| Home - Human Nature Review | What's new | Search | Feedback |

HERBERT SPENCER AND 'INEVITABLE' PROGRESS

by Robert M. Young

Editor’s foreword: When we think of the Victorians we think of energy, optimism and a boundless certainty that the world had improved, is improving and will improve still further. Such a view may be a caricature and seem cruelly misplaced from the cynical standpoint of the late twentieth century - but it has its basis in the dynamics of new thought and activity in the physi cal, biological and human sciences in the Victorian period. Apart from its impact on the theological and religious debates of the mid-Victorian church, Charles Darwin's theories of evolution based on his travels and research, codified in his 1859 best-seller, On the Origins of Species, seemed to reflect a vision of the world as thrusting and imposing which was suited to the entrepreneurial dynamics of Victorian society in the same way that the divine clockmaker view of God derived from Newtonian physics had appealed to the culture of the Enlightenment.

It was not Darwin, however, but Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was the great populariser and synthesiser of such ideas through his popular journalism, and prolific output of books. The beauty of technological change, competition and survival of the fittest were Spencer's watchwords and, as Robert Young reminds us here, the darker developments of the later Victorian world are one of the reasons why this reputation and that of the 'glad, confident morning' went into eclipse.

 

It is hard to recapture the power of Herbert Spencer's ideas and easy to mock him. At the height of his influence more than a million volumes of his writings were in print and there were editions in all the major, and many minor; languages. He was offered — and declined — honours all over the world. One of America's leading industrialists, the Scottish emigré Andrew Carnegie, began his frequent letters to Spencer, 'Dear Master Teacher'. Yet when I began doing historical research in the early 1960s, and was beginning my own library of primary sources, the books which were easiest to find and to obtain within my self-imposed limit of fifteen shillings, were those self-same volumes of his great work, The Synthetic Philosophy. The secondhand shops were full of the various editions of these and his other writings. Spencer's best biographer, J. D. Y. Peel, explains the decline in Spencer's reputation:

Posterity is cruellest to those who sum up for their contemporaries in an all-embracing synthesis the accumulated knowledge of their age. This is what Spencer did for the Victorians.

More than that, he provided a guarantee in the laws of nature of what they most fervently needed to believe would be the result of the frantic and bewildering, disruptive and distressing, process of urbanisation and industrialisation: progress. It was clear in his first book, Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified and the First of Them Developed (1851):

 

Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilisation being artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifica tions mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constituti*n of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness. As surely as the tree becomes bulky when it stands alone, and slender if one of a group, [there follow many biological analogies] . . . so surely must things be called evil and immoral disappear; so surely must man become perfect.

This book was written as an attack on Benthamite Utilitarianism at a time when there were grave doubts that the ethical and social principle of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' could be engineered. Better to guarantee it, but to do so required restraint from state regulation and interference. His first principle was that 'Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of other men'. People would eventually come to do naturally what is best, even though a lengthy struggle would be necessary. Spencer therefore opposed such things as Poor Laws, state-supported education, sanitary su pervision, protection of the ignorant from medical quacks, tariffs, state banking, and a government postal system.

A year after Social Statics he embarked on a series of essays which based progress securely on the most important scientific idea of the period: evolution. The ideological context of all this was the perennial problem of reconciling order with change. When the old pastoral order celebrated by the natural theologians began to give way, it could no longer be confidently maintained that 'All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds', and that God keeps it that way. The justification of the ways of God to man had for centuries been expressed in natural theology - the recon ciliation of God's word - the Scripture - with his works - nature. But as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, the natural theology of pastoralism was under threat from the need for a theology that could make order and change reconcilable. And, of course, change is really a species of order if it is progress, that is, change for the better.

