The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer

How a libertarian individualist was recast as a social Darwinist

In 1944, historian Richard Hofstadter published Social Darwinism in American Thought, an aggressive and widely influential critique of the libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his impact on American intellectual life. In Hofstadter's telling, Spencer was the driving force behind "social Darwinism," the pseudo-scientific use of evolution to justify economic and social inequality. According to Hofstadter, Spencer was little more than an apologist for extreme conservatism, a figure who told "the guardians of American society what they wanted to hear." The eugenics movement, Hofstadter maintained, which held that humanity could improve its stock via selective breeding and forced sterilization, "has proved to be the most enduring aspect" of Spencer's "tooth and claw natural selection."

A hit upon publication, the book helped make Hofstadter's name, doing much to secure him his prominent perch at Columbia University, where he taught until his death in 1970. But there's a problem with Hofstadter's celebrated work: His claims bear almost no resemblance to the real Herbert Spencer. In fact, as Princeton University economist Tim Leonard argues in a provocative new article titled "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism," [pdf] which is forthcoming from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Hofstadter is guilty of both distorting Spencer's free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist Darwinian collectivism.

So what happened? As Leonard notes, Hofstadter was no neutral observer. Rather, he "wrote as an opponent of laissez-faire, and also as a champion of what he took to be its rightful successor, expert-led reform." A one-time member of the Communist party, Hofstadter himself later admitted that the book "was naturally influenced by the political and moral controversy of the New Deal era."

At the heart of Hofstadter's case is the following passage from Spencer's famous first book, Social Statics (1851): "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."

That certainly sounds rough, but as it turns out, Hofstadter failed to mention the first sentence of Spencer's next paragraph, which reads, "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 should be mitigated." As philosophy professor Roderick Long has remarked, "The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial." This is a far cry from Hofstadter's summary of the text, which has Spencer advocating that the "unfit...should be eliminated."

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."

And that's the trouble. Once Hofstadter's smear took hold, it was an uphill battle to set the record straight. Unfortunately, Leonard's persuasive and compelling article alone won't do the trick. But as an explanation of what really happened to Spencer's reputation and as a resource for those who'd like to learn more about his ideas, it's a great place to start.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor of reason.

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  • ||

    Other than a vague familiarity with Hofstadter's work, I didn't know who any of the main actors in this article were. Does that make me a bad person?

  • emme||

    Yes. Yes it does.

  • zoltan||

    Isn't he the guy who coined "survival of the fittest"? Because that allows for Ann Coulter to make really stupid arguments based on the wording of that phrase. Then again, I don't think anything could really stop Ann Coulter from making really stupid arguments, no matter how well phrased.

  • ||

    I don't know fuck-all about Herbert Spencer, but that dude certainly rocked the facial hair.

    As for Old Lefties like Mr. Hofstadter and friends, well, we are still suffering from their legacy today.

  • Rhywun||

    Interesting article - enough to get over my initial disappointment that it wasn't about mathematics or Escher prints.... I guess my main take-away is "sometimes intellectuals don't know what the hell they're talking about".

  • ||

    I've never seen Spencer linked with social darwinism until now. So I guess outside of leftist academia that recasting never took hold.

  • Andy||

    Funny, I ONLY knew Spencer from his "link" to social darwinism, and i wasn't aware of my education being liberal propaganda. But i guess that's how they get us (us being around what, 33% of Americans?)

    Am I the only one that thinks that a certain level of (voluntary) eugenics isn't that big a deal?

  • emme||

    "Am I the only one that thinks that a certain level of (voluntary) eugenics isn't that big a deal?"

    Not if by a "certain level" you mean a "big but-load."

  • ||

    So, McCain is two hundred thousand years ahead of Obama? He should use that in his campaign.

  • jtuf||

    Well, looks like I'll have to rethink my views on Spencer. RRRRR, this being open minded thing involves a lot of extra reading.

  • ||

    and i wasn't aware of my education being liberal propaganda

    Nobody ever is.

