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Forgotten Philosophers: Herbert Spencer

Tim Delaney on the survival of ‘survival of the fittest’.

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, England, on April 27, 1820. He received no formal education but was taught at home by his schoolmaster father and his clergyman uncle. His lessons were heavily scientific and he was strong in mathematics and the natural sciences. His uncle Thomas taught him the principles of Philosophical Radicalism as well as the rigid code of dissenting Protestantism. When Thomas Spencer died in 1853, he left Herbert a large sum of money; enough to allow him the comfort to live the life of an independent scholar. During the 1840s, the young Spencer had begun to publish scientific and political articles in the radical press. A series of dissenting papers, including ‘The Proper Sphere of Government,’ appeared in The Nonconformist. He was demonstrating signs of his developing laissez-faire beliefs. His radical ideas were best put forth in his first, and perhaps most brilliant, book Social Statics in 1851. Spencer is best known for coining the term ‘survival of the fittest’ and for his works on cultural evolution.

Spencer argued that societies, like living organisms, evolve from simple states into highly complex forms. He combined Darwin’s theory of natural selection with his own concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ to study how social systems evolve and/or dissolve. He argued that stronger societies survive and grow, while weaker ones disappear. Moreover, stronger societies deserve to survive because they are better able to carry forward the upward progress of humanity. This view had great appeal in Britain and the United States during the mid-1800s because it made the wealth and power of those countries look like evidence of virtue. More importantly, it helped to justify colonialism, since it implied that developed societies had a duty to control lesser ones and improve their level of civilization. Spencer went so far as to suggest that war could be beneficial because it allowed a more organized and ‘advanced’ society to help organize ‘inferior’ societies.

Spencer believed that the evolution of societies not only followed a pattern but also necessarily produced the best possible outcome. Thus any tampering with this natural evolutionary process on the part of the government could only have negative consequences for society.

Therefore, Spencer was against governmental welfare programs, and the like, because they would allow the physically and mentally unfit to reproduce and populate the next generation. This would in turn cause a gradual degeneration of society. Today, in ‘civilized’ societies, most people would have a hard time accepting this philosophy. There are however, some who see individuals’ dependency on the state as a weakness that must be discouraged. The ethical and political battles over this issue continue.

Equating evolution with progress allowed ‘advanced’ societies to view themselves as morally superior. Spencer wrote in Social Statics that, “Progress is not an accident but a necessity. Surely must evil and immorality disappear; surely must man become perfect.” (p.32). Spencer believed that more evolved forms of behavior were superior to earlier forms not only in affording a better adjustment of man to his environment, but also in being more pleasurable for the individual and less detrimental for the community at large. This smug attitude reflected the Victorian age and contributed to Spencer’s appeal.

Industrialization led to the disappearance of many relatively simple crafts and the emergence of a much more complex division of labor, along with the accompanying ‘alienation’ that industrial forms of production bring. Spencer’s explanation of change in terms of progressive differentiation of functions may have proved attractive to those who were not satisfied with the usual utilitarian schemes. Evolutionary necessity made intellectually palatable what might have appeared ethically unsettling. His theory helped to reduce the sense of dislocation of those who previous lifestyles were radically changed.

Spencer had no problem equating social evolution with progress. He lived at a time when technological innovations were transforming society, and for those who could adapt to the changing environment, this meant greater material comfort, longer lives and wider opportunities. Progress has been made in many spheres of life since the time of Spencer, but we still see irrational reactions among those who fear change and/or technological advancements (e.g., the ethical ramifications that surround cloning and genetic engineering).

Throughout most of Spencer’s life he enjoyed critical acclaim for his works and theories. But when the intellectual tide turned in the late 19th century, Spencer’s fortunes in England turned with them. Although still a highly respected man of science, he lost much of his audience. But as Englishmen turned away from him, a new American public eagerly embraced his ideology. Additionally, admirers of his philosophy were to be found throughout western Europe.

In the early years of American sociology, Spencer’s ideas were much more influential than those of Comte, Durkheim, Marx and Weber. There are several explanations for this. First, Spencer wrote in English, while the others did not. Additionally, Spencer did not write very technically, thereby making his work broadly accessible. Indeed, some argue that this lack of technicality is a result of Spencer’s lack of a formal education. Spencer offered a scientific orientation that was attractive to an audience becoming consumed by science. He offered a comprehensive theory that seemed to deal with the entire sweep of human history. The large volume of work produced by Spencer offered many things to many people. Finally, and perhaps most important, his theory was soothing and reassuring to a society undergoing the wrenching process of industrialization. Society was, according to Spencer, steadily progressing onwards and upwards. Spencer’s most famous American disciple was William Sumner, who accepted and expanded many of Spencer’s evolutionary ideas. Sumner argued that a failure to accept the ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy left just one alternative: accepting a ‘survival of the unfittest’ doctrine.

