Skip to main content

Spencer, Herbert


evolution as central theme
spencer's influence

SPENCER, HERBERT (1820–1902), English philosopher and social theorist and a founding sociologist.

Born on 27 April 1820 in Derby, England, Herbert Spencer was the eldest son of (William) George Spencer, headmaster of a school in Derby. When he was three his father turned, unsuccessfully, to lace manufacture in Nottinghamshire but returned to Derby and to private coaching in 1827. Derby at this time was a hothouse of radical scientific culture centering on the town's Philosophical Society, founded by Erasmus Darwin, and of which George Spencer was secretary. At the age of thirteen Spencer began a three-year private tutelage with his uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, curate at Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath. He was influenced by his father's individualism and antiestablishment views and the Benthamite views of his uncle. In 1836, after a brief stint as an assistant in a Derby private school, Spencer took a job as a civil engineer on the London to Birmingham and Birmingham to Gloucester railways. Here he gained firsthand experience of entrepreneurial and competitive endeavor. In 1842 he submitted a series of letters on politics to The Nonconformist, a radical newspaper; these were later published as "On the Proper Sphere of Government." Spencer's interest in government responsibility and the rights of workers waned, however, as his conviction grew that to intervene in social inequity was to go against the process of evolution.

Spencer worked for five years as a subeditor on London's Economist financial paper, and then from 1853 he devoted himself to writing professionally on a wide range of topics from population expansion to progress, education, and scientific method. But by 1855 he was suffering from extreme nervous exhaustion and was unable to work for eighteen months, and thereafter for only three hours a day. He was rescued financially by the end of the decade by a patron from North America, Professor Edward L. Youmans, a popular lecturer on scientific subjects who offered to market his books in the United States by mass subscription—thus securing him a regular income for the rest of his life. Considered by G. K. Chesterton to be one of the "great cosmic systematisers," Spencer came to be ranked alongside Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and T. H. Huxley, and, as a member of the exclusive scientific X Club, he was known as Xhaustive Spencer. He enjoyed an outstanding scholarly and popular reputation in Britain, Europe, and North America in an expansive range of intellectual areas. His nine-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862–1893) was widely translated, and a popular abridgement of his ideas, The Study of Sociology, which he wrote for the Paris-based International Scientific Series in 1873, went through twenty-one editions by 1894. During the 1870s and 1880s he received numerous offers of academic and ceremonial honors, but rejected most of these, disapproving in principle. In 1882 Youmans persuaded him to go on a literary tour of American universities. On his deathbed in 1903 he was nominated as a candidate for the newly founded Nobel prize for literature. He died in Brighton, England, on 8 December 1903.

evolution as central theme

The idea of evolution in the broadest sense underpins all Spencer's work, and he did more than anyone to popularize the term during the course of the nineteenth century, urging its relevance beyond biology to social and political systems. In First Principles, the first volume of A System of Synthetic Philosophy, he defined evolution as "a change from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations" and outlined the principles underpinning his beliefs, in order of importance, as the various competing models of development and evolution; ideas of matter and motion derived from theoretical mechanics; and the German physiologist Karl Ernst von Baer's model of the progression from homogeneity to heterogeneity in the structure of cell. Spencer revived speculative thinking, bringing together biology and social theory, and continually stressing the necessity of biology in social studies. Through analogy he condensed the laws of society and laws of physiology, arguing that all living forms, including society, were moving inevitably toward higher forms.

His first book, Social Statics; or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness, appeared in 1851. The term social statics, borrowed from Auguste Comte, refers to the conditions of social order, and the work defended individual liberties, arguing for "the right to ignore the state" in aiming at the "equilibrium of a perfect society." For Spencer "equilibration" was the happy point at which the evolutionary process reached its limit. He urged that society not be separated from nature, and that evolution was a progressive, teleological process toward an equilibrium whereby individuals adapt until reaching a state of perfect harmony with their environment: equilibration. Spencer denounced the effects of charity: "a sad population of imbeciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last… the average effect of the laws of nature is to 'purify' society from those who are, in some respect or other, essentially faulty," and he stressed that progress was not an accident but a necessity, and that civilization was not a construct but a part of nature "all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower."

The following year, in "A Theory of Population, Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility," published in the Westminster Review, he argued that population pressure and scarcity of resources were the engine of progress, following, but giving a quite different spin to, Malthusian ideas on population. In this article Spencer came close to establishing the principles of natural selection and coined the tautologous and now ubiquitous term the survival of the fittest, which Darwin then incorporated into his work, adding it to the heading of chapter four in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species. Spencer argued that the process of adaptation must occur without any charitable or state intervention, for only a competitive free-forall would ensure the survival of the fittest.