  • ||

    So, McCain is two hundred thousand years ahead of Obama? He should use that in his campaign.

    Ok, the fact that I laughed out loud because of this DOES make me a bad person.

  • ||

    I read a little Spencer in college and found that he held a couple of contradictory views that accounted for some confusion with regard to the "take-away" impression of his views on race and intelligence. On the one hand, he thought that humans of all cultures, regardless of their level of complexity, had the same endowment of intellectual faculties. He specifically stated that "primitive" cultures developed superstitious belief systems not because they lacked intelligence, but because they lacked information. At the same time, he endorsed the Lamarckian theory of the genetic inheritance of acquired characteristics, which implies that intellectual gains can be transmitted biologically. It seemed to me that he had some extremely impressive insights and nothing that I read justified his sordid reputation. I was not aware of Hofstadter and his role in smearing Spencer & I'm glad to have Leonard's article brought to my attention.

  • ||

    Hofstadter is the one getting smeared here. If not because of some understanding, correct or incorrect, of Spencer, why did so many advocates of "liberty" in the early 20th century support imperial war, racial intolerance, a fixed class structure, and/or restricted immigration? Why did they so regularly cite the survival of the fittest and the progress of civilizations in justifying these apparently un-libertarian positions?

  • ||

    Name one.

  • ||

    The eugenics movement, Hofstadter maintained, which held that humanity could improve its stock via selective breeding and forced sterilization, "has proved to be the most enduring aspect" of Spencer's "tooth and claw natural selection."



    Eugenics is to natural selection as cutting down rain forests to grow wheat is to natural selection -- i.e., not natural.

    Hofstadter was no neutral observer. Rather, he "wrote as an opponent of laissez-faire, and also as a champion of what he took to be its rightful successor, expert-led reform."



    The Wikipedia article on "survival of the fittest" quotes from Spencer's The Man Versus The State...

    Thus by survival of the fittest, the militant type of society becomes characterized by profound confidence in the governing power, joined with a loyalty causing submission to it in all matters whatever.



    In other words, it is Hofstadter and his statist worldview who takes survival of the fittest away from natural selection and into the realm of force.

  • ||

    I guess my main take-away is "sometimes intellectuals don't know what the hell they're talking about."

    My main take-away is that some intellectuals are fraudulent mind-fuckers, who consciously lie to advance their own power base, or just for the sheer joy of destroying the lives of others - the meme-equivalents of computer virus writers.

  • ||

    In my high school American History class, Herbert Spencer was made into the personification of everything that was supposedly evil about the pre-Progressive free markets. And you better believe the "social Darwinist" smear was used on him, repeatedly.

  • ||

    Andy -- I don't think calling Spencer a social Darwinist is a smear. I'd call it a compliment. What Spencer's American audience did with social darwinist ideas is much more a mixed bag. As a thought experiment, I used to ask my students to imagine how Spencer might have responded to many writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    Mike -- Josiah Strong is one example. Want more potent examples? Ask yourself why Progressives got into eugenics at the same time conservatives started talking immigration quotas. You want more? Stop using grade-school stalling tactics and -- gasp -- read something besides wikipedia...?

    I think in general, the fact of Hofstadter's left-wing politics has stuck in more people's minds here than anything he wrote. No historian is an "impartial observer," so Linker is either naive or disingenuous; it doesn't mean that the world they describe is unreal. Yet it is easier to blame the messenger than to accept even the possibility one's beliefs come from apes.

    The following sentence doesn't make sense otherwise: "it is Hofstadter and his statist worldview who takes survival of the fittest away from natural selection and into the realm of force"

    That transition occurred well before 1900, and well before Hofstadter wrote about it. In the US social Darwinism (i.e., the application of evolutionary principles to society -- which at any rate is inherently to move the discussion into the realm of force) mixed instantaneously with manifest destiny. Not everyone believed exactly the same things. Not everyone would have acknowledged Spencer's influence specifically; but examples of the phenomenon are ubiquitous. To call it a myth without addressing the facts I just mentioned -- or to pretend they don't exist -- is just abysmal.

