Herbert Spencer

Was Herbert Spencer a Social Darwinist? (Am I?)


July 20, 2004

I participate in a small email discussion group, Social-Darwinism-L. The main page of this group describes the doctrine as follows:

Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. The theory was chiefly expounded by Herbert Spencer, whose ethical philosophies always held an elitist view and received a boost from the application of Darwinian ideas such as adaptation and natural selection.

If this is the accepted definition, then I am not a Social Darwinist. But then, arguably, neither was Herbert Spencer.

First, there’s elitism and then there’s elitism. Spencer believed that one can indeed judge people on moral grounds, and on physical grounds, and on cultural grounds, and that these judgments need not be arbitrary or biased.

He himself despised biases in the social sciences, and his popular book, The Study of Sociology, listed many of the biases that infect social theory and research. Even in this age of the sociology of knowledge, there have been produced few more thorough attacks on bias in the social science.

Elitism, of course, is another story. Spencer believed that free, industrial societies were better than warring enclaves or primitive hunter-gatherer societies. What was later called the capitalist order (a very misleading term) allowed for more people to thrive than other alternatives. And he was all for that. So he was a cultural elitist in that he had no trouble preferring — and backing up that preference with relevant analysis — the industrial order.

I’m one too. This may be considered a bias, I suppose, but it is not an uninformed bias.

He also thought that people who worked to support themselves and their children, and who also gave help to others, were morally superior to those who did not do these things.

I do too. So we’re elitists. Big deal. If you’re not this kind of elitist, what’s your excuse?

But Spencer also thought that those who by genetic misfortune or the play of chance and outrageous bad luck (he would not have used this term, I think) were broke or starving or ill or what-have-you, should be extended not only courteous forebearance but also sympathy and support. His two-volume Principles of Ethics is made of six parts. The two final sections are on what he calls

  1. Negative Beneficence and
  2. Positive Beneficence,

which correspond, generally, to

  • forebearing from doing things to a person that one might, by justice, be allowed to do, and
  • actively engaging in helping others, which one, by justice, is not required to do.

Though Spencer cast a very dark eye at “do-nothings” — a class of people whose ranks he believed would grow if you subsidized them (he was right, of course) — he went on at great length about the importance of helping others. It is simply not true that he believed we should not help the sick and dying. Or the poor. Or the illiterate. Etc.

Like any reasonable person, he probably would have worried were the ranks of the poor to continue to grow, through subsidized procreation (I can’t find such a passage, but such worry was common in the 19th century, and should be more common today), but he did not stress this. The usual characterization of his philosophy, as given on the Social Darwinism-L main page, is simply a mischaracterization.

And it would be a mischaracterization of my position, too. (Incidentally, though my standards may seem elitist, I am not a member of any actual elite; I am not rich; I am not powerful; I command no troops, nor do I have a large fan base; and I am not able, at present, financially to help anyone other than one family member. Still, I honor those whose greater success leads them to help others, and regard them as superior in relevant ways to me. This is in no way a contradiction, and should be kept in mind when talking about elitism.) Still, like Spencer, I do talk a fair amount about adaptation and natural selection in society.

It should be recognized, however, that Spencer applied his combination of natural selection theory and cooperation theory to society prior to Charles Darwin’s formulation of the first set of notions. As sociologist Jonathan Turner pointed out, it might be more accurate to call Charles Darwin a Biological Spencerian than to call Spencer a Social Darwinist. It was Spencer, after all, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Alfred Russell Wallace urged Darwin at length to adopt the term, which Wallace preferred to Darwin’s coinage of natural selection because it struck him as less telelogical).

And yet Spencer was never as hung up on the individual’s struggle for existence as was Charles Darwin. Spencer knew that cooperation amongst individuals of a species — and even between members of different species — was one of the keys to adaptation. And this always distinguished his theories from Darwin’s.

Alas, Spencer also never gave up a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristic. In a sense, he was the first neo-Lamarckian. This is not a subject that I agree with Spencer much on.

But in society, neo-Lamarckian ideas aren’t as harmful as in biology proper, in part because some elements of inheritance descend through the biological line in distinctly cultural ways. Spencer didn’t quite pick up on this, but his many successes in social theory shouldn’t be forgotten simply because he didn’t quite get the full import of the cultural transmission of knowledge and habits.

His main project was to apply natural selection theory and dynamic complexity theory as well as cooperation theory to the understanding of society. He believed that natural selection (which we might call unintended consequences of a systemic nature) applies on all levels. Given a social environment, not only are individuals selected for and against, so are habits, customs, institutions. Spencer was a group selection theorist as well. I find this reach of his theory somewhat problematic, at least when advanced dogmatically, like F.A. Hayek did. Handled dialectically, in Spencer’s manner, it offers fewer problems.

