Herbert Spencer

The father of Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, turned to sociology from science and created one of the 20th century’s most controversial theories. 

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Table of contents

    Basing his ideas on Darwinism, he created a sociological theory that argued that certain human races are more powerful than others and that this can be used to control societies. His ideas led to the most radical and harmful ideologies of the 20th century, including National Socialism.

    • We will discuss his life, work and academic activity.
    • We will mention his contribution to sociology and his involvement with structural functionalism.
    • Then we will move on to the theory of Social Darwinism.
    • Spencer’s organismic analogy will also be considered.
    • Finally, we will look at criticisms of Herbert Spencer’s theory.

    Herbert Spencer, black and white photo of Herbert Spencer, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Herbert Spencer was a well-known sociologist.

    Biography of Herbert Spencer

    Herbert Spencer was born in 1820 in the small English city of Derby. His father, William George Spencer, was a teacher who was famous for founding his own school and using unconventional teaching methods with his students. William Spencer was against all types of religious and political authority. He raised his son in this spirit, which would affect Herbert Spencer’s philosophy later on.

    When Herbert was 13, his father sent him to his uncle for a formal education. Reverend Thomas Spencer, Herbert’s uncle, was the one to introduce the young boy to Latin, mathematics, physics and radical political thinking. Herbert Spencer adopted his uncle’s radical reformist ideas in his economic and political theories.

    During Spencer's youth and adulthood, England was reigned by Queen Victoria and went through a very exciting period of transformation and change. England became the first international industrial power, with mass production within the textile, iron, steel and coal industries.

    Technology and engineering were advancing in Britain with great speed, and art and sciences also went through revolutionary progress. These changes all influenced the philosophy of young Herbert Spencer.

    Reverend Thomas Spencer offered to finance his nephew's studies at the University of Cambridge, but Herbert declined it. His higher education was mainly done through individual learning and reading. He focused on the natural sciences in the beginning.

    To support himself, he became a school teacher for a few months, then a railway civil engineer between 1837 and 1841.

    In 1842 at the age of 22, Herbert visited his uncle again. Reverend Thomas Spencer encouraged the young man to send his writings to the Nonconformist, a radical political journal. Spencer did so, and thus became a journalist and political writer. His articles were later reprinted as a pamphlet, The Proper Sphere of Government.

    Between 1848 and 1853, Spencer was the editor of The Economist. In this position, he met several of the period’s most important intellects and political thinkers, including George Eliot, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Stuart Mill and George Henry Lewes.

    Spencer's academic books

    • Spencer’s first book Social Statics came out in 1851. He argued for the adoption of governmental long-term solutions to social issues to benefit mankind.
    • His second book, The Principles of Psychology (1855) argued that human intelligence was developing in response to its physical environment.
    • His most important work, The Synthetic Philosopher (1896) contained several volumes on diverse subjects, such as biology, psychology, morality and sociology.

    At the end of his life, he suffered from constant fatigue, which did not allow him to work for long hours. His illness worsened for several years until he died at the age of 83 in 1902. A few months before his death, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.

    Herbert Spencer's contribution to sociology

    Herbert Spencer was one of the most-discussed English thinkers of the Victorian era. He was one of the three most influential structural-functionalist thinkers in sociology next to Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

    Structural functionalists believed that society was made of institutions that all performed a specific function in order for the whole of society to work smoothly. They stressed that, for the perfect functioning of society, all institutions and structures within it had to work perfectly because they were all interconnected.

    Influenced by his natural sciences studies, Spencer had a scientific approach to philosophical and sociological questions. He believed that it was the discipline of philosophy that was set out to replace the theological system of thinking that was widespread and accepted in the Middle Ages.

    Spencer was revolutionary in his scientific approach to philosophy and sociology. His way of doing sociology, however, transformed into the discipline of social and cultural anthropology by now.

    Many sociologists argued that Herbert Spencer - despite his scientific approach - was a very theoretical thinker, who built grand ideas and looked for facts that confirmed his theories while ignoring the ones that contradicted them. English writer and philosopher, Aldous Huxley once said that Spencer’s idea of tragedy was "the slaying of a beautiful idea by an ugly fact" (1911).

    Two types of societies

    He argued that there existed two types of societies; military societies and industrial societies.

    In military societies, cooperation between individuals and institutions was secured by force, while in industrial societies, cooperation was voluntary and rather spontaneous. He compared despotism and individualism as two examples for his classification. He characterized despotism as primitive and bad, while he referred to individualism as civilized and good. This ideology would influence his work later on.

    Despotism is a form of government, that guarantees absolute power to a single entity, who rules by cruelty and oppression. The leader of a despotism is usually an individual, the despot. Societies that are ruled by a government that limits power and representation of groups of people are also often called despotic.

    Herbert Spencer and survival of the fittest

    It may be surprising for you to learn that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ comes from Herbert Spencer, although it is most associated with Charles Darwin. Darwin added the phrase to his later works and editions of The Origin of Species, as he found it perfectly suitable for what he had described with natural selection.

    Charles Darwin, in his revolutionary book The Origin of Species (1859), argued that evolution happened through natural selection. This meant that the species with physical characteristics more suitable to their environments had better chances of survival. They would also pass on the strong genes, that determined their survival, to their offspring, which would make the species as a whole even stronger.

