Spencer, Herbert

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Spencer, Herbert



Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the English philosopher-scientist, was a leading figure in the intellectual revolution of the nineteenth century. Although largely ignored today, Spencer in his own time was enormously influential and played a significant role in the development of biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

He dealt with the evolution of phenomena of all classes, from the inorganic to the superorganic. For the various social sciences, the primary significance of Spencer is that he was among the first to affirm that human society can be studied scientifically and to do so from an evolutionary point of view. With E. B. Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, Spencer ranks among the three great cultural evolutionists of the nineteenth century.

Spencer was born in Derby in the English Midlands. He came from a family of staunch Dissenters, and the influence of this background is evident in his writings on ethics and political theory. He was educated at home by his father and later by an uncle who wanted him to attend Cambridge. Spencer declined, however, feeling himself unfit for a university career.

From an early age Spencer demonstrated a marked inclination toward science, and especially toward scientific generalization. At 17 he went to work for the London and Birmingham Railway and during his years with the railroads became a civil engineer, in fact if not in name. His engineering background influenced his approach to various fields, especially biology (1864-1867, vol. 1, pp. 122-123).

Evolution. Spencer’s interest in evolution began with his examination of fossils taken from railroad cuts. To learn more about geology and paleontology, he purchased a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Spencer wrote in his Autobiography:

I name this purchase chiefly as serving to introduce a fact of considerable significance. I had during previous years been cognizant of the hypothesis that the human race has been developed from some lower race; though what degree of acceptance it had from me memory does not say. But my reading of Lyell, one of whose chapters was devoted to a refutation of Lamarck’s views concerning the origin of species, had the effect of giving me a decided leaning to them. ([1904] 1926, vol. 1, p. 176)

After leaving the railroads, Spencer began his literary career, obtaining a position as subeditor of the Economist. In 1850 Spencer’s first book, Social Statics, appeared. For the most part, this was a work of political philosophy, but here and there it foreshadowed some of his later ideas on evolution ([1904] 1926, vol. 2, pp. 7-8).

In 1851 Spencer was asked to review W. B. Carpenter’s Principles of Physiology. Spencer later wrote,

In the course of such perusal as was needed to give an account of its contents, I came across von Baer’s formula expressing the course of development through which every plant and animal passes—the change from homogeneity to heterogeneity. . . . this phrase of von Baer expressing the law of individual development, awakened my attention to the fact that the law which holds of the ascending stages of each individual organism is also the law which holds of the ascending grades of organisms of all kinds. ([1904] 1926, vol. 1, pp. 384-385)

The following year, 1852, Spencer published in the Leader his now-famous article, “The Development Hypothesis,” in which he openly rejected special creation and espoused organic evolution.

Spencer’s notion of evolution was further elaborated in the writings that followed. He perceived that evolution involves not only an increase in heterogeneity but also an increase in definiteness and in integration ([1904] 1926, vol. 1, p. 501). The term “evolution” itself, which Spencer made current, he used for the first time in “On Manners and Fashion” ([1854] 1891, p. 23).

Years later, in discussing his first use of the term, he wrote, “I did not. . . introduce it in the place of ’epigénesis,’ or any word of specially biological application, but as a word fit for expressing the process of evolution throughout its entire range, inorganic and organic” (Duncan 1908, p. 551n). In explaining why he had replaced the term “progress,” which he had used as late as April 1857 in his article “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” Spencer noted that “progress” has an anthropocentric meaning, and that there [is] needed a word free from that” (ibid.).

In some of his later writings Spencer defined the general process of evolution in the following terms: Evolution is a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity (1862, p. 367 in the 1912 edition; 1898a, p. 353).

While he had discussed the evolution of various things in earlier articles, it was in “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857b) that Spencer first applied the concept of evolution systematically to the universe at large, and especially to human society:

The advance from the simple to the complex, through a process of successive differentiations, is seen alike in the earliest changes of the Universe to which we can reason our way back, and in the earliest changes which we can inductively establish; it is seen in the geologic and climatic evolution of the Earth; it is seen in the unfolding of every single organism on its surface, and in the multiplication of kinds of organisms; it is seen in the evolution of Humanity, whether contemplated in the civilized individual, or in the aggregate of races; it is seen in the evolution of Society in respect alike of its political, its religious, and its economical organization; and it is seen in the evolution of all those endless concrete and abstract products of human activity. . . . ([1857h] 1915, p. 35)

While becoming increasingly interested in general evolution, Spencer continued to be concerned with organic evolution. In 1855, in the first edition of Principles of Psychology, he wrote that “Life under all its forms has arisen by a progressive, unbroken evolution; and through the immediate instrumentality of what we call natural causes” (1855, vol. 1, p. 465 in the 1871 edition).

When Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Spencer received it warmly and in fact over the years defended it against attack (Duncan 1908, p. 149; Spencer 1895; Wallace 1905, vol. 2, p. 32). What Darwin supplied that Spencer had not was a satisfactory mechanism—natural selection—to account for organic evolution. Spencer had relied on the inheritance of acquired characteristics as the major causal factor in organic evolution and was somewhat chagrined at failing to hit upon the principle of natural selection himself ([1904] 1926, vol. 1, p. 390).

