Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

Herbert Spencer was an English railway engineer turned social theorist of the mid- to late-1800s. His ideas were perhaps more popular in the United States than in his home country. In his book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, Richard Hofstadter points out that “England gave Darwin to the world, but the United States gave to Darwinism an unusually quick and sympathetic reception … thinkers of the Darwinian era seized upon the new theory and attempted to sound its meaning for several social disciplines” (1969:4–5). The same could be said of Herbert Spencer.

Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was first published in 1859, and from that point on, popular magazines such as Appleton’s Journal, Popular Science Monthly, and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as daily newspapers, published articles on natural selection and Darwinism (Darwin 1859; Hofstadter 1969:18–22). Spencer was strongly influenced by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, so much so that he became known as a social Darwinist. Some argue that Darwin may have been influenced by Spencer. However, Spencer’s social evolutionary ideas were circulated years before Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (Shapin 2007). While often attributed to Darwin, Spencer introduced the phrase, “survival of the fittest” (Howerth 1917:253). Spencer believed that societies evolve from primitive, barbaric forms to civilized social orders along natural, evolutionary stages. Spencer embraced social evolutionary theory and saw it operating everywhere—in the development of societies, of governments and commerce, in language and literature, in science and art (Shapin 2007). The language of evolution, progress, and natural selection—and Herbert Spencer’s adage “survival of the fittest” —proliferated in subjects “quite remote from science” and became “a standard feature of the [American] folklore of individualism” (Hofstadter 1969:3–4, 50).

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Spencer traveled to New York City in the 1880s as a guest of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel tycoon and philanthropist. Carnegie saw Spencer as a friend but also a guru of sorts. Spencer’s unyielding belief in laissez-faire capitalism was embraced by Carnegie and other American captains of industry because their success appeared as “natural”—or preordained.

Spencer believed in the free will of individuals above all else. Any effort to regulate industry or aid the poor would only interrupt the natural order of things. In Spencer’s words, “idiots, imbeciles, lunatics, paupers, and prostitutes” would only proliferate and tax societal resources (Spencer 1884:132). Welfare degraded morals and overall fitness because it encouraged dependency.

While Andrew Carnegie has been called the father of American philanthropy (Theroux 2011), he did not believe in giving money to those he deemed unworthy, or unfit in Spencerian terms. He donated only to what he considered worthy causes, such as public libraries and educational foundations that could help people better themselves.

Spencer was a proponent of unregulated economic competition. He opposed most forms of public intervention into social problems; he believed they only interrupted evolutionary progress. Spencer argued that laws should uphold individual rights and the rights to private property. The law should not be seen as an equalizer in the survival of the fittest. Rules, regulations, and laws should be kept to minimum to allow the steady march of evolutionary progress in all aspects of society.

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