In Defense of Herbert Spencer


by Mario Rizzo

This my letter as it appears in today’s Financial Times (July 10, 2013):

Sir, John Kay (“Darwin’s  humbling lesson for business”, July 3) makes good points about evolutionary  theory and the social sciences. But he is wrong about Herbert Spencer, the noted  English philosopher and evolutionist. Spencer was not a Darwinist of any kind  nor an advocate of eugenics. He had his own theory of evolution that predates  Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species by a few years.  Spencer was broadly speaking a Lamarckian.

In other words, he believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.  He further believed that a free market would produce a discipline on individual  actions that would, at once, make them more efficient and more moral. Since  these traits could be passed on to future generations, there was no need for  eugenics.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Herbert Spencer

  1. I am a little tired of hearing theorists relate Darwin’s evolutionary theories to modern social and economic life. It seems patently obvious that humans have been virtually immune to the laws of survival of the fittest or evolutionary forces for thousands of years. Once our particular specie found itself with a cerebral cortex, 70-100K years ago, we developed fire, clothing, tamed some animals, and advanced to the agricultural age. After that, most major human civilizations were able to control their environment. And clearly, today’s scientists, playwrights, statesmen, and businesspeople are no more rational or wise than their counterparts in ancient Phoenicia, Greece and Rome. So, for all of recorded history, back to the nomadic hunter-gatherers, evolution is pretty much irrelevant!

    Progress has come from the gradual discovery of new social and economic institutions, mechanical devices, written language, scientific advances, engineering marvels, etc. The knowledge and capability of these advances have accumulated, pyramidding on each other, improving our comfort and affluence, adding to our control of nature, but they have little to do with biological evolution, which has been nominal in comparison.

    Spencer is to be praised over Darwin because he recognized the civilizing impact of free societies and economies that allowed humans to apply their talents to bettering their lives. He may have erred in thinking of them as “acquired traits” that could be passed on to progeny, but, in fact, it is the acquired manners, habits, self-control, thrift, persistence, and education that every child gets from his family and community that allows him to acquire and build on the past advances in social, scientific, and economic spheres that have been passed down to us. While it is not known to what extent these character traits might be partly genetic, it is clear that the efficiency, imagination, and morality encouraged in history’s free societies, has, as Spencer suggested, been a great contributor to our current well-being; and that Darwin’s theories on biologic evolution have had virtually nothing to do with it.

  2. Spencer is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood thinker in history. It’s nice to see when someone tries to bring understanding to Spencer in print. So kudos to you for your letter.

    Spencer began writing on his social theories and role of government 17 years *before* Origin of Species was published. If anything, it was Darwin who was influenced by Spencer. At the time Origin was published, Spencer was an international celebrity and Darwin was pretty obscure.

    Survival of the fittest, the term Spencer coined, is completely misunderstood. Spencer never intended it as a better or catchier way of saying “natural selection.” Instead, Spencer proposed the term because he was a Lamarckian who also accepted natural selection after reading Origin. The implication to Spencer was that no single mechanism could explain evolution. He then realized that the same was true for inorganic systems.

    He was trying to communicate to people with SotF that ALL things (organic and inorganic) in nature are subject to changing complex conditions and that only those things that adapt or remain “fit” will continue or “survive.” SotF is in fact its own theory or rather a universal axiom.

    An example of SotF would be extinction of the dinosaur. We can’t say that Man evolved simply due to natural selection via gene mutation over time. It was the change in global climate that caused the extinction of dinosaurs that then made it possible for mammals to evolve into homo sapiens because mammals were more fit for the new environment. That is not natural selection as proposed by Darwin.

    Another example of SotF is the ice cube. So long as the ice cube remains in the freezer it will remain an ice cube. Take it out and put it on a table and the ice cube melts. Spencer would have said the ice cube is no longer fit for its new condition. Though he used the word “survival” in a biological sense in Principles of Biology, he meant it metaphorically to mean continuation.

    In Spencer’s own words from his autobiography, “Organic evolution being a part of Evolution at large, evidently had to be interpreted after the same general manner—had to be explained in physical terms: the changes produced by functional adaptation (which I held to be one of the factors) and the changes produced by “natural selection,” had both to be exhibited as resulting from the redistribution of matter and motion everywhere and always going on.

    Natural selection as ordinarily described, is not comprehended in this universal redistribution. It seems to stand apart as an unrelated process. The search for congruity led first of all to perception of the fact that what Mr. Darwin called “natural selection,” might more literally be called survival of the fittest. But what is survival of the fittest, considered as an outcome of physical actions?

    The answer presently reached was this:—The changes constituting evolution tend ever towards a state of equilibrium. On the way to absolute equilibrium or rest, there is in many cases established for a time, a moving equilibrium—a system of mutually-dependent parts severally performing actions subserving maintenance of the combination.

    Every living organism exhibits such a moving equilibrium—a balanced set of functions constituting its life; and the overthrow of this balanced set of functions or moving equilibrium is what we call death. Some individuals in a species are so constituted that their moving equilibria are less easily overthrown than those of other individuals; and these are the fittest which survive, or, in Mr. Darwin’s language, they are the select which nature preserves.

    And now mark that in thus recognizing the continuance of life as the continuance of a moving equilibrium, early overthrown in some individuals by incident forces and not overthrown in others until after they have reproduced the species, we see that this survival and multiplication of the select, becomes conceivable in purely physical terms, as an indirect outcome of a complex form of the universal redistribution of matter and motion.”

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