This essay is a partial history of the term ‘Social Darwinism’. Using large electronic databases, it is shown that the use of the term in leading Anglophone academic journals was rare up to the 1940s. Citations of the term were generally disapproving of the racist or imperialist ideologies with which it was associated. Neither Herbert Spencer nor William Graham Sumner were described as Social Darwinists in this early literature. Talcott Parsons (1932, 1934, 1937) extended the meaning of the term to describe any extensive use of ideas from biology in the social sciences. Subsequently, Richard Hofstadter (1944) gave the use of the term a huge boost, in the context of a global anti-fascist war.Hodgson mentions:
A massive 1934 fresco by Diego Rivera in Mexico City is entitled ‘Man at the Crossroads’. To the colorful right of the picture are Diego’s chosen symbols of liberation, including Karl Marx, Vladimir Illych Lenin, Leon Trotsky, several young female athletes and the massed proletariat. To the darker left of the mural are sinister battalions of marching gas-masked soldiers, the ancient statue of a fearsome god, and the seated figure of a bearded Charles Darwin. These conceptions of good and evil, progress and regress, and light and shade, were prominent in much of Western social science for the next fifty years.Diego Rivera attributed his politics to his Jewish ancestry:
"My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life," Rivera wrote in 1935. "From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."
Although earlier histories (Hofstadter, 1944; Jones, 1980) also concentrate on the Anglophone community, they present as historical fact what has been and continues to be a pejorative, polemical label. To question this view does not in any way diminish the importance of attacking unfounded, reactionary or regressive ideas wherever they appear. Rather it will demonstrate that historical misrepresentation, and the use of ‘Social Darwinism’ as a term of abuse, have served not only partisan political ends, but have foreclosed discussion of the importance of ideas from biology in helping to understand human affairs.
Science does not stand separate from society or politics, but it has standards of openness, veracity and rigor. A worry is that the term ‘Social Darwinism’ has been used in the twentieth century to close down much of the discussion in the social sciences concerning the influence of human biology on human behavior. Typically with inaccurate accounts of its past usage, it has forced an unwarranted division between conceptualizations of the natural and the social. The acute effects of these closures and divisions still endure in modern anthropology and sociology. They are particularly damaging at the present juncture, because we are experiencing an explosion in the application of Darwinian and other evolutionary ideas in the human sciences. The important philosophical and conceptual implications of Darwinism for social science are now widely acknowledged. Those misguided by the rhetoric of ‘Social Darwinism’ are less well prepared to engage with these developments. [. . .]
There was no self-declared school of Social Darwinists. Rather the term ‘Social Darwinism’ originally appeared in the course of an ongoing debate over the proper uses of biology for understanding society. In contrast, since the 1940s, it has been widely used to dismiss any use of biological ideas in the social sciences. [. . .]
Contrary to common supposition, it will be shown that the early use of the term ‘Social Darwinism’ in Anglophone academic journals was highly infrequent and sporadic, and almost entirely disapproving of what the label was supposed to describe. [. . .] Subsequently its use became much more frequent, with the war against Nazism and the appearance of Richard Hofstadter’s classic book on Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944).
Hofstadter identified Social Darwinism not in terms of any school that used the term to describe its own ideas, but in terms of the usage of key phrases such as ‘natural selection’, ‘struggle for existence’, and ‘survival of the fittest’. After Hofstadter the term ‘Social Darwinism’ was used not only as a general description for abuses of biology by the Nazis and others, but also as a means of sustaining the established separation between the social sciences and biology. Despite the decisive defeat of fascism in 1945, the use of the term rose inexorably and exponentially for the remainder of the twentieth century. It acquired mythological attributes, referring to a pre-1914 era when its use was assumed to be prevalent. At least as far as the Anglophone academic journals are concerned, this assumption is false.