Social Darwinism in European and American Thought: 1860-1945, Nature as Model and Nature as Threat.
Gary R. Johnson, Lake Superior State University
"Social Darwinism" is a moral and political indictment in contemporary discourse. Use of this term is therefore a contested practice. Since virtually no one claims to be a Social Darwinist, the contest is really over how broad a group may be indicted under this epithet. Mike Hawkins's book, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 18601945, is (1) an attempt to expand greatly the size of the group that may be charged under this indictment, and (2) a defense of some who would otherwise be found guilty under the expanded definition of the crime. The overall purpose of Hawkins's book is to condemn as a Social Darwinist anyone who applies an evolutionary perspective to human behavior (except for some confused but otherwise enlightened souls whose political views Hawkins is in sympathy with).
Contrasting his definition with more conventional definitions, Hawkins says that Social Darwinism is not a discrete ideology, but rather a world view based on five evolutionary assumptions. The most crucial of these is that evolutionary theory applies not only to human bodies but also to human social and psychological attributes. The effect of this definition is to make a Social Darwinist out of anyone who uses evolutionary theory in an effort to understand human behavior.
Hawkins refers to this fifth assumption as "biological determinism," and applies it to any thinker who believes that human biology has anything to do with human behavior. Of course, no one believes that human biology is the sole determinant of human behavior. It is this empty cell that could most appropriately be labeled biological determinism, but Hawkins chooses instead to apply this term to anyone who is not a cultural determinist (his own position). Hawkins employs this simplistic biology/culture dichotomy to reconstruct selectively intellectual history following the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. He begins by arguing that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist: "It is both perverse and inaccurate to deny his status as a Social Darwinist" (p. 36).
Part II is devoted to "Pioneers," with one chapter each devoted to the emergence of Social Darwinism, and Social Darwinism in France and Germany. These chapters briefly review the Social Darwinism Hawkins says he finds in a variety of mostly nineteenth-century thinkers and seek to show the "janiform quality of Social Darwinism discourse" - that nature is sometimes viewed as model and sometimes as threat (p. 18).
Part III is devoted to selectively chosen "case studies." There are chapters devoted to liberal/radical Darwinism, racism and militarism, eugenics, sex differences and sexism, and Nazism/Fascism. In effect, these chapters provide a defense of the view that applying an evolutionary perspective to human behavior implies support for conservatism, capitalism, racism, militarism, imperialism, eugenicism, sexism, and Nazism.
Hawkins acknowledges that evolutionary approaches have been put to a wide variety of ideological uses. Thus, liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, pacifists, racial egalitarians, anti-imperialists, anti-eugenicists, and feminists have often been Darwinians. Hawkins says, however, that Darwinism has "discursive boundaries." For that reason, those he considers progressive thinkers either are not really Darwinians - despite what they say - or their theories suffer from "incoherence" or "inconsistency" or "tensions" because of the Darwinian elements. Conservatives, capitalists, militarists, imperialists, racists, eugenicists, patriarchalists, and Nazis, by contrast, may use evolutionary theory coherently in defense of their doctrines.
Knowledgeable readers will be deeply skeptical of these claims. They will notice, for example, some suspicious convenience in the selection and coverage of relevant thinkers. There is no mention, for example, of Karl Kautsky or Michael Bakunin, both of whom were communists and evolutionists. Influential communist anarchist Peter Kropotkin warrants only three pages, and these are mostly an apologia. In contrast, more than nine pages are devoted to an obscure French librarian, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, who tried to use a Darwinian framework as a ground for his virulent racism.
Knowledgeable readers also will be disturbed by the author's distortion of the scholarly record. For example, Hawkins is clearly sympathetic with the political values of Kropotkin. Since he does not want Kropotkin to be tainted as a "Social Darwinist," however, he tells us that Kropotkin's view of the world is really not Darwinism, and that "mutual aid was not, for him, a consequence of natural selection" (p. 179).
