Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Barack Obama and the Progressive Myth of "Social Darwinism"

Five years ago, I participated in a debate on Darwinian conservatism at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.  The New York Times published a front-page article on the debate by Patricia Cohen.  The article was generally accurate in reporting my arguments.  But, predictably, she brought up the story of "Social Darwinism," and she wrote: "Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions, and withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy."  Every part of that sentence is false.  Spencer never identified himself as a "social Darwinist."  He denounced both colonialism and imperialism.  He advocated labor unions, as long as they were voluntary.  And he argued for the importance of charity in caring for the sick and needy.  A few days after Cohen's article appeared, the Times published a "correction"--saying that Spencer had opposed both colonialism and imperialism.

I was reminded of this incident when I read President Barack Obama's recent speech (on April 3rd) at the Associated Press Luncheon.  In the media coverage of the speech, the most widely quoted paragraph comes about two-thirds through the speech:
This congressional Republican budget is . . . a Trojan Horse.  Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country.  It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.  It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class.  And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last--education and training, research and development, our infrastructure--it is a prescription for decline.
As Obama indicates in the rest of the speech, particularly at the end, he is using "social Darwinism" as a label for a social theory that favors the power of rich selfish people who have no social sense of responsibility for others less fortunate than they.

Jonah Goldberg has written a good article for The Weekly Standard on how this illustrates the "Fantasies of Social Darwinism" as a "progressive talking point."  George Smith has also written a good series of essays on the common misconceptions about Social Darwinism.  Obama's speech falls into an old tradition of American progressive rhetoric that can be found in some earlier speeches, as when he identified the Republican policies as "Social Darwinism--every man or woman for him or herself."

This progressive rhetorical theme was originated by Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought (first published in 1944).  Since Obama has said that his favorite college courses at Occidental College were those on the history of political philosophy and American political thought taught by Roger Boesche, I wondered whether he might have read that book then.  I asked Professor Boesche about this, and he told me that although he had not assigned Hofstadter's book, he had assigned a collection of essays by William Graham Sumner, in which the editor might have cited Hofstadter's argument about the corrupting effects of Social Darwinism in American social thought.  (When Boesche visited the White House, Obama complained about the B he received in one of his courses.)

As Goldberg indicates, scholarship over the past 30 years has largely refuted most of what Hofstadter argued.  Prior to the 1930s, the term "Social Darwinism" was rarely used, and when it was used, it was a label for something that the author was criticizing.  Furthermore, it was not until Hofstadter's book appeared, that people like Spencer were generally identified as Social Darwinists.  So the idea of Social Darwinism as Hofstadter constructed it seems now to be a distortion of historical reality if not a complete fabrication.

For me, the biggest problem is that Social Darwinism has almost nothing to do with the writings of Charles Darwin, particularly The Descent of Man.  That's what I say when my critics casually assume that I'm trying to revive Social Darwinism.

One should notice that in Social Darwinism in American Thought, Hofstadter never proves that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist.  Hofstadter comes close to admitting this when he says that "Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist" (238).  Hofstadter offers direct quotations from Darwin's Descent  on only two pages of the book (91-92).  Those quotations suggest that Darwin could not have been a Social Darwinist of the sort portrayed by Hofstadter, because they show Darwin stressing the natural sociality of human beings and their natural moral sense based on sympathy for the needs of their fellow human beings.  "Selfish and contentious people will not cohere," Darwin declared, "and without coherence nothing can be effected."  If Social Darwinism is all about selfish competition, as Hofstadter and Obama would say, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinism.

Geoffrey Hodgson has surveyed the use of the term "Social Darwinism" in Anglophone academic journals over a century ("Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term," Journal of Historical Sociology [17 (December 2004): 428-63).  He found only one piece of writing in which a scholar defended "Social Darwinism."  Remarkably, this author began his article by stating: "By 'Social Darwinism' I do not mean those propositions of the doctrine of evolution which Darwin chiefly emphasized" (D. Collin Wells, "Social Darwinism," American Journal of Sociology [12 (March 1907): 695-716).  In a response to this article, Lester Ward noted that the sociologists who talk about "Social Darwinism"--for the sake of criticizing it--use this term "without knowing what Darwin really stood for," because they seem ignorant of Darwin's teachings ("Discussion," The American Journal of Sociology [12 (March 1907): 709-10).  In another article, Ward observed: "I have never seen any distinctively Darwinian principle appealed to in the discussions of 'social Darwinism'" ("Social and Biological Struggles," The American Journal of Sociology [13 (November 1907): 289-299]).