Sociological work. In 1858 Spencer conceived the idea of surveying the fields of biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics from an evolutionary point of view. By 1860 his ideas for this scheme had crystallized, and he issued a prospectus announcing the future publication of his Synthetic Philosophy. The work was to include three volumes entitled The Principles of Sociology, in which Spencer proposed to deal with “General facts, structural and functional, as gathered from a survey of Societies and their changes: in other words, the empirical generalizations that are arrived at by comparing the different societies, and successive phases of the same society” ([1904] 1926, vol. 2, p. 481). Thus, before the theoretical works of any other classical evolutionist had appeared, Spencer already had a clear notion of a comparative science of society based on evolutionary principles.

In propounding a science of sociology Spencer was preceded by Auguste Comte, and during Spencer’s lifetime, as afterward, his critics asserted that he was indebted to Comte. Spencer denied such allegations and affirmed that he had not read Comte when in 1850, in Social Statics, he first began to deal with concepts such as the social organism and to see that in individual and social organisms “progress from low types to high types is progress from uniformity of structure to multiformity of structure” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 488). Thus, Spencer argued, Comte’s ideas could not have entered into his thinking on comparative sociology.

The first volume of the Synthetic Philosophy was First Principles (1862), in which Spencer dealt with the principle of evolution at great length, exhibiting and discussing many examples of it. When writing the two volumes of Principles of Biology (1864-1867) and the 1870-1872 two-volume second edition that recast Principles of Psychology (1855), Spencer had drawn largely on his own store of knowledge and ideas. But he realized that when he began to deal with sociology, he would require “an immense accumulation of facts so classified and arranged as to facilitate generalization” ([1904] 1926, vol. 2, p. 171). Accordingly, in 1867, several years before he expected to begin work on Principles of Sociology (1876-1896), he hired the first of three researchers who were to read and extract cultural data from ethnographic and historical sources and organize them according to a system of headings and subheadings that Spencer had devised.

The results of this undertaking were published as. separate volumes under the general title of Descriptive Sociology (see 1873-1934), a work which, according to George P. Murdock, “clearly foreshadowed the development of the present Human Relations Area Files” (1954, p. 16). This series of publications, today very little known, marks Spencer as the founder of systematic, inductive, comparative sociology.

Eight large folio volumes of Descriptive Sociology appeared between 1873 and 1881, when the series was discontinued because it was a financial failure which Spencer could no longer afford to carry. However, he never abandoned the idea of this series and in his will provided funds for the compilation and publication of the remainder of the projected volumes of Descriptive Sociology. Nine volumes of the series were published after Spencer’s death.

In 1872, at the urging of Edward L. Youmans, his most energetic American disciple, Spencer wrote The Study of Sociology (1873). In part, the book was written to demonstrate that a science of sociology is possible. “There can be no complete acceptance of Sociology as a science,” wrote Spencer, “so long as the belief in a social order not conforming to natural law, survives” (1873, p. 360). Such a belief was prevalent at that time, especially among historians, who tended to base their view on man’s supposed possession of free will. A thoroughgoing determinist, Spencer maintained that causation operates in human behavior just as it does in other spheres of nature and regarded free will as an illusion (1855, vol. 1, pp. 500-504 in the 1871 edition).

Spencer’s disdain for conventional historians extended to their published works. “I take but little interest in what are called histories,” he wrote, “but am interested only in Sociology, which stands related to these so-called histories much as a vast building stands related to the heaps of stones and bricks around it” ([1904] 1926, vol. 2, p. 185).

Spencer further charged historians with failing to present the essential facts of human history. He wrote,

That which constitutes History, properly so called, is in great part omitted from works on the subject. Only of late years have historians commenced giving us, in any considerable quantity, the truly valuable information. As in past ages the king was everything and the people nothing; so, in past histories the doings of the king fill the entire picture, to which the national life forms but an obscure background. . . . That which it really concerns us to know, is the natural history of society. ([1854-1859] 1963, p. 67)

Later he added, “The only history that is of practical value, is what may be called Descriptive Sociology. And the highest office which the historian can discharge, is that of so narrating the lives of nations, as to furnish materials for a Comparative Sociology; and for the subsequent determination of the ultimate laws to which social phenomena conform” (ibid., pp. 69-70). This essay has been taken to be the opening gun in the intellectual movement that gave rise to the New History of James Harvey Robinson and others (Barnes 1925, p. 3).

The Study of Sociology had a very strong impact in the United States, where according to Charles Horton Cooley, it “probably did more to arouse interest in the subject than any other publication before or since” (Cooley 1920, p. 129). William Graham Sumner was very much impressed by the work, finding that “it solved the old difficulty about the relation of social science to history, rescued social science from the dominion of cranks, and offered a definite and magnificent field for work . . .” (”Sketch of William Graham Sumner” 1889, pp. 265-266; a similar statement may be found quoted in Hofstadter 1944, p. 41). The Study of Sociology served Sumner as a textbook for a course he established at Yale, which appears to have been the first course in sociology ever taught in an American university (Starr 1925, p. 387).

