Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

On April 27, 1820, English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era Herbert Spencer was born. Spencer is best known for the expression “survival of the fittest”, which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism. Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia.

Herbert Spencer was educated partly by his father and partly by members of the Derby Philosophical Society who introduced him to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution. Reverend Thomas Spencer, Herbert Spencer’s uncle, then completed Spencer’s limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts.

Spencer was known to work quite interdisciplinary, being occupied as a civil engineer during the 1830s as well as writing for provincial journals. About a decade later, Spencer served as sub-editor on the free-trade journal The Economist, during which time he published his first book, Social Statics (1851), which predicted that humanity would eventually become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society with the consequential withering away of the state. Spencer met influential characters including John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes and Mary Ann Evans. His friendship with Evans and Lewes resulted in his second book, Principles of Psychology. It was founded on the assumption that the human mind was subject to natural laws and that these could be discovered within the framework of general biology.

In 1858, Herbert Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. He intended to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology and morality.

Many people know Herbert Spencer best for his theory on Social Darwinism. It applies the law of survival of the fittest to society. This means that humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. In biology, the competition of various organisms can result in the death of a species or organism. Spencer advocated this kind of competition to be closer to the one used by economists, where competing individuals or firms improve the well being of the rest of society.

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