Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Herbert Spencer attempted to create a philosophical model of societal change that incorporated Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Spencer’s philosophy, which came to be known as social Darwinism, was used to justify the dominance of the weak by the strong, both within European nations and in Europe’s dealings with the rest of the world.

Summary of Event

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, there were significant philosophical attempts to define the nature of the human condition. This intellectual activity culminated in the work of Herbert Spencer, who adapted Charles Darwin’s model of the biological evolution of species to describe the development of cultures and social groups. Spencer’s application of the principle of natural selection to human history became extremely influential, not only in philosophical circles but also among politicians designing public policy and social reformers in general. Spencer, Herbert Social Darwinism Philosophy;Herbert Spencer[Spencer] Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;and social Darwinism[Social Darwinism] [kw]Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism (1862) [kw]Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism, Spencer (1862) [kw]Principles of Social Darwinism, Spencer Introduces (1862) [kw]Social Darwinism, Spencer Introduces Principles of (1862) [kw]Darwinism, Spencer Introduces Principles of Social (1862) Spencer, Herbert Social Darwinism Philosophy;Herbert Spencer[Spencer] Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;and social Darwinism[Social Darwinism] [g]Great Britain;1862: Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism[3520] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1862: Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism[3520] [c]Philosophy;1862: Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism[3520] Malthus, Thomas Robert [p]Malthus, Thomas Robert;and social Darwinism[Social Darwinism] Darwin, Erasmus Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste

To understand Spencer’s contribution to the history of ideas, one must first understand Spencer’s own intellectual heritage, beginning with the work of Thomas Robert Malthus, Thomas Robert [p]Malthus, Thomas Robert;and social Darwinism[Social Darwinism] Malthus. Malthus described nature as tending toward the overpopulation of all species and observed that food was a finite resource. His work thus helped introduce the idea of competition as a significant factor in the evolution of life, providing Darwin’s research with a focus. Darwin began to theorize about natural laws of biology that determined the winners and losers in this competition to survive. He wanted to investigate whether certain members of every species possessed characteristics that enabled them to dominate their particular section of the food chain.

In this work, Darwin was not exploring an entirely new area of scholarship. One of the first intellectuals to write about inequality among certain members of any species was Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Darwin, Erasmus Through his writings, Erasmus brought into the public arena two very important concepts that would affect the development of theories describing both biological and social evolution. He believed in the common descent of species and that over time each member of the animal kingdom changed in response to natural stimuli found in its environment. Additionally, he believed, those members of a species that were able to adapt and prosper passed the characteristics that allowed them to dominate on to their offspring. This idea helped set the intellectual stage for Herbert Spencer’s theory that some individuals and societies were more fit and were thus able to dominate particular periods in human history.

Erasmus Darwin’s Darwin, Erasmus early evolutionary model was enhanced by the work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste . Lamarck believed not only that acquired characteristics could be inherited but also that all species, including humans, were still changing to meet current challenges; thus, evolution was an ongoing process. Most important, Lamarck stated that those traits that were most useful at any particular time in evolutionary history grew stronger and became more developed, while those characteristics that were no longer needed eventually disappeared. The Lamarckian concept of change would also play a significant part in Spencer’s optimism that over time, given the proper guidance, humanity would ultimately achieve the greatest happiness.

Herbert Spencer.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Charles Darwin’s research brought all these theories together in one intellectual model known as “natural selection.” [p]Darwin, Charles;on natural selection[Natural selection] His investigations demonstrated that all the earth’s creatures tend to produce more offspring than the environment can accommodate but that the number of members of any species at any particular time seems to remain constant. Darwin theorized that, because the number of organisms exceeds the resources to sustain them, members of a species must compete for resources. Because the number of the members of a species is relatively constant, Darwin believed that some law or other predictable mechanism must regulate the results of that competition.

Darwin asserted that those creatures that best adapted to the challenges of their environment were the ones that would be successful, because their skills would enable them to dominate the competition. In turn, the weaker members of the species would die off, leaving the resources to the most fit. The aspect of Darwin’s theories that proved most crucial for Spencer was the belief that competition, very often in the form of a life or death struggle, was the basis for progress. This belief helped create the view that certain members of any species, including humankind, are more “fit” than others and that these members deserve to control their particular section of the food chain.

