Writing in Reason Magazine, Damon Root attempts to rehabilitate the image of “social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer. Root’s article is based on a forthcoming article by Princeton University economist Tim Leonard who blames Spencer’s poor reputation on historian Douglas Hofstadter.
Hofstadter was a socialist, and so the free market capitalist Spencer was a perfect villain, especially when Spencer himself wrote in Social Statics, that
If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.
But, as Root/Leonard notes, this is followed quickly in Spencer by a paragraph in which Spencer wrote,
Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it be mitigated.
The thing to take away from Root/Leonard is not that Spencer had all the correct answers but that compared to the folks that Hofstadter admired and wrote nothing but praise for, Spence was a moral beacon,
Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer’s famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his view, human society had evolved from a “militant” state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an “industrial” one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus Spencer the “extreme conservative” supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers.
In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it’s worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill’s famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their “deeds of blood and rapine” against “subjugated races.” To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.
The same can’t be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing “a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms.” In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as “indolent and fickle” and endorsed protectionist labor laws since “competition has no respect for the superior races.”
Similarly, progressive darling Theodore Roosevelt held that the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, was “a mistake,” since the black race was “two hundred thousand years behind” the white. Yet despite these and countless other examples of racist pseudo-science being used by leading progressives, Leonard reports that Hofstadter “never applied the epithet ‘social Darwinist’ to a progressive, a practice that continues to this day.”
In other words, “social Darwinism” was simply an epithet designed to forestall any serious consideration of free market capitalism. And, it has to be admitted, an extremely successful strategem at that.
There’s one other oddity about the term “social Darwinist” that can best be captured by quoting from Robert Reich, who never fails to take the opportunity to demonstrate what an idiot he is. In a 2005 op-ed Reich wrote,
Social Darwinism was developed some thirty years after Darwin’s famous book by a social thinker named Herbert Spencer. Extending Darwin into a realm Darwin never intended, Spencer and his followers saw society as a competitive struggle where only those with the strongest moral character should survive, or else the society would weaken. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
Aside from completely misunderstanding Spencer’s claims, the fact is that Spencer formulated his ideas before Darwin. Social Statics was published in 1852 — seven years prior to Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species. In fact, Spencer was never really a Darwinist at all since he believed that evolution was a constant march of progress and held to what appears to be some variant of Lamarckianism.
It’s interesting that Reich can blame Spencer for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest” but can’t bring himself to admit that Darwin himself found it useful enough to incorporate into the 5th edition of The Origin of Species writing,
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.
Ultimately, the tide has turned against the phrase with “natural selection” being almost universally favored today. But even when it was in its heyday, survival of the fittest doesn’t necessarily mean “whoever has the biggest club wins.” Natural selection doesn’t care if you’re a lover or a fighter as long as you manage to survive long enough to pass along your genes to your offspring.