Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer by Miss A. Grant. [Click on thumbnail for larger picture.

A Victorian biologist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer was born April 27th, 1820, at the height of British industrialism. He was educated at home in mathematics, natural science, history and English, among some other languages. Spencer was sickly in his youth, all eight of his other siblings dying at a young age. His constitution remained weak throughout his life, and he would later suffer from nervous breakdowns which he never recovered from, and he wandered about London never in a complete state of good health. He suffered from chronic insomnia, could only work a few hours a day, and used fairly substantial amounts of opium. He experienced a strange sensation in his head which he called "the mischief", and was known for eccentricities like the wearing of ear-plugs to avoid over-excitement, especially when he could not hold his ground in an argument. He obtained a job as a civil engineer on the railways at sixteen and wrote during his spare time. This vocation of his took up ten years of his life, and imbued him with a healthy optimism for life and society.

Spencer became the sub-editor of The Economist in 1848, an important financial weekly at the time for the upper-middle class. He interacted with famous people like Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, among many other leading intellectuals of Victorian Britain. Spencer published numerous articles in the radical press of his time, like The Leader, The Fortnightly and The Westminster Review, largely concerning the government, pushing for limiting its role as a mediator in society. He advocated the abolishment of Poor Laws, national education and a central church; he wanted the lifting of all restrictions on commerce and factory legislation. Across the street from where he worked was John Chapman's office, and that was where he first met his assistant Marian Evans, later known as George Eliot. They developed a very close friendship, and talked of marriage but never actually married. Even so, they remained intimate companions up till her death. His book Social Statics was published in 1851 to great acclaim, but his quietly influential Principles Of Psychology released in 1855 met with much criticism.

Although one of the most influential figures in sociology and psychology, Spencer was overshadowed because of his somewhat controversial ideas. In fact, his theory of evolution actually preceded Charles Darwin's, when he wrote The Developmental Hypothesis in 1852, 7 years before Darwin's Origin Of Species! His theory was not taken into serious consideration largely because of a lack of an effective theoretical system for natural selection. Nevertheless, it was Spencer and not Darwin who first popularized the term "Evolution", and few people outside the field realize that the oft-used phrase "survival of the fittest" was actually coined by Spencer!

His evolutionary stance led to his most famous idea, "Social Darwinism." It influenced early evolutionary economists like Thorstein Veblen, as well as the members of the American apologist school like William Graham Sumner. He projected his theory of biological evolution onto a social plane, emphasizing the importance of organic analogy, i.e. the similarities between Organism and State. He saw evolution as the change from a homogeneous condition that was innately unstable, to a heterogenous and stable one. He highlighted four main concepts: Growth, Differentiation, Integration and Adaptation, ideas commonly present in developmental biology, and which could easily be brought into the context of a developing, growing society.

Spencer's last years were characterized by a collapse of his initial optimism, replaced instead by a pessimism regarding the future of mankind. Nevertheless, he devoted much of his efforts in reinforcing his arguments and preventing the mis-interpretation of his monumental theory of non-interference. He was admired by many intellectuals, including American philosopher William James, but was frequently accused of being petty, hypochondriacal, and maudlin. He died in 1903, and is buried at Highgate Cemetery near George Eliot and Karl Marx.

Related Material, Bibliography, and Web Resources

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Last modified 4 February 2020