The Relation of Spencer’s Evolutionary Theory to Darwin’s

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The Relation of Spencer’s Evolutionary Theory to Darwin’s

Robert J. Richards

The University of Chicago

Our image of Herbert Spencer is that of a bald, dyspeptic bachelor, spending his days in rooming houses, and fussing about government interference with individual liberties. Beatrice Webb, who knew him as a girl and young woman recalls for us just this picture. In her diary for January 4, 1885, she writes:

Royal Academy private view with Herbert Spencer. His criticisms on art dreary, all bound down by the “possible” if not probable. That poor old man would miss me on the whole more than any other mortal. Has real anxiety for my welfare—physical and mental. Told him story of my stopping cart horse in Hyde Park and policeman refusing to come off his beat to hold it. Want of public spirit in passers-by not stopping it before. “Yes, that is another instance of my first principle of government. Directly you get state intervention you cease to have public spirit in individuals; that will be a constantly increasing tendency and the State, like the policeman, will be so bound by red-tape rules that it will frequently leave undone the simplest duties.”1

Spencer appears a man whose strangled emotions would yet cling to a woman whose philosophy would be completely alien to his own, as Webb’s Fabian Socialism turned out to be. Our image of Darwin is more complex than our image of Spencer. We might think of him nestled in the bosom of his large family, kindly, and just a little sad. The photo of him taken by Julia Cameron reveals the visage of an Old Testament prophet, though one, not fearsome, but made wise by contemplating the struggle of life on this earth. These images have deeply colored our reaction to the ideas of each thinker. The pictures are not false, but they are cropped portraits that tend to distort our reactions to the theories of each. If we examine the major features of their respective constructions of evolution, we might be inclined, as I believe we should be, to recalibrate our antecedent judgments—judgments like those of Ernst Mayr, who in his thousand page history of biology celebrates Darwin over numerous chapters of superlatives but begrudges only three paragraphs to Spencer, “because his positive contributions [to evolutionary theory] were nil.”2 Mayr’s attitude is reflected in most histories of science discussing evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century. Certainly nothing much of value can be expected from a boarding-house theorist.

Our contemporary evaluations of the ideas of Spencer and Darwin usually proceed, as Mayr’s has, from the perspective of present-day science. Accordingly, Spencer’s craft appears to have sunk without a trace, while Darwin’s has sailed right into the port of modern biology. Our neo-Darwin perspective, I believe, adds to the distortion worked by our images of these Victorian gentlemen. During the latter part of his career, Spencer’s star had certainly achieved considerable magnitude, such that his literary productions began actually to turn a nice profit. And his contemporaries recognized in his ideas comparable intellectual capital. Alexander Bain regarded him as “the philosopher of the doctrine of Development, notwithstanding that Darwin has supplied a most important link in the chain.”3 In the historical introduction to the Origin of Species, Darwin included Spencer as one of his predecessors; and he wrote E. Ray Lankester that Spencer “will be looked at as by far the greatest living philosopher in England; perhaps equal to any that have lived.”4 Darwin’s evaluations of Spencer would alternate between astonishment at the philosopher’s cleverness and scorn at his inflated abstractions. Yet, the balance tipped heavily to the positive side. Darwin along with Thomas Henry Huxley, John Stuart Mill, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Alexander Bain, John Hershel, and a host of others scientists of rather less renown, subscribed to Spencer’s program of “Synthetic Philosophy,” which would issue volumes in biology, psychology, sociology, and morality. These Victorian coryphées redeemed Spencer’s intellectual capital with real money. Grant Allen’s admiration for Spencer’s genius moved him to poetry:

Deepest and mightiest of our later seers,

Spencer, whose piercing glance descried afar

Down fathomless abysses of dead years

The formless waste drift into sun or star,

And through vast wilds of elemental strife

Tracked out the first faint steps of unconscious life.5

We may judge that Spencer got the poet he deserves, but we can hardly doubt that he made a significant mark on his contemporaries. His star, to be sure, was slow in rising and always included a reflective glow from Darwin’s own. In what follows, I want to take the measure of Spencer’s theory along three dimensions, which will allow comparison with essential features of Darwin’s conception. These are: first, the origin and character of Spencer’s general theory of transmutation, and then more specifically, the causes of species alteration and, finally, the particular case of human mental and moral evolution. In this comparison, I think we will find both some undervalued aspects of Spencer’s scheme and some problematic aspects of Darwin’s. But this reversal of fortune, if real, does produce an historiographic paradox: why the adulation of Darwin and the denigration of Spencer?

