George H. Smith interrupts his series on education with a timely discussion of social Darwinism.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

On April 3, President Obama called Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” In a Huffington Post article, Obama Sparks Debate On His Meaning Of ‘Social Darwinism’, a quizzical Jennifer C. Kerr asked: “But what exactly does the president mean? And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?”

The key word in Kerr’s first question is “exactly.” This question can easily be answered: Obama didn’t mean anything exactly. The expression “social Darwinism,” when applied to free‐​market economics and a limited government, has no precise meaning, and it never did. Nor has the term ever been embraced by libertarian advocates of laissez‐​faire. Rather, “social Darwinism,” a term that first appeared during the 1880s, was concocted by the enemies of free‐​market capitalism to smear their adversaries. And this is how President Obama used the term, exactly.

Kerr’s second question – “And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?” – is a curious one, especially since she cites the questionable opinion of a “language expert” to the effect that “social Darwinism” is “a risky term to use for political ammunition.”

Here we may chalk one up to President Obama and demagogues everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not people understand what Obama meant by “social Darwinism.” All that matters is that “social Darwinism” evokes ugly connotations of the “law of the jungle” — a society without compassion in which the helpless poor are sacrificed to the avaricious rich.

In a speech given in January of this year, President Obama declared: “We are not a country that was built on the idea of survival of the fittest.” Here at least we have an expression that was actually used by free‐​market advocates – most notably the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who coined the term; and his American counterpart, William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), the first professor of sociology at Yale.

It is clear that “social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” were intended by Obama to evoke feelings of fear and disgust. It is highly doubtful that Obama knows anything about the history of these ideas, and it is even more doubtful that he cares. A concern for truth is not the coin of the political realm. But these expressions have long been of interest to me, mainly because the great libertarian Herbert Spencer is frequently said to have originated social Darwinism.

Spencer – again, he never used the term “social Darwinism” — repeatedly protested that his views had been grievously distorted, but to no avail. The myths surrounding his theory of survival of the fittest became standard fare in generations of textbooks, and these myths received a shot of adrenaline in the 1977 BBC production of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty. This thirteen‐​part television series, which was the basis for Galbraith’s best‐​selling book of the same title, purports to be a history of economic thought from Adam Smith to modern times, one that focuses on ideas about capitalism. But the series is little more than leftist propaganda, chock‐​full of distortions and falsehoods. Galbraith stated explicitly what Obama left to the imagination of the American booboisie (to use H.L. Mencken’s memorable word).

I first watched The Age of Uncertainty in 1977, when it was aired by a PBS station in Los Angeles. I found the series annoying throughout, but what especially incurred my wrath was Galbraith’s treatment of Herbert Spencer – a segment, around five minutes long, that barely contains a shred of truth. (The segment can be seen here, beginning at 3.50.)

I felt like throwing my plaster bust of Adam Smith at the television screen, but I decided on a less destructive course of action. I wrote an article, “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?” that was published in Libertarian Review (December 1978). After calling Galbraith’s presentation “crude and grossly inaccurate,” I continued: “The traditional interpretation of Spencer on this point is so fundamentally wrong – in fact, Spencer explicitly repudiated it on many occasions – that one must wonder whether any of Spencer’s critics bother to read him.”

A few days ago, after reading Obama’s comment about social Darwinism and deciding to interrupt my Cato series on education with this essay (and one more to follow), I watched Galbraith’s segment on Spencer again. It is even more deplorable than I remembered. Ham‐​fisted from start to finish, it could be mistaken for a Monty Python parody.

Immediately after Herbert Spencer is mentioned, we see a caged tiger devouring a chunk of meat. Then, as a Spencer voice‐​over talks about survival of the species in a biological context, the camera pans up to a sign that reads: “THESE ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS.”

Seconds later Galbraith enters stage left and surveys three dummies of Victorian capitalists. These figures, with money strewn about their feet – we all know that capitalists would rather throw money on the ground than give it to the poor – are labeled “CAPITALOPITHECUS ROBUSTUS.” Galbraith shuffles his feet and then drones on about the “higher primates” that survived through natural selection: “They are the strongest of the species, those best‐​adapted to their environment, and so they survived.”

Spencer is soon quoted again, but this time we are treated to more than a voice. We see an actor in pale‐​blue makeup who appears to have climbed out of a grave. After this zombie reads a passage from Spencer about how humans adapt to their “conditions of existence,” the camera moves back to Galbraith. With a stuffed tiger to his right – a prop to drive the message home, just in case the ravenous tiger shown earlier left any doubt – Galbraith lets us know he is a serious thinker by putting on his glasses in a professorial manner. He then proceeds to misrepresent Spencer’s ideas with reckless abandon.

Galbraith tells us that Spencer applied his doctrine of “survival of the fittest” not only to survival in the animal kingdom but also “to survival in the equally cutthroat world, as Spencer saw it, of economic life.” Spencer “eliminated all guilt” that the wealthy might experience by assuring them that “wealth was the natural result of strength, intelligence, capacity to adapt. The wealthy were innocent beneficiaries of their own superiority.” The poor, according to Galbraith’s fictional Spencer, were “biologically inferior” and “were being selected out.”

