Social Darwinism: Science and Myth


The following is the preface to the paperback edition (1988) of Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Temple University Press, 1978), ©Temple University Press.



Social Darwinism: Science and Myth asks readers to do two things more difficult than they may initially appear: first, to reconsider debates over social and public policy issues from the 1870s through the 1910s with an openness and sensitivity they would wish for their own statements; and second, to reconceptualize the issue of social Darwinism [1] so as to ask, not what individuals or groups were social Darwinists, but how the label itself functioned in debates in the six decades following the publication of the Origin of Species.

A reconsideration alone yields two conclusions, both important although neither groundbreaking. One is that Gilded Age defenders of free market mechanisms, individualism, and laissez faire (so-called "conservatives" but in reality liberals by mid-19th century standards) rarely laced their prose with appeals to Darwinism, and virtually never in the way described in conventional accounts.[2] Rather, they were suspicious if not downright frightened by the implications of the new theory. Such was even the case with Herbert Spencer and his American disciples--the stereotypical textbook social Darwinists--whose world view remained essentially pre-Darwinian. [3] The second conclusion is that New Liberals, socialists, and other advocates of positive government appealed openly and with far greater regularity to Darwinism to support their causes.[4] These appeals typically contrasted "false" readings of Darwin (i.e. of the opposition) with a "correct" one (i.e. their own). Although important in their way, these two points are essentially preliminary.

To ask how the epithet social Darwinism functioned, on the other hand, is to turn the conventional account rather literally on its head. Not only was there no school (or schools) of social Darwinists: the term was a label one pinned upon anyone with whom one especially 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.[5] Unlike Methodist or muckraker (two labels that were also initially pejorative), social Darwinism is singular in that virtually no one adopted it as a badge of honor. A social Darwinist, to oversimplify the case, was something nobody wanted to be.

This argument, admittedly, turns on rather careful definition of two key terms in the title: "social Darwinism" and "myth." A social Darwinist, for present purposes, is anyone who embroidered his (and, far less frequently, her) message with the phrases "natural selection," "the struggle for existence" or "the survival of the fittest," or who otherwise invoked the authority of Charles Darwin or the Origin of Species in discussing social policy. These rhetorical appeals might be extensive or brief, and might be summoned in defense of any position, whether laissez faire liberalism or state socialism, pacifism or militarism, egalitarianism or racism. But they must have been present. For this reason, not everyone with whom one happens to disagree can qualify for the label. A classical economist, arguing for free competition on the grounds that it guarantees low prices, for example, is not thereby a social Darwinist. Nor are all racists, sexists, and militarists, each of whom has and continues to flourish quite without benefit of Darwin.[6] References to "nature," "natural," or even the "social organism," in the absence of tell-tale Darwinian phrases, also do not count.

In fact, the phrases "struggle for existence," "natural selection," and "struggle for existence" (used singularly or in combination) were widely perceived as code words with relations to recognizable social ideologies and were not used casually. Such "buzz words," as the historian Forrest McDonald has recently noted, provide clues to a broader range of attitudes. In current discourse a reference to the "right to life" tells us considerably more than do the words themselves, just as in the 1780s reference to "bloodsuckers" revealed a good deal about the attitude of the speaker toward traders in public securities. [7] So, by the 1880s, the phrases "struggle for existence" and "natural selection," as applied to society, were catchwords used by those who opposed unrestricted competition and the cult of individual success against those who allegedly espoused these values. For this reason defenders of free enterprise or individual initiative invoked them at their peril. One evidence of these verbal conventions was the widespread use of quotation marks when the terms were used; another was the stylized nature of the references. As with all linguistic conventions, there were occasional deviations. But the outcry that typically greeted rare attempts to defend economic competition by likening it to the Darwinian struggle in nature show how firmly the conventions were established.

A second crucial term is "myth," here used in the literary or anthropological rather than in the popular sense of simple untruth. As a component of a more general ideology, myth refers to an image or metaphor designed to trigger reactions that reinforce that ideology. A metaphor of this sort, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written, gains its power "precisely from the interplay between the discordant meanings it symbolically coerces into a unitary conceptual framework" and its success in overcoming psychic resistance to this coercion on the part of the reader or listener. When they misfire, such metaphors seem "mere extravagance"--an example being attempts to brand the Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 a "slave labor act," or, only slightly more effective, references to military conscription in the 1960s as "involuntary servitude." Social Darwinism--as the view that natural laws of struggle and survival should be allowed to operate freely in human society-- was (and essentially remains) such a metaphor.

Myth, so conceived, does not simply "distort" or "select" in order to rationalize self-interest or to reduce role strain (the two views Geertz was opposing). Rather, it provides an emotional roadmap to render "incomprehensible social situations meaningful," and so to allow purposive action. Such ideological symbols, Geertz adds, are most likely to take shape when political traditions, and received religious and mortal doctrines lose their directive power, a description that well fits late 19th century America..[8]

By any standard, the term social Darwinism was and remains a smashing success in dramatizing alleged outcomes in a world without social conscience or, it turns out, without social engineering. In view of some of the excesses of the purposive action that resulted, this success may well have been a mixed blessing. Had the label social Darwinism been merely a debating tactic, we might applaud the skill of those who forged so potent a rhetorical weapon in a culture still ambivalent about the claims of "science." But it was more. Born in debate, the epithet took on a life of its own. For many New Liberals it was a lens that magnified and distorted evidences of actual "struggle" in American society. Left to its own devices, so the argument went, the social order was a Darwinian jungle. Extreme measures were needed to reestablish order. Thus, for example, the journalist Ray Stannard Baker interpreted evidences of racial disorder as proof that Jim Crow laws were needed despite contrary evidence (recorded in his own notebooks) that segregation laws were themselves the cause of racial clashes. Eugenicists likewise proposed to jettison rights of privacy and individual liberty to counter the indiscriminate breeding of the poor and dispossessed. However one judges the case,the point for present purposes is simply to underline the ideological context in which the concept functioned.


