Herbert Spencer I & II: Mechanism of Evolution

Herbert Spencer General Photo Site

British Sociologist Herbert Spencer was born in 1820 AD (-1903 AD). He was a Social Darwinist, who coined the expression “Survival of the Fittest” even before Charles Darwin.

Spencer said, “Fostering the good for nothing at the expense of the good, is an extreme cruelty. It is a deliberate stirring-up miseries for future generations. There is no greater curse to posterity than that of bequeathing to them an increasing population of imbeciles and idlers and criminals….The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, clear the world of them and make room for better….If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” as cited in Abrams 1968:74

Which means criminals, idiots and lazy people, who are not fit to live will become the curse to future generations if they are fostered, hence they should be eliminated to make the room for better. This radical philosophy of “Survival of the Fittest”, was greatly in odd with the early British Sociologists.

He also adhered to doctrine bissez-faire (laissez), which means state shouldn’t interfere in individuals affairs except in passive protection of people’s inalienable rights. This was supported by his evolutionary view that the world was growing progressively better. So, he wanted social life to evolve free from external control and wasn’t interested in Social Reforms.

Like many functionalists of his time, he divided the whole universe in three basic realms; inorganic (which includes physical and chemical world), the organic (which includes biological and psychological aspects) and superorganic (which is sociological world). His aim was to explain the social processes with the abstract laws and basic principles, even though ambitious these principles were to be derived from Physics of that time.

In his book “Principles of Biology”, he compared societies and organisms in terms of their similarity and dissimilarity. He stated both the organic and superorganic, (which means social world) become more complex and get differentiated into parts. These differentiation of structures or parts is also accompanied by the differentiation of functions. These differentiated parts integrate with each other through mutual dependence. And each differentiated parts or structure is further composed of organs, tissues in organic and societies in superorganic bodies, which are whole within themselves. For example, Organs are made up of cells and societies of families and individuals and these cells and families act as whole within themselves. Finally, these organic and superorganic bodies live on for a while until the whole system dies off.  This can be clearly seen in the organic evolution, a single celled organism turns to multicellular with differentiated parts like nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system and these parts performs the specialized functions. These different systems are mutually interdependent for their own survival and also for proper functioning. Further more, these systems are made up of organs like brain, lungs and liver, these organs are further made up of tissues and cells which are whole within themselves consisting of their own basic internal system.

Along with similarity he also stated the dissimilarity, he goes on; the degree of connectedness is less between structure in superorganic compared to parts of organic wholes. We can see, organs and systems of organisms are closely connected and dependent with each other, but structures and parts of society like institutions, family, individuals aren’t connected that closely.  Similarly, superorganic communicates using symbols in contrast to chemicals in organic bodies. Individuals and institutions in society communicate using words, sounds, language, gestures whereas systems and parts of organism communicate through chemical signals and hormones.  Moreover, all units in society are conscious, goal seeking and reflective compared to only one unit in organic bodies which is brain.

This comparison between organisms and societies, led him to develop functional requisite, which led to universal functional requisites that are needed for all organic and superorganic system to survive and adapt to environment. These universal needs includes; Securing Resources like land, energy, minerals, Producing Usable Substances like food, clothes and Regulating and Integrating internal activities through power and symbols like political system, hierarchy, language and words. These needs are shared by each level of system; like community, region or whole society has same functional requisites. Even if the Change occur in any system then it is to meet these needs. And the adaptation of the social unit depends on the extent these functional requisites are met.

For Spencer, the mechanism of social evolution is based on three regularities: Firstly, even in the homogeneous population there is some inherent instability, there is difference among people due to individual experiences, genetic factors, accidental opportunity or deprivation, these differences lead to differentiation of roles, functions, power, prestige and property. Secondly, these differentiation and inequalities are further amplified and goes on accumulating, rich gets richer, powerful gets more powerful as time goes on. Thirdly, people of similar roles, power, wealth and prestige unite together and society becomes divided into factions, classes, groups along national and occupational differences. And once the boundaries guarding these identities are raised through the notion of restrictions on social interaction, endogamous relationship, this separation is strengthened, hence the return to homogeneity is impossible.

Through this mechanism, Simple Societies characterized by mutual isolation, without any differentiation and all the members following similar activities, evolve into Complex Societies characterized by division of labour and division of functions among individuals along with the formation of hierarchical political organization. This Society further evolves into Doubly Complex Societies possessing common territory, a permanent constitution and system of laws. Finally, the Civilization is born which is most complex, consisting of nation states, federations of states or large empires. His idea on evolution of society also saw the society progressing toward an ideal moral state and argued fittest societies survive while the unfit ones should be left to die off.

Spencer also offers a theory of evolution from militant to industrial societies. In this regard, he introduced the first polar, dichotomous typology of societies; it was the opposition of military society with the industrial society. Here military societies are defined by being structured for offensive and defensive warfare whereas industrial societies are based on friendship, altruism and voluntary cooperation. He saw general evolution of society towards industrial societies where there are less wars compared to military societies.

One of the most interesting characteristics of Spencer was his unwillingness to read the work of other or the work that criticized his own work. He even said, “All my life I have been a thinker and not a reader, being able to say with Hobbes that if I had read as much as other men I would have known as little.” (Wiltshire 1978:67) This led him to produce outrageous ideas like Social Darwinism and free evolution of society without government intervention and without social reform. For this reason, sociologists in 20th Century came to reject spencer work and his popularity sharply fell. Regarding this, Charles Darwin said, “If he had trained himself to observe more, even at the expense of…..some loss of thinking power, he would have been a wonderful man.” (Wiltshire 1978:70)

Nevertheless, being a Polymath Spencer contributed to wide range of subjects like Biology, Sociology, Psychology, anthropology and Politics.


Essential Reading

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP 34 – 39)

Jonathan H. Turner: The Structure of Sociological Theory (PP. 41 – 44)

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP. 233 – 234)

Piotr Sztompka: Sociology of Social Change (PP 102 – 104)