Well before the publication of the final volume of Principles of Sociology in 1896, Spencer was already a philosopher-scientist of distinction and acclaim. His books were widely read, and his views commanded great attention. Principles of Biology had been adopted as a textbook at Oxford, and First Principles and Principles of Psychology were used by William James as textbooks for two of his courses at Harvard. Spencer had, in short, become a towering figure in the world of learning. Yet he always shunned the academic limelight. When, in 1867, he was asked to become a candidate for the professorship of mental philosophy and logic at University College, London, Spencer declined. Between 1871 and 1903 he was offered no fewer than 32 academic honors, but with one or two exceptions, he refused them all (Spencer [1904] 1926, vol. 2, pp. 146-147; Duncan 1908, pp. 588-589).

Spencer lived seven years beyond the publication of the third volume of Principles of Sociology, devoting himself mostly to controversial writing. He died in 1903, at the age of 83.

Conception of society. In Principles of Sociology Spencer pointed to a number of parallels between biological organisms and human societies and, in fact, spoke of society as a kind of organism. So often was Spencer attacked for making this analogy, that he took pains to make his position clear:

Analogies between the phenomena presented in a physically coherent aggregate forming an individual, and the phenomena presented in a physically incoherent aggregate of individuals [forming a society] . . . cannot be analogies of a visible or sensible kind; but can only be analogies between the systems, or methods, of organization. Such analogies as exist result from the one unquestionable community between the two organizations: there is in both a mutual dependence of parts. This is the origin of all organization; and determines what similarities there are between an individual organism and a social organism. ([1871] 1966, vol. 15, p. 411)

Spencer is widely known as an evolutionist. What is less generally recognized is that he was also a thoroughgoing functionalist. He saw social structures arising out of social functions: “There can be no true conception of a structure without a true conception of its function. To understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards” ([1876-1896] 1925-1929, vol. 3, p. 3). Spencer also spoke of “the general law of organization that difference of functions entails differentiation and division of the parts performing them . . .” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 441). He illustrated this principle by showing, for example, how military functions had given rise to elaborate military organization among the Incas and the Spartans (ibid., pp. 580-584). Much of Principles of Sociology is devoted to tracing the increased specialization of functions and accompanying differentiation of structures that characterize cultural evolution.

It was Spencer who coined the term “super-organic,” which, following its use by Kroeber in 1917 in his article “The Superorganic,” has been accepted as designating the unique and distinct elements in human behavior, and therefore as synonymous with “culture.” But by “superorganic” Spencer meant no more than what the term means literally: something beyond the purely biological. To him the term was essentially equivalent to “social,” and he included within it the behavior of bees, rooks, beaver, and bison, as well as that of man ([1876-1896] 1925-1929, vol. 1, pp. 4-7).

Spencer did not, however, conceive of human society simply as a response to a “social instinct.” He held that “social phenomena depend in part on the natures of the individuals and in part on the forces the individuals are subject to, . . .” (ibid., p. 14). In fact, he believed that practical considerations that increased chances of survival lay at the root of human sociality: “Living together arose because, on the average, it proved more advantageous to each than living apart; . . .” Once in existence, social life was perpetuated because “maintenance of combination [of individuals in society] is maintenance of the conditions to more satisfactory living than the combined persons would otherwise have” ([1892-1893] 1914, vol. 1, p. 134).

Yet if Spencer saw societies as something more than mere aggregations of individuals behaving instinctually, he nevertheless did not regard the behavior of social animals and that of man as sufficiently different to warrant distinguishing them terminologically. In Principles of Sociology he almost never used the word “culture,” although Tylor had already given the term its anthropological definition in his Primitive Culture in 1871. However, while he perceived this difference between human and subhuman behavior as one of degree rather than of kind, Spencer was nevertheless impressed by its enormous magnitude. He remarked that the “various orders of super-organic products, [of human societies] . . . constitute an immensely-voluminous, immensely-complicated, and immensely-powerful set of influences” ([1876-1896] 1925-1929, vol. 1, pp. 13-14). He maintained that these orders so transcend all others “in extent, in complication, in importance, as to make them relatively insignificant” (ibid., p. 7).

Spencer never thought of himself as a materialist and, in fact, considered the section of First Principles entitled “The Unknowable” to be a “repudiation of materialism” ([1904] 1926, vol. 2, p. 75). Despite his repeated disclaimers, however, materialistic and mechanistic interpretations permeated much of Spencer’s writings. For him, the universe consisted basically of matter and energy and was to be explained in these terms. In the concluding paragraph of First Principles Spencer wrote that “the deepest truths we can reach, are simply statements of the widest uniformities in our experiences of the relations of Matter, Motion, and Force; . . .” (1862, p. 509 in the 1912 edition).

