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Social Darwinism in American Thought by…
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Social Darwinism in American Thought

by Richard Hofstadter

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The original, 1944, edition of this book essentially brought the term "Social Darwinism" into the language; it had appeared in occasional journal papers, etc., ever since the basic philosophy had been put forward by UK philosopher Herbert Spencer in the years starting fractionally before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), but Hofstadter's usage popularized it. Not surprisingly, his usage differs in meaning somewhat from our current one, since he's concerned with all the theories of society that modelled themselves on or were inspired by (or simply sought to justify themselves using) the idea of evolution by natural selection -- the attempts of sociologists (another term not used until long after the events described in the earlier parts of this book) to harness to their generally ideological purposes the latest  findings (or at least their understanding of these) of evolutionary and behavioural biology, whatever these might be. Thus, as well as the fairly abhorrent and socially destructive Social Darwinism (modern meaning of term) of people like Spencer and the man whom we might very loosely label his US bulldog, William Graham Sumner, and the even more repulsive ideas produced by eugenicists, racists, theorists of the "evolutionary warmonger" stripe (including Theodore Roosevelt), and those who believed the white man's duty was to exterminate the coloured races, we find the far more beneficent ideas of those like Lester Ward and Thorstein Veblen, both of whom eschewed socialistic notions but at the same time advanced theories which seem to accommodate fairly well with what today we'd call social democracy; in other words, they weren't leftists (though naturally enough they were accused of such by the FOX News equivalents of their day) but good, solid, decent-hearted liberals.

I made a note to try to track down some books by Ward and Veblen through the library system after things calm down a bit for me workwise (before reading Hofstadter's book, while I'd vaguely heard the two names, I couldn't have told you if they were sociologists or baseball players); I must also try to read a little more William James than I have, since he has a way of pithily capturing what should be, but too often aren't, self-evident truths. When Roosevelt was prancing around preaching his horrible gospel that men needed wars with defenceless brown-skinned people in order to prove or enhance their manliness, James pierced the pretension of the man with the observation that Roosevelt was "still mentally in the Sturm und Drang period of early adolescence" (p195), and his rebuttal of the Social Darwinists (modern use of term) made me punch the air with delight:

The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping-place ever proposed by one man to another. (p201)

Although there was a lot to interest me in this book, at the same time I found the text somewhat boring; it was an effort to read, and I had to keep reminding myself of the good bits there had been already and the likelihood that I could be amid more of their like just as soon as I turned the next page. I don't regard this as Hofstadter's fault: first of all, he was writing for a readership other than me (i.e., for social scientists and social historians rather than just lay readers); secondly, he was writing for people conditioned by the attitudes and knowledge-state of the 1950s, not the 2010s -- for example, the text frequently made offhand illusions to people I'd never heard of but whose ideas Hofstadter assumed were familiar to his readers and needed no further explanation: there's little more tedious than the realization that, through ignorance, you're comprehensively missing the author's point. The half-century's social difference works both ways, though; here's a Hofstadter sentence that made me sigh: "Lacking an influential military caste, the United States never developed a strong military cult audacious enough to glorify war for its own sake" (p184).

I was led to read this book by Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, which Jacoby obviously considers indebted to it (and about which I shall ramble very shortly). I found Jacoby's book a wonderful read -- witty, hilarious and profound by turn, with prose that rattled along like a stream over pebbles -- and so I came to Hofstadter's expecting more of the same. That I was disappointed is, again, both not Hofstadter's fault and likely a product of the half-century that has passed since he wrote the book. ( )
1 vote JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
Darwinism caused a serious stir in Europe but took a while to get traction in the United States. Part of the reason was Origin of the Species was published just before the American Civil War. After that was over and the United States attempted to return to normal life, the idea of darwinism took hold. It was largely accepted in scientific circles, but then moved to sociological circles. Social darwinism became a force in social theory in America.

The initial battle was whether survival of the fittest could be applied to individuals and societies. The first trend was to use darwinism to justify the brutalities of industrialization. Sociologists suggests society allowed the best people to rise to the top, which meant that those at the bottom deserved to be there. The disruptions of the industrial revolution caused a general rejection of the idea of unrestricted competition in favor of a more stable and safe society.

Social darwinists slowly transformed its applications to groups and societies. Stronger societies took control over weaker societies. Evidence of this could be seen in European dominance of native americans as well as the expansion of the American overseas empire. These were justified by the ideas of social darwinism.

Hofstader views these applications of social darwinism as deeply flawed. The uses of darwinism reflected less on the sophistication of american thinkers than on the changing priorities of society. As laissez-faire became less accepted, the rugged individualistic competition advocated by early social darwinists was viewed as unacceptable, but its use in imperialism was still fine well into the twentieth century. ( )
1 vote Scapegoats | Dec 11, 2009 |
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Are society's disadvantaged doomed to get "selected out" of the economic pool? Is America's social landscape a battleground for the "survival of the fittest" where only the strong endure? Once again biology is being used to explain human development, and right-wing ideologies claim reluctance to intervene in the "natural" workings of the economy. The author's work offers insight into how ideas borne out of evolutionary theory continue to affect American values. Tracing the impact of Darwin on thinkers throughout the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, this book shows how a politically neutral scientific theory has been adapted with skillful rhetoric to contradictory purposes.… (more)

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