The Complicated Legacy of Herbert Spencer, the Man Who Coined ‘Survival of the Fittest’

Spencer’s ideas laid the groundwork for social Darwinism, but scholars say there was much more to the Victorian Age thinker than that

Herbert Spencer introduced the phrase "survival of the fittest" in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology. (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images and public domain)
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Victorian England had its fair share of great minds. Some, like Charles Darwin, changed the way we think about the world, while many more have faded into obscurity—along with their ideas. Teetering on the boundary is Herbert Spencer, born 200 years ago this week.

Spencer’s first writings on evolution came in 1851, eight years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. And it was Spencer, not Darwin, who gave us the phrase “survival of the fittest,” though Darwin would later use it in his writing. Spencer introduced the phrase in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology, where he saw parallels between his conservative ideas about economics and what Darwin had written about the natural world: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.”

“For a brief period, for a couple of decades at the end of the 19th century, he was world-famous,” says Bernard Lightman, a historian of science at York University in Toronto.

Like his more famous contemporary, Spencer was enamored with the idea of evolution. But where Darwin focused on biology, Spencer imagined that evolutionary thinking could be applied much more broadly. In his mind, it governed entire societies. Today, when Spencer is remembered at all, it is usually for inspiring the ideology known as “social Darwinism”: roughly, the idea that the successful deserve their success while those who fail deserve their failure.

Modern scholars, and the public at large, understandably view this idea with disdain. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has described social Darwinism as “an odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking in defense of political doctrines that range from callous to heinous,” while the journalist Robert Wright said that social Darwinism “now lies in the dustbin of intellectual history.” Today, few read Spencer’s dense and ponderous books, and his ideas are rarely taught. Gregory Claeys, a historian at the University of London, writes that of all the great Victorian thinkers, it is Spencer whose “reputation has now indisputably fallen the farthest.”

Yet some scholars and historians dispute this characterization of Spencer’s work. Yes, Spencer misunderstood Darwin’s theory in important ways, and his attempt to anchor an entire philosophy on it was ill-fated. But, they argue, Spencer doesn’t deserve to be so closely linked to social Darwinism and the noxious ideas that grew out of it (and which occasionally surface today). He may have been misguided, but those who utter “survival of the fittest” to justify callous, mean-spirited or even racist ends may be doing the man who coined the phrase a disservice.

Herbert Spencer as a young man (Engraving by Geo. E. Perine)

Born in Derby in central England, Spencer was largely self-taught. He worked as a railway engineer and a journalist before making a name for himself with his philosophical writings, which were published in Britain’s leading intellectual journals and later in a series of wildly ambitious books. Eventually, he supported himself solely through writing. He settled in London and became a regular at the city’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, where he rubbed shoulders with great intellectuals of the day.

Beginning in 1860, Spencer focused his energy on his “System of Synthetic Philosophy,” which was to be a multi-volume work covering biology, psychology, sociology, ethics and metaphysics. Nine of these volumes appeared between 1862 and 1893. Like Darwin, Spencer was struck by evolution’s explanatory power, but he took the idea much further than his countryman.

“Spencer goes on to ask: What are the implications of the theory of evolution for our understanding of human society, politics, religion, the human mind?” Lightman says. “Evolution is the glue that holds this ‘synthetic philosophy’ together. It’s a comprehensive worldview.”

In Spencer’s view of evolution, nature is seen as a force for good, guiding the development of individuals and societies, with the power of competition allowing the strong to flourish while eliminating the weak. In his first book, 1851’s Social Statics, he argues that suffering, although it harms the individual, benefits society at large; it is all part of nature’s “plan,” and leads to improvement over time. Spencer wrote:

“The poverty of the incapable, the distress that comes upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and in miseries,’ are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence.”

(Arguably, some echo of this sentiment was on display in the past few weeks, as protesters voiced their disapproval of mandatory lockdowns in the fight against COVID-19. In Nashville, at least one protester held up a sign saying “Sacrifice the weak / Re-open Tennessee.”)

Spencer’s view, though mostly anathema now, appealed to influential conservatives and laissez-faire capitalists—among them, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie—just as it angered the socialists of the time. “Spencer hated socialism because he thought socialism was all about protecting the weak,” Lightman says. “To him, that was intervening in the natural unfolding of the evolutionary process.”