In view of this mechanistic attitude it is not surprising that Spencer should have perceived and expressed the fundamental importance of energy to the evolution of culture. He was, in fact, perhaps the first to make this relationship explicit:

Based as the life of a society is on animal and vegetal products, and dependent as these are on the light and heat of the Sun, it follows that the changes wrought by men as socially organized, are effects of forces having a common origin with those which produce all the other orders of changes. . . . Not only is the energy expended by the horse harnessed to the plough, and by the labourer guiding it, derived from the same reservoir as is the energy of the cataract and the hurricane; but to this same reservoir are traceable those subtler and more complex manifestations of energy which humanity, as socially embodied, evolves, (ibid., pp. 203-204)

Spencer was among the earliest social scientists to argue that culture change is better explained in terms of sociocultural forces than as the result of actions of important men. He maintained, for example, that it is unrealistic to think of Lycurgus as having originated the Spartan constitution ([1876-1896] 1925-1929, vol. 2, p. 376n). He also maintained that it was not the personal initiative of Cleisthenes that brought about democratic organization in Athens, but rather that his political reorganization was prompted by, and was successful only because of, the large number of non-clan-organized persons living in that city at the time (ibid., pp. 424-425).

Not only did Spencer deny that great men create social and political institutions, he held that their rise was not a matter of deliberate choice at all: “society is a growth and not a manufacture” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 321). He went as far as to deny that recognition of “advantages or disadvantages of this or that arrangement, furnished motives for establishing or maintaining” a form of government, and argued instead that “conditions and not intentions determine [it]” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 395).

Spencer was very much impressed with the importance of war in the development of complex societies, and in fact this is one of the recurring themes of Principles of Sociology. He also called attention to the effect of environment on institutions, maintaining, for example, that rugged, mountainous terrain, like that of Greece, fosters the development of confederacies rather than of strongly centralized monarchies (ibid., pp. 373, 395).

Spencer also appreciated the importance of economic factors in the origin and development of customs and institutions. He showed the important role played by commerce and industry in widening the base of Athenian oligarchy and paving the way for Greek democracy (ibid., pp. 391-393, 424-425). He also argued that representative government and the democratic state resulted from an increased concentration of people in towns, from the rise of artisan and merchant classes, and from expanding production and commerce (ibid., pp. 421-423).

Development of social institutions. Like other evolutionists of the period, Spencer dealt at length with the problem of primal human social organization. Many pages of Principles of Sociology are devoted to the development of marriage and forms of the family, early concepts of property, and the like. With regard to most of these issues, Spencer’s thinking was sound and modern. For example, he did not believe that the incest taboo is innate (ibid., vol. 1, p. 619). Nor did he believe that sexual promiscuity was the earliest stage of human marriage (ibid., p. 662). He did. However, think that promiscuity was at one time common and that the resulting difficulty in establishing paternity led to the early reckoning of kinship in the female line (ibid., p. 647). But he had reservations in this regard and pointed out that even in primitive matrilineal societies a term for “father” always existed, implying a consciousness of male kinship (ibid., p. 648).

Spencer likewise did not believe that polygyny had preceded monogamy but held that monogamy went back as far as any form of marriage (ibid., p. 679). Similarly, he rejected the notion of an early stage of “primitive communism,” i.e., common ownership of all forms of property. While recognizing that everywhere “land is jointly held by hunters because it cannot be otherwise held” (ibid., p. 645), he noted that among contemporary primitive peoples, tools, utensils, weapons, and ornaments are habitually owned individually and concluded that a similar situation probably prevailed in very early times.

In Principles of Sociology Spencer proposed a theory about the origin of religion that came to be known as the ghost theory. According to this view, the concept of a soul that inhabits the human body was the earliest supernatural belief entertained by man, and this notion was later extended to animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Eventually, through further extensions and differentiations, the concept of the soul was transfigured into that of gods of myriad forms and powers. This hypothesis came very close to Tylor’s theory of animism, and the two men entered into a dispute over priority of authorship.

A belief in rectilinear evolution—the view that cultural evolution proceeds in a straight line, without interruptions or regressions—has been attributed to the classical evolutionists, including Spencer. But Spencer held no such view. “Though, taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolution may be held inevitable . . . ,” he wrote, “yet it cannot be held inevitable in each particular society, or even probable” (ibid., p. 96). Likewise, Spencer was not a unilinear evolutionist: “Like other kinds of progress, social progress is not linear but divergent and re-divergent. Each differentiated product gives origin to a new set of differentiated products” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 331).

Although Spencer (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 549-556) did propose a sequence of stages of political evolution, he was far more concerned with process than with stages. Moreover, he saw the process by which societies develop as consisting, by and large, in responses to particular problems posed by the cultural and natural environments, rather than in movement through a universal and necessary series of stages.

Spencer’s advocacy of individualism and laissez-faire led him to champion the philosophy of social Darwinism. He held that the rapid elimination of unfit individuals from society through natural selection would benefit the race biologically and that the state should therefore do nothing to relieve the condition of the poor, whom he assumed to be the less fit. Spencer also maintained that the economic system works best if each individual is allowed to seek his own private interests and that consequently the state should not intervene in the economy except to enforce contracts and to see to it that no one infringes upon the rights of others. He believed that in the ensuing competition, the fittest business enterprises and economic institutions would survive. These views were set forth at length in Social Statics (1850) and The Man Versus the State (1884).

