Dr. Mehler's Archives
Barry Mehler, Review: SOCIAL DARWINISM: SCIENCE AND MYTH IN ANGLO-AMERICAN SOCIAL THOUGHT:
By Robert C. Bannister. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1979. 292 pp. Social Biology 27 #4 (Winter 1980) pp. 319-321.
Social Darwinism, as everyone knows, is a bad thing. Historical revisionism, on the other hand, is a very good thing. By this standard, Robert Bannister's book should be doubly good since it consigns social Darwinism to the ethereal world of myth and is thoroughly revisionist. It is not doubly good, but it is good. Bannister brings together a number of intriguing insights, pulling together two decades of revisionist history in a work which, if less than easily readable, is still worth the effort.
Such eminent American historians as Richard Hofstader, Carlton Hayes, Merle Curti, and Eric Goldman have depicted social Darwinism as an ideology espoused by late-Victorian conservatives to defend laissez faire, exploitation of the poor, and imperialism. Social conservatives, according to these historians, argued that any amelioration of the struggle for existence would only result in the survival of the unfit and the demise of civilization. Rather than wasting time and money helping the unfit, it would be far better to give them "a merciful little push over the cliffs of perdition"(p. 178).
Bannister contends that social Darwinism was primarily a myth created by liberal reformers who were both enamored with Darwinian theory and troubled by its implications. It was the reformers, not their laissez faire opponents, who were the true Darwinians. Darwinism was used by reformers to condemn competition and defend combination just as post-Civil War conservatives used natural law arguments to justify laissez faire. Darwinian arguments fed fears of disorder while promising stability through government regulation of competition, industrial combination, and social control. "In this sense Darwinian arguments, like earlier appeals to natural law, were conservative" (p. 88) albeit the conservatism of self- proclaimed reformers. Reform Darwinists projected their fears of the struggle for existence onto their laissez faire opponents, who, for the most part, rejected Darwinism.
This revision has been a long time coming and is based on a number of earlier studies -- some acknowledged, some not. It was Erwin G. Wyllie (1954, 1959) who first suggested that social Darwinists were rather hard to find, at least among American businessmen. Wyllie's work was followed by a number of studies of social conservatives usually identified as social Darwinists. "One by one such figures as Andrew Carnegie, John Fiske. and Josiah Strong were excused from the social Darwinist ranks. By the late 1960's the suspicion grew that very few Americans were actually social Darwinists" (p.7).
The thesis that the ideological conflict between the reform Darwinists and the social Darwinists was actually a conflict between two groups of conservatives, i.e., laissez faire capitalists and corporate capitalists was first articulated by Gabriel Kolko in Triumph of Conservatism (1967) and later developed by a number of New Left historians including James Weinstein (1968), Herbert and Julia Schwendiger (1974) and David Noble (1977). Bannister is thus synthesizing two decades of historical revision, although he does not acknowledge the work of the New Left historians.
Bannister's logic is sometimes obtuse and his chapter themes and conclusions sometimes unclear. He also tends to simplify historical phenomena for the sake of his thesis. While Hofstader saw social Darwinists everywhere, Bannister refuses to see them anywhere. Erwin Wyllie did not say there were no social Darwinists among American businessmen. He reported that there were few of them. There were, in fact, such men as publisher Richard R. Bowker, textile manufacturer Daniel A. Tompkins, and sugar magnate Henry G. Havermeyer.
Part of the problem is trying to hold businessmen to the rigorous standards of consistency one would expect from a university professor. Men of affairs often resort to contradictory systems of thought to defend their actions and policies. When it came to immigration restriction, eugenics, and anti-socialist polemics, social Darwinist statements abounded.
Writing against socialism, Frederick W. Headly cynically commented that socialism aims to put an end to the struggle for existence despite the fact that civilization "has gained its present character ... through natural selection" (p. 177). John D. Rockefeller could proudly announce that "God gave me my money" or he could appeal to evolution and the American Beauty Rose to justify his wealth. The fact that he was neither a consistent Christian nor evolutionist did not stop him from calling upon God or Darwin as the need arose. In fact, Bannister himself gives numerous examples of Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, and Nietzsche being called upon to support socialism, capitalism, Christianity, and nationalism by various defenders of the faiths. Although the scholarly revision of Hofstader's thesis may now be complete, there is no need to discard your copy of Social Darwinism in American Thought.
Another example, less important if not less revealing, of Bannister's tendency to overstate his point, thus weakening a valid thesis, can be found in his discussion of racism in Chapter 9. Bannister correctly attributes racial Darwinism to the reform Darwinism of white Progressives. In an attempt to extricate Darwin, Huxley, and Wallace from any implication in racial Darwinism, he carries his argument to the borders of absurdity. To prove that Huxley was anti-racist, he quotes from Huxley's 1865 article "Emancipation - Black and White." Bannister quotes Huxley as saying that no rational man could believe blacks innately equal to whites. Blacks would never be able to compete with their "bigger brained . . rival," but this did not alter the "moral law that no human being can arbitrarily dominate over another." Bannister then concludes, "If leading Darwinians questioned the prevailing racism, why was Darwin alleged to have buttressed racist thinking?" His conclusion is that the charge reflected the "complex psychologies of individuals who were ambivalent towards Darwinism" (p. 186). The fact that Huxley opposed slavery does not change the racist nature of his article. Bannister could have more logically argued that the leading Darwinians opposed racial oppression and have made a valid point.
The same zeal to extricate Darwin from any association with social Darwinism can be found in Bannister's excellent if somewhat underdeveloped chapter on eugenics (Chapter 8). Here again, Bannister, in a suggestive introduction to his discussion, associates reform Darwinism with eugenics. The fact that eugenics was consistent with the major tenets of Progressivism was suggested by Rudolph Vecoli (1960) and Donald Pickins (1968). The two movements interacted and affected each other in significant ways. Even a superficial examination of the eugenics movement reveals such prominent liberal advocates as E. A. Ross. Charles R. Van Hise, Theodore Roosevelt, on the American side, and Havelock Ellis, Eden Paul, Karl Pearson, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb on the English side.
To many Progressives, eugenic reform was part of social reform. Social reform could ameliorate some but not all social problems. Some unemployment might be the result of fluctuations in the business cycle, but some of it was the result of inherited tendencies toward laziness and insubordination. Because such factors were innate, they could not be significantly altered by environmental reform. Elimination of the hereditary component of social problems was seen as an essential part of Progressive social reform. Hofstader had noted the frequency of eugenic thinking among Progressives but dismissed it in claiming that by 1915 "it had reached the dimensions of a fad." Bannister notes this confluence in a much more comprehend sive analysis of reform Darwinism but fails to develop the theme, perhaps because of the overall antipathy to environmentalism within the early eugenics movement. It should be noted, however, that liberals won out in the end and by 1930 the eugenics movement had thoroughly incorporated reform Darwinism.
While failing to fully develop this interesting theme, he spends considerable effort downplaying Galton's debt to Darwin, drawing distinctions between Galton's emphasis on heredity rather than evolution and giving numerous examples of anti-eugenics statements by Darwinians. As if to say, if only Darwin had been understood all this would never have happened. As with other aspects of neo-Darwinism, Bannister emphasizes that eugenicists were rebelling against a Darwinian world they found terribly disturbing. When Darwinism was mentioned in early eugenic arguments its function was to characterize the dangers of evolution.
Despite the criticisms, it must finally be stated that Bannister's volume is a significant addition to the literature on social Darwinism. Its central thesis is provocative and offers new insight into the continuing reevaluation of reform Darwinism.