Two examples will illustrate the complexities. involved. The first is Yale professor William Graham Sumner, conventionally pictured as the dean of"conservative"social Darwinists.[9] Although early influenced by Malthus, Sumner during the 1870s and 1880s remained wary (and largely ignorant) of biological evolutionism, whether in the Spencerian or Darwinian versions. During his years as an Anglican clergyman, he distinguished scientific "method" from the "speculations and theories" hawked under its authority. Although he sprinkled some of his prose with Spencerisms during the seventies ("progress..from the simple to the complex"), and used Spencer's Study of Sociology (1874) in one of his classes, he remained suspicious of Spencerian grand theory.

In the early eighties, Sumner learned the hard way that association with biological evolutionism could he hazardous to career. Attempting some too-clever epigrams on several occasions (the alternative to the "survival of the fittest" being the "survival of the unfittest"), he was besieged by criticism, even from his sometime-ally the Nation--criticism which, in substance, anticipated later charges of social Darwinism. Meanwhile, a battle with Yale President Porter over his use of Spencer almost cost him his position in New Haven. Although Sumner had dropped both his epigrams and the Spencer the mid-1880s, the charge of social Darwinism remained to plague his reputation as textbooks and anthologies made the most of his brief (and often unpublished) comments of the early eighties. Ironically, when Sumner finally turned seriously to Darwinian theory after the turn of the century, the result was not the application of biological analogies to society, but an escape from all theory to a crudely inductive worship of the "facts."

A second example, although not considered in this study, is the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Like Sumner, Holmes occasionally spiced his writings with phrases that were at least arguably Darwinian. One early instance was some comments he made concerning the conspiracy conviction of several workers following a strike of gas-stokers in England in 1872. Liberal opponents of the decision argued that the law under which the men were tried was a blatant example of "class legislation."[10] Denying this basis of objection, Holmes countered that all laws favored one group over others in the "struggle for life," adding that legislation "like every other device of man or beast, must lead in the long run to the survival of the fittest." If there was fault with the conspiracy law it was that it ignored the de facto power of organized labor and hence required "more unquestioned power" than the ruling class could muster.[11]

Similar sentiments echoed through Holmes's later decisions and writings. In separate labor cases at the turn of the century, he insisted that strikes were legitimate weapons in the "universal struggle for life,"although he doubted their efficacy in many instances."[12] Meanwhile, he recorded his reactions to the work of Herbert Spencer, and later, of Darwin. These two mentogether, he wrote an English correspondent, had done more than any other writers in the language "to affect our whole way of thinking about the universe."[13] With less specific reference to evolutionism, other Holmesian dicta had (or later seemed to have) a distinctly Darwinian ring. Truth, he wrote in 1918, "was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all the others." A decade later he defended a sterilization law, saying of the plaintiff: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."[14]

But Holmes also differed from Sumner in two important respects. First, when citing Spencer, he invariably distanced himself from the Englishmen's views. Concerning the English gas-stokers, he rejected Spencer's view that there existed an "identity of interest" within society as a whole, thus undermining the theoretical basis of the social law that there was no legislative action without a corresponding reaction.[15] In numerous letters, he pictured Spencer as the chief example of a sterile a priorism that valued logic over experience. As he put the matter in his celebrated dissent in Lochner v. New York (1905): "The Fourteenth amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." [16]

More importantly, Holmes, unlike Sumner was something of an anomaly when it came to sorting "conservatives"from "liberals."[17] Throughout his career he displayed a pervasive skepticism toward governmental activism that often strained his relations with progressive reformers. During the interwar years, a younger generation nonetheless proceeded to induct him into the Progressive-New Deal pantheon, launching a debate over his ideological credentials that still continues.[18] Holmes reputation as a social Darwinist reflects this anomalous position. Although early champions of the "liberal" Holmes were silent concerning his debts to Darwin or evolution, the issue intruded as the concept of social Darwinism entered historical writing in the 1940s. Holmes's defenders broached the issue apologetically. The jurist, wrote Max Lerner in 1943, was a "gentlemanly" Darwinist:"society is a jungle, but men have ideals as well as appetites."[19] Likewise, his biographer Mark Howe acknowledged a Darwinian strain in his thought, but stressed that it was merely one "facet of a complex mind and temperament."[20] Finally, as more hostile critics rediscovered a "conservative" Holmes, he joined the ranks of social Darwinists proper, with all the negative connotations of the term.[21]