General Evolutionary Schemes

Both Darwin and Spencer eased into their evolutionary notions in pursuit of their early professions, and, indeed, aided by similar intellectual resources. Darwin, of course, sailed away on the Beagle to circumnavigate the globe, a journey that supplied the kind of experiences, recollected in the tranquility of his London study, which led to the first formulations of his ideas about species descent. Those experiences, however, required the infusion of an ideational stimulant in order to crack the shell of orthodoxy. For Darwin, two works in particular, though hardly exclusively, provided the conceptual energy to give form to his experiences: Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinocteal Regions of the New Continent, which altered dramatically Darwin’s view of nature, and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which supplied the vast time scale and biogeographical suggestions for suspecting that Lamarckian transformation theory, which Lyell detailed in volume two of his work, might have much more to it than the author allowed. And, of course, after Darwin had returned from the voyage, Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population, with its pregnant notion of population pressure, led Darwin to a “theory by which to work,” as he himself expressed it.6

Spencer’s early professional experience lacked the grand sweep of Darwin’s.7 As civil engineer in his late teens, he had his curiosity peeked by the many fossils he discovered while excavating new passages for the railroads. His reading of Lyell’s Principles of Geology moved him, much as it had Darwin, to consider seriously the Lamarckian hypothesis. Lyell had, in the spirit of the Old Bailey, where he had trained as a barrister, presented a fair case for Lamarck’s views, but assumed his subsequent refutation would nullify the theory completely. He was obviously too scrupulous in the former exercise and too hedging in the latter, at least for Spencer. Spencer, though, read few books to the end; so he may simply have missed Lyell’s crucial closing arguments. Less significant for Spencer than Darwin, however, were the fundamental biological aspects of development. Spencer was more interested in human social progress, and that was the consideration that lent the tipping weight to Lamarck’s thesis.

Spencer’s time with his uncle Thomas Spencer, a curate who had a definite political philosophy, kept him mindful of the possibilities of social development without the aid of government. Poor Laws, Spencer came to believe, were only devious instruments to arrest the need to deal with unjust distribution of the ultimate source of wealth, namely land. In his first book, Social Statics, published at his own expense in 1851, he sounded a call not unlike that of his contemporary, Karl Marx: “All arrangements. . . which disguise the evils entailed by the present inequitable relationship of mankind to the soil,” he wrote, “postpones the day of rectification. A generous Poor Law is the best means of pacifying an irritated people. Workhouses are used to mitigate the more acute symptoms of social unhealthiness. Parish pay is hush money. Whoever, then, desires the radical cure of national maladies, but especially of this atrophy of one class and the hypertrophy of another, consequent upon unjust land tenure, cannot consistently advocate any kind of compromise.”8 Only if government would step aside and allow natural development to take its course, Spencer suggested, could the society avoid armed insurrection.

Spencer sketched out that natural development of society in his book Social Statics and in his 1852 essay on “The Theory of Population.” Like Darwin, Spencer employed Malthus’s notion of population pressure in a way antithetical to the parson’s own dreary conclusions. Spencer argued that as populations grew, individuals would have to accommodate themselves to increasingly difficulty circumstances; habits would have to be developed to articulate men to these circumstances; and these habits, as well as the anatomical changes they would induce, would sink into the heritable structure of organisms, and so individuals would increasingly adapt to the requirements of society and eventually achieve perfect biological accommodation. This was a kind of utopian evolutionism, the goal of which Darwin himself would have acceded to—and, in fact, did, but only with a gaze beclouded with as much doubt as hope.

