Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
When I first started to read philosophy and history I heard about this demon. His name was Herbert Spencer, and he was famous for three things:
- Incomprehensible prose
- Coining “Survival of the Fittest”, and
Coming up with a “devil take the hindmost” laissez faire political philosophy that was called “social Darwinism”.
I have since learned that demons are figments of the imagination, and so it is here, as well.
A recent issue of The Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization was devoted to Spencer. It provides an interesting contrast in approaches. Discovery Institute Fellow (and
serial occasional denier of same) Richard Weikart reprises his slander against Spencer and Darwin being responsible for the Holocaust. It seems that if you want to create a demon, the Holocaust is the event the demon must shoulder responsibility for (and not, say, the last 500 years of Christian antisemitism). That Hitler’s ideas are a mishmash of Romantic religious belief, folk religion, racist anthropology that predates Darwin and Spencer by a century or more, and in fact owes more to animal husbandry and possibly Plato’s Republic than anything Darwin set in train is irrelevant. The slander is all that matters. It’s a bit like the “blood libel” against Jews. Strike that demon! I love the way Weikart sets up a false dichotomy: either Darwin or Spencer are responsible for Hitler. That neither are escapes his eagle eye (and similar things can be said about Haeckel’s supposed contributions to Nazism, although he was more plausibly antisemitic).
In the same issue, though, is a measured and responsible article by Thomas Leonard, in which he observes that scholarship, since the late 70s, has shown that (i) there never was a social Darwinism apart from the ideas of one economist at Harvard, Sumner, and (ii), the myth arose in 1944 when Richard Hofstadter wrote a polemic in the guise of a historical review, which has been since shown to be of very poor quality.
Several of the rest of the authors reiterate the myth in that issue. Why? What’s going on?
I think the reason is obvious. There is a certain mindset, that the Disco Institute exemplifies, that cannot tell an “ought” from an “is”, and so they think that if someone says, as Spencer did, that
“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.”
then that is a moral prescription.
As Damon Root noted:
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.” …
Nearly every so-called “social Darwinian”, from Malthus and Adam Smith writing before Darwin, through Darwin himself, to Spencer and even the so-called “robber barons” held that it was a moral duty to care for the poor and to contribute back to society. Darwin even gave large amounts of his own money anonymously to care for the parish poor, which only came to light decades after his death. Hofstadter invented a convenient target to make his political points, and both sides of politics have repeated it ever since, Weikart’s dishonest scholarship being only the latest in a series. See the link above, “the slander is all that matters”, for references to criticisms of Weikart’s “scholarship”.
One of my favourite quotes from a philosopher illustrates this mistake:
“Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic, but praiseworthy, tendency to die before reproducing their kind”, W. V. O. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity (1969)
If Quine had left out the clause “but praiseworthy”, this would stand as a descriptive truth (we might even agree that it is full of pathos, objectively), but by adding the normativity of praise, Quine tries (and fails) to make evolution deliver moral values, which even Thomas Huxley knew was a mistake. Hitler is not an outcome of descriptions of how things work in biology. Even if he had the slightest knowledge of and made the slightest use of evolutionary biology, which he doesn’t (he makes a use of animal husbandry, though, and so we should immediately conclude that horse breeders are moral degenerates according to Weikart’s line of argument), Hitler’s program would not follow from evolutionary biology. Weikart knows this, of course, and is using a fallacy known as poisoning the well, a legal manoeuvre that he probably learned from Phillip Johnson, the father of ID. But the well is fine before that poison is added. Strike that demon.
The theists who are critical of evolution need to have evil demons to bolster the necessity for their brand of salvation. No matter that it is historically false; falsity seems not to be a barrier to ID, especially not in its scientific arguments. All that matters is that the rhetoric works. The Sophist, indeed.
It’s not just the Disco Tiny Dancers that run this line. Left and Right do it too, also for rhetorical effect. Economists seem especially prone to the fallacy of deriving ises from oughts, or ascribing it to others. The only defenders of Spencer are the libertarians, who also make the same error in reverse (it is thus, therefore it should be thus). Spencer and Darwin were liberals – a term that means they stood for individual freedom, support for the deserving poor, and a moral consensus (rather than the mishmash that gets called “liberal” in American politics. They had more in common with the Mill of On Liberty than anything else, as most forward thinking intellectuals of their day did. It’s time that got out… stop demonising Spencer. The man was human, and will have human flaws.