Friday, 12 August 2005

Stick It To The Historians! or Social Darwinism? No Such Beast. Responding to last Saturday's outburst of robust hatred, Luther Blissett jokingly recommended I avoid criticizing scholars in my field by criticizing historians instead. A week of dissertation frustration later, I'm seriously considering seriously considering his advice. Here's the dilemma: Social Darwinism is less coherent fin de siècle philosophy and more convenient myth unwittingly perpetuated by the well-meaning Richard Hofstadter.[1] Hofstadter emphasized the Herbert Spencer vogue in the person of William Graham Sumner, connected it to racist imperialism and thus was born a philosophical movement that only ever existed conceptually. Now, I could discuss (at great length) how Hofstadter should've undertaken a more comprehensive revision of his seminal Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) when the "Revised Edition" appeared in 1959. After all, by 1959 he had already written The Age of Reform, and should've known that the majority of references to evolutionary theory (though rarely "Darwinian" in anything but name) between 1890 and 1910 weren't mouthed by laissez faire capitalists like Spencer's friend Andrew Carnegie but by reformers like pioneering sociologists Lester Frank Ward and James Mark Baldwin. Of all the robber barons, only Carnegie--whose ideas on social evolution were more Malthussian than Darwinian--fit Hofstadter's mold. Not that it's even that important: in terms of the frequency with which people applied evolutionary theory to social, cultural and political matters, "social Darwinism" pales in comparison to appeals to a Lamarckian model of evolution made by advocates of social reform. The real impact of evolutionary theory can be seen in someone like John Dewey, whose firm belief that anyone could acquire an education is founded on an idea that characteristics like "intelligence" and "culture" could be acquired over the course of an individual lifetime. That's classic how-giraffes-got-long-necks Lamarckism. If you're still reading you may be one of the lucky few I eventually ask to read this dissertation of mine when it nears completion. Rest assured I've almost reached my point. Because you've not done the primary research on your own and I haven't cited it here, I beg you to grant me all that and then tell me what I should when every article I read begins something like this: As popularized at the time, Social Darwinism was reduced to a crude argument claiming the survival of the fittest among individuals within soicety and among societies as well. The doctrine appealed to the privileged Anglo-Saxon elite because it reinforced ethnocentric and evolutionist attitudes towards so-called primitive peoples... ...or it would have if such a doctrine predicated on such a reduction had existed. Clarice Stasz's overall argument is whip-smart, but because of its assumptions (quoted above) it can't help but flounder. The section above's followed by an argument whose assumptions render it entirely useless for my purposes; and because of Hofstadter's eminence, Stasz's assumptions may well represent those of all literary scholars who have worked on literature of the period.[2] So should I take Luther's advice and nail my theses to Hofstadter's door and write a dissertation in which I appear to ignore...

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