Spencer, in his essay, mentioned another feature of population pressure that echoes of Spencerian tragedy and Darwinian triumph. He wrote: “It is clear, that by the ceaseless exercise of the faculties needed to contend with them [i.e., the complexities of society], and by the death of all men who fail to contend with them successfully, there is ensured a constant progress towards a higher degree of skill, intelligence, and self-regulation—a better co-ordination of actions—a more complete life.”9 Thus the principle of natural selection oozed out of Spencer’s Malthusian thought, but it immediately dried up. In later years, Spencer would point to this passage as indicating his claim to equitable partnership in authoring the theory of evolution that more and more became associated with Darwin’s name.

The final aspect of his reconfiguration of Malthus is unadulterated Spencer. He relied on some very antique ideas ultimately stemming from Hippocratic notions of pangenetic heredity. In ancient medical treatises, connections were made between the production of pangenes from various regions of the body, including the nervous system, and the reproductive organs. The Hippocratics imagined that seeds from all parts of the body, bearing the hereditary material, collected in the brain and slid down the spinal marrow to the generative organs. In the early modern period this ancient view gave rise to the notion that masturbation could cause insanity—a great expenditure of seed would virtually melt away the brain. Though Spencer may have been oblivious to the physiological theory behind the wobbly speculations of an ancient medical tradition, he added some loose causal observations of his own to propose an inverse ratio between biological conception and mental conception: the greater the mental complexity of the organism, the fewer the number of offspring. Hence, as human society progressed mentally toward perfection, population pressure should decrease. So Malthus’s attempt to put the breaks on human improvement by reason of over population would be thwarted, at least theoretically, by Spencerian sexual frugality. Though Darwin wrote a complimentary letter to Spencer on receiving a copy of the essay on population, he did think that the principles of reproduction Spencer assumed were complete rubbish—after all, he did have his own large family as counter evidence.10 But today, we know that Spencer was uncannily correct—greater mental work generally yields fewer biological progeny. The reasons for this, however, are not exactly those he supposed.

Spencer’s socialist attitudes lost their vigor with age. By the 1890s, he averred that biological adaptation to the social state must diminish in force as the approach to perfect adaptation increased, so that only in infinite time would the utopia of his youthful radicalism be realized. And as his own modest wealth increased, he became considerably less enthusiastic about community ownership of land, finding individual ownership more equitable in the long run.

Natural Selection vs Functional Adaptations as Cause of Evolution

In his early writing on the development hypothesis, Spencer relied exclusively on habit and the inheritance of consequent anatomical modifications to explain adaptations. But with the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, he came, as he admitted to Darwin, to appreciate the power of natural selection. In his letter of acknowledgment, he also mentioned to Darwin, lest it be overlooked, that he himself had advanced a similar idea, but confined his considerations to human improvement.11

In his book First Principles, published in 1860 and the initial volume in his series Synthetic Philosophy, Spencer relied on the idea of an equilibration between outer environmental circumstances and inner biological conditions in order to explain adaptations. The balancing adjustment of an organism would occur as it adopted new habits to deal with an altered environment. These habits would, in their turn, produce heritable anatomical changes and so realign the organism with its external circumstances. In his Principles of Biology, which he began issuing in fascicles in 1862, he had to recognize, however, two significant causes of adaptation, what he called “direct equilibration”—the Lamarckian idea—and “indirect equilibration,” natural selection, or as he preferred to call it: “survival of the fittest.”12 He admitted that survival of the fittest could account for many traits of plants and the simpler accommodations of animals and men. But he stoutly rejected the suggestion that it could explain more complex co-adaptations. He illustrated his argument with the case of the great, if extinct, Irish elk. In order for its huge rack of antlers to have evolved, its skull must have thickened, its neck muscles strengthened, its vascular network enlarged, and its nervous connections increased. None of these traits, however, would be of any selective value without all of the others—large neck muscles, for example, would be useless without the great rack of antlers. Yet it would be highly improbable that all of these traits would have simultaneously appeared as spontaneous variations to be selected.13 Their explanation, according to Spencer, had to be found in the gradual and mutual adjustment of different habits, which would ultimately instill co-adapted anatomical attributes. Later, in the 1880s, as the heat streaming from the ultra-Darwinians—such as Alfred Russel Wallace and August Weismann—began to be felt, Spencer elaborated his argument based on co-adaptation in a large, two part article entitled “The Factors of Organic Evolution,” the aim of which was to show the insufficiencies of natural selection.14 I note in passing that this is exactly the argument that contemporary advocates of Intelligent Design have attempted to rejuvenate with mouse glands and unleash as a new killer refutation of Darwinain evolutionary theory. Darwin himself answered this kind of objection—and Spencer specifically—when he spelled out, in his Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, how natural selection might operate to produce co-adaptations. But the simple reply, which he also furnished, is that artificial selection can obviously produce the kind of co-adaptations that Spencer attributed solely to direct equilibration. After all, multiple, mutual adaptations also go into the construction of pouter pigeons and sporting hounds.15

