2005-04-30

Herbert Spencer, father of evolutionism

Yesterday I found from an antiquarian bookshop a biography of Herbert Spencer written by Otto Gaupp in 1911 (the language used in this Finnish translation from German is touchingly old-fashioned). The book (which I'm still reading) raises Spencer as one of the greatest philosophers who has ever been alive. And for good reason, as it was actually him, not Darwin, who should be considered the father of evolutionism.

At his time Spencer was widely respected as a versatile genius, but today his work is overshadowed by his reputation as the father of 'social darwinism'. However, this label is unjustified for many reasons.

Spencer created a general theory, according to which life, human, science, culture, and society are subjects to continuous evolution. He wasn't the first to use the evolutionary method in research on a particular subject, but he was the first to use it as a general method, and to saw that it will produce a whole new outlook on world, an outlook that we now regard as a self-evident truth (except for the creationists, of course).

Many of Spencer's major works where he presents the principle of evolution predates Darwin's famous "The Origin of Species" (1859). Darwin only adapted this principle to natural history in particular. (Maybe Darwin's theory should therefore be called 'eco-spencerism'?) It is true though, that in his latter work Spencer also utilised the findings of Darwin in turn.

Yes, it was Spencer who first used the phrase "survival of the fittest" in his work "Social Statics" (1851), but it should be remarked, that as Eric Mack put it in 1978, for Spencer the fittest are those well-adapted to cooperative social life and even those in whom spontaneous sympathy engenders aid to “the unfortunate worthy.”

So as we can see, Herbert Spencer created a general theory, which covers a much wider field than the society alone, and as he invented it before Darwin, both parts of the term 'social darwinism' are unjustified. And though Spencer introduced the phrase "survival of the fittest", what he meant by that is something else than how the phrase is today interpreted.

But back to the book from 1911 which I bought yesterday; I was inspired to write this post when I saw this passage (here translated in English): "Spencer was a strict individualist; if anything is at the moment passed over by the fashion, so is that laissez-faire theory of old liberalism, which Spencer tried to prove justified and well-founded." Though Spencer believed in evolution, it seems to me that in this respect the fashion hasn't evolved much in almost hundred years.

Some of Herbert Spencer's books on political philosophy and a short biography can be found here.

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