The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.
Curr Anthropol. ;15(3) The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Freeman D. PMID: ; [Indexed for MEDLINE]. Herbert Spencer (–) was an English philosopher who initiated a philosophy Spencer became an enthusiastic supporter of Darwin's theory of evolution, Every animate creature stands in a specific relation to the external world in. After all, Spencer, and not Darwin, coined the infamous expression . end of the last chapter, “Of the Connection Between Justice and Utility.
He argued that there is a gradual specialization in things--beginning with biological organisms--towards self-sufficiency and individuation.
Because human nature can be said to improve and change, then, scientific--including moral and political-- views that rested on the assumption of a stable human nature such as that presupposed by many utilitarians had to be rejected. Spencer still recognized the importance of understanding individuals in terms of the 'whole' of which they were 'parts,' but these parts were mutually dependent, not subordinate to the organism as a whole.
They had an identity and value on which the whole depended--unlike, Spencer thought, that portrayed by Hobbes. For Spencer, then, human life was not only on a continuum with, but was also the culmination of, a lengthy process of evolution. Even though he allowed that there was a parallel development of mind and body, without reducing the former to the latter, he was opposed to dualism and his account of mind and of the functioning of the central nervous system and the brain was mechanistic.
Although what characterized the development of organisms was the 'tendency to individuation' Social Statics , p. When one examines human beings, this natural inclination was reflected in the characteristic of rational self-interest. Indeed, this tendency to pursue one's individual interests is such that, in primitive societies, at least, Spencer believed that a prime motivating factor in human beings coming together was the threat of violence and war.
Herbert Spencer (1820—1903)
Paradoxically, perhaps, Spencer held an 'organic' view of society. Starting with the characteristics of individual entities, one could deduce, using laws of nature, what would promote or provide life and human happiness.
He believed that social life was an extension of the life of a natural body, and that social 'organisms' reflected the same Lamarckian evolutionary principles or laws as biological entities did. The existence of such 'laws,' then, provides a basis for moral science and for determining how individuals ought to act and what would constitute human happiness.Herbert Spencer & SOCIAL DARWINISM
Religion As a result of his view that knowledge about phenomena required empirical demonstration, Spencer held that we cannot know the nature of reality in itself and that there was, therefore, something that was fundamentally "unknowable. Since, Spencer claimed, we cannot know anything non-empirical, we cannot know whether there is a God or what its character might be.
Though Spencer was a severe critic of religion and religious doctrine and practice--these being the appropriate objects of empirical investigation and assessment--his general position on religion was agnostic. Theism, he argued, cannot be adopted because there is no means to acquire knowledge of the divine, and there would be no way of testing it.
But while we cannot know whether religious beliefs are true, neither can we know that fundamental religious beliefs are false.
Moral Philosophy Spencer saw human life on a continuum with, but also as the culmination of, a lengthy process of evolution, and he held that human society reflects the same evolutionary principles as biological organisms do in their development.
Society--and social institutions such as the economy--can, he believed, function without external control, just as the digestive system or a lower organism does though, in arguing this, Spencer failed to see the fundamental differences between 'higher' and 'lower' levels of social organization.
For Spencer, all natural and social development reflected 'the universality of law'. Beginning with the 'laws of life', the conditions of social existence, and the recognition of life as a fundamental value, moral science can deduce what kinds of laws promote life and produce happiness.
Spencer's ethics and political philosophy, then, depends on a theory of 'natural law,' and it is because of this that, he maintained, evolutionary theory could provide a basis for a comprehensive political and even philosophical theory.
Given the variations in temperament and character among individuals, Spencer recognized that there were differences in what happiness specifically consists in Social Statics , p. In general, however, 'happiness' is the surplus of pleasure over pain, and 'the good' is what contributes to the life and development of the organism, or--what is much the same--what provides this surplus of pleasure over pain.
Happiness, therefore, reflects the complete adaptation of an individual organism to its environment--or, in other words, 'happiness' is that which an individual human being naturally seeks. For human beings to flourish and develop, Spencer held that there must be as few artificial restrictions as possible, and it is primarily freedom that he, contra Bentham, saw as promoting human happiness.
