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Social Darwinism in American Thought [Paperback]

by Richard Hofstadter
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1, 1992 0807055034 978-0807055038 Reprint
Social Darwinism in American Thought portrays the overall influence of Darwin on American social theory and the notable battle waged among thinkers over the implications of evolutionary theory for social thought and political action. Theorists such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner adopted the idea of the struggle for existence as justification for the evils as well as the benefits of laissez-faire modern industrial society. Others such as William James and John Dewey argued that human planning was needed to direct social development and improve upon the natural order. Hofstadter's classic study of the ramifications of Darwinism is a major analysis of the social philosophies that animated intellectual movements of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The much-honored late historian Hofstadter inaugurated the study of social Darwinism in his 1944 Ph.D. thesis, reprinted here with an introduction by noted contemporary historian Foner.

Copyright 1992 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


A book that is in many ways a model of its kind . . . Mr. Hofstadter is compact, lucid, informed, vigorous . . . If you really want to know why and how some of the contradictions in American social thought came into being, Social Darwinism is as excellent a study as you can hope to find. —The New York Times

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press; Reprint edition (September 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807055034
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807055038
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars masterpiece May 11, 2004
Typically, I bestow five stars on books I think profitable to read. This book is a classic: it is imperative to read.
I disagree with the reviewer below (Mr. Landon) who calls for a repudiation of natural selection. I do not believe that sufficient evidence exists to recall the theory of natural selection.
Richard Hofstaedter is not, I repeat, is not calling for that, either. Recalling a scientific theory because of political difficulties caused by misguided adherents is neither right nor necessary. And Richard Hofstaedter demonstrates why it is not necessary right here in this book.
The take-away from this book is that social Darwinism, the belief that only the "fittest" (whatever that means) people among us should survive (rule, whatever), is on shaky ground. Always a morally repugnant doctrine, Hofstaedter shows social Darwinism to be logically suspect as well.
As Hofstaedter points out, one can start with the social Darwinist's appropriation of (or more accurately with their failure to reckon with) the term "natural". Darwin's principle of natural selection never addressed individuals within a species, and its application to individuals is a tremendous mistake. Writing about individuals striving to be "fittest", Hofstaedter here, from the pen of Mr. Darwin himself:
"People who are selfish and contentious will not cohere, and without coherence, nothing can be effected."
Rugged individualism is repudiated by its supposed inventor, and is fatally wounded.
One ponders the origin of the social instinct. Social Darwinists believe it to be contrived. But we were either created or selected to have it, this Darwin seems to know. And we should know it, too.
Hofstaedter avoids bombast, ideology, and religion.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating August 9, 1999
By A Customer
Richard Hofstadter is an excellent historian of the trends in American political, social, and religious thought. This book chronicles the rise and fall of Herbert Spencer's philosophy as a reinforcing doctrine for laissez-faire political economy. Hofstadter deftly combines his own observations with carefully selected quotes from the thinkers themselves. One lesson that may be gleaned from this work is that controversial and complex ideas such as Darwinian evolution may be used for a multiplicity of purposes, some of them conflicting. For those who seek a greater insight to the struggle between individualism and collectivism in American political culture. I would also recommend reading Will Durant's chapter on Herbert Spencer in The Story of Philosophy as a supplement.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
If by chance you are unaware of what Social Dawinism is and/or do not know how it has flowed through America's bloodstream (most virtually since the Civil War) you are in for a reader's exploration that is destined to change your world view. For sure, you will realize how social Darwinism is alive and well today and, I offer, that you will be howling to leave it by the wayside by the time you've turned the last page of this unexpected history. This is a cornerstone read for the history buff and a must read for anyone seeking reasons why life--for most of us--is not as joyful or pleasant as it could be...In this light Richard Hofstdter's book is a teacher of both the mind and heart!
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Culture Coming To Terms With Evolution March 8, 2006
This book doesn't really take much of a position. Rather, it is a historical chronicle positions others have taken. But if there is a hidden 'thesis' to this book, my guess is that it would look something like this: Evolution is a unique science because it touches on the very idea of who humans are, individually and as a group. Becuase of this, there has been a great urge to make sweeping proclomations applying evolution to politics, ethics, economics, etc. This book is the historical record of various attempts.

What one learns in this book is that far from being limited to Spencer and the laissez-faire crowd, evolution has been invoked to support just about every governmental and economic scheme imaginable: Kropotkin tied 'mutual aid' to anarchism; Marx applied it to communism; Spencer to capitalism; Dewey to government interventionism, etc....etc....

Hofstadter takes us on a ride that begins with Darwin and winds its way through these varied schemes. Everyone, it seems, wanted to apply this newly found science to their side before the other guy could monopolize it! If you couldn't link your beliefs to evolutionary support, then your beliefs may risk seeming unscientific (especially if the other guy COULD claim evolutionary support). And this is the story of that multifarious race.

Obviously Spencer and Sumner are written about quite a bit, as they have become the public face of 'Social darwinim." (As it is a bastard philosophy, I refuse to capitalise the "d" in Social darwinism.) Kropotkin and those who tied evolution to altruism are also gone over a good deal. From there, we get a survey of the often neglected pragmatists and their understanding of Darwinism (I think they got it right; particuluarly William James.
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