| Home - Robert M. Young | What's New | Search | Feedback | Contact Us |
Robert M. Young Home Page
Index of writings by Robert M. Young
WORD version of this article
Introduction to this article
Email Robert M. Young
Process Press
Science as Culture
Free Associations
Kleinian Studies
Human Relations, Authority and Justice

THE DEVELOPMENT OF HERBERT SPENCER'S CONCEPT OF EVOLUTION

by Robert M. Young

The scientific controversies surrounding the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century were primarily concerned with the interpretation of the geological, paleontological, and biological evidence. The public debate, on the other hand, centered above all on man's place in nature and the implications of evolution for the immortal soul, the mind, and it organ, the brain. It is somewhat surprising to find that the writings of historians and indeed of Darwin himself fail to pay close attention to the effects of the theory of evolution on the study of mind and brain. If we do turn our attention directly to this topic, we find that the major nineteenth century figures are Herbert Spencer, John Hughlings Jackson, and George J. Romanes. In this brief paper I want to confine my attention to the development and influence of Spencer's concept of evolution. Unlike Darwin, Spencer was never much of an observer or indeed a reader, and his independent formulation of a theory of evolution developed from his speculations in social theory and psychology. The idea of evolution itself was not, of course, original. He was converted to a belief in the so-called "development hypothesis" by reading Charles Lyell, whose supposed refutation of Lamarck led Spencer to the opposite conclusion. Spencer also took part in the debates surrounding the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and discussed this book with T. H. Huxley, who later said of the period 1851—1858, "...the only person known to me whose knowledge and capacity compelled respect, and who was, at the same time, a through-going evolutionist, was Mr. Herbert Spencer... Many and prolonged were the battles we fought on this topic. But even my friend's rare dialectic skill and copiousness of apt illustration could not drive me from my agnostic position." l What was original and interesting about Spencer’s theory was

______________

1 FRANCIS DARWIN (Ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3rd ed. London, Murray, 1887, vol. II, p. 188.

274

three-fold: the traditions on which it drew, the areas in which he applied it, and the tenacity with which he clung to belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. I want to point out that the origins, applications and influences of Spencer's evolutionism were not only different from those of Darwin but that they were also more significant for the development of our conception of mind and brain.

Spencer's first serious intellectual endeavours were devoted to the study of phrenology, and it was from phrenology that he drew the conception of society as an organism in which interdependent, specialized structures serve diverse functions. Similarly, his concept of the adaptation of the faculties of men to their organic, psychological and social needs was based on a phrenological view of man. These ideas were used as the basis of his attempt to refute Utilitarian social and ethical theory in his first book, Social Statics (1851), and he later reflected that two passages in that work were "the earliest foreshadowing of the general doctrine of Evolution.~2 In the next two years his reflections on odd phrases encountered in his desultory reading led him to generalize his evolutionism from organic phenomena to embrace absolutely everything.3 He declared his advocacy of "The Development Hypothesis" in an article which appeared in 1852, and these ideas were then developed further until they became the universal formula which appeared in his First Principles (1862).4 Rather than pursue the development of this rather fruitless cosmic cliché, I want to turn to the application of evolution to psychology.5

The second tradition which played an important part in Spencer's thinking was the theory of the association of ideas. Associationism is the

_________________

2 DAVID DUNCAN, (Ed.): The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, London, Methuen, 1908, p. 541; Cf. HERBERT SPENCER, Social Statics Abridged and Revised; together with the Man versus the State, London, Williams & Norgate, 1892, pp. 120n & 266n.

3 The first phrase was from Henri Milne-Edwards: "the physiological division of labour" (D. DUNCAN, op. cit., p. 542; Cf. H. SPENCER, An Autobiography, London, Williams & Norgate, 1904, vol. II, p. 166). The second appeared in William Carpenter's exposition of a formula devised by Karl Ernst von Baer: "the development of every organism as a change from homogeneity to heterogeneity" (H. SPENCER, op. sit., 1904, vol. II, pp. 8—9, 166).

4 Spencer's essay on "The Development Hypothesis" is mentioned by Darwin in the "Historical Sketch" which he added to later editions of the Origins. Spencer fussed with his (basically vacuous) general formula until the galley stage of the sixth edition of First Principles, London, Williams & Norgate., 1900, p. 321.