These claims are simply untrue. Kropotkin tells us explicitly that his ideas about mutual aid and evolution are "nothing but a further development of the ideas expressed by Darwin himself' (Mutual Aid, 1914, p. x). He also makes clear throughout his famous work that cooperation is a product of natural selection. Indeed, he says - in a paragraph preceding one from which Hawkins quotes - "competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. In the great struggle for life . . . natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible" (1914, p. 74, emphasis added).
If it is useful to Hawkins's agenda for Kropotkin to be an anti-Darwinian, it is also useful for the twentieth century's worst monster to be a quintessential Darwinian. Thus, Hawkins tells us that Darwinism was a "foundation" for Nazism. Indeed, he says, Nazi "theory and practice were predicated upon the [Social Darwinist] world view to a remarkable degree (p. 284; emphasis added). Involuntary sterilization, euthanasia, and the Holocaust itself "received their legitimation from the Social Darwinist world view" (p. 280). And by contrast with the liberals, socialists, pacifists, racial egalitarians, and feminists who thought they were Darwinians - but whose theories are "inconsistent" with Darwinism according to Hawkins - Hitler "showed a consistent adherence to the premises of Social Darwinism" (p. 282).
It apparently does not trouble Hawkins that Hitler makes no mention of Darwin or "evolution" in the 688 page of Mein Kampf. And there is no indication that Hitler had anything other than an extremely crude understanding of natural selection. Of course, Hitler does rant regularly in Mein Kampf about a "struggle for existence," applying this phrase sometimes to his own life, sometimes to individuals, sometimes to nations or peoples, sometimes to races, and sometimes to "mankind" or "the species." On the basis of these passages, we may fairly say that Hitler sometimes used a crude, pseudo-Darwinian framework as a rationalization for his policies. We cannot on this basis, however, say that Hitler was a Darwinian.
Hawkins also uses forms of distortion. Thus, those familiar with social evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries know that the terms "savage" and "barbarian" were used regularly by a wide variety of thinkers. These terms are offensive to contemporary ears. Hawkins takes full advantage of this sensitivity by regularly noting the use of these terms by those whose social and political views he disdains. However, he almost never acknowledges use of these terms by those with whom he is in political sympathy. Thus, Hawkins quotes use of one or both of these terms in his discussions of Walter Bagehot, Cesare Lombroso, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and others. But there is no mention of these terms in Hawkin's discussion of Kropotkin, even though Kropotkin used these terms throughout Mutual Aid, including in chapters entitled "Mutual Aid among Savages" and "Mutual Aid among the Barbarians."
The selectivity and the distortions are useful for Hawkin's agenda, but his enterprise also relies upon misrepresentation of evolutionary theory. In introducing his discussion of Kropotkin, for example, he uses "natural selection" to mean head-to-head competition: "The idea that cooperation was at least as important as natural selection in evolution - especially human evolution - appeared early in the history of Social Darwinism" (p. 177, emphasis added). This misuse is convenient for his purposes - cooperation can obviously not be the product of natural selection if it is the antithesis of natural selection. This conceptual sleight of hand - and misuse of evolutionary theory - probably grows out of the moral discomfort Hawkins feels about cooperation at one level being the product of something akin to competition (natural selection) at another level. Kropotkin himself, however, had no trouble with this concept (Mutual Aid, 1914, pp. 17-18).
The book's final chapter (which has the moral tone of an expose), provides an extended caricature of contemporary sociobiology. Using the same kinds of distortion and misrepresentation he uses in earlier chapters, Hawkins says that sociobiology is "a particularly powerful example of Social Darwinism" (p. 292). He acknowledges that contemporary sociobiologists hold a wide variety of political views; however, those who hold morally acceptable views are apparently, like their predecessors, confused. Consistent with this theme, the book's final sentence warns sociobiologists that they cannot claim "innocence" about the implications of their theories.
Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945 is a deeply biased presentation of scientific and intellectual history in the service of a political agenda. The author demonstrates considerable erudition, but it is an erudition contaminated by his ideological commitments. The book is certainly more sophisticated than the website of Humanitarian International, which proclaims that "Social Darwinism is the root cause of all of the world's current problems" (www.geocities.com/Athens/1058). Unfortunately, it is not substantially more credible.
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|Author:||Johnson, Gary R.|
|Publication:||American Political Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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