In London’s Highgate Cemetary, the tombstone of Karl Marx looks out over another slab of rock, this one marking the interred remains of Herbert Spencer – at least as well-known and intellectually significant in in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but largely forgotten shortly thereafter but for this simple phrase, “survival of the fittest”. Yup. That’s Spencer. Sociologist, biologist, philosopher, political theorist, radical democrat-turned-conservative, and the guy who planned to lay out for all the world to see a universal science/ philosophy in which the progressive force of evolution explained not only biological development but psychology, social order, and political life. Not enough? Not just evolutionary process but a rule of universal natural law would explain just about everything, once it was identified and explained. And Spencer figured he was the man to do it.
Now, to be fair it isn’t quite as crude as all that. Yes, he extended the evolutionary principle to a wide range of social phenomena and interpreted evolution to mean survival of the fittest, a simplification that can have disastrous results when applied to social structure and human relations. But Herbert Spencer himself was a little more sophisticated than this makes him sound. He did start out, after all, a proponent of radical democracy, and his work was based in a liberal utilitarianism in which justice and morality contribute to the overall well-being and stability of a society and this become utilitarian ends in their own right. Rights and freedoms help to ease social tensions in general, and over time, those societies will flourish that best offer justice and liberty to the greatest number. While he is famous as the original social Darwinist then, and credited with reducing evolution to a justification for all that exists, such characterization is not entirely fair, and the last decades have seen him reconsidered and somewhat rehabilitated.
He wrote a whole lot about a whole lot of different subjects. First Principles, though, is perhaps the most famous of his works, and provides a good overview of what he was trying to accomplish. In the words an early prospectus on the book, Spencer envisisioned “a connected series of works which he has for several years been preparing”, and which explored the progressive evolution and universal law across four areas – biology, psychology, sociology and morality. It’s worth a read, both for a glimpse into the origins of some still-current assumptions and for an appreciation of the scope of this man’s thought and the reason he was, in his time, the world’s leading intellectual light. Cause there may be no consensus on what exactly Spencer’s lasting impact has been, there ain’t question that he has had a lasting impact.