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Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
by Terence Green
Nature seeks balance.
Evolving a moral sense,
The world becomes good.
Much ridiculed following his death, Herbert Spencer was for a time the leading prophet of evolution and progress of the Victorian Age. Indeed, he coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’. Before Darwin got up the courage to promote evolution, Spencer was telling anyone who would listen that evolution was the basis of everything: the physical world, the biological world, the mental world, even the spiritual world. To confirm this, he wrote volume after volume on ethics, religion, political philosophy, biology, sociology, criminology, anthropology, and psychology. All of these subjects, he said, could be understood only from an evolutionary perspective. His vast output was aided by the fact that he preferred not to read anyone else’s work. He claimed it tended to give him a headache.
Spencer taught that nature always seeks an equilibrium, and it is this which brings inevitable change. The good news is that this change is always in a positive direction, so progress is guaranteed! At a time when many felt faith and hope under siege, Spencer held out the possibility of human perfection, even if this was in a godless world. As part of this wondrous progress, human beings have evolved a moral sense, and since we all share this evolved morality, we will eventually come together.
Although Spencer did get around to reading Darwin, he preferred Lamarck’s explanation for evolutionary adaptation, which says that as organisms strive to survive, biological changes occur which are then passed on to their offspring. So, baby giraffes have long necks because mummy and daddy giraffe stretched their necks trying to get the leaves on the top of the tree. For this and other reasons (including his later hysterical denunciation of the state as the apotheosis of all evil, his racism, and his opposition to female suffrage), Spencer’s reputation did not long survive his death. Indeed, surely no other thinker has ascended to such heights of public esteem to then plummet earthward at such an astonishing rate. Frankly, it’s a wonder he didn’t become the first man to break the sound barrier while free-falling.
© Terence Green 2023
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.