    On the other hand, weaker species had less opportunity for reproduction and survival. Darwin concluded that the species that survived had gradually evolved and adapted to their environments.

    Social Darwinism: Herbert Spencer

    Spencer's most important sociological theory was his theory of Social Darwinism (1896).

    Social Darwinism stated that certain races and ethnicities are superior to others, have more chance of survival, and thus inevitably have more power in human society.

    The theory was based on Charles Darwin’s findings in the animal world, including natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest’. Social Darwinists claimed that the more powerful races would become even more powerful, while the weaker ethnic groups would slowly disappear.

    Herbert Spencer, The Origin of Species first page, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Origin of Species is a well-known book by Charles Darwin.

    Cultural adaptation

    Social Darwinism argues that the most powerful human races had adapted to their environment: not biologically, but culturally. Herbert Spencer argued that those groups of people who managed to quickly adapter to new situations and to cultural changes were the most successful at being powerful in society and passing their benefits to their children.

    Spencer believed that it was the natural course of life that the strong survived at the cost of the weak. According to Social Darwinism, the rich and powerful in any society became so because they were better suited for those positions than weaker individuals from weaker races.

    Later, sociologists pointed out that the most dangerous idea of Social Darwinism was its arguments of ‘naturalness’ and ‘inevitability’ regarding social inequalities. Social Darwinist thinking is often seen as a contributor to the rise of national socialism and the practice of eugenics in Nazi Germany. Social Darwinism is also said to be standing behind the American eugenics movements of 1910-1930.

    Herbert Spencer: society as an organism

    Spencer compared societies to an organism of living species. He argued that societies, just like organisms, start by being simple before progressing towards complexity.

    Human society started at hunting and gathering and by now has reached a complex form due to industrialisation and the technical and cultural progress of the past centuries.

    According to Spencer, societies and organisms had three main systems; a regulative system, sustaining system and distributing system. Let's consider how societies and organisms may be similar.

    System

    Animal organisms

    Societies

    Regulative system

    Central nervous system

    Government

    Sustaining system

    Giving and receiving nourishment

    Industry: jobs, money and the economy

    Distribution system

    Veins and arteries

    Roads, transportation and the internet

    Table 1 - a break-down of Spencer's idea that societey acts like a living organism.

    Spencer found a few differences between societies and living organisms. The most important, he said, was that in a living organism there is one, centralised consciousness that directs and supervises the whole system, while in societies there are numerous individual consciousnesses.

    Criticism of Spencer’s organismic analogy

    • Many critics pointed out that while a living organism is a concrete being, societies are abstract creations. Consequently, it is impossible and wrong to compare them. The comparison does not stand on its own feet, only in Spencer's mind.

    • The difference between the nature of consciousness in a living organism and in societies is an issue for many sociologists, as they claim the since the two don't share the same type of consciousness, they cannot be compared.

    • Some critics point out that the birth, growth and death of a living organism are so different from those of a society that the two cannot possibly be compared.

    Herbert Spencer - Key Takeaways

    • Herbert Spencer was born in 1820, in the small English city of Derby. During Spencer’s childhood and teenage years, England was reigned by Queen Victoria and went through a very exciting period of transformation and change.
    • Herbert Spencer was one of the three most influential structural-functionalist thinkers in sociology next to Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.
    • Spencer's most important sociological theory was his theory of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism stated that certain races and ethnicities are superior to others, have more chance of survival, and thus inevitable take more power in human society.
    • Spencer compared societies to an organism of living species. He argued that societies, just like organisms, start by being simple before progressing towards complexity.
    • Many sociologists argued that Herbert Spencer - despite his scientific approach - was a very theoretical thinker, who built grand ideas and looked for facts that confirmed his theories while ignoring the ones that contradicted them.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Herbert Spencer

    Who is Herbert Spencer and what did he do?

    Herbert Spencer was one of the most-discussed English thinkers of the Victorian era. He was one of the three most influential structural-functionalist thinkers in sociology next to Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Influenced by his natural sciences studies, Spencer had a scientific approach to philosophical and sociological questions. He believed that it was the discipline of philosophy that was set out to replace the theological system of thinking that was widespread and accepted in the Middle Ages.

    What is the theory of Herbert Spencer?

    Herbert Spencer had many theories, including Social Darwinism and the organismic analogy.

    What did Spencer mean by survival of the fittest?

    It may be surprising for you to learn that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ comes from Herbert Spencer, although it is most associated with Charles Darwin. Spencer argued with the term that the more powerful races would become even more powerful, while the weaker ethnic groups would slowly disappear.


    What is the Social Darwinism theory?


    Social Darwinism stated that certain races and ethnicities are superior to others, have more chance of survival, and thus inevitable take more power in human society. 


    The theory was based on Charles Darwin’s findings in the animal world, including natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest’. Social Darwinists claimed that the more powerful races would become even more powerful, while the weaker ethnic groups would slowly disappear.

    How did Spencer relate human society to an organism?

    Spencer compared societies to an organism of living species. He argued that societies, just like organisms, start by being simple before progressing towards complexity

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who was the monarch in England at the time of Spencer's youth and adulthood?

    Herbert Spencer studied at the University of Cambridge.

    Herbert Spencer worked as a baker in a bakery.

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