  • ||

    I read this and immediately thought "Shock Doctrine", only much more successful.

  • ||

    Ask yourself why Progressives got into eugenics at the same time conservatives started talking immigration quotas.

    Uh... I'm sorry. I thought you were discussing advocates of liberty, not progressives nor conservatives.

    As for Spencer, it has been twenty years since I spent time reading his work. I was pleasantly surprised at the time to see the bridge the likes of him and William Graham Sumner offered for laissez faire ideas through the dark days where the only perceived alternative to Progressivism was Conservativism.

    I always found it sad that those writings are essentially forgotten because they unfairly get lumped in with the broader social Darwinist movement. So I appreciate the service of Tim Leonard and Damon Root here.

    social Darwinism (i.e., the application of evolutionary principles to society -- which at any rate is inherently to move the discussion into the realm of force)

    No it is not. "Fit" as used both by Spencer and Darwin does not mean "able to beat the crap out of a competitor." "Fit" means "able to prosper in the environment."

    As I noted, Spencer very accurately predicted what statists would do with the notion of survival of the fittest. Don't accuse him of advocating what they did with it.

  • Nicholas D. Rosen||

    've read Social Statics. Spencer took avery libertarian position, for the most part (whether it would be workable is questionable, to say the least). He favored free enterprise, etc., but he criticized the private ownership of land. He pointed out in eloquent rhetoric that land titles are traceable to force and conquest, not consent or production, since labor does not produce land.

    In a later edition, he trimmed his critique of landownership, since Henry George and the single taxers were making it a live political issue, and the British aristocracy was upset. Henry George's book, A Perplexed Philosopher, chewed up Spencer.

    If only the "New Dealers" had criticized Spencer for his real flaws . . .

  • Black Bloke||

    Josiah Strong is one example.

    In what way is Josiah Strong to be considered a liberal or libertarian? I mean by both terms what you called "an advocate of 'liberty'".

    "As a thought experiment, I used to ask my students to…"

    Your posts here encapsulate the disgusting pedantic attitude I'm come to expect from "teachers", so this admission doesn't surprise me.

    Want more potent examples?

    I suppose. More prominent ones would be fine too.

  • ||

    It's fair to say that Spencer was a social Darwinist, but potentially very misleading.

    Spencer was very much into the idea of society as an organism, with different practices surviving or dying out in proportion to their usefulness. Of course, this optimistic picture of steady social progress is found less in his later and more bitter works, but the key biology-sociology analogy is one that Spencer defended his whole life.

    But while Spencer did trumpet the selection-driven dying out of useless social practices, he most certainly did not trumpet the selection-driven dying out of useless human beings. And it is this latter that most people mean, I think, by the term 'Social Darwinism'. I doubt anything in Spencer's works even flirts with that nasty idea.

    To be sure, Spencer was concerned about government anti-poverty programs encouraging bad habits and landing more and more people in poverty. And that can seem a little heartless. But it is miles away from the concern that anti-poverty programs are bad because weak and poor people don't deserve to live.

  • libertarian geoist||

    Spencer could also rightly be considered one of the first "geolibertarians", believing that the government could only rightfully collect revenue by taxing the rental value of land and natural resources.

  • economist||

    I think that what distinguishes libertarians like Spencer from the social Darwinists is that Spencer and his followers did not advocate the use of government force either way to alter the outcomes of a free market and society, while true social Darwinists favored the application of force to prevent the "unfit" from reproducing.

  • Steve Verdon||

    Hmmm...Columbia...wasn't that the home of Bellesieles or whatever his name was. The guy who was caught fabricating evidence and data?

  • Steve Verdon||

    Nope, my mistake Bellesiles was at Emory when caught fabricating evidence about the use of firearms in early America.

  • ||

    economist,

    You are quite right.

    I am curious... If a new school of academics was formed that believed that it was best able to select which animal and plant species were most fit and advocated killing off the "unfit" species to aid the survival of the ordained "fit" species, would people start calling Darwin a biological Spencerist?

