Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1944

Darwinism received its warmest reception in the United States. The theory of evolution is a neutral proposition that allows for both benign and malignant interpretations of its significance for fields other than biology. (Like Freud, everybody tried to apply Darwin to everything after Origin.) The prophets of its application to human society like Herbert Spenser and William Sumner honestly believed in a kind of secular Calvinism, but the interpretation that exalted competition, counseled acceptance of life’s hard realities and justified the position of the poor (the losers) aligned well with the interests of the wealthy and influential of the time, not to mention many of the values of the middle class (thrift, hard work, self-discipline, etc.). This version reigned until the turn of the century, when it was superceded by a Darwinism of nations in the minds and mouths of imperialists. This edition also declined upon the beginning of World War I, when German militarism gave international “survival of the fittest” and cultural/biological superiority a bad name.

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