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« The Interpronomicon, or Samizdat for the Literary Scholar | Main | What's With the Frequency, Kaufman? »

Saturday, 13 August 2005


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Enculturation is necessarily Lamarckian. What's interesting about intelligence--what Dewey means by it--is always acquired.


Also worth noting is that Wolfe claims to be a Lamarckian and has written at least one story explicitly using the theme. Exegetes remain puzzled by his understanding of the concept.


This is very interesting, but also not that surprising. That is, I'm very surprised to hear that outside of Sumner there wasn't much Social Darwinist thought, but I'm not surprised that Hofstadter was wrong about something. He's been very influential, but he's never been known for his archival skills.


I'd say, based on my experience, keep the what-other-scholars-do-wrong gestures as concise as you do in the post above, so that you get to the "positive" argument sooner, without giving the impression that you're spending too much energy saying "Look how original I am" ("Positive" in quotes because obviously your takedown of RH is central; but saying someone has had a deleterious influence is not as negative as saying that someone else was suckered by that influence). In other words MN's advice about how belligerent you should (not) be works for me. I hope I'm making sense.

Jonathan Dresner

Before you give up on Social Darwinism as a coherent movement entirely, I would note that it did seem to be an active element in Asian understandings of western social science, particularly political history. Perhaps not SD as it's been vulgarized by scholars today, but competitive pseudo-anthropological race/nationalism was a powerful motivating force among Asian reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Timothy Burke

Certainly the persistence of invocations of "Social Darwinism" frustrates Bannister (he's a colleague of mine, now retired) but at this point my sense is that he's almost bemused by it. (I'm interested in the fact that someone edited out Bannister's name in the Wikipedia entry: you should put it back in and see if it happens again.) It's worth noting that there is still some debate about Bannister's argument: there's about four or five monographs published after it that refine or challenge some aspect of his points, but yeah, pretty much all the people who've worked on the topic since have accepted his critique of Hofstader, as I understand it.

I think in part this points to something subtle and powerful about formal scholarly historiography and its intersection with humanistic scholarship and with the wider public sphere. There are a very substantial number of tropes, terms, events and so on which are taken as historical truths which, when you take the trouble to trace them back, rest on very slender and sometimes extremely old scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past and probably debunk or at least complicate half of them. Eugenics is an interesting example that's closely linked to "Social Darwinism": it differed very substantially from nation to nation, but in England and the United States, it actually had very little to say about people of color, contra the commonly received view (which I often see in humanistic writing). It certainly had a powerful racial referent, but a lot of that was implicit, and almost always directed at white people, at a notion that the hierarchical place of whites was threatened by their ebbing biological strength due to their over-civilization. In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks.

But this is also of course where a truly intricate sense of intellectual history can enter the picture: you could ask why the idea of "social darwinism" as a past construction which we imagine ourselves to have overcome (but which can be invoked in the present to criticize some opponent) became so appealing. In other words, excavating the historiography of "Social Darwinism" can turn into a backdoor intellectual history of the time at which Hofstader published his work. You could observe that perhaps the term was so appealing at the time because it was a useful mythography for New Dealers trying to sum up how their form of capitalism was a moral triumph over the capitalism of the robber barons. Or perhaps it was also a comforting term for mid-century biologists and social scientists, stressing the evolution of proper formal boundaries and precision between disciplines. Certainly its persistence as an idea has a lot to do with the former: look at the rhetoric of the passage from Stasz: "Social Darwinism" almost invariably gets used as a way to stress the moral and intellectual distance between late 19th Century America and now, that we are both better scientifically and morally.

This is what I think is interesting about persistent tropes and concepts in the historiography: a skeptical investigation of them tends to not just be a matter of rubbishing but also ought to lead to a new history of how terms and ideas propagate and become intellectual shorthand. Once you do that, I tend to think you find also that the skepticism about the original concept also leads to something more complicated. Bannister's history is a fairly formal rejoinder to Hofstader's; once you think about the way that general concepts of Darwinian thought disseminated themselves into common knowledge after 1880, you see that the formal claims about "Social Darwinism" made in much of the scholarly literature are wrong, but that tracing the dissemination of metaphors and tropes that derived out of the circulation and (mis)representations of Darwin shows that there was also a lot going on that bears a distant resemblance to "Social Darwinism" as we formerly knew it.


Also worth noting is that, contrary to the United States, several of the finest minds in Britain were supporters of eugenics prior to the war.

Haeckel's influence on historiography is a subject I'm currently contemplating, if any of you have recommendations along those lines.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Alright, Jonathan, alright, I'll read some of Wolfe's short stories. Throw some specific recommendations my way. As for Haeckel and historiography, I'm sure you've already looked at his chapter on evolutionary anthropology in Darwin and Modern Science (1909). That's a performance of his historiographic method; for an analogue you could look at biogenetic law. To wit:

The history of the embryo is an expression of the history of the lineage; or in other words ontogeny is a recapitulation of phylogeny. Stated more fully, it may be put: The series of forms which the individual organism passes through during its development from a single cell to its completed condition is a short, compressed repetition of the longer series of forms through which the animal predecessors of the organism, or the lineage forms of the species, have passed from the earliest times or organic creation to the present.