Spencer never abandoned his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a theory which, while essentially biological, also affected his social theory. He argued, for example, that “the constitutional energy needed for continuous labour, without which there cannot be civilized life ... is an energy ... to be acquired only by inherited modifications slowly accumulated” ([1876-1896] 1925-1929, vol. 2, p. 270).

Certain cultural peculiarities among peoples of the world Spencer attributed to innate psychological differences. He spoke, for instance, of “the independence of the Greek nature,” which was unlike Oriental natures, and held that it was because of this nature that the ancient Greeks “did not readily submit to the extension of sacerdotal control over civil affairs” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 265).

Yet, despite such views, Spencer only rarely resorted to the idea of inherent psychological differences to explain cultural differences. Almost invariably he explained cultural phenomena primarily by the interplay of cultural and environmental factors. He did not believe that “racial” differences involve any truly fundamental differences in psychology and did not impute to preliterate peoples a “prelogical” mentality (ibid., vol. 1, p. 100).

Influence. Although Spencer’s direct influence on present-day anthropology and sociology is slight, his indirect influence has been considerably greater. The most important link between Spencer and contemporary social science is Émile Durkheim, who although critical of Spencer on a number of points, was influenced by Spencer’s treatment of comparative sociology, typologies of human society, the division of labor, and social structure, function, and integration.

Through Durkheim, Spencer influenced A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and it is probably fair to say that the core of what Radcliffe-Brown derived from Durkheim—the concept of society as a functioning system, susceptible of scientific study—Durkheim had derived from Spencer. Radcliffe-Brown’s students in turn were taught principles and ideas deriving from Spencer, although mostly those dealing with function rather than with evolution. The line of descent of this aspect of Spencer’s influence was summed up by Howard Becker as follows: “From Spencer to Durkheim to British and British-influenced functional anthropology to structural-functional sociology in the United States”. . . may not be a drastic distortion of the actual ’who to whom’ sequence” (Becker 1954, p. 132).

Evolutionism, Spencer’s other signal contribution to cultural anthropology, has had less continuous acceptance than functionalism. In fact, it virtually disappeared from the scene during the great reaction against it in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. However, the wave of antievolutionism appears spent, and the last two decades have seen the resurgence of evolution, led by Leslie A. White and Julian H. Steward in the United States and V. Gordon Childe in England. Anthropologists have come to accept cultural evolution as a fact and to see it as a process of increasing structural differentiation and functional specialization, the very terms in which Spencer first portrayed it more than a century ago.

Robert L. Carneiro

[For the historical context of Spencer’s work, seeEvolution; and the biography ofDarwin; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeSocial Darwinism; and the biographies ofCarver; CHILDE; Durkheim; GIDDINGS; Hankins; RAD-CLIFFE-BROWN; ROSS; Sumner; Ward, Lester F.]


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White, Leslie A. 1947 Evolutionary Stages, Progress, and the Evaluation of Cultures. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 3:165-192.

Spencer, Herbert

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Derby, England, 27 April 1820; d. Brighton, England, 8 December 1903)

philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology

Spencer was the only surviving child of William George and Catherine Spencer; his father, a private school teacher of very modest means, was inclined to a deist rationalism and frequented Quaker meetings. Spencer was educated privately, first by his father (author of an original system of teaching geometry, by “discovery” methods) and then by his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, a radical and scientifically inclined parson. He also participated in the Derby Philosophical Society, a coterie of amateur “natural philosophers” founded by Erasmus Darwin in 1783 along the lines of the Birmingham Lunar Society, and thus became an heir to that provincial tradition of political radicalism, religious free thought, and scientific endeavor of which the key figure had been Joseph Priestley. Above fairly elementary levels he was a virtual autodidact, learning his science from casual reading, attending lectures, and, later, associating with working scientists.

In 1837 Spencer took up railway engineering, during the boom period of railway construction in England, and was active in radical, middle-class, dissenting politics. Dissatisfied with engineering, he hovered long over other choices, finally taking a job in London in 1848 as subeditor of the Economist. There he moved among leaders of literary and scientific opinion and gradually shaped his career as an independent writer and reviewer. Spencer never married (despite his celebrated affair with Marian Evans [George Eliot]) and from 1855 suffered, despite good physical health, from a neurotic condition that intermittently prevented him from sleeping, working, or being in company. Despite his friendships (notably with T. H. Huxley and with the other scientists who composed the X-Club) and his membership in the Athenaeum, Spencer was socially an isolate and took pride in declining all the many honors that were offered him. His considerable reputation as a proponent of extreme laissez-faire liberalism, of the claims of science against traditional religion, and of evolutionary philosophy was at its height in the late 1870’s (most especially in the United States) but had diminished dramatically by the time of his death.

