inherit those same inferior genes.  Therefore, it would be best for the collective benefit of our species as a whole if those people just died prior to having any children; then our species would be spared of their genetic deadweight.  The same applies to persons born with disabilities, as there are particular disabilities, like epilepsy, that are genetically heritable.  That is the problem with poor people receiving assistance -- rather than being allowed to die, they are able to survive long enough to beget children.  This must end -- both private charity and taxpayer-funded welfare should be discouraged and shamed or, better yet, abolished.  And if the government itself could take the initiative to euthanize such people, that would be better still.

In the 1944 book that has done more than any other work to popularize the term social Darwinist and to brand free-marketers as such, Social Darwinism in American Thought, author Richard Hofstadter also claims that, out of economic convenience, the famous industrialists of the nineteenth century -- the one whom Matthew Josephson deemed robber barons -- eagerly embraced social Darwinism's calls for callous laissez faire.  He quotes such "business entrepreneurs" as "John D. Rockefeller" and railroad magnate James Jerome Hill wherein they cite "the survival of the fittest" and then posits that that demonstrates their support for the ruthless doctrine described above.  I shall return to that later in this blog post.

The paraphrasing I did of what a social Darwinist allegedly believes already paints a frightful portrait, but it gets worse still. Intellectuals noticed, throughout the nineteenth century, that nonwhites were generally poorer than whites.  At the time, even East Asians were generally poorer.  Therefore, we are to believe from this straw man that social Darwinists took their conclusions about class structure and applied them to race, concluding that if whites are consistently richer than Asians, it must be because whites possess genes that are inherently superior to those of Asians.   We are led to believe that the social Darwinist who is apologist for the wealthy and privileged shall, in his applying his theory further, become a genetic-determinist racist (that is, eugenicist) who concludes that whites are programmed by biology to be better than Asians.

According to the straw man, free-market ideologues and racist eugenicists belong in the same category because they are both giving excuses for "social inequality."  The free-market ideologue approves of social inequality in that he believes that, on account of Bob and Steve making different choices, Bob deserves to grow richer than Steve for the reason that Bob satisfies consumer demand in the market more adequately than Steve does  Likewise, the racist eugenicist approves of social inequality in that he believes that whites and Asians both do only what genes program them to do,  and if whites hold a higher political position than Asians on account of being able to subjugate Asians violently through war and conquest and segregation legislation, then that is natural and just.

With the qualified exception of Richard Hofstadter himself, it is immaterial to almost all people who invoke social Darwinism that the free-market ideologue attributes success or failure in a free market to individuals' choices, whereas the racist eugenicist denies that there is choice altogether. Also observe, as free-marketers had from the beginning, that there is a fundamental difference between financial inequality and political inequality -- the financial inequality of the market results from peaceful, consensual social interactions; the political inequality between whites and nonwhites of the Jim Crow era was enforced at the point of a gun.

 As far as people who throw around the social Darwinist epithet are concerned, all that is the same because it is "social inequality."  Richard Hofstadter himself did quickly notice that free-marketers care about individual choice whereas racist eugenicists deny it, but Hofstadter still condemned both groups as just about equally evil and wrong, and subsequent writers who cited Hofstadter gave oversimplified accounts that were stripped of all the nuances and qualifications that Hofstadter provided.

And, finally, the fable concludes that such eugenics-sympathizing, capitalist-turned-fascist Social Darwinists ran amok until at last being slapped down by the left-wing political Progressive movement, including such figures as Louis D. Brandeis and Lester Frank Ward and John Maynard Keynes, and also by the socialists, including such figures as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.  We are told that insofar as social Darwinism -- especially eugenics -- has failed to reign over us, we should thank the political Progressive movement of the early twentieth century for having pushed back against this right-wing scourge.

From that account, we are led to believe:
  1. If you support free-market economics and oppose the institution of tax-funded welfare to poor -- both positions held by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner -- then, just as they do, you wish death upon the poor.
  2. Because (a) racist eugenicists and (b) a party of two free-market writers both cite biology to rationalize social inequality, free-market supporters and racist eugenicists should be judged as being in the same general grouping and equally despicable. And the most famous group of racist eugenicists were the Nazis.
  3. In short, if you resent the welfare state, you are secretly Adolf Hitler.  You are, to use an epithet from the left-wing author Gore Vidal, a "crypto-Nazi."

Yes, that's how it goes. 😑

This video by Noam Chomsky is typical of the misrepresentations. He pontificates,

...there is the social Darwinist view that Herbert Spencer is famous for developing, that in a capitalist system, it will be nature red in blood and claw, the strongest win.  And Goldman Sachs has given us an illustration, or maybe IBM. . . . Here there is, if you like a Spencerian element: the ideological concoctions that are beneficial to the rich and powerful will tend to propagate.  The ones that are harmful to the interests of the rich and powerful will tend to be marginalized and suppressed. 



In brief, it was convenient for anti-capitalists that Richard Hofstadter falsely conflated Spencer and Sumner with bigotry; he and his successors have been able to transfer that same stigma from Spencer and Sumner to free-market advocates and just about anyone with whom they disagree politically (anyone with whom they disagree is deemed "right-wing").  The social Darwinism tag exists primarily to stigmatize free-market advocates as brutes.

Actually, no one in the nineteenth century even called himself by the  moniker of social Darwinist -- even then, that adjective and noun were put together for no purpose other than applying a pejorative label upon someone else.  Of course, that no one used the social Darwinist label, by itself, does not prove the absence of an intellectual movement that might deserve that name.  No one actually called himself a "scientific racist" either but, because there is ample evidence of people from the 1700s onward trying to cite scientific evidence to rationalize their conclusions about the inborn superiority of one ethnicity over another, there is a basis in saying there was an over-arching "scientific racism" movement.

Why, then, do I say that there was no over-arching social Darwinism movement? It is because there is no sound basis in proclaiming that there was any intellectual movement in the 1800s that possessed all of the following features.
  1. It preached laissez-faire economics, at least in the beginning.
  2. It cited then-popular theories about evolution and biological competition in attempting to explain the goings-on in the market economy. 
  3. It reproached financial assistance for the poor, private and taxpayer-funded alike, pointing out that the jungle itself dispensed no such charity on weak organisms incapable of adapting. 
  4. Its theme of rationalizing biology-programmed inequality among financial classes directly inspired racist rationalizations for why there is political inequality between rich whites and impoverished nonwhites.  And the racist eugenicists knew fully well that they were continuing the line of argument started by the biology-obsessed free-marketers. 

All four characteristics are commonly imputed to Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.  In reality, only the first two attributes apply to them; the latter two do not.

I shall delve into how the "social Darwinism" caricature is inaccurate.  I cannot be exhaustive in this blog post -- for an exhaustive explanation, consult this work of mine.



What Herbert Spencer Did and Didn't Say About the Market and the Poor
First we should consider the nuanced views that Spencer and Sumner held about philanthropy.  They expressed misgivings about specific forms of philanthropy, and they thought that sometimes it did discourage people from finding work; they made a distinction between what they judged as the ambitious poor (worthy of help) and the shiftless poor (shiftlessness was a quality they noticed and detested in wealthy heirs as well). Moreover, in Social Statics (what is presently Spencer's most famous -- rather, notorious -- book), Spencer first provides a description of what he judges to be the impersonal manner whereby natural selection applies itself to human beings born with disabilities.  Then Spencer explains that although it may initially seem to conflict with how natural selection normally weeds out the weak, he finds it entirely proper for people to provide aid, consensually, to such persons in need. 

