Herbert Spencer’s Evolution

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) provided an alternative to “pure” Darwinian theory, while at the same time supporting Darwin’s work; Spencer was a major proponent of Lamarckism, delivering evolution to the Victorian public in a highly palatable form.  Lamarckian evolution meant inheritance of acquired characteristics, a  process of change originating internally within the organism (the organism “improving” itself to better fit an environment).  The notion of such internally generated improvement did seem to become the “perfect metaphor for the self-made rentier class” and there is evidence that Darwin conceded to Lamarckian theory himself (Wilson, 2003:224-225),  Spencer gained a large following in Victorian England and beyond, becoming “the great populariser of such ideas [like the beauty of technological change, competition, and survival of the fittest] through his popular journalism and prolific output of books” (Young, 1990:150-151),  The popularization of these ideas has often been attributed to Darwin.   A closer look does reveal that Spencer’s “best sellers”, First Principles (1862) and Principles of Biology (1866), which drew from Darwinian theory, contained such explanations/understandings of the “struggle for existence”.

The foundations of Spencerian thought were actually laid down prior to the 1859 publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species; Social Statics (1851) explained a unity of society and nature, and a progressively evolving civilization of human beings (despite what industrialization appeared to be—chaotic and without civility).  Spencer fully developed an organismic philosophy in First Principles which involved two general processes:  simple evolution and compound evolution.  Simple evolution was characterized in terms of evolution and dissolution (the balance of forces), so that “evolution was the integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, while dissolution was the absorption of motion and disintegration of matter” (Kingsland, 1985:14).  Spencer described a “system” defined by basic laws.  Compound evolution explained the system as one that moved (evolved) from a homogeneous to a heterogeneous state of greater complexity; this state of heterogeneity was the “goal” of evolution, the purpose which implied progress (Ibid).

Applied to the social scene of the 19th century, this conception of evolution, stressing the regularity of the system (through general laws that cut across all boundaries) and purposive, progressive evolution, could justify the struggles occurring within an industrializing, expansionist Victorian world:  “the greater the inequalities in a society, and the greater the individual difference among men, the more ‘advanced’ that society showed itself to be as an ‘organism’” (Dijkstra, 1986:165).  Although Spencer had constructed a systems view, he was an ardent individualist (arguing against state controls and collectives of any sort and for laissez-faire approaches), explaining survival of the fittest in Lamarckian terms; for social theory, this meant that the most individualistic members of a society, those who had adapted themselves best to their surroundings, would prevail, making it to the top rungs of the social “ladder” (Rylance, 2000:221 and Dijkstra, 1986:165).  This kind of fitness showed superiority.   Thus, the rise of industrial capitalist nations and rampant European imperialism, rather than being understood for their influences on perceptions of relations, seemed to substantiate (speak to the truth of) interpretations of “struggle” based on individualism and competition.

Darwin and Spencer captured the attention of their 19th-century audiences, both gaining some amount of credibility; but at the time, Spencer’s systems take on evolution, bound to Lamarckism, seems to have eclipsed Darwin’s, which involved the acknowledgement of an externally related change in organisms.  It seems that readings of Darwinian evolution in terms of competition and imperialism more aptly apply to Spencer.


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