Taken at the proper remove — in its broadest application — natural selection theory as applied to society sees that the fittest do survive. Always. By definition. What you look for, then, are the conditions that yield systemic and specific effects. If a society makes it possible for individuals to live without work, then the number of people who live in a sort of refined squalor will increase. They are fit, because their habits are fit to survive and thrive in the welfare state that establishes the game rules.

This puts a crimp on one of Spencer’s greatest Social Darwinist aphorism: The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

Yes, it’s true, but if one shields people (men or women or children) from the effects of their folly, one changes the nature of folly itself, doesn’t one? To what extent this is the case, that’s worth careful study.

Surely a person who plays by a non-standard, discarded set of rules may be seen as a kind of fool. But still, you can’t completely cheat nature. If one foreswears handouts and fast food and excessive TV — that is, if one foreswears the habits of a rising underclass of white trash in America — one is apt to be leaner, more healthy, and more cultured. And probably live a longer life, be less likely to be killed by one of one’s poor, disturbed-and-bored neighbors, etc.

This question, then, of the redefinition of folly, is a live one for all who accept Darwininian notions, and the additional Spencerian ones of cooperation and adaptation by care and industry.

Also worth researching is the redefinition of poverty in a welfare-state environment. For surely, poverty now is very different than it was in the 19th century. The poor live longer on today’s dole. And every poor person I personally know owns a television and a working automobile. Amazing, eh? Poverty has become gentrified. . . . We’ve cultivated a new type.

Still, poor people in America tend to be violent and lazy and corpulent — at least, more violent, less vigorous, and much larger than the richer population. So differences remain.

But let’s not overdo judgmentalism! I’m not that judgmental, perhaps for pot-and-kettle reasons. I’ve gained weight in the last year, and I will now have to seek to reduce it. I sympathize with the poor and the fat and the ill of health, probably more than I condemn those others. I am aware of and fascinated by behavioral traps. (As was, let us remember, that early evolutionist, Epicurus.)

And in this I seem Spencerian, too. After all, one of the major lynchpins of Spencer’s moral system was sympathy. To anyone who bothered to read his work, this becomes quickly evident. It is one of the most prominent notions in his ethical system, elaborated over and over. In this, he follows Adam Smith’s great Theory of Moral Sentiments, and extends the analysis.

But if you read about sympathy and empathy in a standard treatment of ethical philosophy, Herbert Spencer is somehow skipped over. Yes, Hume and Smith will get a mention, but then the history lurches to the 20th century phenomenologist Max Scheler.

Is this an accident? Are philosophers just ignorant, or are they deceptive?

It’s probably a combination. Because Herbert Spencer promoted limited government rather than extensive social democracy, he was vilified and then ignored. After being ignored — and safely ignored at that — scholars dropped talking of his many contributions to philosophy and psychology and social theory — and even biology (his explanation of limits to cellular growth is a fundamental contribution, rarely cited). So he is now simply an object of scorn.

Well, Spencer’s dead. Like everybody does, he died. His reputation, too, went into eclipse, another kind of death. His ideas weren’t fit to survive in the environment of warmongers and totalitarian tyranny. Even in the West, which remained relatively free, his ideas became anathema on college campuses and in intellectual circles. He opposed socialism, and he opposed the rise of the welfare state. Therefore he must be an uncaring proponent of callous neglect. And so that is what he still is, in most modern books and discussions.

But among honest people, that is not the way he should be remembered. Especially amongst those of us who eagerly study evolutionary science and the rising discipline of evolutionary psychology, we should try to put Spencer’s ideas in an accurate context.

I hope that the owner of the Social Darwinism list will revise the characterization of Spencer in it. (I posted this epistle to Social-Darwinism-L nearly a month ago, and the list owner has yet to revise his introductory copy.)

In any case, as a final stab at the charges of elitism and callousness, let’s remind ourselves that one of Spencer’s strongest political commitments was against empire. He despised the British Empire of his day, and the wars perpetrated against indigenous peoples around the world. Unlike modern conservatives, he did not wrap himself around a flag to bolster his principles. He expressed himself clearly, and dared risk the charge of being unpatriotic when condemning the acts of the government he lived under. Let me conclude, then, with these words from callous, elitist Spencer — a man who thought enough of aboriginal peoples to prefer them to his fellow British soldiers, when the cause for preference was clear:

It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be our interests, we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenaeum Club a well-known military man — then a captain but now a general — drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying — When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.

That’s my kind of callousness.


Wirkman Virkkala
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