Wallace urged Darwin to replace the terms “natural selection” with Spencer’s version “survival of the fittest.” He thought Darwin’s terms too metaphorical and apt to mislead. As we know, Darwin demurred, saying that his original designation had become enmeshed so tightly within the fabric of the whole theory that it could not be extricated without confusion. He did, though, mention Spencer’s expression in the fifth and sixth editions (1869 and 1872) of the Origin. I think Darwin was right to reject Spencer’s alternative, since these two evolutionists were utilizing completely different conceptions. The difference hinged on the locus of the creativity of nature. For Spencer, survival of the fittest meant the elimination of inferior types; it was a negative process. The real creativity of nature, in Spencer’s view, stemmed from functional adaptations and coordination through habit, with the inheritance of acquired characters molding the structure of organisms. Moreover, survival of the fittest, Spencer emphatically maintained, did not mean survival of the better or the favored. He urged that “very often that which, humanly speaking, is inferiority, causes the survival. Superiority, whether in size, strength, activity, or sagacity, is, other things equal, at the cost of diminished fertility”—and here he harkened back to his population theory. He continued: “and where the life led by a species does not demand these higher attributes, the species profits by decrease of them, and accompanying increase of fertility. . . Survival of the better does not cover these cases, though survival of the fittest does.”16 So, for Spencer, survival of the fittest meant, generally speaking, elimination of inferior traits, not the selection of favorable attributes and the building up of progressively better adaptations. The creativity of evolution, in Spencer’s scheme, was left to Lamarckian functional accommodations. But for Darwin, natural selection was creative and produced better, more progressively advanced creatures.

Darwin’s conception of the operations of natural selection had its germination in the theory of nature that he embraced during his Beagle voyage and that came to invest the Origin of Species. While on the voyage, he read and re-read the works of Alexander von Humboldt, particularly the young German’s Personal Narrative of Travel to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, an account of his journey to South and Central America in the years 1799 to 1804. Humboldt’s understanding of the character of nature both in the large and in creatures stemmed from his engagement with various members of the early Romantic movement in Jena.17 Humboldt depicted a nature pregnant with moral and aesthetic values, and governed by archetypal relationships. It was a nature open both to scientific articulation and to artistic intuition, each complementing the other. The ordering of Humboldt’s cosmos did not come from a personal Creator, but from the fecund and intelligent resources of nature herself. Spinoza, a favorite philosopher of the German Romantics, had epitomized this view with the phrase “Deus sive natura”—God and nature were one. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin absorbed this depiction and rendered in his account of his journey nature much after the manner of the German Romantics. He reflected on his debt to Humboldt during his return voyage back to England, when he wrote in his Diary:

As the force of impression frequently depends on preconceived ideas, I may add that all mine were taken from the vivid descriptions in the Personal Narrative which far exceed in merit anything I have ever read on the subject.18

In the 1840s, when Darwin was attempting to formulate for himself the character of natural selection, he employed a potent metaphor. He likened the operations of selection to an all powerful being:

Let us now suppose a Being with penetration sufficient to perceive differences in the outer and innermost organization quite imperceptible to man, and with forethought extending over future centuries to which with unerring care and select for any object the offspring of an organism produced under the foregoing circumstances; I can see no conceivable reason why he should not form a new race (or several were he to separate the stock of the original organism and work on several islands) adapted to new ends. As we assume his discrimination, and his forethought, and his steadiness of object, to be incomparably greater than those qualities in man, so we may suppose the beauty and complications of the adaptations of the new race and their differences from the original stock to be greater than in the domestic races produced by man’s agency.19