While progress was an inevitable characteristic of evolution, it was something to be achieved only through the free exercise of human faculties see Social Statics. Society, however, is by definition, for Spencer an aggregate of individuals, and change in society could take place only once the individual members of that society had changed and developed The Study of Sociology, pp.
Individuals are, therefore, 'primary,' individual development was 'egoistic,' and associations with others largely instrumental and contractual. Still, Spencer thought that human beings exhibited a natural sympathy and concern for one another; there is a common character and there are common interests among human beings that they eventually come to recognize as necessary not only for general, but for individual development.
This reflects, to an extent, Spencer's organicism. Nevertheless, Spencer held that 'altruism' and compassion beyond the family unit were sentiments that came to exist only recently in human beings.
Spencer maintained that there was a natural mechanism--an 'innate moral sense'--in human beings by which they come to arrive at certain moral intuitions and from which laws of conduct might be deduced The Principles of Ethics, I , p. Thus one might say that Spencer held a kind of 'moral sense theory' Social Statics, pp.
Later in his life, Spencer described these 'principles' of moral sense and of sympathy as the 'accumulated effects of instinctual or inherited experiences.
But while Spencer insisted that freedom was the power to do what one desired, he also held that what one desired and willed was wholly determined by "an infinitude of previous experiences" The Principles of Psychology, pp. Spencer saw this analysis of ethics as culminating in an 'Absolute Ethics,' the standard for which was the production of pure pleasure--and he held that the application of this standard would produce, so far as possible, the greatest amount of pleasure over pain in the long run.
Spencer's views here were rejected by Mill and Hartley. Their principal objection was that Spencer's account of natural 'desires' was inadequate because it failed to provide any reason why one ought to have the feelings or preferences one did. There is, however, more to Spencer's ethics than this. As individuals become increasingly aware of their individuality, they also become aware of the individuality of others and, thereby, of the law of equal freedom.
This 'first principle' is that 'Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man' Social Statics, p.
One's 'moral sense,' then, led to the recognition of the existence of individual rights, and one can identify strains of a rights-based ethic in Spencer's writings. Spencer's views clearly reflect a fundamentally 'egoist' ethic, but he held that rational egoists would, in the pursuit of their own self interest, not conflict with one another. Still, to care for someone who has no direct relation to oneself--such as supporting the un- and under employed--is, therefore, not only not in one's self interest, but encourages laziness and works against evolution.
In this sense, at least, social inequity was explained, if not justified, by evolutionary principles. Political Philosophy Despite his egoism and individualism, Spencer held that life in community was important. Because the relation of parts to one another was one of mutual dependency, and because of the priority of the individual 'part' to the collective, society could not do or be anything other than the sum of its units.
This view is evident, not only in his first significant major contribution to political philosophy, Social Statics, but in his later essays--some of which appear in later editions of The Man versus the State. As noted earlier, Spencer held an 'organic' view of society, Nevertheless, as also noted above, he argued that the natural growth of an organism required 'liberty'--which enabled him philosophically to justify individualism and to defend the existence of individual human rights.
Because of his commitment to the 'law of equal freedom' and his view that law and the state would of necessity interfere with it, he insisted on an extensive policy of laissez faire. For Spencer, 'liberty' "is to be measured, not by the nature of the government machinery he lives under [ Spencer followed earlier liberalism, then, in maintaining that law is a restriction of liberty and that the restriction of liberty, in itself, is evil and justified only where it is necessary to the preservation of liberty.
The only function of government was to be the policing and protection of individual rights. Spencer maintained that education, religion, the economy, and care for the sick or indigent were not to be undertaken by the state.
Law and public authority have as their general purpose, therefore, the administration of justice equated with freedom and the protection of rights. These issues became the focus of Spencer's later work in political philosophy and, particularly, in The Man versus the State. Here, Spencer contrasts early, classical liberalism with the liberalism of the 19th century, arguing that it was the latter, and not the former, that was a "new Toryism"--the enemy of individual progress and liberty.
