|When people hear the phrase “survival of the fittest” they are likely to think of the great biologist Charles Darwin. The phrase in fact appears to have been coined by a contemporary of Darwin’s, the philosopher Herbert Spencer.Spencer thought of evolution as involving much more than biology. For him, evolution pervaded the inorganic as well as the organic realm. His voluminous work also treated “superorganic evolution” (which we today would term social evolution), and evolution of “superorganic products” (what we call cultural evolution).
Much as cells combine to make up organisms, organisms themselves combine, in some species, to make up “superorganisms,” or societies. The comparison of societies to organisms has roots in ancient Greece, but Spencer elaborated this idea in greater detail than anybody else before or since. He emphasized three developmental tendencies shared by societies and organisms: (1) growth in size, (2) increasing complexity of structure, and (3) differentiation of function. Generally speaking, larger life forms, unlike smaller ones, have several types of tissues and organs, each suited to perform its special function; similarly, larger societies, unlike smaller ones, have specialized arrangements for performing different functions. Examples include factories, stores, schools, and churches; less concrete arrangements such as economic and political systems; the occupational division of labor; and the division of society into rich and poor, powerful and powerless.
Though some critics have called Spencer’s writing obscure and overly abstract, it often was clear and concrete, as in this description of the division of labor in organism and society:
Yet this analogy, like any, has its limits–some of which Spencer recognized and discussed, others of which he overlooked or ignored. He admitted, for instance, that the parts of an organism are in direct contact, while the members of a society are not; but he argued that communication considerably reduced this difference. He seems not to have confronted the related–and scientifically awkward–fact that societies, by having no membrane or skin, are less identifiable entities than are organisms.
Spencer’s work had a political as well as a scientific dimension. Unfortunately, he regarded the “survival of the fittest” as a sort of guide for governmental policy, which often led him to oppose programs to assist the poor. His skepticism about the ability of government to do more good than harm–not only concerning poverty but quite generally–has made him an important inspiration of what today is called libertarianism. Also unfortunately, these rather extreme political views helped cause Spencer’s more scientific writings, such as Principles of Sociology, to fall into neglect for several decades. Since the revival of cultural evolutionism in the mid-20th century, however, Spencer has been rediscovered; much of his most valuable work appears in two excellent anthologies (Carneiro 1967; Peel 1972).
Spencer’s greatest contribution perhaps was to encourage people to try thinking of society and culture, no less than stones and pinecones, as belonging to the natural world. “Civilisation,” he declared, “is a part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower” (Spencer 1969:65).
|Carneiro, Robert L., ed.
1967 The Evolution of Society: Selections from Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Peel, J.D.Y., ed.
1972 Herbert Spencer: On Social Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1897 The Principles of Sociology. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton.
1969 [orig. 1851] Social Statics. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.