The writings of Thomas Malthus and the debate around his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) addressed just this issue. Apparent chaos - hunger, war, famine - could be avoided to a considerable de*ree by moral restraint. Malthus saw history as a kind of learning and even invoked the principle that 'Necessity has with great truth been called the mother of invention'. William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), Malthus' Essay and the writings of the Utilitarians competed with, and partially comple mented, one another as ways of rationalising these issues. Indeed, Paley saw himself as a Utilitarian and also believed that he could accommodate Malthus' doctrine within a higher generalisation of God's ultimate benign purpose: the Good Gardener needed to prune the products of His 'superfecundity'. But it was Spencer, writing in the decades after 1850, who final ly placed change on a secure and secular metaphysical foundation. In the extent of his generalisations and the range of his use of illustrative materials he can be said to be Britain's most prolific and bold thinker - the nearest the nation has had to a domestic Hegel. Lest this conception seem far-fetched, I should add that the framework of ideas for which Spencer was the main systematiser,. populariser and historical source, was also the main alternative — to the dialectical mode which Hegel gave to phenomenol.ogy and Marxism. What Spencer gave was the or ganic analogy and functionalist thinking based on the biological concepts of structure, function, organism and adaptation as the ideas in psyehology, so¢ology, anthropology and political theory. He was the most influencial single source for the main tradition in Anglo-Saxon thinking devoted to the naturalisation of value systems in the physical, biological and human sciences.

How did he become such a man - often called the man - of his age? He was born in 1820 in Derby, the eldest of nine children and the only one to survive infancy. His father was a Methodist who inclined towards Quakerism and Deism while his mother was an orth,odox Wesleyan. It was not a happy marriage, and Spencer once remarked that this may have contributed to his remaining a bachelor. His education was in one sense neglected while in ana*ther sense he was allowed to range widely and to explore, though not in a formal setting. At thirteen he was sent to study with an uncle in Bristol for three years.

One source of Spencer's polymathy and optimism was that at sixteen he went to work as a civil engineer on the railways and continued in this vocation for a decade. He travelled all over the Midlands and had a hand in many aspects of the last great achievements of the Industrial Revolution. In the midst of this work he wrote as a journalist and supported complete suffrage. In 1848 he obtained a post as sub-editor of The Economist. Then, as now, this was the key financial weekly and represented the wealthy middle class. It tended to be Unitarian in religion, laissez-faire in economics and strong on self-help. Across the street was the office of John Chapman whose assistant was Marian Evans (later 'George Eliot'). He soon became an in timate friend (there was talk of marriage) and remained so until her death. His circle included her lover, George Henry Lewes, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, and many other leading intellectual and scientific figures of London. He was soon contributing to some of the radical periodicals, The Leader, The Fortnightly, The Westminster Review. He left the Economist in 1853 and devoted him self full-time to writing and survived on various legacies, subscriptions to his books and, later on, an investment of £7,000 made on his behalf by his admirers. Spencer joined the influential scientific group, the X Club (where he was called 'Xhaustive Spencer') in 1864 and the Athenaeum in 1868. The point of all this is that we have in Spencer a man ideally placed to capture the spirit of the age. Huxley saw Spencer's aim as to show 'the mutual connection and interdependence of all forms of cognition'. Indeed, the major project he conceived in 1858, embarked on two years later and completed on 1896, com prised ten volumes, beginning with First Principles, moved on to a two-volume revision of his Principles of Psychology, to the Prin ciples of Sociology and the Principles of Ethics, along with various new editions, popular and descriptive works and collections of essays. A volume of four of his essays on Education continued to be reprinted well into our own time. They criticised rote learning and classics and advocated exploration and science. Two facts made him all the more an antenna for the ideas in the air. The first was that he never was much of a reader - more of a magpie. All he heard was grist for his mill, grinding out ever more comprehensive generalisations. Even the most loyal of his admirers pointed out that he was given to grandiosity, and Hux ley said that Spencer's idea of a tragedy was a deduction slain by a fact. The second characteristic that led to his writing in extenso was that like so many of his contemporaries, he suffered gravely from debilitating neurotic symptoms. He had a breakdown from over work while writing The Principles of Psychology in 1855 and collapses recurred. He was left with a strange sensation in the head which he called 'the mischief', along with palpitations and insomnia. Among the consequent eccentricities was the use of earplugs which he inserted to avoid over-excitement. It was noted that these times included occasions when he began to lose out in an argument. He also had problems in sustained working and eventually reached the stage where he would row down the Ser pentine or play racquets and break off to dictate to his amanuensis for twenty minutes or so until 'the mischief' returned. He lived in various boarding houses, and in one case his housekeepers 'Two' - told all in Home Lik with Herbert Spencer. His last years were spent frantically trying to shore up his edifice and defend it against misinterpretations. He died in 1903 having written an extensive autobiography. He is buried at High gate near George Eliot, George Henry Lewes and Karl Marx. The American pragmatist philosopher, William James, was one of his admirers but said of him that never were greatness and pettiness more oddly mixed. Spencer was monotonous, petty, small-minded, hypochondriacal and self-pitying. He was also a pure intellectual and devoted his entire adult life to the writing of his great work. The leading idea of his huge theoretical edifice is simply put: take laissez-faire quite literally; don't interfere. The law of evolution will bring about the progressive adjustment of internal relations to external relations unless we muck it up. The scientific principle of the uniformity of nature should be applied to human nature and society. The final formula which underpins the whole system and which he continued to modifv until the last revision of his work is as follows*

Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of mo tion; during which the matter passes from a relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the contained motion undergoes a parallel transforma tion.

Semi-mystical slogans such as 'homogeneity to heterogeneity' and 'the physiological division of labour' lent an ersatz biological aura to his psychological and social doctrines. To unpack all this and to put it starkly, Spencer claimed that there was no need for politics. Indeed, his devoted American dis ciple, E. L. Youmans, was once recalled by Henry George to have said the following about the state of American society in response to the question, 'What do you propose to do about it?': Youmans replied 'with something like a sigh':

Nothing! You and I can do nothing at all. It is all a matter of evolution. We can only wait for evolution. Perhaps in four or five thousand years evolution may have carried man beyond this state of affairs. But we can do nothing.

This is, of course, the reductio ad absurdum of naturalistic ethics. However, it is not difficult to imagine its attractiveness in the period of primitive accumulation of capital in America. His ideas (though much distorted and exaggerated) were used as the basis for the 'Social Darwinism' of the Robber Barons, and they dominated American universities between 1860 and 1890. When Spencer visited the United States in 1882 he was treated like royal ty. The behaviour of John D. Rockefeller in creating the Standard Oil Trust, along with other attempts at monopoly, were often defended by invoking Spencer's theories. Such rapacious be haviour was claimed to lead to progress through struggle, and the elimination of the weak, along with the hierarchical division of labour, was rationalised. Competition, it was argued, gave us the 'American Beauty' rose. Spencer was the veritable author of the phrase 'survival of the fittest'. He can also be said to have condoned starvation of the idle and the shouldering aside of the weak by the strong. How ever, his own writings on the theory of population and on 'Progress: Its Law and Cause' (1857), along with his systematic writings, were all predicated on optimism and were in no way designed to condone cruelty. Indeed, on one reading, what he defended was individual competition and not corporate or state rapaciousness. One of his main bugbears was 'collectivism'. He argued for old-fashioned 'true' liberalism and defended a negative concept of liberty as the absence of restraint. The idea was to remove impediments to 'natural' progress. This also led him to oppose collective bargaining and trade unions. Underlying Spencer's belief that evolution was inherently progressive was the theory of inheritance of acquired charac teristics. This meant, quite literally, that life, humanity and society learned from their mistakes and the inheritance of 'functionally produced modifications' was for the best. In the human realm individuals would see the reason to move from egotism to altruism and societies from militarism to industrialism. Although the in heritance of acquired characteristics is not now thought to be the mechanism of evolution it was a perfectly respectable theory in Spencer's own time. It should also not be thought that Spencer was uniquely over the top in his optimism while more sober thinkers, for example, Darwin, saw no directionality in evolution. Here is the last sen tence from the chapter on instinct in On the Origirl of Species:

Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts . . . not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings—namely, multiply, vary, but the strongest live and the weakest die.

Indeed, Darwin's book ends:

 

Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceding, namely the production of higher animals, directly follo-*vs. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning to endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin was cautious about what he said about man. There was only one sentence: 'Light *rill be thrown on the origin of man and his history'. In the sixth edition, that sentence reads:

In the future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychol ogy will be securely based on a foundation already well laid by Mr Herbert Spencer, that of the necessary requirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.