Those who throw around the social Darwinist epithet frequently do the following:

  1. They quote, out-of-context, Spencer's descriptive remarks in Social Statics of the impersonal application of natural-selection pressures to the disabled, all the while implying that this is what Spencer prescribes ought to be done.  (In most but not all cases, they do this while citing Richard Hofstadter's book Social Darwinism in American Thought.)
  2. They refrain from providing Spencer's prescriptive remarks on how he believes the disabled should be treated -- when such remarks are usually in the very paragraph directly following the one they quote -- as providing the full context would contradict the overall impression they wish to convey.

Consider Edwin Black, one of the experts interviewed in the shoddy propaganda "documentary" The Corporation:  The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. In his overrated book on eugenics, War Against the Weak -- where, of course, he implies that eugenics is the logical extension of capitalism -- Edwin Black quotesthe following from Social Statics: "Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such -- to clear the world of them, and make room for better. . . . If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die" (War of the Weak, page 12). As Edwin Black phrases it, "...the 'unfit' would naturally become more impoverished, less educated and eventually die off, as well they should. . . . As such, he [Spencer] completely denounced charity and instead extolled the purifying elimination of of the 'unfit' " (War Against the Weak, also page 12).

Completely denounced charity? This is from Social Statics, in the paragraph directly following the one that Edwin Black quoted:
Of course, in so far as the severity of this process [of the disabled dying off] is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated: albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown without any regard to ultimate results. But the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred [Chapter 28: Sanitary Supervision, Section 4, Paragraph 5].
Read just one paragraph beyond the one that Edwin Black quoted, and you find that Black's characterization of Herbert Spencer is undermined.

On page 119 of War Against the Weak, Black proclaims, "Spencer argued the strong over the weak, and believed that human entitlements and charity itself were false against nature" (emphasis added).  Pay attention to the use of the word weak from "the strong over the weak." To repeat Edwin Black, "Spencer argued the strong over the weak..."

Here is Herbert Spencer's own summary of his political philosophy.:  the proper sphere of government, he articulated,  is"simply to defend the natural rights of man -- to protect person and property -- to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak..." (emphasis added).

Edwin Black has it that "Spencer argued the strong over the weak..." Go to Spencer's own writings and you find that Spencer said the society he wants is one that will "prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak..." As powerful and strong are synonyms in this context, Edwin Black used almost the same phrase as Spencer.  Almost verbatim, Edwin Black falsely accuses Spencer of advocating exactly what Spencer clearly says Spencer opposes.

Unusual for someone who tries to denigrate Spencer, Edwin Black does not cite Hofstadter as he applies his smears. Black instead cites Robert C. Bannister.  As you will see in this blog post's final section, Black's citation of Robert Bannister on this point is even more bewildering.

Citing Hofstadter is routine, though, for others who quote Social Statics selectively to blacken Spencer's reputation. That is also routinely inflicted upon William Graham Sumner, as I detail in this work.

Both Spencer and Sumner tried to apply their knowledge about biology and the rainforest to their descriptions of a market economy, but that had nothing to do with a ruthless desire to see that "unfit" human beings die.  In what context, then, did Spencer and Sumner judge the inner workings of the rainforest to have implications for how a human society functions?

Though they did not use the exact phrases, a reading of their works for comprehension suggests that they aimed to convey that markets and cultures are complex adaptive systems. They said that, provided that it has a constitutional liberal republican Night Watchman State that protects people's lives and property from force, an economy or culture does not need a central director to impose, from the top down, the customs that everyone should follow. Rather, in their peaceful interactions, players in the market will, from trial-and-error, develop their own sets of norms and protocols.

Spencer and Sumner said that this is a form of spontaneous order that emerges -- it is not chaos, because the rules emerge from the bottom up. They pointed out that this is the same sort of order that emerges in a forest or coral reef. There is order and a temporary normality, despite there being no central director to plan everything. That is, Spencer and Sumner anticipated F. A. Hayek and Michael Polanyi on spontaneous order, and they also anticipated the Santa Fe Institute's theory of Complex Adaptive Systems. They likewise anticipated many theories from evolutionary psychology, including that of gene-culture co-evolution. Because of their own application of evolutionary theory to social science, it happens that free-market economists, evolutionary psychologists, and Complexity Theorists often find themselves accused of resurrecting Social Darwinism. Bristling at the accusation, they proclaim that no, they are not Social Darwinists, because they -- unlike Spencer and Sumner, whom they hate -- are not right-wing bigots. Had these people bothered to read Spencer and Sumner themselves, they would have found that Spencer and Sumner were not right-wing bigots either.

You can think of it in this manner:  products and firms must adapt to the market environment or die out.  A firm that manufactured VHS video cassette tapes would have thrived in the 1980s.  However, if, by the first decade of the twenty-first century, that same firm was manufacturing only video cassette tapes and not looking into any other markets, it would fail to adapt to changes in the market environment.  That firm would die off and close -- but that would not result in the deaths of the firm's owners and employees; they would look for other lines of employment at firms that were better-adapted.  Likewise, 3M Corporation originally made mining equipment.  As demand for mining equipment fell, 3M adapted to other markets, such as that of office equipment; that is why 3M became famous for Post-It Notes. In that respect, 3M adapted to changes in the market environment in the same manner that growing a thick fur coat assisted elephants in survival as the Ice Age arrived.

This brings us back to Hofstadter saying in Social Darwinism in American Thought that ruthless and cruel social Darwinism had been embraced by such "business entrepreneurs" of the nineteenth century -- the ones whom Matthew Josephson disparaged as robber barons -- as steel forger Andrew Carnegie, Great Northern Railway proprietor James Jerome Hill, and one "John D. Rockefeller."  Hofstadter quotes one "John D. Rockefeller" speaking favorably of the survival of the fittest and expects the reader to conclude that this is evidence that the era's leading industrialists favored dog-eat-dog nastiness.

The reader is left with the impression that Hofstadter is quoting John D. Rockefeller, Senior -- the self-made billionaire and the founder of the Standard Oil Trust.  In fact, the quotation that speaks positively of the survival of the fittest comes from the Standard Oil founder's son, John D. Rockefeller Junior, who spent almost all of his adult life not as a business executive but as a professional philanthropist, the administrator of the various charities and scientific foundations that his father had started.  Hofstadter's out-of-context quotation of Rockefeller Junior saying that the survival of the fittest must always apply is intended to conjure up the image of a miserly profiteer who dispenses charity toward none when, in fact, the quotation comes from someone who had already decided as a young adult to make the dispensation of charity into his life mission. (That it comes from Rockefeller Junior is noted on page 632 of Irvin G. Wyllie, "Social Darwinism and the Businessman," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 103 [no. 5, October 15, 1959]:  629-635.)  The quotation from Junior was from a 1902 speech he gave to the  YMCA of Brown University (which he had attended earlier as a student) and,  as Irvin Wyllie puts it on that same page, the quotation "may prove that the university-trained son knew how to use Darwinian phraseology, but it does not prove that his Bible-reading father was a Spencerian in the Gilded Age."