This transformation illustrates several recurrent themes in this study. First, there is the question of actual influence. Although aware that Holmes attended Harvard when anti-Darwinian sentiment was at it height, that he was early influenced by Malthus (a probable source for his references to the "struggle for life"), that he did not read any Darwin until 1907, and that he typically mentioned Spencer only to criticize him, interpreters still strained to establish a Darwinian lineage. Darwin's theory "must [emphasis mine] have been constantly and passionately discussed" in the Holmes household during his youth.[22] Although he probably judged Social Statics "strangely doctrinaire" he discovered the "Darwinian formula" [?] skillfully applied to society in First Principles (a notable feat since Spencer in this work relegated the Origin to a footnote distinguished by its lack of enthusiasm ).[23] To this problem of evidence must be added the fact that Holmes himself, despite his undeniably tough-minded emphasis on power and force in human affairs, rarely used identifiably Darwinian rhetoric (the above examples virtually exhausting the supply), whereas one might assume it that it would provided the ideal vocabulary for expressing his views. To make up the difference, a recent observer found additional evidence by expanding the definition of social Darwinism to include a reference to human "instincts" in The Common Law.24

Secondly, if one nonetheless insists in calling "Darwinian" the statements in the gas-stokers case and elsewhere , it should be noted that in these pronouncements concerning organized labor, and even the defense of combination in the Northern Securities case (1902), Holmes's strategy was substantially that of other so-called "reform" social Darwinists who argued that evolutionary theory supported combination and group solidarity over "individualism." For this reason, Richard Hofstadter, for example, saw the gas-stokers statement as "turning the tables" on laissez faire evolutionists. A more recent observer has noted that he was the only social Darwinist (in the "reform"sense) in the room at the time of the Lochner decision.[25] Moreover, in invoking Spencer in a negative way here and in the Lochner dissent, and hence associating the opposition with the suspect evolutionism of Spencer, Holmes, consciously or unconsciously, was engaged in some stereotyping of his own .[26]

In fact, the social Darwinist label, although ostensibly descriptive, serves best as a barometer of the ups and downs of Holmes's scholarly reputation. Those who initially embraced the "liberal" Holmes made no mention of Darwinism: those who faulted his "conservatism" (or worse) saw it as a major strain in his intellectual development. Without attempting here to sort out his intellectual debts, it would appear that characterizations of his social Darwinism simply muddy discussion. During his formative years, Holmes responded to various forces then shaping the law and jurisprudence, among them the Austinian/utilitarian tradition and the Langdellian case study method. Viewing Holmes against this background, one recent commentator suggests that the important issue in the gas-stokers piece was not Holmes agreement or disagreement with Spencer, nor his embrace of a Darwinian view that laws should represent the power relationships within society, but his restatement of the older Austinian view of law as command of the sovereign , and judicial deference to the same.[27] Until and unless historians come up with new terms to describe the intellectual dynamics of this professionalizing process, conventional categories such as "utilitarian," "positivist," or even "Malthusian" provide a fuller and more accurate portrait of Holmes's intellectual milieu.than does the epithet social Darwinism.

So much for the overall thesis. What remains is to consider some objections that critics have raised to this revision; to suggest several modifications and extensions that might be made in light of the scholarship of the past decade; and to look at the remarkable vitality of the stereotype in public debate.


An initial problem concerns my definition of social Darwinism. Does not so strict a rendering impose overly rigorous criteria in an area where loose analogies, emotional appeals, and downright sloppy thinking were characteristic? Why not equate social Darwinism with all attempts to root social policy in nature? "You define the issue," a colleague told me bluntly, "so that no one counts." My response is that the definition is not mine, but is the one stated explicitly or implicitly by those who employed the term from the 1880s well into the interwar years. The epithet derived its emotional force from the alleged misappropriation of recognizably Darwinian arguments and from the resulting justification of power and privilege. Verbal qualifiers, to be sure, often substituted for evidence: arguments "seemed" Darwinian, or "logically" boiled down to Darwinism (e.g. see pp. 3, 34, 201). If it turns out that "no one counts" when one looks for smoking guns, we at least know that something different was going on than appeared on the surface.

A more sophisticated version of the "no one counts" argument can be seen in efforts, notably among British academics since the late 1960s, to expand the definition of social Darwinism beyond the already-protean meaning it had assumed in American scholarship in the 1940s and 1950s. In several brilliant essays Robert M. Young argued that Darwinism, as an integral part of a wider naturalistic movement in psychology, social theory, and science, cannot be studied in isolation from this "common context." Moreover, Darwin's work was so thoroughly saturated with the rhetoric and imagery of British political economy, Malthus in particular, that any distinction between science and ideology is meaningless. To label these other movements "Darwinian" (although Young did not at first state the point explicitly) is thus quite legitimate.[28] Citing Young, Raymond Williams of the London School of Economics in 1973 distinguished the "simple" social Darwinism of the textbook variety from its deeper manifestations in the evolutionary tradition dating back at least to Erasmus Darwin, and, by extension, to environmentalism and other attempts to derive lessons "from a separately derived nature."[29]

The result of this line of argument has been that suddenly almost everyone counts. For Williams, social Darwinism could be traced in the work of D.H. Lawrence no less than of Walter Bagehot. In Greta Jones's Social Darwinism and English Thought (1980), originally a doctoral thesis at the L.S.E. , the list grew even longer.[30] Speaking at a Darwin conference in 1982, Young himself closed the circle. "Darwinism," he now argued, "is Social."[31]

To this line of reasoning, this study has no simple answer. Partly at issue is how one approaches the history of ideas, whether from the publicly accessible discourse of those individuals who write and publish, from locker-room gossip, or from unarticulated assumptions buried in the behaviors, rituals, and usages of everyday life. Richard Hofstadter, author of Social Darwinism in American Thought, himself addressed this issue in response to an early draft of my argument. "You read sources," he wrote, "with a fineness of distinction, that may be justified in severely logical terms, but I believe that intellectual history, even as made by men who try to be rational and who try to regard distinctions, proceeds by more gross distinctions than you are aware of." [32]