5 I should like to note in passing that the influence of phrenology on the early evolutionists and Victorian psychologists merits careful study. Robert Chambers, Spencer, A. R. Wallace, and Alexander Bain all owed significant intellectual debts to phrenology. This influence helps one to understand, e.g., Wallace’s aberrant views on the evolution of mind and brain.

275

only serious alternative to belief in innate ideas that has been proposed. It is based on two assumptions:

1 ) that complex mental phenomena are formed from simple sensations, and

2) that this occurs by means of habit or repetition.

Modern Associationism began as an afterthought in Locke's Essay and was developed by David Hartley into a comprehensive explanatory principle in psychology.6 By the nineteenth century it had become the reigning psychological theory. Its modern form is the theory of conditioning of stimulus-response psychology, and it also provides the associationist principle in psychoanalysis. Thus, Associationism remains the basic assumption of psychological theory.

In one sense, Spencer's psychology of evolutionary associationism was a simple synthesis of "use inheritance" and the law of association. As he put it, "The familiar doctrine of association here undergoes a great extension; for it is held that not only in the individual do ideas become connected when in experience the things producing them have repeatedly occurred together, but that such results of repeated occurrences accumulate in successions of individuals: the effects of associations are supposed to be transmitted as modifications of the nervous system."7 That is, Spencer's psychology extends the theory of association from the tabula rasa of the individual to that of the race. What was novel in Spencer's view of psychological evolution was the implication which he took it to have for the place of mind in nature. When he was making notes for The Principles of Psychology in 1853, he was struck by the importance of adaptation for mental as well as bodily life.8 "There at once followed the idea that the growth of a correspondence between inner and outer actions had to be traced up from the beginning; so as to show the way in which Mind gradually evolves out of Life. This was, I think, the thought which originated the book and gave it its most distinctive character;..."9 Thus, two ideas were at the heart of his psychology: first, the continuity of all mental phenomena — extending from the first contractions of a sensitive polyp to the evolution of the forms

__________________

6 Book II, chapter XXXIII was added to the 4th edition of Locke's Essay. Cf. D. HARTLEY, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty and His Expectations, 2 vols., London, Leake & Frederick, 1749.

7 H. SPENCER, op. cit., 1904, vol. I, p. 470. The union of use inheritance with associationism was not, however, an entirely new idea. Erasmus Darwin had extended Hartley's theory to provide the basis for an evolutionary theory over half a century earlier.

8 H. SPENCER, op. cit., 1904, vol. II, p. 11.

9 D. DUNCAN, op. cit., p. 546.

276

of thought; 10 and second, the emphasis on progressive adaptation as "increasing adjustment of inner subjective relations to outer objective relations. . ."11 Mental phenomena are therefore defined as "incidents of the correspondence between the organism and its environment."12 It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of this view for later psychological work. As it was increasingly applied, psychology was progressively seen as a biological science, and mental phenomena be came one — albeit the most highly evolved — among the many functions of the organism which bring about adaptation to its physical and social environment. For the present, there is only time to note that it significantly influenced modern neurology, neurophysiology and psychoanalysis. Spencer's conception of the mind as an adaptive function was also a crucial influence on the development of the pragmatic philosophy and functional psychology of William James and John Dewey. James said that "few recent formulas have done more real service of a rough sort in psychology than the Spencerian one that the essence of mental life and of bodily life are one, namely, 'the adjustment of inner to outer relations’"l3 Although he had grave reservations about Spencer's speculative bent, James praised him lavishly for insisting that "since mind and its environment have evolved together, they must be studied together."14

There is, unfortunately, a very serious flaw in this rosy picture: Spencer's life-long belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Since the 1880s, the temptation to dismiss Spencer because of his advocacy of this erroneous mechanism has overwhelmed most biologists, psychologists, and historians.l5 As a scientific judgement this is unimpeachable, but it is not very enlightening for the historian, whose first duty is to understand the past. Spencer could point triumphantly to Darwin's own writings to show that he had allowed an increasing role for use-inheritance at the expense of natural selection, just as Spencer had granted a role for natural selection in the early stages of evolution. In the 1880s, Spen-

___________________

10 For a recent expression of a similar idea, although based on the mechanism of natural selection, see H. J. BARR, "The Epistemology of Causality from the Point of View of Evolutionary Biology", Philosophy of Science, 1964, 31, pp. 286—288.

