… but Damon W. Root of Reason beat me to it, way back in July of 2008. Root, drawing on the work of the (endlessly fascinating) historian of ideas Tim Leonard, notes that the conventional understanding of “Social Darwinism” was manufactured by the hilariously tendentious historian Richard Hofstadter:
At the heart of Hofstadter’s case is the following passage from Spencer’s famous first book, Social Statics (1851): “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
That certainly sounds rough, but as it turns out, Hofstadter failed to mention the first sentence of Spencer’s next paragraph, which reads, “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” As philosophy professor Roderick Long has remarked, “The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial.” This is a far cry from Hofstadter’s summary of the text, which has Spencer advocating that the “unfit…should be eliminated.”
Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer’s famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his view, human society had evolved from a “militant” state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an “industrial” one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus Spencer the “extreme conservative” supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers.
In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it’s worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill’s famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their “deeds of blood and rapine” against “subjugated races.” To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.
The same can’t be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing “a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms.” In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as “indolent and fickle” and endorsed protectionist labor laws since “competition has no respect for the superior races.”
Commons wasn’t exactly an outlier, as Leonard explains.