Spencer imagined a better, more moral society, and believed the best way to achieve that goal was “to let the market loose,” says David Weinstein, a political scientist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Weinstein says Spencer advocated the idea that “those who survive the struggle are by definition not only the fittest but also morally the best. So it’s defining ‘good’ as ‘survival.’ Whatever survives is by definition good.”

Later thinkers, especially in the early years of the 20th century, took a hatchet to Spencer’s logic. Critics accused him of committing what has come to be known as the “naturalistic fallacy”—roughly, the mistake of trying to derive morality and ethics from nature. The term was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica, which was highly skeptical of Spencer. “The attack by Moore really served to discredit Spencer among serious philosophers,” Weinstein says (though Moore, too, has largely disappeared from history).

More recently, however, a few scholars have sought to salvage Spencer’s reputation. In 2014, a collection of essays titled Herbert Spencer: Legacies, edited by Mark Francis and Michael Taylor, explored Spencer’s far-reaching influence and the diversity of his ideas. For example, while Spencer’s ideas were used to justify imperialism and conquest, Francis notes that Spencer himself was committed to pacifism, including his vocal opposition to Britain’s participation in the Boer War. While Spencer felt that war might have been a necessary part of humanity’s past, he also believed that a progressive society would be a peaceful one. Violence, in Spencer’s view, was on its way to becoming a relic of the past.

Wright, in his book The Moral Animal, says that Spencer is not “as heartless as he is now remembered,” pointing to Spencer’s emphasis on altruism, sympathy and pacifism. Pamela Lyon at the University of Adelaide goes even further, arguing that Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to mock it. Rather than seeing nature as cruel, he saw it as beneficent; nature was a progressive affair. (This view, she notes, became harder to maintain as Darwin’s more scientific approach to evolution—one driven by chance and not “guided” in any way—took hold.)

Meanwhile, Gowan Dawson of the University of Leicester has argued that both the ideological left and the right embraced Spencer’s ideas, especially that of social evolution. Weinstein also notes that Spencer’s writings “have been adopted and appropriated by socialists as much as by libertarians,” and asserts that his ideas have shaped modern liberalism. And a few scholars, including Dawson, argue that prominent contemporary thinkers like Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson, who have written on the power of evolution to shape culture, may be more indebted to Spencer than they realize. In Legacies, sociologist Jonathan Turner writes that many of Spencer’s ideas have endured to the present day, though “most people do not know that they came from Spencer, so ingrained is the avoidance of anything Spencerian.”

Spencer, by the standards of the day, also held a progressive view of gender, arguing that women were as intellectually capable as men and advocating for full political and legal rights for women. Claeys even describes him as a feminist.

That label is open to debate. Ruth Barton, a historian at the University of Auckland, points to Spencer’s treatment of the women in his life, especially the novelist Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. “She really fell in love with Spencer,” Barton says. “They went to the theatre together, they went to Kew Gardens together, they went everywhere together for a year; people thought they were engaged.” Then Spencer broke off the relationship. “Spencer told her that he enjoyed her company, he liked her mind, but she wasn’t beautiful enough for him to marry. He wanted a prettier, more feminine sort of person,” Barton says. “I wouldn’t label him a feminist.”

Spencer never married, and he appears to have been isolated and lonely in his final years. He spent nearly two decades writing and rewriting his two-volume autobiography. He struggled to control his public image, even going so far as asking to have his letters returned to him and then destroying those that he felt might damage his reputation.

All the while, English politics were drifting to the left. “The political climate was changing,” says Barton. “His antagonism toward socialism of any kind was less and less acceptable. Anything that had any scent of government regulation about it, he associated with socialism.”

Science and philosophy had moved on as well. “Already in the 1890s, he’s saying ‘Everyone’s forgotten me; I gave my whole life for this,’” Lightman says. “So he becomes a very tragic figure.” Today, Spencer’s tomb can be found in London’s Highgate Cemetery, just about opposite that of Karl Marx, whose ideas he despised (and who ended up with a far more elaborate monument).

Still, as remote as Spencer and his ideas seem today, he was a vital figure in his own time, Barton says. “He seemed to know everything, which made him impressive,” she says. “He was full of confidence; he had this really ambitious vision of the universe.” Above all, he appeared to be one of the few philosophers who fully embraced science— at least, his interpretation of science.

“Science seemed to be the way of the modern world,” Barton says. “And Spencer seemed to be a philosopher who understood science.”

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