Here Darwin, through a telling trope, worked out for himself the character of the operations of natural selection: it acted with “forethought,” designing adaptations, not simply of utility, but of aesthetic beauty as well. When this same creature made its appearance in the Origin of Species fifteen years later, it had shed some of its garb, but none of its deep vitality and moral temper:

Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends. . . . It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working whenever and wherever opportunity offers, as the improvements of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.20

Through means of a literary device, an aesthetic instrument, Darwin infused his conception of nature with “the stamp of far higher workmanship”—higher than any human contrivance could evince. Natural selection, in Darwin’s image-driven language, patently displayed attributes that Spencer would have denied. Nature did not destroy, rather she creatively directed development in an altruistic and progressive way: “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection,” says Darwin in the Origin.21 Darwin’s notion of natural selection as a dynamic, creative force instilling value into nature undoubtedly has had a subtle, even preconscious appeal to the readers of the Origin, satisfying a deep need to find some solace in a world from which a creator God had fled. Spencer, by contrast, left his readers with a colder, darker view of the destructive power of nature.
Human Mental Evolution

Spencer initially worked out his theory of evolution in light of his utopian socialist vision—a gradual accommodation of human beings to the requirements of social living, so that the greatest amount of intellectual and ethical satisfaction might be achieved. Metal evolution was thus a principal concern right from the very beginning of his evolutionary theorizing. The first book of his to achieve some public attention was the Principles of Psychology, published in 1855. Spencer had outsized aspirations for this treatise. He predicted that his book would achieve the same intellectual prominence as Newton’s Principia—at least he so confided this hope to his father.22 He believed he had resolved a dispute between the followers of Locke and those of Kant—a dispute then at the boil in the exchanges between John Stuart Mill and William Whewell on the status of universal knowledge claims. The Lockeans maintained that all knowledge was acquired from experience, while the Kantians held that some propositions of universal and necessary modality were innate and determinatively valid. In his Principles of Psychology, Spencer argued in Solomonic fashion and came to a conclusion that many philosophers and psychologists today—especially those traveling under the name of “evolutionary psychologist”—would endorse. He asserted that certain ubiquitous relationships in the experience of our ancestors concerning space, time, and causality had become impressed on their nervous systems, and rendered heritable by dint of constant impregnation. So today those epistemological connections would stand as intrinsic mental structures and serve as the foundation for a priori propositions in mathematics and physics. Spencer thus offered an evolutionary Kantianism as the revolutionary account for the foundation of the sciences.

Spencer sent Darwin a copy of his Principles of Psychology in early 1856, undoubtedly because he had heard from his friend Huxley that the reclusive naturalist was also working on descent theory.23 Darwin’s marginalia indicate he certainly read the book, if without deep penetration. He never mentioned Spencer’s work in the early editions of the Origin or in the Descent of Man, where, in this latter, he revealed his own theories of human mental evolution. Just after the publication of the Descent, Spencer wrote his American promoter Edward Youmans to complain: “As no one says a word in rectification, and as Darwin himself has not indicated the fact that the Principles of Psychology was published five years before the Origin of Species, I am obliged to gently indicate this myself.”24 The message finally got home to Darwin, and in the last edition of the Origin, in 1872, he altered a concluding passage to say: “Psychology will be securely based on the foundation already well laid by Herbert Spencer, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” Despite Darwin’s appraisal of Spencer, he seems to have been little directed by Spencerian ideas, nor was Spencer greatly influenced by Darwinian notions on questions of mental evolution. Both, nonetheless, developed closely parallel conceptions.

As early as the 1840s, Spencer had proposed that the continued development of society and the slow adaptation of its members to the social state would produce “mental and moral and through them, the social perfection of the human race.”25 When he began constructing his Synthetic Philosophy some twenty years later, he retained the conception of the evolutionary process in nature culminating in the moral perfection of human beings: his assessment of cosmic evolution in the initial volume of his system, his First Principles, and of biological, psychological, and social evolution in subsequent volumes—these all had the purpose of grounding a science of morals in evolutionary processes. He brought his system to a close in 1893 with the publication of his Principles of Ethics.

