Social Darwinism Revisited

Social Darwinism is the ideology that applies Darwin’s theory of biological evolution (survival of the fittest) to other academic disciplines including sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, etc. 

“Social Darwinism and the left (progressives, socialists, collectivists, etc.) go together like Mary and Mary’s little lamb.”  Anon

“Delve a bit deeper—and move a bit further to the left—and you’ll hear a lot about ‘eugenics,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ ‘state capitalism,’ or the sinister rule of big business.” Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism:  The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, p. 5

“Indeed, British socialism, the intellectual lodestar of American Progressivism, was saturated with eugenics.  The Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, and H.G. Wells were devoted to the cause.  John Maynard Keynes, Karl Pearson, Havelock Ellis, Julian and Aldous Huxley, Eden Paul, and such progressive publications as the New Statesman (founded by Webb) and the Manchester Guardian were also supporters of eugenics to one extent or another.”  Ibid., p. 249

“The eugenic crusade, writes the historian Edwin Black, was ‘created in the publications and academic research rooms of the Carnegie Institution, verified by the research grants of the Rockefeller Foundation, validated by leading scholars from the best Ivy League universities, and financed by the special efforts of the Harriman railroad fortune.’ German race science stood on American shoulders.”  Ibid., p. 248

“John Maynard Keynes, the founding father of liberal economics, served on the British Eugenics Society’s board of directors in 1945—at a time when the popularity of eugenics was rapidly imploding thanks to the revelation of Nazi concentration camp experiments.”  Ibid., p. 250

“’Social Darwinism, a popular topic in the 19th and early 20th centuries,’ reported the Associated Press on April 5, ‘is making its way into modern American politics.’  The news peg for the story was President Obama’s claim that the House Republican budget is nothing but ‘thinly veiled Social Darwinism.’  It is, he added, a ‘Trojan Horse,’ hiding within it ‘a radical vision’ that is ‘antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity.’

“Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades.

“Robert Reich has said that Social Darwinism ‘offered a perfect oral justification for America’s Gilded Age, when robber barons controlled much of American industry, the gap between the rich and poor turned into a chasm, urban slums festered, and politicians were bought off by the wealthy….The modern Conservative Movement has embraced Social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism.’

“The only problem:  None of this is true either.  Yes, Andrew Carnegie was a follower of Herbert Spencer and lots of people referenced ‘natural law’ (though rarely as a reference to Darwinian evolution).  But for the most part the captains of industry couldn’t care less about his stuff.  As Robert Bannister and Irwin Wyle (and more recently Princeton intellectual historian Thomas Leonard) have painstakingly documented, the captains of industry in the 19th century were not particularly influenced by, or even aware of, Darwin and Spencer.  This shouldn’t surprise anybody. ‘Gilded Age businessmen were not sufficiently bookish, or sufficiently well educated, to keep up the changing world of ideas, writes Wyle. ‘As late as 1900, 84 percent of the businessmen listed in Who’s Who in America had not been educated beyond high school.’

“Overwhelmingly, businessmen of the period were influenced by Christianity first, classical economics second, self-help inspirational nostrums a distant third, and egghead notions about biology almost not at all.  Cornelius Vanderbilt read one book in his entire life.  It was Pilgrim’s Progress.  And he didn’t get to it until he was past the age of 70.  ‘If I had learned education,’ Vanderbilt famously quipped, ‘I would not have had time to learn anything else.’

“When Europe was boldly embracing socialism, America was proving that capitalism was better at generating wealth, and lifting people out of poverty.  Moreover, as anybody who’s been in a library, hospital, university, or concert hall bearing the name of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, can attest, the ‘Robber Barons’ didn’t remotely believe in letting the little guy fend for himself or that wealth was a reflection of either moral superiority or evolutionary ‘fitness.’  Even the one real Spencerist in the bunch, Andrew Carnegie, believed that ‘the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money.’  He believe that the man who ‘dies rich dies disgraced’ and himself died one of the most famously generous philanthropists in the world.

“One reason the term ‘Social Darwinism’ caught on with progressives was that it served to divert attention from the sins of ‘reform Darwinism’—i.e., the progressive passion for eugenicsThe progressives advocated aggressive statist intervention to improve the genetic stock of the country, while the alleged Social Darwinists championed laissez-faire and private charity and—gasp—reproductive freedom.  Moreover, the term Social Darwinism, which in Europe was used to justify nationalist and racist theories of the Hitlerian variety, was the perfect label for playing guilt-by-association in America. Ever since Richard Hofstadter’s book [Social Darwinism in American Thought], liberals have used the term to accuse conservatives of desperately wanting to return to a past that never was.” Jonah Goldberg, “Fantasies of Social Darwinism: Three Generations of this Imbecilic Progressive Talking Point are Enough,” in The Weekly Standard, April 23, 2012, p. 12-14


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