Nor did the free-market evolutionism of Spencer and Sumner provide a strong influence on scientific racism in general or eugenics in particular.  Yes, there were two separate groups trying to apply biological theory to the social sciences, and their interest in doing so is where their similarity ended. It is misleading even to say that both were groups were predominantly on the political Right. The two groups were the free-market evolutionists (Spencer and Sumner) and the scientific racists (including eugenicists). Some members of the two groups wrote letters to one another; the industrialist Andrew Carnegie corresponded by post with members of both groups.  Herbert Spencer wrote some letters to Francis Galton, the man who founded and coined eugenics. Yet the overall claim that scientific racism and eugenics grew out of the laissez-faire evolutionist theories of Spencer and Sumner is inaccurate.

The eugenicists were explicitly hostile to free-market evolutionism. They derided Spencer and Sumner in public, and said very openly that by advocating that the government dictate over other people's reproductive organs, they were the opposite of "laissez faire." In fact, when you compare the explicit public policy prescriptions of the free-market evolutionists (Spencer and Sumner) against the eugenicists, you find that eugenics was not an extension of the free-market evolutionist philosophy. As the eugenicist Sidney Webb avowed, "No consistent eugenist can be a 'Laissez Faire' individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere!" (Sidney Webb, "Eugenics and the Poor Law," The Eugenics Review vol. 2 {no. 3, November 1910}: 237, PDF of the whole paper available here).  Remember Sidney Webb's name -- we will revisit him and his political colleagues, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, below.



Were the Racism and Sexism of Eugenics Spawned From Spencer and Sumner?
Nor is it the case that both the free-market evolutionists and the eugenicists were hostile toward nonwhites, with the eugenicists simply taking that hostility farther than the free-market evolutionists.  According to modern sensibilities, Spencer and Sumner were indeed racist toward nonwhites in that they both expressed a sort of genteel condescension. They frequently employed terms for less-developed indigenous peoples that would cause many modern people to wince, such as "savages." In some respects, Spencer did believe that, on some inborn biological level, different ethnic groups were programmed by their biology to be more or less inclined toward some specific behaviors.  He did think that, on some level, inherited biology influenced the Chinese to be more inclined toward some specific behaviors than the English.  However, Spencer did not regard such behaviors as fixed; he considered them changeable over time and, for that reason, had he been alive today he would have balked at the eugenicists of the Pioneer Fund citing differences in average IQ between separate ethnicities as evidence that some particular ethnic groups are hopeless.

By the standards of their own time, Spencer and Sumner were radicals in terms of standing up for nonwhites against hostilities to which mainstream culture in Europe and the USA had directed against them. As a young adult, Spencer wrote scathing articles denouncing the slave trade and, subsequent to Great Britain ending the practice, he continued to remark that it was a moral stain on the history of England.

Nor did Spencer and Sumner believe that, once Great Britain and the United States had abolished slavery, their respective national governments no longer need concern themselves with the well-being of nonwhites.  Directly contradicting the image that the fervent right-wing capitalism of Spencer and Sumner ultimately bolstered the idea that whites were right to conquer nonwhites militarily, both Spencer and Sumner were well-known in their own day for opposing any policy by their respective governments that even remotely smacked of imperialism, colonialism, or militarism.  In his essay "The Conquest of the United States By Spain," Sumner argued that the United States federal government should not annex any land of nonwhites unless it is willing to recognize that those nonwhites deserve to be treated the same under the law as native-born white U.S. citizens are.

Spencer went even farther -- not only did he argue that Great Britain should grant political independence to all of its colonies but, when Africans and other indigenous peoples violently rebelled against the British governors, Spencer publicly stated that he sided with the Africans and other indigenous peoples over his own countrymen.  Consistently throughout his adult life, Spencer made clear his conviction that a white man did not possess any political rights that did not equally apply to nonwhites.   (With respect to race relations, there are two areas, though, where Spencer does sound like a eugenicist, and I will get to that below.  Even in the case where Spencer's opinion does concur with the eugenicists', it is not animated by the same hostility toward nonwhites as what drove the eugenicists.)

Let's go back to Sidney Webb saying that eugenicists easily distinguish themselves from Spencer and Sumner in that eugenicists preach the opposite of laissez faire. that Sidney Webb prided himself not on being a capitalist but on being a socialist.  That brings us to the second point -- both by the standards of their time and ours, the eugenicists were not even predominantly of the political Right.

As I said earlier, the morality tale often taught in universities is that, throughout the nineteenth century, Spencer and Sumner caused social Darwinism to run rampant, eventually bringing forth imperialism and the eugenics movement -- and what finally beat back all this social Darwinsim and imperialism and eugenics were figures of the political Left, ranging from the Progressive movement to the socialist movement. We are told that social Darwinism -- and, with it, the flagrant imperialism and eugenicism -- came to a halt on account (a) of Progressives in the vein of Louis D. Brandeis and Lester Frank Ward and John Maynard Keynes and (b) of socialists in the vein of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.

Not only did that imperialism and eugenicist legislation contradict the ideas that Spencer and Sumner vocalized, but the imperialism and eugenicist legislation were both championed chiefly by the very same political Progressives and same socialists normally assumed to have opposed the imperialism and eugenics legislation from the outset.

Most eugenicists (those deemed "negative eugenicists") supported compulsory sterilization of persons suffering from mental disorders, such as epileptics.  To apply the political philosophies of Spencer and Sumner is to consider such legislation anathema.   (Alexander Graham Bell expressed interest in eugenic for a while but eventually recoiled in horror from it because of his opposition to the compulsory sterilization.) And we are told that because the political progressive Louis D. Brandeis opposed social Darwinism, it follows that Brandeis would have opposed eugenicist legislation.  The opposite is the case.  The state of New Jersey argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, on entirely eugenicist grounds, that compulsory sterilization should be legal.  As a justice of he U.S. Supreme Court, Brandeis ruled in favor of the eugenicists in this case, keeping compulsory sterilization legal.  Eugenicist legislation was advocated openly by the same men frequently praised for having beaten back social Darwinism in general (which, by implication, is taken to mean that they beat back eugenicist legislation in particular).

After saying that eugenicist legislation is a form of social Darwinism,  Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought congratulates several key historical figures as the arch-opponents of social Darwinism, all the while neglecting to inform his readers that those same key historical figures were consistent and vocal advocates of eugenicist legislation (examples:   Lester Frank Ward, Charles Horton Cooley, Jack London, Edward Bellamy, Woodrow Wilson, Richard T. Ely, Charles Henderson, Simon Patten, John R. Commons).

Despite that aforementioned inconsistency on his part, Hofstadter did try to provide some nuance and qualifications in Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Although he applied the stigma of social Darwinist both to William Graham Sumner and to Theodore Roosevelt just because he felt that both cited biology to rationalize a politically right-wing position, Hofstadter at least admitted that Sumner opposed Roosevelt's warmongering and imperialism exactly on account of warmongering and imperialism being anathema to laissez faire.  Yet subsequent writers adopted only Hofstadter's negative appraisals of Spencer and Sumner and ignored all of Hofstadter's qualifications and caveats.  In the decades that followed, for example, the caricatures of Spencer by the likes of Susan Jacoby and Lester Thurow were even more exaggerated. On page 249 of his 1996 book The Future of Capitalism, Thurow -- an MIT economist, adviser to George McGovern, and former New York Times editorial board member -- inaccurately asserts, "Spencer created the eugenics movement to stop the unfit from reproducing, since this was simply the most humane way to do what the economy would do in a more brutal way (starvation) if left to itself."