Even more basic is the status of ideas themselves. "Left wing intellectuals," as one scholar has perceptively stated the case, "reject the view that the meaning of ideas can be considered solely in relation to specific texts and the intentions of authors." What is crucial is not "merely the meaning within a specific structure, but also its implication in a particular social context." They regard social Darwinism "as a justification for capitalism at its worst...irrespective of whether theorists embrace such a view of capitalism or not [emphasis mine]."[33]

Without resolving this issue, two observations are in order. The first concerns Darwinian theory itself. It is one thing to argue (as have Robert Young and others) that Darwinian science was ideological from the start, but another to demonstrate that this science was then pressed back into ideological service. Although these scholars make a strong case for the former (perhaps sufficient to temper the argument of chapter 1)[34], they falter when it comes to the latter. In his essay "Darwinism is Social," for example, Young's evidence of recycled Darwinian phraseology turns out to be the familiar potpourri of words and phrases taken out of context. Taken alone, passages in The Descent of Man may appear to point logically to the justification of exploitation and domination by force. More interesting to me, however, is the fact that neither Darwin nor most of his contemporaries pursued this logic to its conclusion, but rather stepped back from it in one fashion or other. Indeed, once the earlier arguments of political economy were subsumed by Darwinian biology it became more, rather than less, difficult to defend them. As to Young's other evidence, the most explicit reference to the "survival of the fittest" comes, not from 1880, but from 1980.[35]

A second observation is that it is precisely the perennial strategy of broadening the definition of social Darwinism that is at issue. Those who have found new uses for the term during the past decade are, from any literal reading of the works of those they stigmatize, no more accurate than were their spiritual ancestors a century ago. In Greta Jones's study of British thought, this strategy expands the ranks of social Darwinists almost to the point of meaninglessness. Although referring to the "plethora" of crudely Darwinian defenses of self-interest in the 1880s, her best examples of textbook "conservative" social Darwinism are from such familiar sources as Spencer's Man vs. the State (1884).[36] But social Darwinism, as she explains it, is much more than crude analogies. Rather, the term describes any theory that reduces society to the "exercise of individual faculty," that assumes that "the social order corresponds to the moral," and that looks for a "natural" underpinning for this social/moral order.[37] Behind this definition lies the further assumption that the post-1890 New Liberalism was not substantially different in its embrace of privilege and social hierarchy than the classical liberalism it replaced. So conceived, social Darwinists include such diverse figures as Leslie Stephen, Graham Wallas, and even the American sociologist Talcott Parsons.

Adopting a similar strategy, Robert.Young likewise coupled his attack on Darwin with broadsides against functionalism in anthropology and, of course, against recent sociobiology. Those who cried "social Darwinism" a century ago gave clues as to what they were up to in their qualifiers ("seems," "logically"). In recent scholarship the distinction between "simple" or "crude" social Darwinism and its subtler manifestations (the former now conceded to be unimportant if not nonexistent) likewise constitutes an admission that the rules of the game have again been changed. However effective a debating device, the result is to muddy issues and to create bad history.


As concerns so-called "conservative" social Darwinism, the term "myth" raises the thornier question of evidence. Since Darwin derived at least some of his ideas from Victorian political economy, what is more natural than to use his theory to defend these same theories? Surely someone at sometime justified laissez faire social policies by drawing a parallel between human competition and Darwinian struggle in nature? Did not Yale's Sumner state unequivocally that the alternative to the "survival of the fittest" was the "survival of the unfittest?" An easy but incomplete answer is that "myth," as here defined, does not require that such references be totally absent. Social myths function precisely because they exaggerate existing elements in the culture. One might thus stop here and conclude that I am really arguing only that that these references were less frequent during the 1870s and 1880s than pictured in the conventional view of "conservative" social Darwinism.

Adopting this minimalist reading (which, I will argue in a moment, does not go far enough), some reviewers came to one of several conclusions. One or two said politely that it had "already been done".[38] Others insisted that a more diligent search would uncover evidence for the conventional view, often citing one or more overlooked citations.[39] Still others postulated the existence of a pervasive but subliterate popular culture, in locker rooms and the like, wherein Darwinian sentiment abounded, even though inadmissible in polite circles.

Although not entirely inaccurate as concerns "conservative" social Darwinism, these readings ignore something more important, namely, the tentative, nervously self-conscious, and often apologetic nature of occasional Darwinian flourishes and the protest they generally met, even from individuals who shared the same ideological perspective. Caution and self-consciousness especially colored the statements of the professionals and businessmen who lionized Spencer, and whose stray references come closest to providing evidence for the conventional view of "conservative" Darwinism (chapter 4). More important than simple references to "survival of the fittest" was the agonizing over when or whether it is proper to view human society in such terms. Hostility, in turn, surfaced in the reaction of the New York Times and the Nation to Sumner's furtive wordplays (chapter 5). If logic suggests that laissez faire liberals must have welcomed support in the latest scientific theory, logic, here as elsewhere, is a poor guide to what actually happened.

Nor is it sufficient to conclude that social Darwinism came in pessimistic as well as optimistic forms.[40] When a Spencer or a Sumner, in their declining years, lamented a world that seemed to them in reality to have grown "Darwinian" in its embrace of force or fraud, they no more intended to defend or advocate this state of affairs than does the weary worker who curses the daily "rat race."

