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SAAP Annual Meeting 2018

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Justice Holmes, the Social Darwinist

This paper examines the extent to which the label, “Social Darwinist,” applies to the American legal scholar, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. First, it explains the origins and meanings of Social Darwinism. Next, it examines the evidence supporting five features of Social Darwinism in Holmes’s writings. Then space is given to an evaluation of the repugnant trail of eugenics in Holmes’s Buck v. Bell decision. Last, the analysis pivots to concluding reflections on Holmes’s contested legacy and on the evidence for the labeling him a Social Darwinist. I conclude that while the label, Social Darwinist, does not capture the entirety of his philosophy, it is an appropriate label.

Seth Vannatta
Morgan State University
United States


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