  • Ben||

    A text book case of character assassination from the left.

  • ||

    If I remember correctly the problem was that Hofstadter identified Social Darwinism with laissez-faire to the point where a generation assumed the two to be identical.

    He left out the alternative, collectivist tradition of Social Darwinism, and tended to excuse Darwinian collectivists from their share of the blame for the racist and imperialist sins of Darwinism and of the 19th century as a whole.

    Even today you can see this in the contrast between the bad Spencer and Sumner and the good Darwin, who was presumably free from all of the vices of his individualistic followers. Or in the way, Social Darwinism and "survival of the fittest" are evoked against expressions of free market thinking.

    So two generations grew up with a distorted view of the history of Darwinism and its application to human affairs. Maybe libertarians trying to set things right will go overboard in the other direction and ignore the faults of Spencer and Sumner, but a bit of correction now would only be fair and desirable.

    If I'm wrong about this, I'll admit it. It's been a long time since I looked into this controversy, but that's my recollection of Hofstadter's interpretation.

  • ||

    There were always those who wanted to credit their success to God's favour as well as their own efforts; this helped them feel more secure in a a chancy world, still the nagging voices that told them that they might not have ended-up so well-off, and be cheerfully deaf to the cries of the losers of the game as it was set-up.

    Some of their descendants, literal and figurative, wanted to believe that they were beyond such superstitions, but were pleased enough at the thought of natural entitlement of some sort as to welcome any other doctrine that could be dragooned or misunderstood into being the scientistic equivalent of the old bromides.

    America, with its spiritual heritage of the Elect and the Preterite, seems always hungry for some new way of believing that "we", however construed, deserve all we can and may rightfully do all we will, via the market, political influence, or nekkid force---and that "they" deserve everything they get. "Rightfully" is the significant qualifier: there is the desire not merely for acknowledging that we have been strong or smart or larcenous or industrious enough to get what we have, but that it is "right" that this is so, and there's something wrong with the losers that makes them essentially distinct from the winners.

    Spencer didn't have a chance.

  • Michael F. Martin||

    Leonard is doing great work and thanks for this summary.

    I want to point out, however, that Justice Holmes in his Lochner dissent and in Buck v. Bell displayed at least similar ideological views to those expressed by Hofstadter decades later. I'm not sure we can attribute the origin of the cultural conflation of evolution and fascism with Hofstadter.

  • mujalifah||

    I would agree with the intention here to reconsider Spencer on a fuller context of his words. I also do not think the tite "social Darwinist" ought to necessarily carry the tag of racism.

    However, I believe there is a colon where this article purports a period.

    "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 should be mitigated: albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results." (~ 364 of Social Statics)

    Continue reading the paragraph and I think you will see a more nuanced perspective. One that encourages a "sympathy" that does not "breach equity" or allow conditions to trump constitution, because "pure evil" is to "increase suffering" which "the multiplication of the worst fitted for existence" facilitates.

  • ||

    Brandybuck | July 29, 2008, 2:44pm | #

    "I've never seen Spencer linked with social darwinism until now. So I guess outside of leftist academia that recasting never took hold."

    I have and that is besides the main point. Really it is that the left coined the term social Darwinist to smear opponents. Ironically, often people who were on the correct sides of the big issues of their day (anti eugenics, anti racist, et cetera).

    Its 'almost' like people from that era called social Darwinists were usually all the good guys…..

  • Snorri Godhi||

    "Darwinian collectivism" is a contradiction of terms, and eugenics is a rejection of natural selection. By not pointing out these obvious facts, Damon Root is propagating some of the misconceptions at the root of Richard Hofstadter's work.

  • ||

    Can you give a reference on that Roosevelt quote ("two hundred thousand years")? A Google search shows nothing but this article.

  • ||

    Snorri Godhi | August 4, 2008, 2:35am | #

    "eugenics is a rejection of natural selection."

    Nice spin.

  • Nike Dunks SB||

    GOOD

  • Calion||

    The PDF link is dead. Fix please?

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