Speculation concerning undiscovered evidence or locker-room conversation is more more difficult to counter since it is impossible to prove a negative conclusively. My approach in writing this book was to track down all references to alleged social Darwinism cited in the secondary literature (a method that unfortunately led to an excessive multiplication of examples). To these references, I added all others I could find in British and American periodicals from the 1870s through the 1910s. Just as this search convinced me of the inadequacy of the conventional view, so I have not seen evidence since then to persuade me otherwise, even though Snark-hunting (p. 1) remains a favorite sport.


Recent scholarship, in fact, has convinced me, that this study, for all its apparent iconoclasm, was not bold enough in challenging the categories of earlier work. Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the acceptance of the traditional dichotomy between "conservative" and "reform" Darwinism, and especially in the too-pat statement that "All social Darwinism was reform Darwinism" (p. 158). This distinction, first stated explicitly in Eric Goldman's Rendezvous with Destiny (1952), had roots in the progressive-New Deal assumption that positive government is generally a good thing, even though Richard Hofstadter had himself already noted a nasty underside in movements such as eugenics, Jim Crow legislation, and overseas expansionism.

As progressive-New Deal liberalism has come under attack, from left and right, so has the conservative-reformist dichotomy. For one thing, as the sociologist Howard Kaye has noted, "reform" Darwinists came in all stripes.[41] Just as it is questionable to speak of a progressive "movement,"[42] so it is confusing to treat reform Darwinists as a class. For another thing, these post-1890 readings of Darwin were no more correct than the straw-men renditions they attacked. Finally, the word "reform" is itself value-laden, as critics of progressive and New Deal "corporatism" have alone made clear. [43]

To assert that "all social Darwinism was reform Darwinism" was to ask for trouble on all three counts. This statement was meant to insist that, if one wishes to keep social Darwinism, the term is best reserved for post-1890 governmental activists who deliberately appealed to Darwinism, whatever their other differences. The term would then apply in this limited sense only, with the addendum that some appeals (for example, by eugenicists or corporatists) were, from the perspective of the left, no less defenses of wealth and privilege than the laissez faire theory they replaced. The statement was not intended to homogenize diverse programs under a single label, to celebrate the various "reforms" proposed, or to suggest that there was "one privileged moral message" to be derived from Darwinism.[44]

Scholars during the past decade, furthermore, have suggested that the progressive-New Deal focus on laissez faire versus government action obscures other concerns in the debates. One such concern relates to the emerging culture of professionalism. However much they differed on specifics of public policy, most individuals considered in this study were not businessmen but professionals engaged in establishing authority and autonomy in their different areas. At its emotional center, the stereotype of rapacious social Darwinism expressed the professionals' fear of disorder and desire to control.[45] Pretended grasp of the latest "science" set professionals apart, not only from laymen, but from those less "expert" in their own area. Thus, the sociologist Lester Ward stressed his superior grasp of "science" in his review of Sumner's What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1884) (p. 127), just as a younger generation of sociologists juxtaposed their readings of Darwin to the "crude biologizing" of their elders, Ward included.[46]

Expanding this argument, Donald Bellomy has argued that the marked increase of Darwinian rhetoric after the mid-1890s reflected the fact that intended audiences were no longer laymen, but fellow professionals in the United States and, increasingly, in Europe.[47] Hamilton Cravens has likewise tied the decline of biological models in the social sciences, and the rise of the "culture" concept, to professionalizing strategies after 1910.[48] These studies together suggest the need for a fundamental reassessment of the Spencer vogue in the United States (and Spencer's relative lack of influence in his native England), as well as of the role of Darwinian name-calling in establishing disciplinary boundaries within the social sciences after 1890.[49]

A second set of concerns suggested by recent scholarship reflects the emergence of the modern consumer culture, as described in R. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace (1981). Accepting the view that Darwinian struggle was the last thing Spencer wanted, Lears pictures the Synthetic Philosophy as the epitome of an "evasive" and "banal" liberalism that reached its height in the 1870s.[50] Seeking escape, some Americans found "authenticity" in movements that ranged from medievalism to handicrafts. Ironically, capitalism eventually turned this impulse to it own advantage, supplying authenticity (or, at least, gratification) though increased consumption. Although Lears says nothing about the role of Darwinism in this quest, his analysis of the mentality of the post-1890 generation suggests that the image of a world red in tooth and claw may have excited at the same time it finally repelled the younger professionals who invoked the social Darwinian stereotype. So viewed, their impulse to contain and control was the obverse of the desire to escape liberal banality for some more primitive reality, even if this search finally side-tracked into a quest for more leisure and the good life. Expertise and consumerism became, so to speak, the Jack Sprats of modern America.