A comparable trajectory can be made out for Darwin. Though his initial thoughts were directed to animal adaptations, he quickly swung to the notion that the highest activity of the human animal—moral behavior—had to be given account by his new theory. His early M and N notebooks, and his so-called “Old and Useless” notebooks, kept from 1837 to 1840—all of these contain reading notes and theorizing about human mental and moral transformation, leavened with recollections of his recent experience of the behavior and mental condition of the South American Indians, the Fuegians and the Indians of the Pampas. During the despicable effort of the Spanish to exterminate the Indians of Argentina, Darwin detected noble and altruistic behavior exhibited by individuals whom the colonials regarded as little better than animals. And the Indians exhibited moral courage without benefit of the Christian religion. Darwin thought his theory could explain such behavior; and he felt the urgency to do so, lest a crack be left open for the Divinity to creep back into biology.

As Darwin worked out his early theory of moral evolution, he stumbled across a problem that threatened his account, not only of human behavior, but of his entire theory. This was the difficulty of the social insects—ants, bees, and termites. Soldier bees, for example, would sacrifice their lives for the welfare of the hive, yet since they were neuters, their behavior could not be inherited by their offspring; moreover, even if they could reproduce, such altruistic behavior would have the same effect as if they were neuters—dead bees don’t leave progeny. Hence, natural selection could not, it seems, explain the altruistic behavior of such insects. Darwin worried about this potentially crucial objection to his theory right through the late 1850s. But just before the publication of the Origin, he hit upon the solution: natural selection would operate on the entire hive or community of insects. Hence, those hives that by chance had members exhibiting altruistic behavior would have a selective advantage, and their members, who would include the relatives of the self-sacrificial soldiers, would survive to propagate another day.26

Darwin’s solution to the problem of the social insects became the model for his explanation of human moral behavior in the Descent of Man. The explanation was elegant and one that many of us would still endorse. He wrote:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.27

Though he focused on human moral acts as that kind of behavior most elegantly explained by his theory of community selection, he found the model to be generalizable. It could also explain growth in human intelligence. A tribe that by chance had a primitive Newton in its midst would profit by adopting his inventions and conceptual notions. This would give the tribe an advantage in competition with other tribes and so it would be selected, along with that ersatz Newton’s relatives.28 Again, mental traits that might not seem to be greatly advantageous to an individual might yet be selected at the community level and thus continue to advance.

Though Spencer retained the notion that complex traits of organisms—including complex moral behavior—required a theory of direct equilibration for their explanation, he yet yielded to the attractions of Darwin’s notion of community selection, so powerful was it. In the first part of his Principles of Ethics, which was initially published as Data of Ethics in 1879, Spencer distinguished two levels of altruism: one kind directed to the family and another to the larger society. He obviously found Darwin’s conception of community selection, now narrowed to the family, a fit explanation for altruistic advantage given to children and more remote relatives. He yet held that self-sacrificial behavior operating for the benefit of the larger society could only be explained by gradual accommodation to the social state—his long standing explanation dependent on direct inheritance of social characters. He perhaps recognized that group selection on unrelated individuals would not yield heritable advantage. Darwin, by contrast, came to believe that group selection per se could occur even without individuals being related.29 The problem of group selection still bedevils modern biology.

Darwin’s account of human morality largely depended on his theory of community selection, while Spencer’s still fell back on the inheritance of acquired characters. Yet Darwin, could as easily revert to direct inheritance when the situation demanded. This was the case when he focused on the problem of man’s big brain. Wallace had pointed out that for sheer survival, humans needed a brain hardly larger than that of an orangutan, that is, about the size, as Wallace suggested—about the size of that of the average member of a British gentleman’s club. But if a large brain were not needed for survival, what accounted for the superfluous cerebral matter that most humans carried around? Darwin, after reading some recent German literature, concluded that our acquisition of language molded the brain into more complex patterns, which would become heritable over time. Thus the human brain would grow with the complexity of language. 30 This kind of Darwinian position, though we might cavil about it today, yet reveals that deeper truth which both Spencer and Darwin recognized: namely, that human evolution takes place in society and that social relations become inscribed in the development of the individual.