By the time of his death in 1903, Spencer’s place as a philosophical and sociological giant seemed secure. He had book sales in America alone from the 1860s to 1903 totaling 368,755 volumes, an unparalleled figure for such difficult spheres as philosophy and sociology. However, his stock then dropped rapidly; by the 1930s, Spencer’s legacy was halfforgotten and his works largely ignored. His laissez-faire philosophy seemed out of place in the light of massive social problems, a world war and a major economic depression.

Still, despite the efforts of postmodernist thinkers to discredit the very idea of ‘progress’, many of Spencer’s ideas remain relevant today. In the past couple of decades there has been a renewed interest in Spencer, sparked by (among others) Jonathan Turner, one of the great figures of contemporary American sociology. Turner wrote in 1981, “We could venture that [Spencer’s principles] have been used in empirical research far more often than principles developed by Marx, Weber and Durkheim. We can further speculate that had sociological theorists and researchers begun the 20th century with Spencer’s models and principles in hand, it is likely that sociology would be a more mature science.” (p.95). Turner goes on to say that he hopes to re-kindle interest in this forgotten giant. (See Birx and Delaney, 2002; and Delaney, 2002, for a more detailed description of Spencer’s resurgence). There is strong evidence supporting Spencer’s evolutionary ideas in contemporary and future society, especially his ‘survival of the fittest’ concept. One must first recognize the difficulty in predicting social change with any degree of accuracy. The one thing that seems certain is that the process of globalization will continue for some time. The increasing societal complexity anticipated by Spencer in the midnineteenth century is today being realized at the global level. As long as we’re clear about what we mean by progress, different societies are progressing at different rates, while the process of globalization itself initiates an increasing level of integration of the world into a single economic unit. And while international borders still exist and remain partial barriers to the free flow of goods, they are less likely to hinder the global exchange of information via the Internet. This puts not only individuals but also different systems and whole societies in direct competition for resources, markets and influence.

Let’s take a practical example of survival of the fittest. The rapid development of computers and especially the advent of the Internet make it a necessity to master computer skills. The employment sector demands these skills. Private entrepreneurs recognize that it is imperative to be computer savvy. This implies that one must have, at least basic level, skills in technology. Those who fail to adapt to this changing environment run the greatest risk of economic failure. Individuals who can’t or won’t adapt will end up unemployed. Companies which can’t or won’t adapt will end up broke, and will disappear. They will be selected against, and deemed ‘unfit’ for the environment. And so this pressure to adapt or die does indeed drive forward the progress (in this particular sense of the word) of society. In economic terms, it is a good thing.

There are countless other examples of the need to adapt to the changing environment. This principle applies to nearly all social encounters; as norms and values change, so too must people’s behavior. In the professional world these changes are often even more dramatic: Medical doctors must be aware of the latest advancements and techniques; lawyers must keep informed with new court rulings; law enforcement officers must enforce new laws; and so on. Students must maintain high grades for they are in competition with thousands of others applying for the same graduate schools and/or career opportunities. Athletes and fans of sport have long realized the survival of fittest principle. Only the ‘fittest’ remain on the team, because there is always someone else ready to take your place. On the playing field, for every winner there is at least one loser.

Simply surviving should not be one’s goal; one must learn to succeed. In society, only those who adapt to changes in the system will succeed.

© Dr Tim Delaney 2003

Tim Delaney is a sociologist at Canisius College in upstate New York, and recently launched a new society: the Social Theory Society.

Finding Out More

H. James Birx & Tim Delaney, Values, Society & Evolution (Legend, 2002).

Lewis Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought (Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1977).

Bruce Curtis, William Graham Sumner (Twayne, 1981).

Tim Delaney, Classical Social Theory: Investigation and Application (Prentice Hall, 2003).

Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (Chapman, 1851).

Herbert Spencer, Synthetic Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (Appleton, 1896).

Jonathan Turner, ‘The Forgotten Theoretical Giant: Herbert Spencer’s Models and Principles.’ Revue Europeenne des Sciences Socials 1981, 19 (59).

Jonathan Turner, Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation (Sage, 1985).

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