Also, eugenics movements, while necessarily based on a Darwinian model of evolutionary theory, aren't the same beast as "social Darwinism." Eugenics is a positive platform indicating what must be done; social Darwinism's been considered a negative platform indicating what must not be done.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Josh, you are making sense, and I want to avoid the "Look at how original I am!" school of criticism. (Which could be called, I don't know, "pink mohawk scholarship" or somesuch.) I've tried to avoid this a couple of ways. First, by emphasizing the archival nature of my research, so that I let the facts speak for themselves, so to speak, and draw attention away from myself and the nature of my claims. I've said things like this (quoted from the earlier thread):

Such appeals to the proven fact of social Darwinism easily outnumber arguments that attempt to prove it. That Mitchell carries on in this tradition is no discredit to him: nowhere in his essay does he prove that London’s oceans consist of a dihydrogen oxide solution containing approximately 29,500 parts per million dissolved sodium chloride. I only say this to demonstrate the myth of the tent’s pervasiveness: Mitchell no more felt the need to demonstrate the salinity of the ocean in The Sea Wolf (1904) than prove the existence of social Darwinism.

Tone aside, these gestures are designed to draw attention to the faults of Hofstadter's argument and away from the faults of those in my field. (Not as aggressively as what Luther Blissett recommeneded in jest, but similar in intent.) But the problem I run across again and again is this:

If I address Donald Pizer's argument in Realism and Naturalism in 19th Century American Literature, I have no choice but to take an oppositional stance. If I don't address it, my essay'll be returned with reader's remarks to the effect that I need to address Pizer's argument before this can be published as an article. I want to be positive, but doing so requires I look like I haven't done my homework. (I initially included many footnotes to works that assume the existence of social Darwinism, then I lumped them all into one footnote, then I realized that anyone who reads that footnote will know instantly that I don't engage any of those arguments.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jonathan D., if you have some references I'd sure love to see them. I've just started working on Jack London's article "The Yellow Peril," in which, well, I don't want my particular reading floating around the internet, but needless to say, any information you could point me to that discusses the Asian response to social Darwinism would be greatly appreciated.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Just wanted to thank everyone who's responded so far and say that I'm still responding, only not in any kind of rational order.

Ralph Luker

Jonathan, You should look up Richard Roberts's April 2005 public lecture at the University of Chicago, "The Narrative Structure of Moral Judgments in History: Evolution and Nazi Biology." It has, I think, been published by an in-house UofC periodical and, I think, it can be accessed on the net.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Ralph, did you mean Robert Richards (author of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior)? Because if there's a Richard Roberts and a Robert Richards out there, and they're both working on early 20th Century evolutionary theory, I'm going to have comb my citations very carefully to see if I haven't confused them. Repeatedly. (crosses fingers and mumbles prayers of a sort)

Jonathan Dresner


I'd start with Benjamin Schwartz, In search of wealth and power: Yen Fu and the West for China and for Japan..... (I'm thinking: I know more about this literature so I don't want to overwhelm you)... I think Carmen Blacker's book on Fukuzawa Yukichi might be a decent place to start. Also Earl H. Kinmonth, The self-made man in Meiji Japanese thought: from samurai to salary man. For 20th century (the last two were late 19th), Andrew Barshay's new book on the Social Sciences in Japan.

Jonathan Dresner

Oh, and I don't know if this helps you or not, but I had a philosophy colleague at another institution who was wrting on the ethical implications of evolutionary theory: John Lemos.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Tim, you're right that Bannister's become the launch-point for all work on the period since Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought, and deserved so. Although direct evidence is sometimes thin-on-the-ground in Bannister, subsequent research (including my own) has vindicated him on nearly every front.

In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks.

None of the "role of eugenics in early 20th Century American Literature books" I've read have mentioned, for example, that the major studies of "moronism" focused (as you point out) on white families (fictional or otherwise) like the Jukes and the Kallikaks, or that the talk of skin color in Davenport's Trait Book concerned pigmentation disorders like albinism. While these books convincingly argue that, yes, the Eugenics Record Office or the Station for Experimental Evolution could have had the effect of legitimizing scientific racism, they present no evidence that they actually did. It's a move I often see in the work of English professors: present a historical fact and then discuss its possible effects without regard for whether these effects actually occurred. Almost as if the possibility of their occurance is condemnation enough.

Vis-a-vis the New Deal triumphalism in those who champion Hofstadter's work, as I replied to you (but addressed to Ralph) earlier, I think there's a lot of promising work that could be done in that direction, and in fact given my advisor, that's a possible direction for a future project, so long as no one else gets there first. (Note to all: Creative Commons!)

Ralph Luker

My bad, Scott. I got the names reversed, but I would appreciate it if you would continue to confuse me with Tim Burke.

Scott Eric Kaufman

No problem on that front, Ralph. I assumed you'd both take that for the compliment it could be construed as being.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jonathan, many thanks for the recommendations. The Schwartz looks to be particularly interesting, given that the vagaries of London's racism froce me to focus on China more than Japan. Any more similar recommendations wouldn't overwhelm. On the contrary: they'd be much appreciated.

Jonathan Dresner


Well, since you asked, I dove back into my collection and found what is probably your grail, at least as far as Japan goes: Yamashita, Shigekazu, "Herbert Spencer and Meiji Japan" in Conroy, Davis, Patterson, Japan in Transition: Thought and Action in the Meiji Era (not to be confused with the Jansen and Rozman Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji). There's a few other chapters in there you might find useful in part 2 and part 4. You might also find Iriye's Cambridge History chapter ("Japan's Drive to Great Power Status" also available in the Emergence of Meiji Japan) useful as background.

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