Survival of the Fittest

Searching for something else, I just came upon a comment I’d clipped and saved by Timothy Burke at Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous. The post is a few years old; SEK was talking about how “Social Darwinism” never really existed, at least not in the simple, coherent form handed down to us by Richard Hofstadter. Tim says:

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 … scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past… 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. … “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.

When a guy’s comments–not his blog posts, his comments on someone else’s blog–are this smart and useful, maybe the rest of us should just pack it in?


  1. On the other hand, there’s no reason so-called “slow blogging” can’t be accompanied by the practice of “slow commenting”.

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