For instance, in her Harvard-published book The Woman That Never Evolved, evolutionary psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy accuses Herbert Spencer of rationalizing men's subjugation of women and, as she does so, she cites Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought.  (This section on Sarah Hrdy I have excerpted here, with the quotation from Spencer being extended.)

Dr. Hrdy says, "Spencer thought females never had been inherently equal to males and could never be; subordination of women was not only natural but, in his view, desirable" (page 12). That goes to Chapter 1, Endnote 31. When you look at that endnote on page 204, it says, "For a review of the relevant literature, see especially Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Social Darwinism continues to be an important force in popular thinking."

That would leave you with the impression that Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought corroborates Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's accusation that Spencer rationalized male mistreatment of women, would it not? But when you read Hofstadter's book on your own, you come upon a passage where Hofstadter briefly acknowledges -- it is an afterthought on Hofstadter's part, convenient to the negative portrait he is trying to paint of Spencer -- that in the 1858 work Social Statics, Spencer argued in favor of the equal rights of men and women. Here is what Hofstadter says: "Despite its radicalism on incidental themes -- the injustice of private land ownership [Spencer later changed his mind on that foolishness, thankfully --Stuart], the rights of women and children, and a peculiar Spencerian 'right to ignore the state' which was dropped from his later writings, the main trend of Spencer's book [Social Statics] was ultra-conservative" (pages 40-41, emphasis Stuart's).

Hofstadter mentions the Social Statics's "radical" passage about women's rights very quickly so that he can get to the point: his usual denigration of Spencer as a "ultra-conservative," which is Hofstadter's synonym for morally repugnant. That Hofstadter made this admission as no more than an afterthought might perhaps be a reason why Dr. Hrdy overlooked the admission altogether. In any case, it might interest you that Social Statics's radical defense of women's rights takes up a whole chapter, Chapter 16. Let's take a look at it and see how far it goes in rationalizing men's oppression of women (hint: Spencer even supports women's suffrage decades prior to it becoming nationally recognized in Great Britain and the United States):

Equity knows no difference of sex. ... The law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race -- female as well as male. The same à priori reasoning which establishes that law for men (Chaps. III. and IV.), may be used with equal cogency on behalf of women. ...the several rights deducible from that law must appertain equally to both sexes. 
This might have been thought a self-evident truth, needing only to be stated to meet with universal acceptation. There are many, however, who either tacitly, or in so many words, express their dissent from it. [Spencer arguing against all that. --Stuart] ...there remains no alternative but to take up the...position...that the rights of women are equal with those of men. . . . [Voluminous arguing for women's rights for the entire chapter.] . . .
Thus it has been shown that the rights of women must stand or fall with those of men; derived as they are from the same authority; involved in the same axiom; demonstrated by the same argument. That the law of equal freedom applies alike to both sexes, has been further proved by the fact that any other hypothesis involves us in inextricable difficulties. ... ...the objections commonly raised against giving political power to women, are founded on notions and prejudices that will not bear examination.

Spencer had all that published in 1858.  And Spencer's proclamation that both husband and wife should share in domestic responsibilities equally -- rather than saying a wife should stay home and attend to all the housework herself -- was radical even by the standards of 1958.

In his two-volume 1892 work The Principles of Ethics, Spencer's enthusiasm for women's suffrage was greatly dampened.  He feared that women, being more controlled by emotion than men, might be more willing to vote to enlarge the welfare state.  Even at this point, though, Spencer expressed the hope that one day the law would recognize equal rights between men and women. As The Principles of Ethics goes,

...justice demands the women, if they are not artificially advantaged must not, at any rate, be artificially disadvantaged. 
Hence, if men and women are severally regarded as independent members of a society, each one of whom has to do the best for himself or herself, it results that no restraints can equitably be placed upon women in respect of the occupations, professions, or other careers which they may wish to adopt. They must have like freedom to prepare themselves, and like freedom to profit by such information and skill as they acquire.
Dr. Hrdy's accusation of sexism on Spencer's part might have made more sense if she cited The Principles of Ethics directly and was unaware of how Social Statics staunchly defended women's rights.  However, the seeming discrepancy between Social Statics in 1858 and The Principles of Ethics in 1892 is not addressed by the Hofstadter book that Dr. Hrdy cites.  Therefore, the likeliest explanation for the accusation of sexism is not that Dr. Hrdy was aware of Spencer's backpedaling in his later works; the likeliest explanation is that Dr.f Hrdy was just being lazy on this point.

That is, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy cites Hofstadter's book in her false accusation against Spencer when that very same Hofstadter book inadvertently undermines her accusation. (Again, this section on Dr. Hrdy is excerpted here, with a longer version of the quotation from Social Statics on women's rights.)

Do you see the trend?  Many writers, many of whom have Ph.D.s, sloppily ascribe myriad bigoted attitudes toward Spencer that he did not espouse, almost always citing Hofstadter and making it all too clear that they didn't go directly to the writings of Spencer and Sumner for an objective reading for the purpose of comprehension. (Over here I have tackled Michael Shermer's misrepresentations of Spencer.)

The accusations of sexism and racism apply less to Spencer than they do to contemporaries of Spencer's who denounced him for his support of capitalism:  the political Progressives and Fabian Socialists.  Such Fabian Socialists included the same Sidney Webb I quoted earlier, along with his pals H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.  As I have written here, an important part of the eugenicists' racist program was the establishment of the first immigration controls.

We are often fed the tale that the first immigration controls in the United States were imposed by the political Right.  The first immigration restrictions were indeed methods of violence inflicted upon the poor.  Even back in the late 1800s, most people recognized that what made a country poor was that it had an overbearing, oppressive government, and that such oppressive governments caused their societies to starve and suffer from high crime rates and civil wars.   Even then, people knew that immigrants trying to get into the United States and Great Britain were impoverished people fleeing from tyranny, and that to obstruct them by law -- that is, at gunpoint -- from entering he USA or Great Britain would likely result in those people dying from starvation or murder in their countries of origin. According to the social Darwinist caricature, social Darwinists definitely want poor people to die for the ostensive collective good of the human race.  Immigration restriction does count as a means by which the lives of poor people are sacrificed -- at gunpoint -- for an alleged common good.

It should not surprise you at this point that those first immigration controls were introduced, supported, defended, and ratified  predominantly by members of the political Progressive movement -- men considered Progressives in their own day and still praised even today for having undermined the laissez-faireist influence of Spencer and Sumner.  Moreover, these first federal immigration controls gained support on the basis of arguments that were both openly protectionist and openly eugenicist -- a lot of emphasis on the latter.   Subsequent to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first national origin quotas imposed on immigrants were instituted under Calvin Coolidge, who is not known for being left-wing, as he was actually the last U.S. President who succeeded in maintaining a balanced budget while reducing direct taxation and federal spending simultaneously. On fiscal matters, Coolidge would end up being accused of being mostly sympathetic toward free-marketers. Nonetheless, Coolidge began his political career having more Progressive sensibilities and, while not beholden to Progressives on fiscal issues, Coolidge was still under the influence of Progressives on the matters of immigration and eugenics. The Fabian Socialists (George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Sidney Webb) and Progressives thought of Eastern Europeans as nonwhite, and concluded that if Eastern Europeans came to Great Britain and the USA and had children with the native-born Protestant people, the gene pool of the national population would be polluted by inferior genes -- a taint in the bloodline.

