A synoptic and critical study of “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.
To read “Blogging American Unreason” in order, see my series page.
Chapter 3: “Social pseudoscience in the morning of America’s culture wars”
For chapter three, Jacoby plunges us into the period of the “Gilded Age”, A.K.A the end of the 19th century. America has managed to get past its only Civil War and the following period of reconstruction. In all, the country is flourishing, education is improving, and giants of industry, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, are everywhere.
Social Darwinism: Disguising erroneous social agendas in scientific clothing
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (integral text of the first edition) was published in 1859, just before the American Civil War and the following period of reconstruction, which would lead to the second industrial revolution and the Gilded Age.
Of course, Darwin’s work was not to the tastes of fundamentalist religious leaders. But despite the religious protests, the book was a hit, being read and discussed extensively by the erudite of the day. Even the general population, now benefiting from a minimum of organized learning, knew of the book at least, Jacoby explains, because of a very prominent lecture circuit that had grown out of the American Lyceum movement.
However, certain very influential people would turn Darwinian Theory toward subjects that it was never meant to address: the justification of social success or failure and the place of “race” in society. This rerouting of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection to social issues of the time is called “social Darwinism” (Jacoby is careful to point out that this term was not in common usage in the United States at the time), and lives on today in the dark corners of the American (and world) psyche. Social Darwinism would be, as Jacoby states, “the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience, or what would today be called junk science, in American history.”
Social Darwinism’s foothold in late 19th century American culture was in large part attributable to two men. The first was the British-born philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase, “the survival of the fittest” and promoted laissez faire economics as a method for insuring “social selection”, an idea he had published in fact a year before Darwin’s On the Origin of species. The second was his “acolyte” if you will (the quotes are mine), William Graham Sumner, a Yale University political scientist. Although both are largely forgotten today, Sumner in particular was a talented vulgarizer and his writings found a large audience because they were published in mass media magazines such as Collier’s. Both of them produced publications sounded sufficiently “scientific” to be accepted and forwarded by some of the most intelligent people of the day, notably the so-called “robber barons” for whom Spencer and Sumner’s arguments justified social success at the expense of others. Social Darwinism, in particular when combined with Eugenics, was also handy for the continuing oppression of blacks in the south and for any other case where it was handy to justify injustice in a rapidly growing America, marked by waves of immigration from Europe.
The purveyors of social Darwinism were falsely convinced of the scientific legitimacy of their “theory”, which for me is a perfect illustration of the expression “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Nevertheless, Jacoby illustrates how they were sufficiently intelligent to be able to manipulate the thoughts of others, notably by implying that a refusal of social Darwinism was equivalent to not believing in Darwin’s theory of evolution itself, and by extension, science itself. The small but prestigious group of people who correctly understood Darwin’s theory, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, were thus more or less kept at bay. James however, a trained physician and naturalist, did provide efficient and scathing criticism to Spencerian social Darwinism, as Jacoby points out.
Religion and social Darwinism: Strange bed partners
Fundamentalist religion had certainly not disappeared from the American landscape in the late 19th century, and for fundamentalists, Darwin’s theory of evolution was quite simply heresy (and this has never stopped being so). At this time in history, the Catholic Church too was with the fundamentalist in the refusal of the theory of evolution.
But for moderate religious denominations in this science-friendly period of American history, particularly in the North, Darwin’s writings were more so something to integrate into religion than an enemy that needed to be defeated. However the nature of religious belief, the social issues of the day and the still relatively low (albeit improving) educational status of Americans at this time created a situation where social Darwinism managed, strangely, to work its way into the moderate religious fabric, whereas true Darwinian theory was limited to the role of a blurry background for its pseudoscience bastard son.