If we think that Darwinism should have some clear connection to the teachings of Charles Darwin, then Social Darwinism is not Darwinism.

Chapter 9 of Darwinian Conservatism is on the debate over Social Darwinism.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Professor Arnhart. I know this will change the way I introduce the history of the Victorian Era in my course on Modern British Literature.

Even if "Social Darwinism" is a bit of a strawman, I would still say that one operating principle for the Victorian English writers is a strong concern for the loss of faith generally, especially in the face of the advancement of science. Darwin himself speaks of such concerns, and we also see it, for example, in Matthew Arnold's metaphor of the "sea of faith" waning away in "Dover Beach."

Empedocles said...

Social Darwinism, as I understand it, and as it was used by the Nazis, isn't an ethical theory at all. It's a metaethical theory that the meaning of "good" is that which wins a struggle. Basically, might makes right.

Anonymous said...

Robert Wright, the Darwinian progressive, has a post on this as well. See above link.

Anonymous Conservative said...

One of the problems we face is we view the Darwinian environment as universally harsh. This is really quite ignorant of the science of evolution, and it is why we don't understand our political ideologies better. I can't complain too hard, I did the same thing when I was young. I looked at Liberals, and thought that in a “state of nature,” they'd be killed in a microsecond. It baffled me how such a maladaptive misfit could persist in our species. But this was foolish.

As Evolutionary Ecology shows us in r/K Selection Theory, Darwin offers two different environments to organisms. The K-selective environment is indeed quite harsh. Individuals compete for limited resources, and some are denied sustenance until the die. As is well known, this favors a psychology which seeks to compete with peers (think capitalism or war), mate monogamously, raise offspring in two-parent families, and delay the onset of sexual activity in the young. Clearly, this K-selected psychology is the evolutionary origin of Conservatism. Obviously when Obama says, “Social Darwinism,” that is the environment he is referencing. It is also the “State of Nature” I pictured, as I viewed Liberals. In a K-selected environment of limited resource availability, indeed, most Liberals would be killed quite quickly. But this is because Liberalism is not an adaptive strategy designed to meet the K-selected environment.

The second environment Darwin may offer, however, Liberalism is perfectly adapted to. In the r-selected environment, some form of mortality, so overwhelming that it might as well be random, culls the population back well below the carrying capacity of the environment. As a result, there are far more resources than any individual could consume. Picture a rabbit, in a ten acre field of grass he could never fully consume. In this environment, the r-selection favors a psychology which is averse to all competitions with peers (since they are a waste of time, energy, and risk), embraces promiscuous mating over monogamy, single parenting over two-parent parenting, and is supportive of early onset of sexual activity among the youth. In this environment of free resource availability, Liberalism is designed to thrive. Here, it will numerically outcompete the K-selected psychology in the race to produce offspring with ease

So Obama supports Social Darwinism as well. His version is just a sort of Social r-Selection, where the free resource availability is provided by a government which seizes resources from the productive, to feed the unproductive. The problem is, the less responsible unproductive are turning out kids ten at a time, and the free resource availability is allowing their cohort to grow exponentially. Clearly this is the same problem which seems to eventually collapse every great, productive society. The productivity allows free resource availability, and that r-selects the populace, and before you know it, you have a nation so full of useless sloths, that the productive can no longer carry them, and a collapse ensues.

I've done a lot of research on this, if you're interested, Arnhart. Stop by my site, and check it out. If you want a free pdf of the book there, drop me a line, and I'll send it along, though the paper, “Modern Political Thought in the Context of Evolutionary Psychology” is a more concise read.