It can even be said that Spencer put in caveats about evolution being counterbalanced by 'dissolution', but the second note was seldom heard. Yet the times betrayed him, and towards the end of his life he lost his optimism. More and more collectivism was introduced in the name of creating space for the very individual initiatives which the policy of laissez-faire had been designed to enable. This led eventually to the Fabian Society and the modern Labour Party. Spencer was horrified when 'Social Darwinism', of which he was really the main founder, was used to justify policies to which he was deeply opposed. *Vhen he first put forward his ideas in the 1850s the acme of civilisation could be glimpsed. In the early 1860s and subsequently his hopes were dashed. One need only think of the Crimean War (1854-6), the American Civil War (1861-5), the Great Depression (1876-96), and the Boer War (1899-1902). He was as opposed to these as he had been to the Jamaican atrocities of Governor Eyre during the controversy in 1865-7. The high tide of industrialism had led to industrial obsolescence and the perceived need for colonial and imperial expansion. It was a terrible irony that Social Darwinism was the rationalisation for the most shocking excesses in this era.

People often outlive the period of which their ideas were a per fect expression. Spencer was the most influential writer of this times on general philosophy and man's place in nature. When he died he was the most famous and most popular philosopher of his age and was seen by many as a 'second Newton'. His ideas were esteemed in Russia, China, Mexico and Brazil, and in Japan his influence was greater than any other foreign thinker. His entry in The Dictionary of National Biography (1912) says:

Spencer's place in the history of thought must be ranked high. His in fluence in the latter half of the nineteenth century was immense: indeed it has so woven itself into our modern methods of thinking that its driv ing revolutionary energy is nearly spent, there is little likelihood of its being hereafter renewed. It was the best synthesis of the knowledge of his times.

By the 1930s the American functionalist sociologist, Talcott Par sons, was quoting an historian's ironic query* 'Who now reads Herbert Spencer? It is difficult for us to realise how great a stir he made in the world.' Once again, however, Peel provides an answer:

At a time of unprecedented, seemingly uncontrolled and terrifying change, Spencer reassured the bewildered by interpreting the transition that man experienced and setting it within a larger arc of change covering all nature.

His influence remains in the loose cliches still used around evolu tion and progress. It is also reflected more precisely and pervasively in the social and psychological theories called 'functionalist'. These, as I said above, draw explicitly on biological analogies - structure, function, adaptation, organism - and con tinued to flower until the 1960s in the work of the most eminent anthropologists, Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe Brown in Britain, the functionalist and behaviourist psychologists William James, John Dewey and J. B. Watson, and Parsonian functionalist sociologists in America. The dominance of this way of thinking has recently been challenged by phenomenological and Marxist ideas, but there has been a powerful revival of biologism in socio-biology and behavioural genetics. There has also been a resurgence of laissez-faire ideas, which are powerfully reminiscent of the starkest version of Spencer's think ing, in the social and economic philosophies of Reaganism and Thatcherism. The argument is the same: that one should de-em phasise suffering and distress in the name of the grander scheme, and social and class antagonisms should be set aside in the name of the lar*family or social organism, while renewed in dustrialisation will produce sufficient prosperity for all. This is the new Anglo-American version of the slogan which captured the spirit of the age which Spencer codified and which still adorns the flag of Brazil - 'Order and Progress'. It has inspired scientific and evolutionary philosophers around the globe, and its current form draws on versions of the Spencerian organic analogy in com puting and in theories that treat all domains as 'systems', open to computer modelling and mathematical solutions. Conflicts, it is thought, can be calculated away in a higher ordering of society, and intractable contradictions - of class, of gender, and power relations between peoples - need not arise. Spencer's vision is now thoroughly secularised but is not less a religion of progress for all that.

 

For Further Reading:

 

Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: - Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Temple, 1979); Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics: or Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of 'Natural Selection' and 'Inheritance' to Political Society (King, 1869); James G. Kennedy, Herbert Spencer (Twayne, 1978); J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (Heinemann, 1971); John Watson, Comte, Mill and Spencer: An Outline of Philosophy (Maclehose, 1895); Robert M. Young, Mind, Brain and Adaptations in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1970) and Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge, 1985).


The Human Nature Review
© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

US -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.com logo

UK -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | Books and Reviews | The Human Nature Daily Review | Search |