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 Darwinist.
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.