11 H. SPENCER, op. cit., 1904, vol. II, p. 11.

12 H. SPENCER, The Principles of Psychology, London, Longmans, 1855, p. 584.

13 W, JAMES, The Principles of Psychology, New York, Holt, 1890, vol. I, p. 6.

14 W. JAMES Memories and Studies, New York. Longmans, Green, 1924, pp. 139-140.

15 Spencer’s ethical theory has also suffered for this reason. See: E. ALBEE, A History of English Utilitarianism (1901). Reprinted: New York, Collier, 1962, Chs. 13—15.

16 H. SPENCER, The factors of Organic Evolution, London, Williams & Norgate, 1887.

277

cer was right to argue that on the evidence then available, this was a matter of emphasis, and the relative weight to be attached to various factors was very much an open question.17 However, these mitigating circumstances cannot fully account for the immense weight which Spencer attached to the role of use inheritance. He argued, for example, that it was the chief factor in the evolution of civilised man.l8 Much more was at stake than a simple debate over a biological mechanism. He prefaced his analysis of The Factors of Organic Evolution by pointing out that while its direct bearings are biological, "it has indirect bearings upon Psychology, Ethics and Sociology. My belief in the profound importance of these indirect bearings, was originally a chief prompter to set forth the argument;... "19 He was convinced that the evolution of complex mental phenomena was inexplicable unless one resorted to belief in the inheritance of functionally-produced modifications. But, most important of all, he could not bear to believe that institutions and circumstances do not affect a nation en masse. 20 It was, therefore, Spencer's belief in rapid social progress which most strongly influenced the way he viewed the biological evidence. Lest we remember Spencer too unkindly, we should recall that there have been more recent examples of this view, based on similar convictions about the improvement of society, for example, the genetic theory of Lysenko and Michurin.21 I submit, therefore, that we should be sympathetic toward Spencer's so-called "Lamarckianism", on the grounds that Victorian meliorism was too powerful a presupposition for him to overcome. The idea of progress was at the heart of his life's work, and we should attend to the heuri-

___________________

17 ibid., p. 75. It should be recalled here that A. R. Wallace had also made exceptions of man's mind and brain and had attributed their evolution to factors other than natural selection. See: "The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man" (1870); in.: A. R. WALLACE, Natural Selection and Tropical Nature, London, Macmillan, 1901, Ch. X.

18 H. SPENCER, op. cit., 1887, p. 74.

19 ibid., p. iii.

20 ibid., pp. iii—iv.

21 The social and political overtones of recent Soviet genetics provide an excellent analogy for the point being made about Spencer. A statement by the Praesidium of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences claimed in 1948 that Michurin's theory was the only acceptable one, "because it is based on dialectical materialism and on the revolutionary principle of changing Nature for the benefit of the people". (Quoted in: A. E. E. MCKENZIE, The Major Achievements of Science, Cambridge 1960, vol. II, p. 146). One might also point to the psychology of J. B. Watson and the conditioning theory of Pavlov and his followers for other examples of the heavy stress which has been laid on the potential benefits of environmental manipulation at the expense of the biological evidence.

 278

stic value of the "indirect bearings" of his evolutionism at least as carefully as we do to his biological accuracy.

If we still want to fault Spencer's evolutionism, we can easily do so on a number of counts.22 Even so, the net effect of his influence leads one to reiterate the full text of Darwin's cryptic statement of the most important consequence of his theory. You will recall the sentence, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." In the sixth edition the preceding sentences read as follows: "In the future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be securely based on the foundation already well laid by Mr. Herbert Spencer, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation."23

________________

22 Examples: (1) Spencer's "universal principle" of the instability of the homogenous is contradicted by the laws of thermodynamics. (2) His theory of universal evolution was vagueness incarnate, and his deductive method and penchant for framing universal principles have been deservedly ridiculed. (3) Finally, his theory of psychological development by use-inheritance took too passive a view of adaptation. Psychological theorists from James and Dewey to Thorndike, Watson and Skinner drew heavily on Alexander Bain's conception of spontaneous activity as the first step in learning process. Thus learning occurs as a result of the sensations suffered as a consequence of initially random movements. It is not sensations passively suffered, but those which follow from trial and error, which teach us. The result is that natural selection is a more useful paradigm for modern learning theory than was Spencer's passive "adjustment of inner to outer."

23 M. PECKHAM, (Ed.), The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a Variorum

Presented to XIe Internatrional Congress of the History of Science, Warsaw, August 1965; published in Actes du XIe Congrès International d'Histoire des Sciences. Warsaw: Ossolineum, 1967, vol. 2, pp. 273-78.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ.
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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 |