It is here as well that Spencer develops an argument for the claim that individuals have rights, based on a 'law of life'.
Interestingly, Spencer acknowledges that rights are not inherently moral, but become so only by one's recognition that for them to be binding on others the rights of others must be binding on oneself--this is, in other words, a consequence of the 'law of equal freedom. These rights included rights to life, liberty, property, free speech, equal rights of women, universal suffrage, and the right 'to ignore the state'--though Spencer reversed himself on some of these rights in his later writings.
Thus, the industrious--those of character, but with no commitment to existing structures except those which promoted such industry and, therefore, not religion or patriotic institutions --would thrive. Nevertheless, all industrious individuals, Spencer believed, would end up being in fundamental agreement.
Not surprisingly, then, Spencer maintained that the arguments of the early utilitarians on the justification of law and authority and on the origin of rights were fallacious. He also rejected utilitarianism and its model of distributive justice because he held that it rested on an egalitarianism that ignored desert and, more fundamentally, biological need and efficiency.
Spencer further maintained that the utilitarian account of the law and the state was also inconsistentthat it tacitly assumed the existence of claims or rights that have both moral and legal weight independently of the positive law.
And, finally, Spencer argues as well against parliamentary, representative government, seeing it as exhibiting a virtual "divine right"i. When parliaments attempt to do more than protect the rights of their citizens by, for example, 'imposing' a conception of the good--be it only on a minority--Spencer suggested that they are no different from tyrannies.
Assessment Spencer has been frequently accused of inconsistency; one finds variations in his conclusions concerning land nationalization and reform, the rights of children and the extension of suffrage to women, and the role of government. Moreover, in recent studies of Spencer's theory of social justice, there is some debate whether justice is based primarily on desert or on entitlement, whether the 'law of equal freedom' is a moral imperative or a descriptive natural law, and whether the law of equal freedom is grounded on rights, utility, or, ultimately, on 'moral sense'.
Nevertheless, Spencer's work has frequently been seen as a model for later 'libertarian' thinkers, such as Robert Nozick, and he continues to be read--and is often invoked--by 'libertarians' on issues concerning the function of government and the fundamental character of individual rights. Such conduct may at first sight appear unkind, but when its effects upon future generations are considered, it will be found to be the reverse.
Establish a poor [welfare] law to render his forethought and self-denial unnecessary—enact a system of national education to take the care of his children off his hands—set up a national church to look after his religious wants—make laws for the preservation of his health, that he may have less occasion to look after it himself—do all this, and he may then, to a great extent, dispense with the faculties that the Almighty has given to him.
Every powerful spring of action is destroyed—acuteness of intellect is not wanted—force of moral feeling is never called for—the higher powers of his mind are deprived of their natural exercise, and a gradual deterioration of character must ensue.
Take away the demand for exertion, and you will ensure inactivity. Induce inactivity, and you will soon have degradation … [T]o do for the people what they are naturally fitted to do for themselves, is to adopt one of the most efficient means of lowering the standard of national character … The beneficial results of the survival of the fittest, prove to be immeasurably greater than those above indicated.
From the meanest zoophyte, up to the most highly organised of the vertebrata, one and all have certain fixed principles of existence. Each has its varied bodily wants to be satisfied—food to be provided for its proper nourishment—a habitation to be constructed for shelter from the cold, or for defence against enemies—now arrangements to be made for bringing up a brood of young, nests to be built, little ones to be fed and fostered—then a store of provisions to be laid in against winter, and so on, with a variety of other natural desires to be gratified.
For the performance of all these operations, every creature has its appropriate organs and instincts—external apparatus and internal faculties; and the health and happiness of each being, are bound up with the perfection and activity of these powers. They, in their turn, are dependent upon the position in which the creature is placed. Surround it with circumstances which preclude the necessity for any one of its faculties, and that faculty will become gradually impaired.
Nature provides nothing in vain. Instincts and organs are only preserved so long as they are required. Place a tribe of animals in a situation where one of their attributes is unnecessary—take away its natural exercise—diminish its activity, and you will gradually destroy its power.