Dissecting the career of Herbert Spencer

herbert-spencer-1-sizedSpurious philanthropists would rather entail greater misery upon future generations than come to terms with the natural order. They are blind to the fact that, society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference that only stops the purifying process,… ( Spencer, An Autobiography, vol;2, 1904).

One may question the meaning of the above quotation and you would not be alone. For many years historians and scholars have struggled to understand how such a quotation could be the basis for the justification of racist policies and atrocities committed throughout world history. The above quote is part of the philosophical thinking called Social Darwinism. The founder of this school of thought coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1864. This phrase was incorrectly associated with the famous English naturalist and geologist Charles Robert Darwin. The true founder of this phrase was Herbert Spencer. This discrepancy has led many scholars to hypothesise that Spencer popularised Darwin’s ideas (Robert M. Young, 1990). Spencer was the most important social evolutionist in the nineteenth century and yet he was not closely analysed, until now (Allhoff Fritz, 2003., Valerie A Haines,1988 ).

The research paper on which this post is prefaced on is based on critical analysis of primary sources using Spencer’s autobiography, Australian newspaper articles and other philosophers’ responses to Spencer’s work. The emphasis of this research paper was to answer two main questions.

Firstly; did Herbert Spencer help to popularise Darwin’s ideas?

Secondly; what was the extent of Spencer’s popularity and why did he fail whereas Darwin prospered?

Extracting a pure answer was not as simple as one may think because scholars such as Paul Eliot, Valerie A Haines, and Gregory Claeys, just to name a few, have opposite opinions about the value of Spencer’s contribution. This made the consolidation and understanding of Herbert Spencer’s legacy a lot harder.

To best enable the understanding of Spencer’s legacy the research paper investigated the heated debate of who started to use the term “evolution” first? The innovation of the term “evolution” was a very complex one. The term evolution was only used to explain the transmutation of species well after the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in 1859. It was only in 1862 that Spencer revised the use and meaning of “evolution”, that is common in modern terminology, when he published “First Principles” Darwin took up Spencer’s revised meaning of evolution in 1866. Thus the term evolution became popularised as a result of being incorporated into the general evolutionary philosophy of Spencer and not because of Darwin.

The second part of the research paper discovered the main criticisms of Spencer. The fundamental criticism of Spencer’s work on Social Darwinism was when in 1862 Spencer published “First Principles” which was an explanation of the “Theory of Evolution”. Valerie A Haines claimed that Spencer’s theory was a combination of both Lamarckism and Von Bareian Epigenesis theories that were published in earlier years. This discussion was fundamental for, if proven correct, Spencer’s legacy would become unravelled and he himself would fade away.

Furthermore in 1874, Sidgwick presented a lecture in Cambridge which best consolidated the main criticisms against Spencer.  The main criticisms were as following:

1)      Spencer’s theory only provided for the moral principles of a utopian society and was therefore of very little use in reality.

2)      Spencer could not justify the connection between the ends of evolution and the ends of morality.

3)      The final objection was along the lines of, “what was the primary purpose for an individual to seek greatest happiness in the context of human morality?”.

Hannah Gay (1998) and Leonard Beeghley (1983) suggested that, over the years Spencer was acknowledged as a prolific British writer. Spencer wrote about English philosophy, biology, anthropology, sociology, and politics and yet his contributions are quickly fading away. None the less, in 1896 hundreds of followers came together to celebrate the last publication of Spencer’s life work, “Synthetic Philosophy” and to fund a portrait that would be hung in the National Portrait Gallery. Spencer was being congratulated by politicians such as Arthur Balfour and John Morley and had honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by Cambridge and Edinburgh universities.

The fundamental argument expressed throughout this research was that Herbert Spencer was a genius who established the fundamentals from which the study of human evolution commenced. Even though his studies were used to justify the death of thousands of human lives due to their race his philosophy was genuinely striving for progress of the then society. Herbert Spencer is greatly overshadowed by Darwin and it is hard to establish which one of them was more influential on the other.

Further Readings:

Allhoff, Fritz. “Evolutionary Ethics from Darwin to Moore.” Life Science 25 (2003): pp. 83-111.

Beeghley, Leonard. “Spencer’s Theory of Kinship Evolution and the Status of Women: Some Neglected ” Sociological Perspectives 26, no. 3 (1983): pp. 299-322.

Claeys, Gregory. “The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 2 (2000): pp. 223-40.

Elliot, Paul. “Eramus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and the Origins of the Evolutionary Worldview in British Provincial Scientific Culture, 1770-1850.” Isis 94, no. 1 (2003): pp. 1-29.

Gay, Hannah. “No Heathen’s Corner’ Here: The Failed Campaign to Memorialize Herbert Spencer in Westminister Abbey.” The British Journal for the History of Science 31, no. 1 (1998): pp. 41-54.

Sidgwick, H. Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, Mr Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau. London: MacMillan, 1902.

Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904.


One comment on “Dissecting the career of Herbert Spencer

  1. elstearne says:

    Thanks for such an interesting and completely unexpected read! Studying science, I’ve looked at evolution and social Darwinism endlessly, but have never actually come across Herbert Spencer! It’s fascinating that he’s been so overshadowed by Darwin when his ideas were obviously so influential in popularising and shaping social Darwinism. Do you know if Spencer and Darwin were in correspondence, and if they collaborated together? It seems like their work overlapped a lot in theoretical terms, and i’m guessing they must have significantly influenced each other? Anyway, thanks for writing about such an innovative and different topic, I really enjoyed learning something new 🙂

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