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Social Darwinism

  The application of Darwinian evolution to socio-economic and political affairs. Generally speaking Social Darwinism tends to be regarded as a \'pejorative tag\' (Moore, 1986), and for this reason is typically used to label opponents. Yet this judgement has served to disguise how \'social\' Darwinism itself was from the start (Greene, 1959, 1977; Williams, 1973) and to permit a too comfortable critique of the doctrine as a \'distortion\' of pure biology (Shapin and Barnes, 1979; La Vergata, 1985; Moore, 1991). Thus to conceive of Social Darwinism as an extension of Darwinism is likely to be a misconception. On the contrary, Malthusian demographic principles and a range of presumptions about racial type, for example, were part of Darwin\'s intellectual furniture as he devised his grand biological theory. Besides, that quintessential Darwinian pursuit — biogeography — has been shown to have long engaged imperial vocabulary and projected imperial values (Browne, 1996; cf. imperialism).

It was under the influence of Richard Hofstadter\'s (1959) classic study that the term came to describe almost any evolutionary model of society — particularly if it was pernicious. Here the dangers of manufactured history assert themselves. For as Donald Bellomy (1984) has shown, the term Social Darwinism itself did not achieve currency in the English-speaking world until the early years of the twentieth century. Since then much debate about the issue has revolved around the question of definitions and labels. The emphasis of figures like Hofstadter, moreover, tended to obscure alternative biological sources of social evolution, like Lamarckism, and to ignore the substantial body of social evolutionary literature conceived quite independently of biology (Burrow, 1966). In its most vulgar form, Social Darwinism is generally portrayed as an attempt \'to justify the competitive ethos of Victorian capitalism in terms of the struggle for existence\' (Bowler, 1984).

In this vein, championed by Herbert Spencer and his disciples, social evolution could be used to justify laissez-faire economic policies, nationalistic aggression and ideas of racial supremacy (see nationalism; racism). At the same time, as Jones has made clear, certain forms of Social Darwinism were equally compatible with the traditional liberalism that sought to curb the power of the aristocracy which \'by awarding social status for reasons of birth rather than achievement, protected the idle and unproductive in society\' (Jones, 1980). Opposition to the laissez-faire construal of Social Darwinism was also forthcoming from those advocates of eugenics who felt that Darwinian evolution sanctioned a breeding programme for the human species in order to combat racial degeneration and ensure the best eugenic mixtures (Haller, 1963; Mackenzie, 1982; Kevles, 1985). The militaristic construal of social Darwinism as the doctrine\'s major legacy, moreover, has recently been challenged by Crook (1994) who urges that, whatever its internal dissonances, a much neglected discourse of \'peace biology\' emanated from the ecological holism that pervaded Darwin\'s writings (cf. ecology). Besides this, the assumption that Social Darwinism was commonly embraced as an explicit economic philosophy has been questioned by Wyllie (1959) and Bannister (1979). At the same time, beyond the business community, the social implications of Lamarckian evolution became attractive to many. If organisms could adapt themselves to their environments and pass on the benefits to succeeding generations, then this model could give biological support to social interventionism, whether by educational initiatives or environmental improvement. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was its congruence with socialism that made Lamarckism attractive to so many reformers. Plainly, Social Darwinism was a far from coherent system of ideas; at most it provided a rhetorical lexicon under which a suite of naturalistic political philosophies could shelter (Fichman, 1997; Hawkins, 1997).

The strains of social evolutionary thought, whether derived from Darwinism or Lamarckism, are clearly detectable in the works of numerous geographers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Livingstone, 1985, 1992). Ratzel\'s political geography, for example, with its attendant concept of the Lebensraum, was grounded in the (Lamarckian) evolutionary outlook of figures like Haeckel and Wagner (Stoddart, 1966; Bassin, 1987; see anthropogeography). The racialized geographies of Shaler, Gilman, Huntington, Taylor and Fleure all display various appropriations of evolutionary vocabulary. For some, as with Huntington (who retained a long-standing interest in the anatomical researches of Paul Kammerer) and Taylor (for whom William Diller Matthew\'s work on palaeo-climates was crucially significant), climate, migration and natural selection were the key ingredients (Livingstone, 1991; Christie, 1994) — an emphasis disclosing the geographical community\'s long-standing concern with questions to do with the role of acclimatization in imperial affairs (Livingstone, 1987). Indeed Kuklick (1996, p. 628) has claimed that the basic elements of the Darwinian schema \'were the constituent components of acclimatization analyses\' and that interest \'in the outcomes of encounters between indigenes and colonial invaders of every variety — plants, animal, and human — was not marginal to Darwinian inquiry, but occupied its very center\'. For others, as with Fleure, it was in the interplay of racial type, evolutionary mechanisms, anthropometric localization, and psycho-social factors that were of central importance (Campbell, 1972; Gruffudd, 1994). Again, the necessitarian cast of Mackinder\'s early geography and his later disquiet over a resigned laissez-faire show traces of social Lamarckism, as do the deterministic geographies of Brigham, Semple, Davis and Huntington (see environmental determinism). Socializing evolution, of course, was also to be found among geographers of a more radical outlook. Kropotkin, for instance, found in biological Lamarckism the grounds for championing collectivism, opposing Spencerian individualism, and connecting up the philosophy of natural science with anarchism. Here we encounter a biologization of political categories akin to that of Patrick Geddes who found in the same intellectual source inspiration for his planning and educational initiatives (Campbell and Livingstone, 1983). The possibilism that lay at the heart of the French School of Geography, particularly as expressed by Vidal de la Blache, has also been interpreted as embracing a range of evolutionary motifs derived from Lamarckism and of cultivating an ecologistic géographie humaine (Archer, 1993).

