Man Versus the State


Writing in Sunday's Washington Post, novelist Louis Bayard reviews Barry Werth's new book, Banquet at Delmonico's, a sort of pop history of Social Darwinism, which draws its title from an 1882 dinner party given in honor of the libertarian social theorist Herbert Spencer at Delmonico's celebrated restaurant in New York. Sadly, though predictably, Bayard regurgitates many of the slurs and falsities that have unfairly dogged Spencer for decades, including this ugly little bit of misrepresentation:

In the scientific community, at least, Darwin's theory has withstood nearly 150 years of rigorous scrutiny. Time has not been so kind, however, to the Social Darwinists. We have Spencer to thank for coining the term "survival of the fittest," but what he really meant was survival of the finest. He opposed any government interference in business or society because it would keep unsound specimens from being weeded out. (He himself was notably frail.) His paeans to the Aryan race no longer have the quasi-scientific panache they once did, and now that the fever glow of evolution has passed, we may find it easier to question his starting assumption.

I'm guessing that Bayard—like most of Spencer's critics—hasn't bothered reading anything that Spencer actually wrote. If he had, it would be pretty hard to type something as outrageously false as Spencer composing "paeans to the Aryan race." As I explained in this article, the defamation of Spencer started with Richard Hofstadter's 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought and is still going strong today:

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.

NEXT: Marijuana Monopoly Maintained

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Quite ironic that a man who hailed leaving behind the unfit mercantilism and militarism of an earlier century for the benevolently fit trade and cooperation of the 19th is being castigated as backward and uncaring by the people so eager to give even more power to the warfare-regulatory state. More properly, the reverse is true.

  2. Is Spencer a modern day Edgar A. Poe in reality? Without the gloomy poetry, of course.

  3. Couple of things:

    (1) Survival of Fittest doesn’t mean survival of the strongest. It’s really survival of fittED into their environment. Spencer understood this although almost known of his critics did.

    (2) Natural selection begins with diversity. If their is no diversity, their is no competition and no evolution. Victorian by and large hated the idea that the most rapidly evolving species (and by extension the most rapidly evolving society) were those with the most internal diversity. Instead, they rejected natural selection in favor of the concept of orthogenesis which held that internal forces drove evolution much in the way that a zygote “evolves” into a baby. Diversity in this view could only mean divergence from the drive to perfection. Both Marxism and Fascism used this non-Darwinian model of evolution.

    Spencer was in large part arguing for a diverse society in which people were left free to experiment and succeed or fail based on their merits.

    Spencer’s works are all online for people who actual care about what he said.

  4. It’s a pretty shitty little review — why did WP even bother? More concretely, Damon, do you have any idea what Bayard was talking about re “paeans to the Aryan race”? Anyway, thanks for setting the record straight.

  5. I took the time to read a great deal of Herbert Spencer’s works some years ago (and wrote an article about him). I agree with Damon’s review. I saw a mention of this book elsewhere and was initially excited about it. The Delmonico’s banquet is an interesting episode in Spencer’s life. It is too bad the author gets the central ideas wrong. It is interesting that the acceptable standard for Spencer scholarship is so incredibly low! I thought Random House was a good publisher.

  6. “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.”

    Statists are very upset when people die of natural causes. They believe the government should be causing those deaths.

  7. I imagine Lou Bayard was too busy being fisted to read Spencer’s oeuvre.

    (I overheard a contestant coordinator on Jeopardy! referencing Lou’s predilection for getting punched in the butthole.)

  8. I have myself had trouble reconciling the portraits of Spencer in the post-Hofstadterian literature with the man I encounter, especially in Man Versus the State, in his actual writings. I concluded the entire thing is a myth, a view supported by the book

    Bannister, Robert C. 1988. Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought, American civilization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Original edition, 1979.

    Bannister points out that there never has been a “social Darwinism” school of thought, and that every single person so identified is really just someone the author using the term disagrees with. His thesis has never been overturned so far as I know.

    Spencer was a bog-standard liberal with a bog-standard economics of the day.

  9. Well, certainly I’ve never known a contestant coordinator on Jeopardy to be wrong.

    Now if only we can find a convenient piece of bigotry to discredit each and every author we disagree with.

  10. Spencer was one of the most radical libertarians of his day. It is no wonder then that the sycophants of the state try to portray him as the opposite, by casting him as the chief apologist behind the rent seeking corporatists of the era. It’s every bit as inane as calling Milton Friedman the architect of the Bush administration.

