Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social-Scientific Thought

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon | Go to book overview

Eight
Herbert Spencer Setting the Stage for a Unified Study of Humanity

Hail to the steadfast soul,
Who, unflinching and keen,
Wrought to erase from its depth
Mist and illusion and fear!
Hail to the spirit who dared
Trust...[his] own thoughts, before yet
Echoed them back by the crowd.

-- Matthew Arnold,
"Haworth Churchyard"

B y the time Darwin began publishing his findings, acceptance of the fact of evolution was widespread among the "Renaissance thinkers" of the period. Most of these, however, were Lamarckian in terms of their understanding of the process. They were convinced that characteristics acquired through experience by one generation are inherited by the next, in the shape of either more complex mental "forms" or some kind of race memory. Darwin's younger cousin Herbert Spencer was just such a thinker. His detailed grasp of information from every field of scholarship was equalled only by his zeal and profound wisdom and his ability to integrate facts into comprehensive and presumably universal bodies of knowledge. Spencer devoted his life to this task, as had Democritus, Aristotle and Avicenna so long before. He produced ten massive volumes, rich in anthropological and historical detail and elaborate deductions. These constitute a magnificent organization of all available knowledge concerning organic and psycho-social life, along with an attempt to identify the laws shaping that life. But they were tragic as well, for Spencer's remarkable synthesis was fatally flawed at its very core. He had founded it all on a premise which his cousin's discovery had already rendered obsolete: a Lamarckian belief that hereditary "form" in the species is directly affected by the "functioning" of individuals.

References for this chapter are on p. 148.

-128-

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