The “Taint of Social Darwinism”

The New York Times has up a post by Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, on Social Darwinism. Kitcher is eager to reach the conclusion that the GOP’s budgetary policies are “Social Darwinist”, and in service to that agenda, or perhaps because his research on the matter isn’t up-to-date, her presents an extremely simplistic version of the history of Social Darwinism that’s right out of Richard Hofstadter’s influential but dubious 1944 work Social Darwinism in American Thought. As an antidote, I recommend reading Thomas C. Leonard’s excellent essay, Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. The short version: our current concept of “Social Darwinism” has a lot less to do with what intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th century actually believed–Progressives often broadly fit the category of “Social Darwinist”, libertarian types less so than is commonly believed–and more to do with the Hofstadter’s ideological agenda of supporting Progressive economic reform (Wikipedia quotes him as saying, “I hate capitalism”) while undermining the case for using biology in the social sciences.

UPDATE: So, Hofstader deemed “Social Darwinists” not people who called themselves Social Darwiwinists, nor always those who used scientific or biological concepts to inform social policy. Rather, he largely defined Social Darwinists as those whose views were diametrically opposite to his own, in that they believed in the relevance of science to social policy and were individualists in their social policy outlook. Thus, the many Progressives who believed that the “survival of the fittest” meant that an active government was necessary to ensure that American society was able to compete with other societies did not generally get labeled as Social Darwinists. (Indeed, Darwinian ideas in social policy long outlasted the virtual last gasps of laissez-faire ideology in the late 19th century.) And to make it worse, Hofstader frequently exaggerated or misstated the views of those he did deem Social Darwinists (see this book for a debunking). Kitcher’s post continues in the long tradition of left-wing academics defining Social Darwinism as “that to which I am ideologically opposed.”

FURTHER UPDATE: Some comments have led me to think I should actually have been even more critical of Kitcher. He defines Social Darwinism as the ideology of those who (a) believe that people have natural talents and abilities and that (b) competition is a good thing and creates societal benefits. He then explicitly excludes versions of Social Darwinism that were popular among Progressives in the early 20th century, supportive of imperialism (the most infamous purported American libertarian Social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, was a vigorous opponent of imperialism) and eugenics. Even Hofstadter wasn’t as crude about defining Social Darwinism so overtly to describe his contemporary ideological adversaries, such that the concept of evolution is basically absent, and to exclude those that would ruin his “story.”

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