Spencer, accepting this view, posited an ever-changing world that followed natural biological laws without benefit of divine intervention. His goal was to create a model of society that would incorporate and explain such laws. Spencer himself was influenced by the scientific theory of positivism, which was based on the principle that only empirically verifiable phenomena can be known. Spencer believed that, in the period of scientific discovery in which he lived, scholars had to be ready to modify their accepted views of reality.

Spencer believed that human society was the result of biological evolution and that this process followed the same patterns of change found in other species. Most significant was the idea that the dominant members of a human community occupied positions of power because they were the best prepared to do so as a result of their evolutionary heritage. It was Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” which was intended to characterize those individuals and societies that have played a leading role in the history of humanity.

Historically, Spencer believed that human social evolution was accelerated through the process of specialization. Building on Lamarck’s Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste theory that inherited skills become more advanced with use, Spencer stated that individuals received unique skills most commonly from their parents and that these characteristics allowed individuals to perform specific tasks for their community. The relative importance of these skills to the welfare of the community would over time lead to the development of different social classes. The relationship between the skill level and the difficulty of the task determined an individual’s power within that society. Spencer viewed the historical record as confirmation that those most fit rose to positions of power and prominence within any society.

In 1862, Spencer published these views in First Principles, the first volume of a projected opus to be titled A System of Philosophy. First Principles was Spencer’s attempt to create a social evolutionary theory that would both incorporate his scientific and sociological ideas and act as a blueprint to create a community in which his theory of evolutionary change would be put to work. The basis of First Principles was the concept that there was a link between societal change and biological evolution and that societies passed on their unique characteristics to later societies just as individuals inherited biological traits.

Additionally, Spencer asserted that there were universal natural laws that directed social evolution, and through the use of reason humankind could discover which actions had a positive impact on life. Spencer also believed that social institutions could be modified in order to take advantage of these discoveries. Most significant, he thought that society had to be ready to change in order to progress and individuals had to have the freedom to evolve. The ultimate goal of this process was human happiness.

The final area of investigation in First Principles was the kind of political structure that would best allow the natural evolutionary process to occur. Spencer’s model of an ideal government was one that employed many of the basic rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. He stated that governments should protect life, liberty, property, and free speech. Spencer also believed that these rights should also be extended to women. Most important, his political model emphasized a laissez-faire approach to economics that would allow for the exercise of natural talent. Such an approach would create a competitive environment tempered by enlightened self-interest, and in the end society would reflect the characteristics of the most fit.


There are very few examples in the history of human thought in which a social, political, or economic theory was misinterpreted or abused to the extent of social Darwinism. Less than two decades after the publication of First Principles, most of industrialized Europe had extended its power around the globe. The philosophical rationale for this imperialistic reach was found in Spencer’s theories concerning natural selection and the survival of the fittest. According to this line of reasoning, Europe’s expansionist policies were the natural outcome of scientific and technological progress. Western civilization had evolved a method of reasoning that enabled it to unlock the power of science and thus rightfully to dominate the globe.

In time, a militaristic mind-set would gain prominence in all the major capitals of Europe. The concept that the strong had a natural right to dominate lent legitimacy to an unprecedented arms race that turned much of Europe into an armed camp. It also helped fuel an aggressive worldview that emphasized that a nation’s dignity and honor had to be protected at all costs. Eventually, this aggressive militarism would unleash the “guns of August,” and the carnage of World War I would add new meaning to the theory of the “survival of the fittest.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, T. S. The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Avebury Press, 1996. Extensive explication and interpretation of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, James. Herbert Spencer. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Among the most respected biographies of Herbert Spencer in print. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCann, Charles R. Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought. London: Routledge, 2004. Analyzes the role of community and society in the social thought of Spencer and other liberal philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinstein, D. Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer’s Liberal Utilitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Examines Spencer’s role in creating a liberal utilitarian moral and political philosophy, exploring his ideas on social evolution, freedom, moral rights, and other issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiltshire, David. The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Excellent introduction to the work of Herbert Spencer and its relation to the field of social and political philosophy.

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