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On “Social Darwinism”

January 8, 2010

Eric Michael Johnson has two posts up on the meaninglessness of “Social Darwinism” as an historical entity. As Eric notes,

  • The term [Social Darwinism] is a misnomer since the central concepts of what came to be called social Darwinism were already in place prior to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species.
  • Social Darwinism has no core theoretical framework and is a mere amalgamation of largely unconnected ideas.
  • Social Darwinism lacks historical documentation concerning those deemed to be proponents of the theory itself.

This will, of course, have zero impact on the rhetoric of the Discovery Institute as historical accuracy has never been their strong point.

Update (1/15): Parts three and four of the series.

  1. January 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

    … historical accuracy has never been their strong point.

    There is an unneccesary word in there. Accuracy of any sort has never been their strong point.

  2. Alex
    January 9, 2010 at 10:35 am

    OT: Mike Flannery has a terribly stupid post about A.R. Wallace at ENV that you might be interested in commenting on.

  3. January 9, 2010 at 11:09 am

    @ Alex

    I saw it … and am trying to ignore it …

  4. DLC
    January 10, 2010 at 4:02 am

    “Social Darwinism” was more of a term used by non-scientists to express their desire for what they considered “racial superiority”. Of course, such superiority is a myth, but it seemed like a good idea for people who were looking for reasons to discriminate.

  5. dave souza
    January 12, 2010 at 10:11 am

    DLC. you’ve fallen for the myth. “Social Darwinism” was a little used term co-opted and popularised in 1944 by communist historian Richard Hofstadter as a term of abuse for American free market capitalism, covering all its nasty aspects. The term of abuse has been picked up by others and used by conservatives and creationists to attack Darwin, though the ideas it supposedly covers predate Darwin’s publication of his evolutionary theory.

  6. January 12, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Hofstadter was only a (party) communist between 1938 and 1939 and left the CP due to the Nazi/Soviet alliance. If anything what he was at this time was anti-capitalist rather than communist (in any meaningful way). He moved to the right in the mid-1940’s and by the 1960’s he was a definitive conservative. It is somewhat simplistic to refer to him as “communist”.

  7. dave souza
    January 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Thanks for the clarification about communism, reminds me I should check my memory! The point remains that modern use of the term effectively originated as an anti-capitalist slur. Now, where did I read a suggestion that the original use of the phrase was an attack on “socialist Darwinism”? Need new memory banks.

  8. DLC
    January 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Go back a little further in history Dave.
    in the 1870s Social Darwinism was applied to Eugenics.
    It didn’t gain a socio-economic meaning until the 1940s. I was applying the earlier definition.

  9. dave souza
    January 15, 2010 at 4:36 am

    DLC, you write “Go back a little further in history Dave.
    in the 1870s Social Darwinism was applied to Eugenics.”

    You seem to be using a modern definition of the phrase; apparently the OED gives the first use of the phrase as Joseph Fisher’s 1877 book “The History of Landholding in Ireland”. Fisher argues “Sir Henry Maine has accepted the word “tenure” in its modern interpretation, and has built up a theory under which the Irish chief ” developed ” into a feudal baron. I can find nothing in the Brehon laws to warrant this theory of social Darwinism”. Nothing there about eugenics, Fisher seems to be using it to mean social evolution, which ties in with the common use at that time of “Darwinism” to refer to all sorts of evolutionary theory. “Darwinism” as a term for natural selection came later, as did the term “eugenics” which was not coined until 1883 and meant something rather different at that time to the modern association with the compulsory eugenics movements of the early 20th century.

    What I think you meant to say is that you use the modern usage of “Social Darwinism” as a way of describing the 1870s version of what was later termed “Eugenics”.

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