Cheesy theatrics aside, virtually the only reliable statements that Galbraith makes about Spencer are the years of his birth and death, and the fact that it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Our first impressions will often determine whether we will study a given thinker or theory in greater detail. We must be selective, after all; we cannot possibly read what every prominent writer has written about every significant issue. This is where secondary “textbook” accounts play a significant role in shaping public opinion. If a college student, in her first textbook encounter with Spencer or Sumner, is told that they favored a ruthless social Darwinism, she is unlikely to be enthusiastic about reading these villains for herself. And should that student ever become a teacher, she will teach her students the same errors that were taught to her.

Social Darwinism, as that label has been applied to libertarian theory, is sheer fabrication. For one thing, Spencer’s approach to evolution (which he developed independently of Darwin) was essentially Lamarckian. Spencer, unlike Darwin, believed that some acquired characteristics are genetically transmitted from one generation to the next, and he placed relatively little emphasis on the process of natural selection. This Lamarckian approach, despite its failures as a biological theory, is a better model of social development than is its Darwinian counterpart. Humans do indeed build upon the acquired skills and accomplishments of preceding generations — as we see in language, the transmission of knowledge, technology, capital investment, social institutions, and the like.

Both Spencer and Sumner used the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and both men lived to regret it, because it made them easy targets for their critics. Spencer complained that his views were frequently distorted beyond recognition, and in some cases deliberately so. “I have had much experience in controversy,” he wrote in later life, “and my impression is that in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me.” Sumner became so frustrated by the same problem that he stopped using the phrase “survival of the fittest” altogether; it never appears in his later writings and speeches.

It is largely owing to the “survival of the fittest” doctrine that Spencer and Sumner have been condemned as social Darwinists. Social Darwinists, we are told, were infused with a stern and implacable contempt for the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged — those allegedly unfit persons who, by a law of nature, should give way in the struggle for existence to those who are more fit. It is a safe bet that if you consult a standard text on the history of ideas, you will find this view (or a close approximation) attributed to Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.

The ideological purpose of this caricature is evident. The textbook assaults on Spencer and Sumner are intended to characterize the attitude of laissez-faire advocates in general. We have advanced, it is said, from the heartless dog‐​eat‐​dog attitude of social Darwinism and laissez‐​faire economics to the compassionate welfare policies of modern governments. We are told that the modern liberal (in contrast to the classical liberal, or libertarian) cares about people more than profits, that he values human rights over property rights — and so on, until we drown in a sea of tiresome clichés.

So what did Spencer and Sumner mean by “survival of the fittest”? Before I address this question, we need to be clear about what they did not mean.

Spencer repeatedly emphasized that in using the terms “fit” and “fittest” in a social context, he was not expressing a value judgment; nor was he referring to a particular characteristic, such as strength, wealth, or intelligence; nor was he expressing any kind of approval or disapproval; nor was he referring to the biological competition to survive. This doctrine, wrote Spencer, “is expressible in purely physical terms, which neither imply competition nor imply better and worse.” Most importantly, “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.”

The law [of survival of the fittest] is not the survival of the ‘better’ or the ‘stronger.’… It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.

In a social context, the “fittest” are those persons who are able to adapt to the survival requirements of their society. If, for example, a government decrees that all redheads shall be executed on the spot, then it follows that the persons best fitted for survival in such a society would be non‐​redheads, or those natural redheads who adapt by changing their hair color or shaving their heads.

We can apply this survival of the fittest principle without condoning the penalty against redheads, and without regarding non‐​redheads as superior people. It is a simple, inescapable fact: If a government kills redheads, then (other things being equal) you will have a better chance to survive – that is, you will be more “fit” under the specified conditions – if you do not have red hair.

This interpretation, which treats “survival of the fittest” as a value‐​free description of what in fact does occur, rather than as a prescription or an approval of what ought to occur, was also put forward by Sumner, who tried – in vain, as it turned out – to correct the distorted interpretations of his critics.

At the meeting of the Liberal Union Club at which I read a paper, it seemed to me that there was some misapprehension in regard to the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Such misapprehension is very common in spite of many efforts of the leading evolutionists to correct it. It is supposed that the doctrine is that the best survive. This is an error, and it forms the basis for all disputes about evolution and ethics. For the word “best” implies moral standards, a moral standpoint, etc.; and if the doctrine were affirmed in that form, it would not be scientific at all, but would be theological, for it would involve the notion that man is the end of creation and that his notions of things are the standard to which things must conform. The doctrine is that those survive who are fittest to survive.

The idea expressed here was central to the sociological theories of Spencer and Sumner. Both believed that human beings respond to incentives and that they adapt to social conditions through the formation of their characters and habits. Both believed that character traits play a more important role in social interaction than do abstract beliefs and theories. Which character traits tend to develop in a given society depend a great deal on the social and political sanctions found in that society, i.e.., on what kinds of behavior are encouraged or discouraged, rewarded or punished.

Suppose a society rewards indolence and penalizes industry. In this case, according to Spencer, indolent people will tend to fare better than industrious people. The indolent, having adapted to the conditions of their society, will be more “fit” than the industrious who fail to adapt. This is the meaning of Spencer’s oft‐​quoted remark, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”