Spencer is important less for specific discoveries or for his contribution to particular sciences (except sociology and psychology) than for his synthesis of so much of the accepted science of his day in the integrating framework of evolution. In an age when natural science was becoming institutionalized and differentiated, both internally and externally, Spencer was the last of the Naturphilosophen. This accounts for the vagaries of his reputation among his scientific contemporaries: low among specialist working scientists and high among many of the most original boundary-crossing innovators (Darwin, Gallon, A. R. Wallace). Spencer’s unified vision of science, expressed in methodological writings as well as in the synthesis itself, contributed greatly to the acceptance of science as a major component in the intellectual culture of industrial society. If the evolutionary totality had many of the attributes of a theology, it was not merely because of its place in the last decisive battle between science and religion, but because its original and enduring motive had been to establish “the secularization of ethics,” now that the unanimous hold of religion had been weakened.It was necessary to integrate physical science with social science and ethics in order to invest the latter with the authority that only science could truly claim. The unity of the whole, and the fertile but misleading cross references between the parts,were essential to both Spencer’s scientific and his socialethical interests.

The precise origin of Spencer’s evolutionary views is impossible to date, but it is likely that they were imbibed in some form during his youth from the “Darwinians” of Derby. He had become a Lamarckian through his reading of Lyell in 1840, and although critical of the Vestiges of Creation (1843). he accepted its basic tenet, “the development hypothesis,” Social Statics (1850), his first book, is evolutionary; and his long essay “A Theory of Population” (1852), in attempting to show that progress is necessitated by population pressure, comes within an ace of anticipating the main elements of Darwinian natural selection. In the later Spencer applied Malthusian principles to animal populations, deduced a struggle for survival and coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” but the perspective remained Lamarckian. It is clear from his subsequent essay “Progress: Its Law and Cause”(1857) that the goal of his theory was quite distinct from Darwin’s: to show how progress or development in all areas of the universe—the solar system, the totality of organic species, the maturation of each organism, the psychic development and socialization of the individual, the evolution of society and culture—consists of one fundamental determinate motion from an incoherent homogeneity to a complex and interdependent heterogeneity.

The path to this vision had been cleared by Spencer’s reading of K. E, von Baer’s work on embryology and H. Milne-Edwards‘ theme of “the physiological division of labor” —a notion that, introduced into biology from political economy, was now to be reapplied by Spencer to the social world, in an extensive use of the organic analogy First Principles (1862), with its doctrine of an ultimate unknowable force, sought to reconcile science and religion, and to lay the metaphysical underpinnings of all evolution. The necessity of differentiation was derived from “the Persistence of Force,” the instability of all homogeneous physical conditions, and the tendency of all changes to produce multiple effects, leading to ever more heterogeneous and complex results. He resisted Clerk Maxwell’s suggestion that the second law of thermodynamics modynamics implied increasing entropy, not increasing heterogeneity, as the cosmic trend.

Starting from a definition of life as “a definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive... in correspondence with external coexistences and sequences,” Spencer saw higher forms emerging from a gradual process of adaptation to the environment. The Principles of Biology (1864- 1867) analyzes the principal mechanisms by which this occurs and relates them to the specialized structures and functions of plants and animals. Although Darwinian natural selection was easily incorporated into Spencer’s system (as “indirect equilibration”), Spencer was always concerned to insist on the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a major mechanism of evolution. Long after most professional biologists had abandoned it, Spencer, in The Factors of Organic Evolution (1886), his last important scientific essay, argued that “use-inheritance” was necessary to explain most organized systems of behavior or physiological structure. The fatal weakness in his case was his inability to explain how modifications of organs derived from use and the direct effects of the environment could become embodied in the genetic stock. There was one powerful reason—quite apart from the unresolved difficulties that the neo-Darwinism of Weismann and others had left—why Spencer was unwilling to abandon his Lamarckism. It would have undermined what he most wanted to maintain: the fundamental identity of biological evolution and of psychic and social evolution. This tenet of the unity of evolution also led him to blur differences between processes in which the outcome is in some sense “programmed” at the outset (such as the maturation of the embryo) and those in which it is not (such as the evolution of species or the socialization of children).

The Principles of Psychology (1855) was an important and original work, a real milestone in the history of the subject, marking its transition from a heavily epistemological phase to one in which it was closely dependent on physiology. In it Spencer paved the way for Wundt, William James, and Pavlov. Spencer had in his youth accepted phrenology, which, although abandoned, provided him with a critique of the associationist psychology of Hartley, Jeremy Bentham, and J. S. Mill, on the grounds of its not embracing the fact of species or racial character. Spencer presented this character not as an innate essence, but as the “organized” residue of the past experience of the species, a factor that interacted with present experience. But he could give no firm account of just how fixed or fluid this “character” was; and he never distinguished properly between the (in our terms) racial and cultural components of “character” in man. The end of psychological evolution was the emergence of ever more complex powers of “representation” in response to environmental stimuli. The same basic processes operated at all levels, so that abstract thought and developed moral sympathy differed only in degree from the automatic contractions of microorganisms.