  11. “(2) Natural selection begins with diversity. If their is no diversity, their is no competition and no evolution…”

    Shannon, you are putting the cart before the horse here.

    If you start with a completely homogeneous population, there will most certainly be competition for resources, and random mutations will most certainly render some of the progeny more fit than others resulting in evolution and diversity.

    One of the central concepts of natural selection and evolution is that populations are always subject to competition and selective pressures are always molding the gene pool.

  12. wayne,

    If you start with a completely homogeneous population, there will most certainly be competition for resources, and random mutations will most certainly render some of the progeny more fit than others resulting in evolution and diversity.

    The important point here is that evolution begins with variation. A population of clones can compete with one another ferociously but no evolution will occur until they mutate and become heterogeneous. Until they do so, there is no reason to select one individual over another.

    The Victoria world reject Natural Selection as the primary mechanism for evolution. This lead to a period that historians of science call “The Eclipse of Darwin”. Natural Selection would not return to the forefront until after WWII. In fact, even in popular culture today the phrase “Natural Selection” means only competition, variation plays no role.

    Spencer (from my reading) understood the role that diversity played in natural selection.

  13. Shannon,

    My understanding is that natural selection creates variation.

    Competition is omnipresent; natural selection is the mechanism that weeds out the least fit.

  14. Anytime you hear libertarianism denounced as “social Darwinism,” it’s a pretty good bet you’re dealing with a knuckle-dragging ape of some kind.

  15. From “Lying for Jesus” by Richard dawkins

    As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism. Anyone who thinks that has any bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of Darwin’s theory of evolution is either an unreasoning fool or a cynical manipulator of unreasoning fools. I will not speculate as to which category includes Ben Stein and Mark Mathis.

  16. “The Coming Slavery” was f—ing ace.

    Today’s trivia: Spencer’s modest tombstone is right across from that ungodly shrine to Marx in Highgate Cemetary.

  17. PS I meant ungodly in the colloquial sense. Poor choice of words.

  18. Lefiti,
    Sweet. What was your point again?

  19. If I valued agreeing with Richard Dawkins in any way, that would be very convincing.

  20. Maybe the following is a real quote from Dawkins. I’m not sure.

    As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But [insert my political view here]

    Let me rephrase that…

    As I have often said before, as a scientist I am passionate about gravity, but [insert my political view here].

  21. “Shannon,

    My understanding is that natural selection creates variation.

    Competition is omnipresent; natural selection is the mechanism that weeds out the least fit.”

    Natural Selection doesn’t create variation, mutations create variation. If you had a population with no selective pressures whatsoever, meaning that every individual produced exactly the same number of offspring, it would become very diverse because mutations would never go away. What natural selection does is selects for those mutations that are viable. Competition can allow for a great deal of variation largely because having well established varieties exploiting some resources creates new opportunities to exploit other resources. For instance the presence of insects eating grass allows for small mammals eating the insects, other insects eating dung, etc etc.

  22. Nixon was a social Darwinist? If so, thank you for ending the draft, Mr. Social Darwinist…that kind of smarmy attack is what bugs me about the New Atheists, as much as I think they do some good work.
    Darwin positively cites Spencer in both The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. How much you wanna bet leftists wouldn’t gloss over that little detail if it were Marx that was being cited?

  23. Too bad I don’t really give a shit what Dawkins thinks.

  24. Barry,
    What positive good do the New Atheists do again? And what makes them “new”?

  25. Charles Forte criticized the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a truism, since what determines whether one is “fit” in the evolutionary sense is whether one survives (and reproduces). Instead he suggest the more efficient phrase “survival of the suvivors”.

  26. I like Dawkins except for his, and many other of these newly prominent atheists’, liberal politics.

    As for what Hauser just said, Ann Coulter believes she disproved evolution by pointing out “survival of the fittest” is a teleological argument–something brought up and then corrected by Karl Popper about 40 or 50 years ago.

  27. Spencer’s “unpleasant social views” were predicated on common sense, not an is/ought fallacy. The nub of it was that facilitating reproduction by criminals and mental incompetents has pernicious long-term consequences.

  28. “Now if only we can find a convenient piece of bigotry to discredit each and every author we disagree with.”

    We can!

  29. Leftiti, did you actually read the post that you commented to? Because you just re-stated the argument that Damon already demolished. Not only that, but you proved the point John S. Wilkins made in his comment prior to yours.