A third dimension of the impact of Darwinism on American thought concerns the function and definition of "science" in modern culture. Here two separate bodies of literature converge. The first, epitomized in J.R. Moore's, The Post-Darwinian Controversies (1978), challenges the conventional account of the "warfare" between science and religion, and the final victory of the former over the latter.[51] Long before Darwin, American Protestantism had worked out a careful compromise with science defined in accord with the "Baconian" maxims of strict induction, classification, and suspicion of hypothesis. Despite Darwin's debts to natural theology, and, despite even his self-conscious diplomacy in dealing with the scientific establishment,[52]attacks on the Origin focused as much on scientific method as on religion per se. The "warfare" pitted, not just scientists against theologians, but scientists against scientists. As the debate unfolded, Calvinism, rather than Paleyesque natural theology, provided the more fertile field for full understanding of Darwin's contribution--in particular, the significance of natural selection. Emphasis on natural selection, in turn, led to the nominalistic and statistical view of science articulated in Karl Pearson's Grammar of Science (1892).[53]

A related body of literature explores the effects of this development within the social sciences. Darwinism's long-term impact, so Talcott Parsons first argued in The Structure of Social Action (1937), was less to bolster classical economics ("conservative" social Darwinism) or to inspire evolutionist reformism than it was to foster the behaviorist, statistical, and objectivist tendencies in social science that flowered after 1920. In this regard, two aspects of Darwin's theory were crucial. First, Darwin made the conditions of the environment decisive: random variation required "no subjective reference." Secondly, the only meaningful order was not a normative one but the factual one of behaviorism. Thus, behaviorism "draws the logical consequence [of Darwinism] in its methodology."[54] Ironically, as more recent studies have showed, this reorientation eventually undermined both evolutionary models and reform, as previously understood.[55]

This view of Darwin's legacy requires qualification and expansion of the thesis of the present study. The qualification concerns the assumption that traditional Christian values proved a barrier to acceptance of the Origin, and hence to all attempts to spice up arguments for laissez faire with Darwinian phraseology (see e.g. pp. 13. 101). Just as important, in light of Moore's argument, was the fact that many educated Americans, already converted from Calvinist orthodoxy to one or another version of liberal or natural theory, embraced a sanitized "Darwinisticism" (a romanticized Darwinism) rather than the real thing. To effect this pseudo-embrace meant to ignore or downplay natural selection while pretending to accept all of the Origin. After Herbert Spencer fashioned this strategy in the 1860s, it was adopted in one form or other even by non-Spencerians. What inhibited appeals to "natural selection" and the "struggle for existence" was not the overt anti-Darwinism that later surfaced in religious Fundamentalism in the 1920s, but rather uncritical acceptance without full understanding.

Expansion of the argument of this book would involve recognition of the fact that vestigial Calvinism played a key role in the transition from Darwinism to behaviorism, and the nominalistic and statistical conception of science upon which it rested. Natural theology, to state the matter simply, requires not only that there be order in the universe, but that that human beings, in some fashion or other, perceive this order. Calvinism, in contrast, is capable of believing in order (God) even though it is entirely beyond human comprehension. Calvinism, historically, has little appetite for arguments from design, Spencerian grand theory, or even the search for essences and causes. This outlook, Moore argues, allowed Harvard's Asa Gray to keep the door open to natural selection while others effectively eliminated it from Darwin's theory. This same outlook led some social scientists to conclude that Darwinism, in effect, substituted a probabilistic for a mechanistic conception of natural law. The result was the objectivism that rejected not only Darwinian analogies, but theory generally.[56]

All this is not to overemphasize the importance of Darwinian analogies in American or British social thought for the period before 1920. Having tracked down virtually every known trunk and tail of Darwinian rhetoric, one is tempted to imagine an elephant of some sort, forgetting the thousands of pages, and hundreds of hours of reading that yielded no such references. My revision of the conventional view, here as in other ways, was less bold than it might have been, since the result tacitly assumed that debates over the social meaning of Darwinism constituted a major motif in social thought from the 1870s through the 1910s. Darwinian analogies, from whatever source, were actually a relatively minor appendage to a larger body of argument. The same may be said (as will appear below) of Continental social thought.

This caveat tendered, what are the implications of this study for our understanding of American social thought from the 1880s through the progressive era? When the study initially appeared, it was correctly seen as supporting the "search for order" thesis. If only one among several motifs, the social Darwinist stereotype still seems to me to have been an important ingredient in the progressive era quest for stability through the substitution of "artificial" controls (whether government or private) for "natural" ones. In individual cases (for example, the sociologist Edward A. Ross) the vision of a Darwinian disorder was integral to proposals for new forms of "social control." In retrospect, however, I feel that I should have stressed this desire for stability among professionals qua professionals rather than among businessmen and their defenders (e.g. see pp. 12, 136). If left to their own devices, individuals no less than societies will fall victim to animal-like impulses and conflict, or so the argument went. Those who stood most to gain from this perception, of course, were "experts" in general, and social scientists in particular.

To establish their authority, and to legitimate the social programs associated with it, this younger generation of professionals (and the battle was largely generational) attacked as immoral or worse a panoply of mid-century attempts to make social policy "scientific" whether classical economics, utilitarianism, positivism, or Spencerian evolutionism. Historians conventionally have dichotomized this struggle into one between conservatives and reformers, formalists and antiformalists, absolutists and pragmatists. Yet, in an important sense, as the historian David Hollinger has recently suggested, all were united in an attempt to place the "Knower" at the center of modern culture, against the conflicting claims of the "Artificer". Whereas the latter ideal stressed individual creativity, self-sufficiency, discontinuity, and hence uncertainty, the former stressed the finding and authentification of knowledge, (ideally, collectively), uniformity, and certainty. This program he labels "Cognitivism." Viewed in this context, the creation and manipulation of the social Darwinian epithet was part of a complex debate over the limits and dangers of "scientific" culture, as well (I suspect) of genuine ambivalence over the conflicting claims of the Knower and the Artificer.[57]

