Herbert Spencer: The Intellectual Legacy

Article excerpt

Herbert Spencer: The Intellectual Legacy

Eds. Greta Jones and Robert A. Peel

The Galton Institute, London, 2004

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a contemporary and fairly close friend of Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, with whom we learn he "spent an hour or two on many afternoons" in the smoking room of the Athenaeum Club in London. Both were inspired admirers of Darwinian theory. But the impact of Darwinian thought on these two great minds was essentially different. Whereas Galton stressed the importance of race and heredity, Spencer focused more on competition and the "survival of the fittest," interpreting both in terms of the individual, rather than in terms of breeding populations and biological lineages. Seeing competition among individuals as the driving force, he developed the principle of selfishness as part of the economic theory of capitalism. Unfortunately, in doing this he grossly misrepresented evolutionary theory and its biological implications.

When the term "Social Darwinism" was applied to Spencer's theories, the true social import of Darwinian science was fatally distorted. Spencer's Social Darwinism was a perversion, one might almost say a reversal, of Darwin's own views. The very term was a misnomer, and as such Social Darwinism was sadly destined to confuse succeeding generations. Spencerian philosophy led people away from the true import of Darwinian evolution, and served to act as a brake on any logically sound application of biological evolution to the understanding of human society and the development of any true Darwinian social philosophy.

The resulting travesty is most clearly seen in Spencer's views on altruism. He appeared to have absorbed Auguste Comte's belief that early man was brutal and selfish, but that when life became easier as a result of technological inventions, man softened and became kindlier and more altruistic. But Spencer's concept of Darwinism as being survival of the fittest individuals carried with it the implication that altruism was contrary to the principle of evolution. He believed that altruism could exist only as the byproduct of an economically advanced society when, freed from the immediate pressures implicit in the need to survive, men could gain pleasure from the plaudits of their community when they acted in a kindly and generous way. …

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