Social evolutionary doctrines were thus used by geographers in a variety of ways: for some it was the idea of struggle that energized their geographical theorizing; for some it was a version of cultural evolution derived from anthropology that informed their writing of historical geography (Newson, 1976); for others, as Herbst (1961) puts it, \'environmental determinism … became the geographer\'s version of Social Darwinism\'; for still others it was the idealist thrust of vitalistic evolution that undergirded a more possibilist outlook. Indeed there is much to be said for the view that it was in a social evolutionary rendering of the relations between nature and culture that the cognitive content of professional geography, within a specializing academy, was originally sought (Livingstone, 1992).

More recently, with the rise of socio-biology, the legitimacy of transferring biological categories to the social order has again become the subject of debate. Darwinian motifs have thus, in one form or another, persistently resurfaced in new incarnations (Degler, 1991).Within the field of human geography, the issues raised by Social Darwinism are still in need of resolution (see also human ecology). (DNL)

References Archer, K. 1993: Regions as social organisms: the Lamarckian characteristics of Vidal de la Blache\'s regional geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83: 498-514. Bannister, R.C. 1979: Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Bassin, M. 1987: Friedrich Ratzel 1884-1904. Geographers. Biobibliographical Studies 11: 123-32. Bellomy, D. 1984: \'Social Darwinism\' revisited. Perspectives in American History NS 1: 1-29. Bowler, P.J. 1984: Evolution. The history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press. Browne, J. 1996: Biogeography and empire. In N. Jardine, J.A. Secord and E.C. Spary, eds, Culture of natural history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 305-21. Burrow, J.W. 1966: Evolution and society. A study in Victorian social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Campbell, J. 1972: Some sources of the humanism of H.J. Fleure. Oxford: School of Geography, University of Oxford, Research Paper, no. 2. Campbell, J.A. and Livingstone, D.N. 1983: Neo-Lamarckism and the development of geography in the United States and Great Britain. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 8: 267-94. Christie, N. 1994: Environment and race: Geography\'s search for a Darwinian synthesis. In R. MacLeod and P.E. Rehbock, eds, Darwin\'s laboratory: evolutionary theory and natural history in the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawai\'i Press. Crook, P. 1994: Darwinism, war and history: the debate over the biology of war from the \'Origin of species\' to the first world war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Degler, C.N. 1991: In search of human nature: the decline and revival of Darwinism in American social thought. New York: Oxford University Press. Fichman, M. 1997: Biology and politics: defining the boundaries. In Lightman, B., ed., Victorian science in context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 94-118. Greene, J.C. 1959: Biology and social theory in the nineteenth century: August Commute and Herbert Spencer. In Marshall Claret, ed., Critical problems in the history of science. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 419-46. Greene, J.C. 1977: Darwin as a social evolutionist. Journal of the History of Biology 10: 1-27. Gruffudd, P. 1994: Back to the land: historiography, rurally and the nation in interior Wales. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 19: 61-77. Haller, M.H. 1963: Eugenics: hereditarian attitudes in American social thought. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Hawkins, M. 1997: Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860-1945: nature as model and nature as threat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Herbst, J. 1961: Social Darwinism and the history of American geography. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105: 538-44. Hofstadter, R. 1959: Social Darwinism in American thought, rev. edn. New York: George Braziller. Jones, G. 1980: Social Darwinism and English thought: the interaction between biological and social theory. London: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. Kevles, D.J. 1985: In the name of eugenics. Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Kuklick, H. 1996: Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian biogeography and British anthropology. American Ethnologist 23: 611-38. La Vergata, A. 1985: Images of Darwin. A historiographic overview. In D. Kohn, ed., The Darwinian heritage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 901-75. Livingstone, D.N. 1985: Evolution, science and society: historical reflections on the geographical experiment. Geoforum 16: 119-30. Livingstone, D.N. 1987: Human acclimatization: perspectives on a contested field of inquiry in science, medicine and geography. History of Science 25: 359-94. Livingstone, D.N. 1991: The moral discourse of climate: historical considerations on race, place and virtue. Journal of Historical Geography 17: 413-34. Livingstone, D.N. 1992: The geographical tradition. Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. Oxford: Blackwell. Mackenzie, D. 1982: Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: the social construction of scientific knowledge. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; New York: Columbia University Press. Moore, J.R. 1986: Socialising Darwinism: historiography and the fortunes of a phrase. In L. Levidow, ed., Science as Politics. London: Free Association Books, 38-80. Moore, J.R. 1991: Deconstructing Darwinism: the politics of evolution in the 1860s. Journal of the History of Biology 24: 353-408. Newson, L. 1976: Cultural evolution: a basic concept for human and historical geography. Journal of Historical Geography 2: 239-55. Shapin, S. and Barnes, B. 1979: Darwin and Social Darwinism: purity and history. In B. Barnes and S. Shapin, eds, Natural order: historical studies of scientific culture. Beverley Hills: Sage Publications, 125-42. Stoddart, D.R. 1966: Darwin\'s impact on geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 56: 683-98. Williams, R. 1973: Social Darwinism. In J. Benthall, ed., The limits of human nature. London: Allen Lane; New York: Dutton, 115-30. Wyllie, I. 1959: Social Darwinism and the businessman. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103: 629-35.

Suggested Reading Bannister (1979). Bellomy (1984). Hawkins (1997). Jones (1980). Moore (1986).



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