In the end these debates over Darwin's significance for society and morals played a significant if minor part in the emergence of two impulses that became increasingly important in the interwar year, and together symbolized the breakdown of the careful compromises of Victorian culture. One was a sometimes-brash "scientism" increasingly put to the service of goals set by industry or government. Anticipated in Sumner's crude worship of "facts" in Folkways, this scientism was manifest in behaviorist psychology, objectivist sociology and political science, and related movements.[58] The other was a "modernism" that in one mood celebrated creativity and self-affirmation, and in another, self-consciousness, social marginality, and stoic endurance. This latter impulse surfaced in Thomas Henry Huxley's "Evolution and Ethics" (1893) (chapter 7), in The Education of Henry Adams (1907), and eventually in Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper (1929).[59] Now that American culture is well into its "post-modern" phase, the origins and development of these two impulses from the 1910s through the 1950s need more systematic analysis.


While a number of historians now question older accounts of the impact of Darwinism on American social thought,[60] other scholars, ironically, have been busy examining social Darwinism, not only in Britain, but on the Continent. For the present study, their findings are potentially of critical importance. Although Continental social Darwinism was beyond my scope of interest, I could not rule out the possibility that the conventional view might actually hold for certain French and German thinkers. It was the Frenchmen Emile Gautier, after all, who first sounded the alarm against "le Darwinisme sociale" with reference to classical economics. In Germany, the "ultra-Darwinian" biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1879 willingly turned the Darwinian arguments of his rival Rudolf Virchow into a defense of aristocracy (p.132). Freidrich von Bernhardi and other German militarists appeared (in English translation, at least) to invoke Darwinian analogies in defense of unabashed aggression ( pp. 202, 239). Perhaps aristocratic, monarchist, militarist or Roman Catholic traditions bred reactionary readings of Darwinism unacceptable in the liberal-democratic culture of the United States.

The new literature suggests that my suspicion of this possibility was probably ill-founded. Linda Clark's study of Social Darwinism in France (1982) is especially revealing on this score because it employs a definition of social Darwinism similar to my own. Clark indeed finds Darwinian rhetoric used in defense of laissez faire, although she alludes to a great many more than she actually quotes. But as with their American counterparts, one is struck not only by the overall paucity of references, but also the attempts to soften the apparently harsh edges of Darwinian logic. Without further review of the evidence in light of my thesis (and Clark herself had substantially completed her research before reading my study), it is difficult to conclude whether or not French classical economists were more addicted to using Darwinism than the Americans, or whether the social Darwinian stereotype played a similar role in their debates. "It is noteworthy," she concludes apropos this latter point, "that economists who equated struggle for existence with economic competition did not label their analogies with the pejorative term social Darwinism.""For the rest, Clark's "conservatives" are eugenicists (Vasher de Lapouge) or vehement antidemocrats (Gustave Le Bon), all of whom flourished after 1890, and who remained at the fringe of more publicly acceptable versions of "reformist" Darwinism.[61]

In Germany, the situation was roughly similar. In The Descent of Darwin (1981) Alfred Kelly distinguishes "moderate" from "radical" social Darwinism (a distinction corresponding to that between "conservative" and "reform" in the American case), But the former turn out to be social organicists (Paul von Lilienfeld and Albert Schaffle) or liberal humanists such as the "struggle school" sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz. (pp. 104-05). The "radicals," in contrast, are the familiar cast of eugenicists and socialists, now joined by defenders of the cartelized order of German big business (the Nietzschean Alexander Tille, for example, or the industrialist Alfred Krupp)--the German analogues to the few American "corporatists" who defended the trusts (but not competition or laissez faire) as the products of evolution. More surprising (in view of my surmises), Kelly dismisses from the social Darwinist ranks most pre-1920 militarists (including the controversial Bernhardi), and most lebensraum racists. Indeed, as with studies of the other countries, Kelly's confirms the fact that social Darwinism was a relatively minor strain in social thought. Between the lines (because Kelly does not address the argument of my book), and from similar studies of German social Darwinism, three conclusions emerge: that Germans of the 1870s and 1880s believed Darwinism to be corrosive of religion and state power, and hence shunned Darwinian analogies in social theory; that the stereotype was for this very reason an effective weapon of the left from the late 1870s onward; and that those theorists who consciously adopted Darwinian arguments after 1890 proposed to increase state power in some fashion or other.[62]

To the conclusion that British or Continental theorists showed the same reluctance as Americans to celebrating human struggle in Darwinian terms, there is perhaps one exception, namely where race was concerned. In his recent survey of theories of human (as distinguished from social) evolution, Peter J. Bowler finds evidence that some Europeans believed in the necessity (and desirability) of struggle that would finally eliminate the "inferior" races. "Many most?]" of these, Bowler concedes, "did not believe that natural selection was the mechanism."[63] A minority, however, couched their arguments in undeniably Darwinian terms. Races that failed to develop their strength through cultivation of the arts and sciences, wrote one Oxford geologist, incur "a penalty which Natural Selection. . .will assuredly exact, and that speedily to the full."[64] If literally calling for extinction, and if numerous (neither demonstrated in Bowler's analysis), these racial Darwinists would join the handful of Americans (chapter 9) who happily anticipated the disappearance of Blacks by a process of natural selection. But these exceptions, I have argued, prove prove only that the Christian/Enlightenment assumptions that impeded the application of Darwinian analogies to human society generally broke down where non-whites were concerned. More importantly (and here I suspect the same may be true in the European case), portraits of a Darwinian racial blood-bath typically prefaced appeals for government sponsored segregation or other forms of social action to forestall this outcome.