In addition to Thomas Robert Malthus, Spencer was influenced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's account of a process of organic change generated by use, practice, and adaptation to environment, and, like Larmarck, but unlike Darwin, he made individual effort central to the process of evolution. Emphasizing the influence of external agencies on the development of an organism, he defended individual rights on Lamarckian grounds, seeing all organisms as tending toward self-sufficiency and individuation, and society as the aggregate of mutually dependent individuals. Change in society had to be preceded by the change and development of individuals, of which the development of moral sense and feeling was one expression. For Spencer, all progressive development was governed by the mechanical principle of the "persistence of force." A member of the British Liberal Party, he opposed any state intervention, aggressively promoting, instead, laissez-faire capitalism as the social form most likely to allow individuals to exercise their powers fully in the service of the community. This formed part of his functionalist view of society, in which society was analogous to an organism of which the parts played different functions. The pressures of competition would, he believed, ensure optimum adaptation and hence progress. In "The Social Organism," also published in the Westminster Review (1860), he argued that "the changes going on around" and "social organization in its leading traits… are consequent on general natural causes," and, especially in The Man versus the State (1884), he emphasized the importance of administration of justice, which he equated with freedom and the protection of rights.

In his second book, The Principles of Psychology (1855), Spencer argued that mind was the product of environmentally induced organic evolution, and life "the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations." In the words of his biographer Hector Macpherson he turned psychology from "a sterile science confined to academic circles" into a "valuable instrument of scientific research" (cited in Duncan, p. 519). Later that decade Spencer turned his attention to education, writing a series of articles that argued against rote learning in favor of "self-development," based on problem solving, healthy exercise, and natural science. The "impersonal agency of Nature" should replace "the personal agency of parents." He argued that "all breaches of the laws of health are physical sins" and that excessive education was detrimental to a woman's reproductive health.

spencer's influence

Spencer's ideas lent themselves to a biologization of racial and social hierarchies, which would underpin late-nineteenth-century "social Darwinism"—the selective application of Darwinian ideas to society. He was nowhere more influential than in North America where his ideas were taken up by economists and social philosophers such as Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) and the apologists William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), professor of sociology at Yale University, and Simon Nelson Patten (1852–1922), director of the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, who urged the social and racial application of the idea of the "survival of the fittest."

Spencer's ideas rapidly appealed to the broader cultural imagination. The English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy referred to him as one of the key influences on his life. Spencer introduced his theory of evolution over four issues of the Westminster Review during George Eliot's time as assistant editor (1851–1853), and she began a lifelong connection with him. She resisted his increasingly conservative ideas on women, however, and was taken more by his Data of Ethics (1879), in which he argued that as the sources of pleasure outgrew those of pain, egoism would allow for sympathy and gratification through the "gratification of others." And, the New Women writers of the century's final close were drawn to his work, which met their future-orientated perspective and their fascination with the relation between biology and society; several of their heroines are keen readers of his work, notably Sarah Grand's Evadne, the central character of her best-selling The Heavenly Twins (1893), and Ménie Muriel Dowie's eponymous activist in Gallia (1895), both of whom make biology and reproduction central to their feminism. The novelists Leo Tolstoy, Arnold Bennett, and D. H. Lawrence also referred to his ideas, and Jack London's semiautobiographical character Martin Eden is an ardent Spencerian whose desire to know sends him "adventuring over the world," and who is kept up all night, and day, reading First Principles—"here was Spencer, organizing all knowledge for him, reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities…. All was law. It was in obedience to law that the bird flew, and it was in obedience to the same law that fermenting slime had writhed and squirmed and put out legs and wings and become a bird"—but who comes to know, "full well, from his Spencer, that man can never attain ultimate knowledge of anything."

See alsoBentham, Jeremy; Capitalism; Comte, Auguste; Darwin, Charles; Eliot, George; Evolution; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Mill, John Stuart; Sociology; Utilitarianism.


Andreski, Stanislav, ed. Herbert Spencer: Structure, Function, and Evolution. New York, 1971.

Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer. London, 1908. Reprint, London, 1996.

Gray, Tim S. "Herbert Spencer: Individualist or Organicist?" Political Studies 33 (1985): 236–253.

——. The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Aldershot, U.K., 1996.

Jones, Greta. Social Darwinism and English Thought: The Interaction between Biological and Social Theory. Brighton, U.K., 1980.

Macpherson, Hector. Herbert Spencer: The Man and His Work. London, 1900.

Paxton, Nancy L. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Peel, J. D. Y. Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. London, 1971.

Richardson, Angelique. Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Rylance, Rick. Victorian Psychology and British Culture, 1850–1880. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Taylor, M. W. Men versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Wiltshire, David. The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer. Oxford, U.K., 1978.

Angelique Richardson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Spencer, Herbert." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . 24 May. 2019 <>.

"Spencer, Herbert." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . (May 24, 2019).

"Spencer, Herbert." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Retrieved May 24, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.