It has sometimes been suggested that the phrase “social Darwinism”—a phrase that carries a large negative valence—be altered to the more historically correct “social Spencerianism,” as if Darwin himself should be exonerated of any application of evolutionary theory to human beings. This suggestion obviously lacks all merit. Neither Darwin nor Spencer thought the human animal exempt from evolutionary understanding and consequent theoretical construction.


Darwin and Spencer relied on the same devices to explain human mental and moral evolution—that is, natural selection and direct inheritance of acquired relations. Each, however, emphasized that causal account about which each felt most proprietary—certainly no surprise there. No contemporary biologist would, though, be thoroughly satisfied with the theories of either one. Neither Spencer nor Darwin had, by our contemporary lights, a decent notion of heredity. Darwin had no problem, for instance, with natural selection operating on acquired characters; and, of course, his theory of pangenesis was designed to accommodate a Lamarckian kind of inheritance. Yet, we are all neo-Darwinians, but none of us would admit to being a neo-Spencerian (though we might charge our enemies with that). Why the denigration of Spencer and the apotheosis of Darwin? Let me conclude with a few suggestions as to the answer to this question.

First, I believe it is the intuitively clear idea of natural selection—at least in its later formulations—that we admire. Ernst Haeckel was ready to regard natural selection as analytically true and thus an immoveable rock upon which to build evolutionary biology. Of course, Karl Popper also regarded it as analytically true, but drew a different conclusion as to its status in science. Darwin’s own original conception, though, gave natural selection properties—namely its creative function—to which we are, I believe, inclined to be more favorably disposed than to the idea of negative elimination. This, I believe, is a second reason for the prospering of Darwin’s fortunes.

One cannot dismiss a related aspect of Darwin’s evolutionary views. They seemed to be based on large and disparate accumulations of empirical evidence. Though there is some illusion in this assumption, since the Origin of Species makes almost no use of that kind of empirical evidence we today would normally regard as demonstrative, namely the fossil record. Indeed, Darwin’s first German translator, Heinrich Georg Bronn, leveled as a most potent objection to Darwin’s theory that he offered only a possible scheme of species descent but lacked empirical evidence for the actuality of species descent.31 Bronn had a point. The Origin of Species is filled with a great variety of stories about how life might have evolved. And so powerful are they, readers have been led simply to accept them as quasi-proofs that life has actually evolved. What Darwin does show is that the kinds of facts with which naturalist would be familiar all hang together in unexpected ways when viewed through the lens of his theory. Spencer’s leaden prose could not accomplish the same linguistic magic as Darwin’s metaphorical and image filled writing.

A fourth reason for the ascendancy of Darwinism is that Thomas Henry Huxley and G. E. Moore indicted Spencer’s evolutionary ethics with the charge of committing a great fallacy—the so-called “naturalistic fallacy,” that because we have, as a matter of fact, evolved to regard certain actions as good or bad, we therefore ought to regard them as good or bad. Neither Huxley nor Moore appeared to notice that Darwin himself had committed, from their point of view, the same fallacy. As for myself, though, I think it’s not a fallacy, but that’s irrelevant here.32

A fifth reason for the low estimate of Spencer’s program surely has to do with his notions about the liabilities of government interference in natural processes of human development; those notions do run counter to most academically liberal sensibilities. Darwin made few preachments about the role of government, especially since his own social position seemed fairly much in harmony with the status quo of his society.

Finally, there are those indelible portraits of the sour bachelor and the prophetic sage. They do work on the imagination.

There is no chance that suddenly a place will be made for Spencer in the pantheon of great scientists. But a more historically sensitive reading might remove him from the lower depths where he now resides. His impact was felt throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often in surreptitious ways, as Naomi Beck shows in her paper. He certainly deserves more than the three paragraphs granted him by Ernst Mayr.