Whatever historians may say, many Americans remain convinced that social Darwinism is alive and well. Despite my best efforts, the term has had a virtual renaissance in the decade since this book appeared. In a business-as-usual spirit sociologists, biologists, and journalists warn against social Darwinism in public life--whether in sociobiology or, more popularly, in Reaganomics. This renaissance, rather than cause for despair, in fact provides final evidence, not only of the vitality of this cultural symbol, but of the distortions that result.

In debates over sociobiology, charges of social Darwinism have been predictably prominent. Responding to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) in a blistering letter to the New York Review of Books, a group of Boston doctors, professors, and school teachers served up some vintage Hofstadter, complete with quotations from John D. Rockefeller, mention of sterilization laws, and "the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany." Wilson, not surprisingly, was angered to find himself in this company. Answering point by point, he charged that the critics had taken his words out of context, ignoring his own clear warnings against the pitfalls of deducing an "ought" for society from an "is."[65] Apparently unconvinced, opponents of sociobiology continue to resurrect the charge that the new theory is nothing but the old social Darwinism.[66] Declaring their innocence, sociobiologists, ironically, sometimes themselves seem to confirm their opponents' contention that such arguments were once rampant. "The ideological impact of social Darwinism...continues to haunt the living present and explains much of the suspicion that has greeted contemporary research," so these apologies go: "Contemporary sociobiologists, however, should not be condemned for the trespasses of their predecessors." Wilson himself could not resist the temptation to label earlier theories to exonerate his own. As he put it: "The last remnants of social Darwinism died with the advent of sociobiology. . . .[67]

To compound the irony, the result is not only to misinterpret history, but also to ignore the extent to which sociobiology apparently proposes a radical break from traditional religious and ethical standards. So argues Howard Kaye in his challenging study The Social Meaning of Modern Biology (1985), a book that stands virtually alone in tracing the relation between 19th century thinkers and modern sociobiology. Whereas earlier biologized social theory (the misnamed social Darwinism) sought to reconcile modern science and traditional religious and cultural values, modern sociobiologists propose a standard in "nature" that essentially abandons these values in favor of a "survivor ethic." Rather than being heirs of earlier social Darwinists, Wilson and his fellow sociobiologists are cultural radicals, advocating "what amounts to radical social and political changes." In fact, Kaye continues, expanding the argument of the present study, the earlier social Darwinists and the modern sociobiologists have received a bum rap. Spencer and his 19th century followers sought a moral theodicy in nature, not simply a rationalization for exploitative capitalism. Likewise, modern sociobiology is not a branch of capitalist apologetics. Not that Kaye approves the "survivor ethic." But a first step to confronting its troubling implications is to appreciate its radical claim, and its break with earlier biological theorizing. Social Darwinian stereotypes obscure precisely this disjuncture. [68]

Just as Wilson's self-defense echoes that of Spencer a century ago (pp. 34-35), so charges of social Darwinism in the political sphere also replay a familiar script. One early target was Edward Banfield, author of the best-seller The Unheavenly City (1970), and onetime adviser on urban affairs to Richard Nixon. In The Legacy of Malthus (1980), Allan Chase traces social Darwinism from the eugenics lab at Cold Spring Harbor in the 1900s to the Nazi death camps and finally to Banfield. And what were Banfield's sins? He wondered if minimum wage laws may not contribute to unemployment; if compulsory school attendance laws were not excessive; and or if population growth is a not truly a menace. Did Banfield argue these positions in Darwinian language? Well no, but they are similar to those social Darwinists once advocated. Thus, Chase concludes, Banfield illustrates "social Darwinism in our time."[69]

More recently, Ronald Reagan and Reaganomics have been the targets of choice. In more charitable moods, the President's critics might admit that his Hollywood-cum-cowboy worldview owes little to the Origin of Species. Not, however, The New Republic which in 1982 featured an article titled "Social Darwinism, Reagan Style," complete with a cover-drawing showing the President's three-stage emergence from simian ancestry. Although the article itself was a review of two technical works in economics, these were joined by discussion of a reissue of Spencer's Principles of Sociology. The result was predictable. Spencer and his protege Sumner were immensely popular at the turn of the century [sic], "particularly in America's heartland"--roughly the time and place of Reagan's birth. Thus, it is not surprising that their views "colored Ronald Reagan's own instinctive [n.b.] ideology." By the end, social Darwinism explains it all: from xenophobia over a projected Soviet gas pipeline to the "moral crusades of the New Right." From the political platform, Walter Mondale took up the attack: "I believe in social decency, not social Darwinism."[70]

Given this perennial appeal, and the deeply felt needs upon which it apparently rests, it would be naive to assume that the reissue of this book will significantly alter public debate. Yet it is hoped that scholars, and in particularly the non-historians who continue to recite the conventional story, may at least be made aware of the historical distortion involved. But more than history is also at stake. From Spencer to Wilson, social Darwinist stereotyping has clouded reputations while, at the same time, ruling important questions "out of bounds." To charge "social Darwinism" is to say "case closed," as Archie Bunker would put it. The result, as Wilson observed in response to the "self-righteous vigilantism" of the Boston group, is to threaten "the spirit of free inquiry and discussion crucial to the health of the intellectual community."[71]For this reason alone, it is worth giving social Darwinism another look.