In the decades preceding the rise of the USA's Progressives, there was already a well-known and popularly supported anti-immigration movement called the Know Nothings.  As with the Progressives who emerged later, the Know Nothings came from Protestant families and were particularly interested in blocking immigrants from countries where Catholics held the majority. Unlike the Progressives, the Know Nothings would not conventionally be considered left-wing and while they were chiefly working class they were not as self-consciously resentful toward capitalism on principle as the Progressives were, despite the Know-Nothings'  anti-immigrationism being hostile, by definition, to laissez faire. You can read the Know Nothings' 1856 platform here.   Yet in the end it was the Progressives and not the Know Nothings who prevailed in getting the first federal immigration restrictions enacted.

To my sorrow, it is on a matter pertaining to immigration where Spencer takes two political positions that are similar to those of these racist eugenicists, and these two positions of Spencer's relate to one another.  Along with the racist eugenicists, Spencer figured that if many East Asians immigrated to Great Britain or the United States, eventually the East Asian-descended people and the native-born whites would intermarry and have mixed-race children.  Spencer knew that if a horse and donkey mated to produce a mule, that mule would be sterile, and he was under the misapprehension that when whites and East Asians had children together, their children were born with comparable health defects.  For that reason, Spencer supported miscegenation laws (that is, laws forbidding interracial marriage) and even immigration restriction -- he found it safer that different ethnic groups remain apart.  On these counts, Herbert does sound like that other Spencer we know today -- Richard Spencer the neo-Nazi.

However, in this area, there are important differences between Herbert Spencer's rationale and the eugenicists'.  When Spencer (from hereon, every reference to "Spencer" refers to Herbert Spencer and not the vile Richard Spencer) said that he wanted the law to prevent the siring of mixed-race babies who would be born with disabilities, he was mostly concerned with the well-being of the mixed-race babies themselves; he did not want them to suffer.  By contrast, the racist eugenicists were mostly unsympathetic toward mixed-race babies themselves and simply wanting to preserve the "blood" of the WASP population, prioritizing this collective over any particular mixed-race baby.  If Spencer could have found in it in himself to notice that, ceteris paribus, mixed-race individuals are just as healthy as anyone else, he would have retracted his support for miscegenation laws and immigration restriction.  Racist eugenicists, on the other hand,  would not budge upon learning that mixed-race people are just as healthy; regardless of those individuals' health, the racist eugenicists' priority was and remains the preservation of phenotypes (as opposed to genotypes) associated with white people (blue eyes and blond hair).

As for William Graham Sumner, it is to his credit that he defended liberalized immigration in his essay "Demand for Men."

And the Nazi movement -- so often held up as social Darwinism taken to its final horrifying conclusion -- definitely does not follow from any Spencerian tradition.  In high school I was led to believe that Adolf Hitler was a socially Darwinian capitalist elitist who wanted to kill Jews because he thought of them as underdogs.  After all, in their reputed obsession with stamping out weaklings, is there nothing that a social Darwinist hates more than an underdog? Then I read Mein Kampf myself.  In this work, Hitler accuses Jews of being rich, powerful, plutocratic capitalists who oppress an Aryan proletariat -- that is, Hitler caricatures Jews as behaving in a manner that is similar to what Hofstadter would call a consistent social Darwinist. Mein Kampf criticizes communists as well, but proclaims that communists are merely stooges and dupes being manipulated by the true villains, the Jewish capitalists.  Mein Kampf depicts the Aryans as underdogs much poorer, less privileged, and less powerful than Jews. Then, adding a racist component to what would otherwise be vulgar Marxism, Mein Kampf eagerly heralds the day when the Aryan proletariat finally rises up and overthrows the purported Jewish capitalists (translation: social-Darwinist Jews). As far as the general rhetoric goes, Mein Kampf sounds less like Spencer or Sumner than it does the Western Progressives who have repeatedly denounced Spencer and Sumner as heartless capitalists.

The bottom line on race:  aside from Spencer's embarrassing concession to miscegenation fears, and some dated presumptions about supposedly inborn behavioral inclinations among discrete ethnic groups, Spencer and Sumner consistently recognized, far more than most of their contemporaries (including the Progressives and the socialists) the need for all ethnic groups to be respected with equal freedom.  Whereas Spencer and Sumner have been blamed, in the New York Times, for inspiring racism and imperialism (at least, for once, the New York Times put a correction on the bottom after accusing Spencer of this), and whereas the Progressives and socialists have been falsely credited with having opposed such measures, it was actually Spencer and Sumner fighting against racism and imperialism while it was the Progressives and socialists championing these horrendous causes.  Indeed, once they were in power the Nazis expropriated wealth from Jewish families and used that wealth to finance their welfare state -- the same sort of welfare state we have been told would be anathema to such social Darwinists as Spencer and Sumner.

The horrors that the Nazis inflicted indeed clue us in onto why Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought made the impact that it did among the academic Left.



How the End of World War II Affected the Eugenics Movement and Gave Hofstadter's Historiography Its Decades-Long Pervasive Influence
There is one special area where Hofstadter distinguished himself from his fellow academic Progressives.  He wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in his twenties.  At that point, unlike his Progressive colleagues around him, he had already come to find eugenics distasteful.  To a large extent, Hofstadter wished to indict his fellow Progressives, proclaiming that insofar as they accepted eugenics, they should not be considered true opponents to the capitalist scourge.  Of course, when Hofstadter accused his fellow Progressives of betraying the Progressive crusade for the needy, it mattered little to him that these eugenicists still favored government-imposed redistribution of wealth from rich whites to poor whites and that they genuinely wanted to dismantle big corporations, "the trusts."  Hofstadter still wanted to stigmatize these sincere anti-capitalists anyway as insufficient in their anti-capitalism.  This was Hofstadter's way of participation in movement in-fighting, comparable to today's "intersectional feminists" battling the "trans-excluding radical feminists" who denounce male-to-female trasgendered persons as "male misogynists."

Hofstadter finished Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944 -- a pivotal moment in history.  This work was informed by the controversies of the New Deal and of many entrepreneurs opposing the New Deal vocally -- Hofstadter sided with the New Deal programs over these critics in the business community, and stigmatizing them as covertly "social Darwinists" disciples of the heinous Herbert Spencer proved an excellent means of intimidating and discrediting them.  It was also an important year because it was near the end of World War II -- when the sheer magnitude of the Nazis' atrocities would be exposed to the world and the eugenics that informed the Holocaust would finally and deservedly fall into disrepute.

