Saturday, 2 August 2008

Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought.

Herbert Spencer's legacy is apparently more complicated than is oftentimes assumed. It has seemingly not been the exclusive preserve of renowned historians such as Hofstadter, given the critical attitude adopted by many leading sociologists as well, "Hodgson (2004), for example, singles out Talcott Parsons as especially influential in purging American sociology, long informed by biology, of its biological orientation. In keeping with the tradition of using “social Darwinism” as an epithet, Parsons used “social Darwinism” to disparage any uses of biology in sociology, Darwinian or other" (see Hodgson, Geoffrey [2004] “Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term” Journal of Historical Sociology 17(4): 428-463).

So we might in turn see contemporary sociologists such as Steve Fuller writing in full knowledge of how Parsons's stance cannot really speak to the growing saliency of biological explanations for human behaviour. Simply placing a moratorium on them will not make them go away. The question thus becomes how to productively engage with the biological legacy bequeathed to social science, without becoming ensnared in the kind of contradictions that evidently threaten to make accusations of social darwinism incoherent?

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