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This is number 13 of 32 Point-Counterpoint excercises.

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Social Darwinism

Contributing teacher: Daniel Kotzin
Time period: 1880–1900

Casey Blake discusses the history of "Social Darwinism" in America, where thinkers applied Charles Darwin's (1809–82) theory of evolution to help them understand their social and political world. In particular, he points to such thinkers as William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), who used Social Darwinism to justify their conservative laissez-faire approach to the economy and their opposition to reformist impulses. According to Blake, Sumner and other Social Darwinists believed human society had naturally evolved over time, and thus it was futile to interfere in the progress of human history. But Blake also argues that integral to Social Darwinism was an anti-Victorian modernist perspective, which accepted the growing complexity of modern society and declining human agency. Blake also presents Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913) as a liberal contrast to Sumner. According to Blake, Ward argued that the human mind developed during the process of evolution and had the ability to change its environment. Thus, Ward saw human beings as active participants in evolution and was able to use the theory of evolution to support a reformist approach to society.

Richard Hofstadter's book Social Darwinism in American Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944), although outdated, is a classic text on the subject of Social Darwinism in America. Hofstadter also presents Sumner and Ward as the great protagonists in the debate over Social Darwinism. In contrast to Blake, however, Hofstadter focuses on Sumner as unique for breaking away from religion and endorsing a "secular piety" that stressed hard work. In this respect, according to Hofstadter, Sumner was not anti-Victorian but rather endorsed the values of Victorians. Furthermore, whereas Blake presents Sumner as a modernist for recognizing the increasing complexity of American society, Hofstadter presents Sumner as a Victorian who stressed the need to maintain the social order and wanted to retain the clear social differences between groups of people. Moreover, whereas Blake presents Social Darwinism as a doctrine employed by both conservatives and progressives in different ways, Hofstadter focuses much more on the ways in which Social Darwinism shaped conservative thinking at the end of the nineteenth century.

Offering a revisionist interpretation, Robert Bannister's book Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979) is another classic in the field and is listed in Blake's bibliography. Like Blake, Bannister argues that Darwinism had its greatest influence on a generation of progressive reformers, who believed in the necessity of social welfare and government regulation to combat the brutal forces of nature. Bannister presents Social Darwinism as a "myth" created by reformers to stereotype their business opponents. In this view, those who promoted laissez-faire economic policy or other conservative doctrines were negatively stereotyped as Social Darwinists.

Mike Hawkins in Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) challenges Bannister while offering a more complex argument than the one given by Hofstadter. Acknowledging the variety of views that Social Darwinists expressed, Hawkins establishes two distinct categories: the general worldview of Social Darwinism and the specific and varying ideologies that developed from that view. In this respect, Hawkins develops a theme that is also in Blake's e-seminar: The doctrine of Social Darwinism was historically interpreted in a variety of different ways, and as such it was used to defend a host of ideological perspectives, which in some cases conflicted with one another.

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