As many Progressives would understandably feel embarrassed about how their movement had promoted eugenics over the preceding decades, Social Darwinism in American Thought had arrived at the most opportune moment.  It allowed Progressives to whitewash the history of their own movement -- to pretend that eugenics gained popular support not primarily from political Progressives but from the figures whom the Progressives most detested:  such apologists for capitalism as Spencer and Sumner.  Spencer and Sumner invoked the survival of the fittest in their arguments for capitalism, did they not?  Why, that must be where the Nazis got the idea that one racial group is right to prey upon other racial groups, just as a lion would prey upon a zebra! Hence, the myth that it was Herbert Spencer-inspired capitalists who initially inspired eugenics and Naziism gained currency among Progressive intellectuals who could bowdlerize some unseemly aspects of their forebears' philosophies.  And, as an added bonus, they could join Hofstadter in publicly shaming the free-marketers by calling them "social Darwinists -- a term so incendiary precisely because of its implicit association with eugenics.





Despite the new stigma attached to it, eugenics did not disappear entirely from academia; it simply fell into the margins.  Subsequent to World War II,  the millionaire heir Wickliffe Draper continued to promote the ideas and public policy recommendations of eugenics.  Because the term eugenics had become so loaded at this point, Draper and his cronies became more discreet about that.  They stated that they simply wanted to research the way in which race-related genetics was the main causal factor explaining differences in IQ, income level, and crime rates among the populations of different ethnic groups.   Thus undaunted, Draper continued supporting his Pioneer Fund, which he established in 1937 to promote eugenics, this cause gaining recruits among such scholars as J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn.

Of special interest is one particular friend to the Pioneer Fund -- Garrett Hardin, who coined the expression tragedy of the commons in a paper in Science of the same name. Hardin did say that poor people should just die, and, on that rationale, he did recommend cutting off U.S. taxpayer-funded aid to the Third World. You can read his horrible argument in his article that has the subheading "The Case Against Helping the Poor."

 But those who would point to Hardin as an example of a twenty-first century supporter of laissez-faire Social Darwinism are out of luck. Far from going along with Jean-Baptiste Say and Julian Simon in recognizing free-market economics as a win-win proposition, Hardin presumed markets to be a zero-sum game wherein more wealth for you means less for me, especially because Hardin presumed that wealth comes from an ever-depleting quantity of nonrenewable natural resources.  He was a pro-government-regulations environmentalist who fretted about human "overpopulation."

In the very paper where Hardin introduced the titular tragedy of the commons, Hardin proclaimed that a "legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust," something of which he tolerates simply as a lesser evil that is preferable to the exhaustion of resources that would happen sooner if private ownership over land were not recognized. Furthermore, he asserted the need to "exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith," as Adam Smith "contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society." Nay, he said, there must be " coercive laws or taxing devices" to manipulate human behavior. Hardin thus concluded,
Coercion is a dirty word...now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. . . . The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.

Hardin, however, didn't ascend to the level of political influence that eugenicists had attained prior to the second World War. For the entire second half of the twentieth century, the Pioneer Fund plugged on, despite the popularity of the ideas it espoused never coming close to reaching the popularity they enjoyed during the pre-war period.  For J. Philippe Rushton, Richard Lynn,  Garrett Hardin, and their allies in the Pioneer Fund's orbit, it was a lonely struggle.  From 1950 to the year 2000, the closest that the Pioneer Fund came to garnering mainstream respectability was in the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein.  Murray and Herrnstein relied heavily on figures in the Pioneer Fund's orbit for all of the arguments that The Bell Curve presented.

As early as the mid-1990s, there were already pro-eugenics websites on the World Wide Web.  Almost all of them relied predominantly on The Bell Curve to convince Web surfers that mainstream science supports their conclusions. But, in terms of how popular or well-known they were, these eugenicist websites were confined to the fringes.  In attempt to rid themselves of the stigma of the word eugenics, these eugenicists took to calling themselves "Race Realists" and observers of "Human Biodiversity" (a more recent euphemism to emerge is "White Identitarian").   No one wanted to be "outed" publicly as a "eugenicist" or, far worse, a "social Darwinist."

Despite eugenics's long history with the political Left, The Bell Curve and the work of the Pioneer Fund became increasingly popular with persons who consider themselves right-wing:  more specifically, people who are fearful about immigrants from Mexico, South America, and Muslim-majority countries and who are looking for new arguments with which they can persuade their fellow Westerners of the need to restrict such immigration further through government fiat.  The political ascendancy of Donald Trump in the USA and of the alt-right and ethno-nationalist movements in Western Europe have inspired many an "immigration skeptic" to dust off his old copy of The Bell Curve and cite the work of the Pioneer Fund.

Thus, whereas the end of World War II once crippled and nearly killed it, the eugenics movement has made a disconcerting comeback online on account of Trump supporters and the alt-right.   If you're a regular reader of his blog, you know that I have been documenting this phenomenon over the past year. And this is exactly why the history of the "social Darwinism" tag should be of great concern to free-marketers.  When someone is pegged as a social Darwinist, it is almost always to insinuate that such a person is no less of a covert bigot than is a member of the alt-right. The next time someone calls you a social Darwinist, you will understand what accusations and assumptions are implied in the use of that phrase and of how those buried assumptions contradict the actual history behind how these ideas developed.



Do These Examples Prove There Was a Nineteenth-Century Social Darwinism Movement?
Among all the Western literature preceding the year 1910, I only know of two examples that might qualify as "social Darwinist," and it would be a stretch to try to classify them as attempts to cite biology to justify capitalism. The first example is in the Marquis de Sade's deranged erotica, Juliette. At one point in the story, the Marquis has his titular villainness encounter a man named Noirceuil, who gives a long-winded speech wherein he explains that because wild animals prey upon one another, it is natural and good for human beings to exploit one another violently as well. Says Norceuil,

...Nature has given us these weak individuals to be our slaves: they are her gift to us, a sacrifice: their condition is proof thereof; the strong man may hence use the weak as he sees fit; may he not aid them in some instances? No; for if he does, he acts contrary to Nature's will. . . . This fanciful bond of brotherhood could have been dreamt up only by some feeble individual; for it to have occurred to one of the mighty, in need of nothing, would not have been natural: to bind the weak to his will, he already had what the task required: his strength; what to him would have been the utility of this bond? 'twas invented by some puny wretch, and it is founded upon arguments quite as futile as would be this one addressed by the lamb to the wolf: You mustn't eat me, I am four-footed too [emphasis De Sade's].

That sounds like what one would expect a social Darwinist to say; does it not? It even sounds like what a hater wants people to believe was Ayn Rand's ethical argument. Given what is known about the Marquis de Sade's life and crimes, and of the opinions he expressed sincerely, it is legitimate to conclude that the Noirceuil character is giving voice to what is the Marquis de Sade's actual philosophic conclusion.

 The other instance is of a book titled Might Is Right, written under the pseudonym "Ragnar Redbeard"; this work even cites Herbert Spencer more than twice. Both Might Is Right and De Sade's Juliette cite the law of the jungle to rationalize violence, but they do not uphold a laissez-faire liberal position, and are therefore contrary to the political position that Spencer and Sumner advanced in the works of theirs that are called social Darwinist.   Ragnard Redbeard's citations of Spencer are not even about capitalism, though he does cite Spencer out-of-context about how creatures not adequately adapted shall die off and then, anticipating what Edwin Black and others would do a century later, Redbeard falsely implies that Spencer's remark conveyed moral approval of physically weak men dying off.  Though popular followings developed around Spencer and Sumner, there was no major following for Might Is Right, which is remembered today mostly as a novelty of history.  For that reason, Might Is Right cannot be taken as evidence that there really was a Social Darwinism movement in the nineteenth century that was based around something other than eugenics.  As for De Sade's Juliette, it is not even a work from the nineteenth century; it was published in 1797. In the end, Juliette and Might Is Right are not examples of nineteenth-century apologias for capitalism that cite natural selection to justify wishing death upon the poor. To my knowledge, there are no such works.