As Jacoby points out, the vast majority of social Darwinist in the late 19th century were or had been upper-class white Anglo-Saxon protestants, who in theory and word were rationalists, but in practice were still under the influence of—and had influence on—the church, thus a desire to meld—Jakoby is very fond of the word “conflate”—religion and social Darwinism. If Spencer was as well-received as he was, it was because he allowed for the “unknowable”, i.e. God, in his discourse, Jacoby explains. She discusses furthermore the failed attempt to elevate the then Central University in Nashville, a Methodist training school for ministers, to greater heights with the hiring of the evolutionist—but especially social Darwinist—Alexander Winchell as President to secure a million dollar donation from Cornelius Vanderbilt. As Jacoby explains, this should have worked as Winchell believed that Darwinian Theory proved the evolutionary inferiority of blacks. His take, Jacoby explains, was that blacks were descendants of an evolutionary step that preceded Adam, “who, as everyone knew, was white,” ironizes Jacoby. Although he was using evolution to support the idea of white supremacy, he was ultimately chased from the university, because the Southern fundamentalists could not accept the idea that any human life, no matter how “inferior”, could have preceded the Garden of Eden. Nevertheless, as the author emphasizes, Winchell would go on to a flourishing career in the North, where his socio-religious Darwinist and eugenicist theories were met with respect. Certain went even further suggesting that the Bible itself, like the theory of evolution, justifies the flagrant economic inequalities of the Gilded Age. Jacoby illustrates this with Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the influential Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, who promulgated that the poor were poor because God meant for it to be so and that Darwin’s findings were proof that God meant for man to compete for survival in society.
Of course, Jacoby does illustrate that not everyone was taken in by the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is social Darwinism. We’ve already mentioned that William James was an active critic of Spencer and his bedfellows. She also discusses Thorstein Veblen. Veblen was a student of Sumner but did not fall into the Social Darwinism trap as is illustrated by his far-reaching book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (e-book), published in 1899 that would install the expression “conspicuous consumption” in the English language. This book, as Jacoby puts it is, “a devastating critique of the notion that vast disparities in wealth and income are the result of forces similar to those in nature”. However, as Jacoby ironizes, “unlike Sumner, Veblen was not invited to write for Collier’s”.
Final Wandering electrons
You may have noticed that this installation of “Blogging American Unreason” is shorter than its predecessors. Indeed, going forward, I will try to be more succinct. My emploi du temps will not be allowing me to go as in-depth as I planned at the start of this project and in any case, I think a little bit more summarizing is a good thing for a blog.
But anyway, let’s get back to our Wandering electrons.
The immediate thing that jumps to the mind while reading this chapter is how similar the situation with social Darwinism is to the modern “debate” over the so-called theory of intelligent design, something that Jacoby also underlines. They are exactly the same thing: Take a far-fetched, non-rational and un-testable social or political agenda, decorate it up like a Christmas tree with scientific sounding smoke-and-mirrors jargon, get a few predisposed key opinion leaders who “seem intelligent” onboard and hey, you’ve got a following! Of idiots. But who cares? The idea is that numbers make truth. Reason and intelligence will be drowned out by the collective grunting of the self-gratified: “I don’t want to hear truth; I want to hear what I want to hear.”
I’m exaggerating a bit when I say that these two “theories” are exactly the same. Social Darwinism was (and continues) using Darwin’s theory of evolution as a springboard for a pseudoscience that justifies an economically based social inequality. Intelligent design however is a pseudoscience designed to counter Darwin’s theory of evolution itself. What they do share is the use of fake science to push forward a particular agenda on a public that is not capable of differentiating sound scientific reasoning from handy and opportune gibberish.
And then the other thing that needs to be retained is the idea of getting enough people onboard. Humans are social creatures and what others around us are thinking tends to be taken as truth no matter how far-fetched or pernicious it may be. The most horrible illustration of this is surely what happened in Nazi Germany.
What thus seems essential is to make this valuable tool of social and collective intelligence, a tool that plays a major role in the very definition of humankind, as resistant as possible to manipulation from those who seek to justify or cause the suffering of others. How? By providing every individual with the educational base necessary for rational, coherent and intellectually sound thought.
In one of the blog posts leading up to Blogging American Unreason, I presented the quote that Jacoby uses to open her book. It seems particularly pertinent to include it here as well:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1816