More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux

Earlier this month I wrote a letter to the New York Times and posted it here. Then I discovered that the Times would only print letters that haven’t appeared previously, so I deleted the letter from my blog. But since they didn’t print it anyway, here it is again:

To the Editor:

Patricia Cohen’s May 5th article “A Split Emerges As Conservatives Discuss Darwin” contains the following remarkable sentence: “Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy.”

Ms. Cohen’s charges against Herbert Spencer are false in every particular.

Herbert Spencer First: Spencer was in fact Victorian England’s leading opponent of imperialism; in Social Statics he described Western colonialism as bearing “a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers.”

Second: in his Principles of Sociology, Spencer hailed labor unions as a bulwark against the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers, and advocated replacing the “slavery” of the wages system with self-governing workers’ cooperatives.

Third: far from advocating the “withdrawal of aid from the sick and needy,” he regarded the provision of such aid as a positive moral duty (though he stressed that it should be given in such a way as to avoid encouraging dependency).

Finally, inasmuch as Spencer developed and published his basic ideas on biological and social evolution prior to and independently of Charles Darwin, it makes little sense to describe him as a “Social Darwinist.”

Why do these bizarre distortions of a great humanitarian thinker persist?

Roderick T. Long

While, as I said, the Times didn’t print my letter, they did publish the following partial retraction:

A front-page article last Saturday about a dispute among some conservatives over whether Darwinian theory undermines or supports conservative principles erroneously included one social Darwinist among Victorian-era social Darwinists who adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism. Herbert Spencer opposed both.

Score a victory for the Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League!

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6 Responses to More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux

  1. Tim May 30, 2007 at 12:38 am #

    i wonder if this victory an example of ‘survival of the fittest’ ??

  2. Dain May 30, 2007 at 8:33 pm #

    Good job. Glad to see you got through to them.

    To bolster your claim, let me relay this passage from the book The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency, by Anthony Platt:

    “Spokesmen for conservative Darwinism opposed welfare legislation and organized state care of the “dependent classes” on the grounds that all men, whatever their ability and resources, should engage in the competition for survival. The care and support of criminals, idiots, cripples, and the like, merely prolongs suffering, impedes human progress, and contradicts the laws of nature. The Darwinists, however, did not approve class warfare or the total elimination of the “unfit” through eugenic techniques. [Richard] Hofstadter has pointed out that Spencer, accused of inhumanity in his application of biological principles to social life, ‘was compelled to insist over and over again that he was not opposed to voluntary private charity to the unfit, since it had an elevating effect on the character of the donors and hastened the development of altruism…” (p.20)

  3. Rad Geek May 31, 2007 at 1:13 am #

    Perhaps the Newspaper of Record’s partial retraction was too hasty…

    Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy.

    There’s a little-known and rarely-observed rule of English grammar to the effect that “like” excludes and “such as” includes. So, for example, if I were to say “university towns such as Auburn have good used bookstores,” I am thereby stating that Auburn (inter alia) has a good used bookstore. But if I were to say “university towns like Auburn usually have Indian restaurants,” I am not saying anything about Auburn, but rather saying something about other university towns, which resemble Auburn in some salient respect.

    So if the Times had a good grammar-stickler on hand, they could insist that when they say that “Victorian-era Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer” supported imperialism, opposed labor unions, etc., they have not said anything at all about what Herbert Spencer believed; they only said something about what other Victorian-era Social Darwinists, Herbert Spencer not included, believed. After all, they didn’t say that “Victorian-era Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer” did those nasty things.

    On the other hand, “can” does not always imply “ought.”

    Seriously, though, good work, and congratulations.

  4. Carlos June 1, 2007 at 12:00 pm #

    Good job. Unfortunately, there exists a lot of prejudices out there against many writers and thinkers. Spencer seems to be one of them.

  5. Phillip Conti June 2, 2007 at 3:54 pm #

    Well an note but not a published letter seems to me to be little consolation.


  1. Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-04-02 – Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???) - April 2, 2008

    […] Roderick Long (2007-05-29: More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux […]

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