Spencer’s social theory rested on his psychology, just as his psychology presupposed his biology, because of his basic principle that the character of any aggregate, whether society or physical substance, is fixed by that of its constituent units. The mental development of man, Spencer argued, lay from egotism to altruism: thus society developed from a “militant” phase, in which rigid coercion was needed to hold men together, to an “industrial” phase, in which altruism and a marked individualism permitted the decline of external control and the complex interdependence of an advanced division of labor. The “social state,” or end product of evolution, was the ideal of Spencer’s youth: a society with the minimum of state control over its members’ activities and associations, in which altruism permitted the harmonious free play of each person’s individual interest. His lifework was to try to show that this ideal was uniquely in accord with natural principles.

Spencer failed, yet it was a grand failure. Apart from his major contributions to the nascent fields of sociology and psychology, he performed a major function for the science of his day by drawing out and integrating its principal themes with the general culture of his age. It is a function that no one has performed since.


I. Original Works. There is a complete bibliography of Spencer’s writings in J. Rumney, Herbert Spencer’s Sociology (London, 1937), 311 -323. His principal works, all published in London, are Social Statics: Or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1850); The Principles of Psychology (1855; 2nd ed. , enl. and rev. , 2 vols. , 1870- 1872); Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861); First Principles (1862); The Principles of Biology, 2 vols. (1864- 1867); The Study of Sociology (1873); The Principles of Sociology, 3 vols. (1876-1897); The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols. (1879- 1893); The Man Versus the State (1884); and An Autobiography (1904).

Many of his essays were reprinted in his Essays, Scientific, Political, and Speculative, 3 vols. (various eds., rev. London, 1890). The principal essays of scientific interest are “A Theory of Population, Deduced From the General Law of Animal Fertility,” in Westminster Review (1852); “The Development Hypothesis,” in Leader (1852); “The Genesis of Science,” in British Quarterly Review (1854); “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” in Westminster Review (1857); “The Social Organism,” ibid. (1860); “The Factors of Organic Evolution,” in Nineteenth Century (1886); and “The Inadequacy of Natural Selection” and further rejoinders, in Contemporary Review ( 1893- 1894).

Several selections from Spencer’s writings, mostly on sociology, have recently been published: The Man Versus the State, With Four Essays on Politics and Society, D. G. MacRae, ed. (Harmondsworth, 1969); Herbert Spencer: Structure, Function and Evolution, S. L. Andreski, ed. (London, 1971); and Herbert Spencer on Social Evolution, J. D. Y. Peel, ed. (Chicago. 1972).

Original MSS of most of Spencer’s books are at the British Museum. The remains of his personal papers (seemingly only a small part) are at the Athenaeum (London). Otherwise his letters are widespread in the collected papers of his correspondents, especially T. H. Huxley (at Imperial College, London) and Beatrice Webb (Passfield Papers, British Library of Political and Economic Science).

II. Secondary Literature. The indispensable work is D. Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (London, 1908). Among the great volume of contemporary or near-contemporary discussion, criticism, and paraphrase of Spencer’s work are F. H. Collins, An Epitome of the Synthetic Philosophy (London, 1889): J. Arthur Thompson, Herbert Spencer (London, 1906): and William James, Memories and Studies (New York, 1911), which contains a judicious obituary assessment. J. Rumney. Herbert Spencer’s Sociology (London, 1937), stands almost alone in the period when Spencer was all but forgotten. Most present interest is in Spencer as social philosopher and forerunner of sociology. J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (London, 1971), gives the fullest account of the social and intellectual background; see also J. W. Burrow. Evolution and Society (London, 1966); S. Eisen,“Herbert Spencer and the Spectre of Comte,” in Journal of British Studies, 7 (1967); and “Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer: Embattled Unbelievers,” in Victorian studies, 12 (1968); D. Freeman, “The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer,” in Current Anthropology. 15 (1974); M. Harris. The Rise of Anthropological Theory (New York, 1968): J. D. Y. Peel, “Spencer and the Neo-evolutionists,” in Sociology, 3 (1969); W. H. Simon, “Herbert Spencer and the Social Organism,” in Journal of the History of Ideas. 21 ( 1960); and G. W. Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution (New York, 1968). For a greater emphasis on Spencer as natural scientist, see P. B. Medawar, “Herbert Spencer and the General Law of Evolution,” in The Art of the Soluble (London, 1967); and R. M. Young, “Malthus and the Evolutionists,” in Past and Present, 43 (1969): and Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1970).

J. D. Y. Peel

Spencer, Herbert

views updated May 17 2018

Spencer, Herbert 18201903


Herbert Spencer (18201903) was a nineteenth-century English social philosopher who sought to explain all domains of the universe in terms of some cardinal or first principles of evolution. He termed his approach synthetic philosophy, and before he was done he wrote treatises on ethics (1851, 18921898), psychology (1855), biology (18641867), and, eventually, sociology (18741896). He also wrote a major work on methodology in the social sciences (1873) that was far superior to anything written at the time, and he commissioned the largest collection of data by a sociologist on human societies in the sixteen volumes of his Descriptive Sociology (under various authors from 1873 to 1934). This latter project served as the inspiration for the Human Relations Area Files initiated by George P. Murdock, which sought to categorize and quantify qualitative data from ethnographic studies of societies.