Concluding Remarks
At this juncture, I hope I have hammered home the following points.

  1. "Social Darwinism" is a slur that deliberately obfuscates meaning rather than clarifies, and
  2. for that reason, it is just to say that while the nineteenth century had a eugenics movement and a scientific racism movement, what is frequently said to be the nineteenth century's social Darwinism movement did not in fact exist.  The image of "social Darwinism," as it has existed since 1944, is chiefly an image that Richard Hofstadter and his political allies invented as a cheat to "win" debates over policies of political economy.

There are some additional points, though, that I must make about this.

The first major challenge to Hofstadter's revisionist historiography came from Robert C. Bannister in 1979 with his work Social Darwinism:  Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought.  Bannister's work exposed how "social Darwinist" was a nebulous label that intellectuals such as Hofstadter conveniently shaped and reshaped for their own rhetorical purposes, objectivity and consistency in definitions be damned. Some left-wing historians, such as Eric Foner, have become aware of this work and, to their credit, they now concede (1) the free-market evolutionism of Spencer and Sumner is unrelated to eugenics and (2) the free-market evolutionism of Spencer and Sumner did not provide any major inspiration for eugenics.

Yet these same left-wing intellectuals still disapprove of free-marketers who advocate a constitutional liberal republican Night Watchman State, and they still wish to retain the old stigma upon the free-marketers.  On that basis, these more-informed left-wing scholars continue (a) to use the social Darwinism label as if it describes some unified ideology after all and (b) to refer to Spencer and Sumner as "social Darwinists."  What has changed is this:  now admitting that the laissez-faireist philosophy of Spencer and Sumner would never condone the violence inflicted by eugenicist legislation, these left-wing scholars say:

  1. There was both a social Darwinist (free-market) ideology and a violence-inciting eugenicist ideology, and they should not be confused for one another.
  2. The social Darwinist ideology (because, yes, there was and is one) abhors the initiation of the use of violence(!!!) by private individuals and by any government.

As you can imagine, because there are still many writers going around using the social Darwinist slur in the old way, the more-informed left-wing scholars taking on that other position sows much confusion.  There are now two schools of thought among left-wing scholars about social Darwinism, and both views are incorrect. They are:

  1. The traditional, post-Hofstadter interpretation: There was indeed a nineteenth-century social Darwinism movement, and the eugenics movement was a part of it; the eugenics movement is under the "social Darwinism" umbrella.
  2. The revised, post-Bannister interpretation:  There was indeed a nineteenth-century social Darwinism movement, but it opposed violence and political collectivism and was therefore separate from the eugenics movement.

That second school of thought is closer to the truth, but, based on how the social Darwinism tag has been consistently exploited over the past five decades, it would make more sense to admit that there never was an overall political ideology or movement that conformed to what Hofstadter and his successors characterized as social Darwinism.

A second point I must make concerns the left and right on the political spectrum.  I have pointed out that many of the eugenicist evils that have traditionally been associated with the political Right in general -- such as immigration control -- actually came to be enacted in Great Britain and the United States on account of people who were considered politically left-wing in their own time and are still often praised by the center-Left today.  I am referring to such political Progressives as Louis D. Brandeis and such socialists as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.  That eugenics and immigration control were then predominantly advocated by those who were left-of-center should not  let the political Right off the hook at present.  Based on developments over the past three decades, it is not unfair to voice concern that the political Right in Europe and the West, at present, has been flirting a lot with eugenicist ideas.

The political scientist Charles Murray is associated with the political Right.  He says he is sympathetic to free-market economics and libertarianism; most people believe that assessment, though it is belied by much evidence.  Murray is considered the archenemy of the welfare state because of his book from the 1980s, Losing Ground, which provided a devastating critique of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society reforms and of what was then called the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.  To call Murray a principled laissez-faireist, though, would be highly inaccurate, as Murray has become a leading advocate of instituting a taxpayer-funded Universal Basic Income (UBI).  Moreover,  in 1994 Murray coauthored the most influential apologia for eugenicist ideology of the past thirty years:  The Bell Curve, which advocates a change in immigration policy that barely hides its eugenicist rationale.

Throughout the 1990s, Murray's eugenicist arguments received major support in the pages of National Review from John Derbyshire and Peter Brimelow.  In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the editors of National Review publicly broke with Derbyshire and Brimelow over those two having become embarrassingly explicit about their own racism.  However, as of this writing, National Review has not disavowed the tamer (but still racially charged) rhetoric that Derbyshire and Brimelow played a role in introducing to National Review's pages in the 1990s.  Derbyshire and Brimelow were among the first writers to call for, in National Review, a crackdown on Mexican immigrants.  While National Review's present editors repudiate Derbyshire and Brimelow as individuals, these same editors continue to parrot the less-obviously racist talking points against Mexican immigrants that Derbyshire and Brimelow helped bring to National Review in the first place.

Charles Murray's eugenicist arguments were further popularized by another Murray of the political Right -- Murray N. Rothbard.  Although Rothbard's influence has been thankfully and mercifully waning over the past 15 years, it still holds an unfortunately sizable clout among libertarians and even among many people who call themselves Objectivists.

The Bell Curve has done more than any other piece of writing in the past two decades to normalize the eugenicist claims about race and IQ; this has been embraced by the alt-right and too many Trump supporters; even Sam Harris of the center-Left has ignorantly proclaimed that the conclusions of The Bell Curve are scientifically valid. And as I have explicated here, the political conservatives' embrace of appeals to fight against "the Demographic Winter" also has underlying eugenicist origins.   And, as you have probably noticed by now, I have spent the past year chronicling the consistent advocacy of eugenicist theory and eugenics-based immigration restriction on the part of cult leader Stefan Molyneux. The work of the Pioneer Fund, along with the writings of Garrett Hardin calling for eugenics and government-imposed control of the population's size has been finally supported for the past three decades by John Tanton, the behind-the-scenes fundraiser and lobbyist for the now-international movement to block Latinos and Arabs and north Africans from migrating to white-majority countries.

To the extent that the Demographic Winter rhetoric and Murray's conclusions about race and IQ hold sway among National Review readers, Murray Rothbard fans, Trump supporters, and Objectivists, it is legitimate to conclude that eugenics does have a strong presence in America's political right wing.

For the political Right to purge itself of the eugenicist influence would entail abandoning many favorite talking points about a purported need to maintain restrictions on immigration from poor countries -- talking points which John Derbyshire and Peter Brimelow helped create and which very few on the political Right are willing to discard.  While eugenics was initially more popular with self-proclaimed members of the political Left than with the so-called right-wingers of that time, someone living today cannot properly expect that considering himself a right-wing opponent of welfare should absolve him of the charge that his political views operate from the very same premises as the nineteenth-century eugenicists.   The upshot:  it is foolish to say "eugenics was started by the Left and I'm not of the Left; therefore what I am urging, as far as public policy goes, cannot be eugenicist."