  30. “Social Darwinism” is like “neocon” and “trickle-down economics.” It’s usually a flag indicating that no real thought is going on inside the user’s head, and chances are the user has no real idea what they’re talking about. A ood example is in one of Molly Ivins’ books, in which she denounces libertarianism, and singles out Ayn Rand, accusing her of essentially ripping off William Graham Sumner’s Social Darwinism. I doubt if Ivins ever actually read Sumner, or for that matter ever read anything by Rand other than maybe THE FOUNTAINHEAD. How many of the people who dismiss Spencer have actually read SOCIAL STATICS or even THE MAN VERSUS THE STATE? (One could only wish that they would, especially the latter.)

  31. A few worthwhile observations:

    First, historian Mark Pittinger (“American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920”)argues further that the actual “Social Darwinians” of the 19th century past were really almost entirely socialists. This myth that it accurately represents the pro-capitalist Right is a myth originating a smear, and perpetuated as a lie – as the thread above details.

    The lesson to be drawn here is that the Left is more uniquely susceptible to herd mentality. An insight originates, the Left’s emotionality takes over, and a smear speeads meme-like into “fact.”

    The solution? Never trust the Left’s more emotional perspectives – only trust primary sources, as Damon Root and Mario Rizzo explain by way of accurate explanation (instead of obfuscation and propaganda).

    A very relevant contemporary example is explained by Virginia Tech communcations prof Jim Kuypers in “Bush’s War”. His thesis? The US media rapidly distorted Bush’s foreign policy speeches after the War in Iraq in 2003. (I noticed this alarming disconnect in the MSM myself, and as a libertarian, countering this alarming mythology meant embracing Bush more and more. It was as if reporters refused to do their job of actually reading Bush’s words and comprehending before “reporting” it – accurate news went out of fashion, just as the Democratic Party became radicalized, as Norman Podhoretz briefly chronicles in on chapter on this topic in his book “World War IV.”)

    Kupers concludes along the lines of Bill O’Reilly: the media has dangerously corrupted the flow of information from our elected leaders to the people – the electorate our country relies on to select leadership – thereby dangerously undermining the functioning of our democracy. In other words, the media has made its readership into victims with false “realities.”

    Charles Krauthammer summarized Obama’s changed stance on Iraq, GWOT, and how to wage it, in his recent column: “Vindication [of Bush] is being expressed not in words but in deeds — the tacit endorsement conveyed by the Obama continuity-we-can-believe-in transition. It’s not just the retention of such key figures as Defense Secretary Bob Gates or Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, who, as president of the New York Fed, has been instrumental in guiding the Bush financial rescue over the past year. It’s the continuity of policy.”

    Thus, the WP publishing dangerously misleading nonsense as “wisdom” is not surprising. It is merely more ideological comfort for the prematurely ill-informed around us today. Another iteration in triumph of lies over Truth, spawned by the elite cultures embrace of BDS – what psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer diagnosed as Bush Derangement Syndrome,” and elaborated upon by University of Michigan Med School psychiatrist blogging as “drsanity”.

    Second set of points. Shannon Love, Wayne, and for illustrations sake of the foregoing point – let’s include the Richard Dawkin’s quote above. American’s in general, and debates turning on evolution in particular, suffer from confusion over the direction of causality. In the above, Shannon is correct but incomplete in explaining that genetic diversity precedes any result by natural selection. Wayne rushes to invoke “competition” to score emotionally reactive points (at least to emotionalist Lefty’s), obscuring a more fundamental issue at stake: competition is merely one form of many kinds of contributors to *differential reproduction*. Evolution by natural selection cannot take place without two things in combination: pre-existing genetic diversity (ie, heritable characteristics), and differential reproduction (competition for resources, ecological specialization, camoflauge from predators, intelligence, even ‘tool using’).

    For instance, eye color is a heritable trait. Even ignoring blue eye-color’s recessiveness, if (as is true today) brown-eyed people are out reproducing others, then future beauty will belong to people with brown eyes – not blue. This is completely natural.

    However, if we intervene in the operation of nature with blue eye-contacts, or if science intervenes as seen in certain science fiction films with off-spring selected for blue colored eyes, this natural domination of the brown-eyes for beauty will face renewed competition.

    Underlying the policy scoring debates the Left is prone to rush towards, without grasping the actual science (I must add – but its obvious in this thread and my former first point), is another debate that has gone unnoticed above: nature versus nurture. Because socialism attempts to nurture the unfortunate, the Left claims moral superiority of its intentions – ignoring Bacon’s wisdom that “Nature, to be controlled, must be obeyed.”

    As good Objectivists know, THIS moral superiority claim must everywhere be challenged. But for the moment, I leave up to others to go this extra mile in sorting out the many confusions this thread has to contend with.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.