Tim Delaney relates how Herbert Spencer, inventor of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, originally applied evolutionary thinking to human society and culture.
I cringe whenever I hear the term ‘social Darwinism’, and I ask myself (and my students) “Why do we use the term ‘social Darwinism’ when the works of Herbert Spencer already describe human adaptation to the social environment?”
‘Social Darwinism’ implies the application of Darwinist ideas to the study of human society. Darwin’s theory of evolution developed in earnest from his empirical observations of the natural world, especially those made during an extensive voyage of exploration aboard the HMS Beagle in the early 1830s, famously in South America and the Galapagos Islands. He noticed that various closely-related species of birds, tortoises and other animals differed from one another in ways that seemed to particularily ‘fit’ their specific environment. Darwin concluded that they had been evolving over many millions of years. The essence of Darwin’s theory of how this evolution works is that mutations (random inheritable physical changes) occasionally occur. Some of these mutations improve individuals’ ability to survive their environment, so they have a better chance of living long enough to reproduce, when the randomly-improved traits are ‘selected’ for. These new traits are then passed on to the next generation, and the improved trait would gradually spread through the population because advantageous.
Darwin began to publish his research results in a wide variety of publications beginning in the late 1830s. His idea of natural selection would not be specifically articulated until 1858 with his paper entitled, ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’. Few people at that time paid any attention to this paper, with some critics claiming that there was nothing new of value. Darwin would eventually publish his natural selection concept a year later in book form in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Meanwhile, in another part of England, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was gaining notoriety for his own evolutionary theories. Spencer observed that, just like many animal species, humans were distributed widely across the planet and faced an array of climates and environments. He wondered why humans did not evolve into widely varied, separate species as other animals had, such as tortoises and lizards. Spencer reasoned that humans adapt to changes in the physical environment through cultural adaptation rather than biological adaptation. He described successful cultural adaptations in terms of his concept of survival of the fittest. In this application, the doctrine of the survival of the fittest states that those who are most successful at adapting to the changing cultural environment are the ones most likely to enjoy success in society (ie, status, resources, etc). These successful individuals pass on their culturally-adaptive advantages to their offspring. Further, the offspring enjoy the luxury of a more advantageous position in society, and so are in the best position to further evolve, socioeconomically speaking. After many generations, certain people begin to enjoy luxuries that some of their contemporaries can only envy. Spencer argued that as with biological evolution, cultural evolution was an ongoing force that could not be stopped.
In Social Statics (1851), Spencer claimed that the evolution of any human society is ultimately a matter of the survival of the fittest. Accordingly, evolutionary processes filter out the unfit, the eventual outcome being a more advanced society. Spencer reiterates that successful adaptation to cultural change is the key if individuals, or even societies, are to survive in the cultural environment. Thus Spencer believed that those societies who met the challenge of necessary cultural change were the fittest and (thereby) the most likely to survive. For example, Spencer acknowledged that caring for children and loyalty to a spouse are rooted in human nature. However, society also allows for change when necessary, perhaps taking the form of polygamy when a society’s population becomes too small, for instance. In this regard, Spencer was embracing a kind of moral relativism: norms are adaptable, and morality must be considered from the standpoint of the culture in question. This need for moral adaptability is especially true if the continuation of a society is contingent upon change. Spencer, then, acknowledged biological human nature, but held that it’s expression is not fixed permanently, and that humans are subject to social evolutionary change. Spencer articulated his moral relativism and the reasons for variations in social customs in his The Principles of Ethics (finished 1897).
In his Principles of Sociology (1898), Spencer described the importance of a society’s need to adapt to its environment via economic activity. Spencer believed that industrial societies continuously experiment with ways of performing economic tasks. Some ways will be successful and others unsuccessful. However, the very process of experimenting with new ways to function economically stimulates the development of new technologies. And the development of advanced technologies make a society fitter to survive the global economic environment. The development of computer technologies, laser technologies and medical science provide examples of present-day cultural evolution (ie, social Spencerism) in these terms. In Western societies children are schooled in the use of computers. Culturally and economically speaking, this gives them and the society to which they belong a huge advantage over those societies which have failed to incorporate such technology.
Spencer argued that developments in military technology also helped to make a society fitter. In The Evolution of Society (1876) he states:
“In the struggle for existence among societies, the survival of the fittest is the survival of those in which the power of the military cooperation is the greatest, and military cooperation is that primary kind of cooperation which prepares the way for other kinds. So that this formation of larger societies by the union of smaller ones in war, and this destruction or absorption of the smaller ununited societies by the united larger ones is an inevitable process through which the varieties of men adapted for social life supplant the less adapted varieties.” (p.78)
Spencer’s discussion of militarised industrial societies offers insights into his evolutionary theories. Certainly war represents one of the most extreme forms of the survival of the fittest.
Spencer vs Darwin?
Darwin’s primary subject of study was the natural world of plants and animals, while Spencer’s primary concern was human society. This realization leads us back to question posed at the start of this article – Why do we use the expression ‘social Darwinism’ when we should say, ‘social Spencerism’? Social Darwinism may involve the application of Darwin’s biological ideas (ie, natural selection) to the social world – but Herbert Spencer had already done that with his work on survival of the fittest through cultural evolution.
The ‘social Darwinism’ tag has been applied to numerous ideas discussed in Spencer’s sociology. For example, it has been applied to inter-group conflict and competition, especially the role of power and wealth; colonialism and imperialism; laissez faire economic principles; militarism; and eugenics programs. Spencer addressed all these areas from the cultural evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest perspective.
Darwin’s brilliant natural studies have influenced many scholars past and present, and are deserving of accolades. However, the notion being put forth here is that Spencer also provided great insights, of a cultural nature. In short, the concepts of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ are certainly related, but there’s also survival of the fittest in cultural terms or contexts. It is time to recognize the contributions of Spencer by using the expression ‘social Spencerism’ whenever adaptation thinking is applied specifically to human society.
© Tim Delaney 2009
Tim Delaney is a sociologist at the State University of New York in Oswego and the author of numerous books, including Classical Social Theory: Investigation and Application (Prentice Hall/Pearson, 2004), Contemporary Social Theory: Investigation and Application (Prentice Hall/Pearson, 2005), and Shameful Behaviors (University Press of America, 2008). Visit his website at www.BooksByTimDelaney.com.
• For a further look at Spencer see Tim Delaney’s ‘Forgotten Philosophers: Herbert Spencer’ in Philosophy Now Issue 40.