In sum of everything above, one can provide a coherent overview of the eugenics movement and the scientific racism movement of the nineteenth century but one cannot provide a coherent explanation of an overarching social Darwinist ideology, school, approach, method, trend, or movement from the nineteenth century.  There was no general ideology, school, approach, method, trend, or movement in that vein -- definitely not one that resembles the tall tale from Richard Hofstadter and those who cite him while oversimplifying his already-hackneyed historiography further.

If you doubt my own historiography on this topic, you can read up on it yourself. For that, I recommend the aforementioned Robert C. Bannister's Social Darwinism:  Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought and the more-recent Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard.  If you want to read a shorter work on this for free, before shelling out money for either of these books, you can read Thomas C. Leonard's paper online, "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism:  The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought."  You can read any or all of Thomas Leonard's papers about the Progressives' support for eugenics or about the false fable about free-market economics and social Darwinism, over here.

Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism -- quite popular (and overrated) among some Norwegians who call themselves Objectivists -- briefly touches on those same topics, but Goldberg isn't as careful a scholar as Bannister and Leonard.  For his own Religious-Right purposes, Goldberg overstates what he presumes to be an inextricable connection between eugenics and support for a woman's right to an abortion.  As is typical of the Judeo-Christian Religious Right, Goldberg exaggerates the extent to which Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger supported eugenics and white supremacists.  Peter Bagge refutes those misconceptions about Margaret Sanger in this work (yes, it's a graphic novel, but it contains an afterword where Bagge provides well-documented sources). I won't tell you not to read Liberal Fascism -- I can't recall ever telling anyone not to read anything, even if it's as vile as the propaganda of eugencists like Stefan Molyneux.  I will recommend that if you do read Goldberg's book, you bear in mind Goldberg's weaknesses in methodology, and also that you give priority to the more careful work of Robert Bannister and Thomas C. Leonard.

Unfortunately, this brings up another example of sloppiness.  Arthur C. Brooks is not a left-winger; he is, as of this writing, the president of the American Enterprise Institute.  Prior to becoming AEI's president, Brooks authored 2007's Who Really Cares:  The Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, which takes this jab at both Ayn Rand and Herbert Spencer:

The intellectual roots of this kind of thinking can be traced to the nineteenth-century British philosopher Herbert Spencer, the father of so-called "Social Darwinism" and the coiner of the term "survival of the fittest."  Adherents of Social Darwinism believed that observed inequalities between people represented a natural process by which the "fit" (successful people) rose to the top of the social and economic hierarchies, and the "unfit" (the poor and needy were weeded out) [meaning left to die].  Since political and social institutions (such as welfare and charity) cannot permanently alter this process, the thinking went, these institutions created a disservice to society by delaying the inevitable population decline of the unfit.  These institutions created pain by providing artificial incentives for the unfit to reproduce.  [Here Brooks refers to the reader to Chapter 3, Endnote 27 on page 219]. 
This sort of philosophy may sound radically right wing to modern ears, reminiscent of Ayn Rand (who said that "suffering is not a claim check, and its relief is not the goal of existence") and her like. But it was not limited to the right; Social Darwinism also found a home among certain groups of utopian leftists.  Margaret Sanger, the pioneer for birth control who founded Planned Parenthood was a Social Darwinist, and she promoted contraceptives to discourage the reproduction of "unfit" people [pages 68-69].

Note that even conservatives have opted to employ the social Darwinism smear on those with whom they disagree, including pro-choice activists.  Of interest here is the source Brooks cites -- surprisingly not Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought.  When we go to page 219 to look up Endnote 27, Brooks cites, as one of his two sources proving that Spencer was a ruthless social Darwinist, a paper by Robert Bannister titled "William Graham Sumner's 'Social Darwinism' Reconsidered."  Brooks got the title somewhat incorrect; it's actually "William Graham Sumner's 'Social Darwinism':  A Reconsideration."  Bannister revised this very same essay and made it Chapter 5 of the Bannister book I'm recommending (it says so on the acknowledgments page, page ix): the very book whose overall point is that Spencer and Sumner were not social Darwinist apologists for ruthlessness.  More astonishing still, on page 446 of War Against the Weak, Edwin Black cites Bannister's book as if it were proof that Spencer is a social Darwinist against charity.  Even the original 1973 Bannister paper which Brooks cites has this:
One avowed Spencerian [that is, adherent to Herbert Spencer's philosophy], a reform-minded lawyer, wrote to the New York Times that Spencer himself would not accept the implication that "fitness" [in the evolutionary biology context] was "fitness" in any social [science] sense.  [That is, the disciple of Herbert Spencer's explained to the New York Times that Spencer did not believe that the ruthless law of the jungle was applicable to human society.]   "Indeed," added the editor of the Index, the journal of the Free Religious Association, "several passages of [Sumner's] essay led us to suppose that, like Darwin, [Herbert] Spencer, and the leading evolutionists, Mr. Sumner believed that the law of the survival of the fittest was, in man, either in great measure annulled or its character greatly changed by moral and rational considerations" [page 99].

About Herbert Spencer himself, Bannister's book accuses Hofstadter and his successors of "Distorting Spencer's [philosophic] development from Social Statics" to his later works.  Thus Bannister's book concludes about him,
The conventional portrait of Spencer's social Darwinism is both inaccurate and ironic. . . . ...Darwin's rhetoric of struggle and survival provided the perfect vocabulary to caricature the alleged inhumanity and brutality of modern society, and to parody anyone who continued to ground [recommendations for public] policy in natural law or even science.  
The label social Darwinism, as eventually applied to Spencer, made good propaganda for the same reasons it made bad history [page 55].
That is the very same book that Edwin Black cited as proof of Spencer's social Darwinism, and which contained the essay that Arthur Brooks cited a proof of Spencer's social Darwinism. Black and Brooks cited the work of Bannister as evidence of Spencer's advocacy of social Darwinian ruthlessness when Bannister's work has led the way in informing people that Spencer was nothing of the sort.

Bannister's book concludes altogether,
Not only was there no school (or schools) of social Darwinists:  the term was a label one pinned on anyone with whom one essentially disagreed.  The so-called conservative social Darwinists of the 1880s (laissez faire liberals, utilitarians, and the like) were, as social Darwinists, the invention of their opponents to the left.  Eventually, the label was used not merely to caricature the "let-alone-philosophy" (as it was termed), but to denigrate programs of other state activists one happened to oppose, whether New Liberals, fellow socialists, or eugenicists.  . . .  A social Darwinist...was something nobody wanted to be [pages xi-xii; emphasis Bannister's].
As Bannister's book has identified social Darwinism as the straw man it always has been, "the assault on social Darwinism" from the mid-1940s onward amounts to "distorting of the past" (page 251).

For the reasons given above, Objectivists should stop saying, "Objectivism is different from social Darwinism," as if social Darwinism ever was an actual ideology advocated by real people, and from which Objectivism must distance itself.  Rather, Objectivists should point out that there was no nineteenth-century social Darwinist movement at all.  Unfit for an environment of rational discourse, the social Darwinism canard should act in accordance with the implications of its own name . . . and go extinct.


On July 28, 2017, I added the section about the smears from Noam Chomsky.