1Beatrice Webb, The Diary of Beatrice Webb: Volume one 1873-1892, ed. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 127-28.

2Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard, 1982), p. 386.

3Alexander Bain to Herbert Spencer (17 November 1863), Athenaeum Collection of Spencer’s Correspondence, MS 791, no. 67, University of London Library.

4Charles Darwin to E. Ray Lankester (15 March 1870), in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1891), 2: 301.

5Grant Allen to Herbert Spencer (10 November 1874), Athenaeum Collection of Spencer’s Correspondence, MS 791, no. 102, University of London Library.

6Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 120.

7I have discussed Spencer’s intellectual development in my Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), chaps. 6 and 7.

8Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed (London: Chapman, 1851), p. 316.

9[Herbert Spencer], “A Theory of Population, deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility,” Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review 17 (1852): 500.

10Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell (25 February 1860), in Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. Sidney Smith et al, 13 vol. to date (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-), 8: 109-110: “I have just read his Essay on population, in which he discusses life & publishes such dreadful hypothetical rubbish on the nature of reproduction.”

11Herbert Spencer to Charles Darwin (22 February 1860), in Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8: 98-99.

12Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” for the first time in his Principles of Biology. He introduced the term in a quite casual way, suggesting that only later it occurred to him as a felicitous expression. See Herbert Spencer, Principles of Biology, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1866), 2: 53: “natural selection will favour the more upright growing forms: individuals with structures that lift them above the rest, are the fittest for the conditions; and by the continual survival of the fittest, such structures must become established.”

13Ibid., 1: 445-57.

14The articles were drawn together in a small book. See Herbert Spencer, The Factors of Organic Evolution (London: Williams and Norgate, 1887).

15Charles Darwin, Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1899), 2: 327-29, and 327n.

16Herbert Spencer, “Mr. Martineau on Evolution,” in Recent Discussions in Science, Philosophy, and Morals, 2nd ed. (New York: D. Appleton, 1882), pp. 339-40.

17I have discussed the early German Romantic movement and Humboldt’s particular views in my The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

18Charles Darwin, Beagle Diary, ed. R. D. Keynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p 443 (September 1836). These remarks were reprinted in Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H. M. S. Beagle (London: Henry Coburn, 1839), p. 604.

19Charles Darwin, “Essay of 1844,” in The Foundations of the Origin of Species, ed. Francis Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 85.

20Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: Murray, 1859), pp. 83-84.

21Ibid., p. 489.

22David Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1908), 1: 98.

23Darwin’s note of thanks for the book (11 March 1855) is in Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 6: 56.

24Herbert Spencer to Edward Youmans (5 June 1871), in Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, 1: 197.

25Herbert Spencer, “Leter VII,” Nonconformist, 19 October 1842.

26I have given an account of Darwin’s crucial difficulty with the social insects in my Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, pp. 142-52.

27Charles Darwin, Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Murray, 1871), 1: 166.

28Ibid., p. 161.

29In the final edition of the Origin of Species (1872), Darwin invokes group selection quite clearly: “In social animals it [natural selection] will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the community; if the community profits by the selected change.” See The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: A Variorum Text, ed. Morse Peckham (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), p. 172.

30See my “The Linguistic Creation of Man: Charles Darwin, August Schleicher, Ernst Haeckel, and the Missing Link in Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory,” in Experimenting in Tongues: Studies in Science and Language, ed. Matthias Dörries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 21-48.

31In the translator’s epilogue to the German version of the Origin, Bronn argued that Darwin had only shown that the kind of transformationism he advocated was possible but that he had not shown that it was actual. See H. G. Bronn, ASchlusswort des Übersetzers,@ in Charles Darwin, Über die Entstehung der Arten im Thier- und Pflanzen-Reich durch natürliche Züchtung, oder Erhaltung der vervollkommneten Rassen in Kampfe um=s Dasyn, (based on 2nd English ed.), trans. H. G. Bronn (Stuttgart: Schweizerbart=sche Verhandlung und Druckerei, 1860), pp.. 495-520.

32I discuss the logic of evolutionary ethics and the naturalist fallacy in the second appendix to my Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior.

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