Social Darwinism in American Thought

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Social Darwinism in American Thought  
Author(s) Richard Hofstadter
Publisher Beacon Press
Publication date 1992-09-01
Pages 288
ISBN 0807055034

In his book Social Darwinism in American Thought, Richard Hofstadter argues that Social Darwinism, despite its influential rise in the United States during the latter half of the 1800’s to the early 1900’s, does not provide an adequate antidote for the problems that plague American society. Hofstadter structures Social Darwinism in American Thought in the following manner: an opening chapter introducing the origins of Darwinism; three chapters discussing the influence of Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Lester Ward (one per chapter, respectively); four chapters discussing the major viewpoints that emerged to oppose the Darwinian movement in America; and an effective conclusion.

With his characteristic insight, Hofstadter acknowledges the future possibility of a resurgence in Darwinism; however, he does so with strict limitations. Specifically, he writes how many elements of Darwinism are “utterly useless in attempting to understand society,” especially “such biological ideas as ‘survival of the fittest.’” (204) He even states that they have “doubtful value in natural science.” (204). With such facts in mind, the argument that Hofstadter is a strong critic of Social Darwinism is plausible. However, it is not certain.

Hofstadter draws a contrast between “Darwinian individualism” and “social Darwinism.” (203) While individualism defined the first wave of Darwinian influence (from the Civil War years to about to the 1890’s), social Darwinism took over as the dominant perspective from the 1880’s through the First World War. (201-3) Specifically, Darwinian individualism constituted the foundational ideas that defined it, while social Darwinism consisted more of related social ideas that were not pure Darwinism. (I-x)

It is important to note that Hofstadter does not use the term “Darwinism” strictly in the biological sense: throughout Social Darwinism in American Thought, his discussion incorporates the broader social implication of this new thinking. This goes in line with Hofstadter’s secondary argument in this book: that Social Darwinism is essentially Conservative. He does not use the term conservative in describing the modern Republican party: he is describing the Laissez-Faire, rigid type of conservative individualism. (41) The chapter that shows this best is “The Vogue of Spencer.” In it, Hofstadter writes about the deep imprint that English philosopher Herbert Spencer left on the history of Darwinism. Hofstadter argues that Spencer formed his philosophical worldview in response to the rise of industrialization in England: “Spencer’s was a system conceived in and dedicated to an age of steel and steam engines, competition, exploitation, and struggle.” (35) To Spencer, Darwinian thought and the industrial age went hand in hand. For example, he believed that peoples and social constructs (e.g. the development of urban social classes) occur in the same way natural scientific processes (e.g. the evolution of different plants in adaptation to their environment). Hofstadter states that “in the three decades after the Civil War it was impossible to be active in any field of intellectual work without mastering Spencer...He had a vital influence upon most of the founders of American sociology.” (33) It is also interesting to note that “Herbert Spencer...was far more popular in the United States than he was in his native country.” (3)

The relationship between religion and Darwinism is a central theme in Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter argues that two major developments prepared America for the coming of Darwinism: “the rise of biblical criticism and comparative religion [and] the general relaxation of fundamentalist faith encouraged by the liberal clergy.” (14) The latter development was especially important, as Christian institutions had historically kept dissenting views in check. However, Darwinism now presented a viewpoint that caused even some within cultural Christianity to question their worldview. As a result, evolutionary science infiltrated parts of the American religious community. Eventually, “American thought had been greatly secularized.” (30)

Chapters 5 through 8 of Social Darwinism in American Thought reflect on the practical developments that resulted in response to Social Darwinism. To put this section of the book in context, Hofstadter writes that “the age in which Spencer, Sumner, and Ward formulated their philosophies was one of great intellectual instability.” (85) The dissenting views that emerged from this insecurity have outlived the ideas of Darwinist intellectuals. Specifically, one of the main reasons for this was the failure of the Social Darwinists (especially Spencer) to adequately address the problem of the poor. In Spencer’s case, Hofstadter writes how he “deplored not only poor laws, but also state-supported education, sanitary supervision other than the suppression of nuisances, regulation of housing conditions, and even state protection of the ignorant from medical quacks.” (41) Such a strong viewpoint (on the part of Spencer) reveals the extremely conservative nature characteristic of Darwinist philosophy. In addition, the eventual rejection of Social Darwinism seems only natural.

Darwinist inspired ideas still had an important influence on late 19th century and early 20th Century American policy. Eugenics is one of the best examples of this. Specifically, the Darwinian concept of natural selection served as the cornerstone of this movement, the goal of which involved preserving desirable “hereditary traits” through selective human reproduction. (161-2) Hofstadter writes how “the influx of a large immigrant population from peasant countries of central and southern Europe, hard to assimilate because of rustic habits and language barriers, gave color to the notion that immigration was lowering the standard of American intelligence.” (162) This gave rise to a populist view among many in America, which resulted in efforts to curb immigration and (in their view) protect the racially endangered ethnic American. One prominent example Hofstadter gives is the so called “Yellow Peril.” This refers to the fear of East Asian immigrants diluting the American ethnic population. (189)

Social Darwinism in American Thought was Hofstadter’s first published book. If his subsequent work, The American Political Tradition, secured his place as a historian, then Social Darwinism put his name out there as a significant scholar for the first time. (i) In addition, Hofstadter has gone in history as one of the greatest intellects among 20th Century American historians. Though historians have since published many works on Darwinism and related historical topics, Hofstadter remains one of the most influential to this day.