Spencer coined the phrase survival of the fittest almost a decade before the English naturalist Charles Darwins analysis of natural selection appeared; in many ways, modern views of Spencer are colored by this phrase and the social advocacy it contains. In fact, Spencers arguments about ethics taint present-day perceptions of his work because by todays political standards they appear conservative, although they were liberal in Spencers time. Perhaps the most unfortunate impression of Spencers sociology is its association of the rise of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement with Spencers advocacy. Both of these movements gained traction long after Spencers death; thus, Spencer cannot be seen as a key player in what they advocated.

Spencers ideas were, however, used by some key advocates of social Darwinism or eugenics. For example, in his key work, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), the English evolutionary biologist Ronald A. Fisher significantly advanced the field of genetics in the first half of the book, but used Spencers ideas to promote a version of eugenics in the second half. The same is true for social Darwinists who often invoked Spencers (and, more often, Darwins) name to legitimate their advocacy that the natural competition among individuals should be allowed to play itself out within societies just as it does in the natural world. Spencer used the phrase survival of the fittest most often within sociology to address the topic of how war had historically allowed societies to evolve, with the more organized and fit society generally winning a war and advancing the level of organization of human societies. Still, he did advocate that competition among individuals and collective actors within societies should go unregulated, letting the more fit survive. In reading Spencers more scholarly works, however, and particularly his sociology, there is very little of this latter form of advocacy. And yet, in the twenty-first century Spencers reputation is often tied to discredited intellectual movements. Spencer was an ideologue when he wrote on ethnics, to be sure, but he was also a scientist and scholar whose works have not received the attention that they deserve because of the prejudices against his ideological moments.

Thus, Spencer was more than an ideologue. His collected works comprise one of the most comprehensive collections of scholarship ever produced in the social sciences. His sociological works, which came late in his career, are perhaps his most important because they draw upon the vast body of data assembled by scholars under his financial sponsorship and patronage into the volumes of Descriptive Sociology. The Principles of Sociology (18741896) presents a functional approach, emphasizing that the evolution of human societies is the result of population pressures for structural and cultural differentiation around three main axes: operation (functional needs for production and reproduction), regulation (needs to consolidate power), and distribution (needs to create infrastructures and exchange systems for moving people, resources, and information about a society). What scholars often overlook in this analysis is the emphasis on power. Most of The Principles of Sociology examines the effects of concentrated power on increasing inequality which, in turn, shapes the structure of key institutional systems: economy, kinship, religion, and polity. He also developed a theory of microdynamics, revolving around ceremony under varying levels of concentrated power and inequality.

In The Principles of Sociology, Spencer presented a geopolitical theory of human evolution, emphasizing the effects of inter-societal conflict on social complexity and on concentrated power. War was the main referent for the phrase survival of the fittest in Spencers sociology; with this idea, he documented that, in general, the more complex and better organized society will generally defeat the less complex and less organized society. With conquest, then, comes the successive ratcheting up of the level of societal complexity. However, war forces the centralization of power that, in turn, increases the level of inequality. Inequalities pose internal threats that, ironically, force more centralization of power to manage themthereby escalating inequality in a cycle that ultimately leads to societal dissolution or deevolution. Still, despite this cyclical dynamic, societies have become larger and more differentiated over the long course of history. When differentiation of societies has produced free markets as the main mechanism for distribution, Spencer felt that war and its effects on centralization of power and inequalities in all institutional spheres work against further societal evolution. War and concentrated power create what in the 2000s is termed the military-industrial complex that deprives the economy of capital and limits innovation, thus serving as a drag on societal evolution.

Spencer was the most-read social philosopher of the nineteenth century, yet modern social scientists rarely consult his work because it is associated with discredited intellectual and social movements in which Spencer was not an active participant. In many ways, this state of affairs is a bit unfair to Spencers legacy but it is also understandable given the extremes to which Spencers ideas were taken by later ideologues. Still Spencers collective works contain many useful insights that can still serve social science (for a detailed analysis of Spencers sociology see Turner 1985; for a complete primary and robust secondary bibliography on Spencers work see Perrin 1993).



Spencer, Herbert. 1851. Social Statics; or, Conditions Essential to Human Happiness. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Spencer, Herbert. 1855. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Spencer, Herbert. 1862. First Principles. New York: A. L. Burt.

Spencer, Herbert. 18641867. The Principles of Biology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Spencer, Herbert. 1873. The Study of Sociology. London: Routledge, Kegan, Paul.

Spencer, Herbert. 18741896. The Principles of Sociology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 2002.

Spencer, Herbert. 18921898. The Principles of Ethics. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Fisher, R. A. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: Clarendon.

Perrin, Robert G. 1993. Herbert Spencer: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland.

Turner, Jonathan H. 1985. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Jonathan Turner

Herbert Spencer

views updated May 18 2018

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English philosopher, scientist, engineer, and political economist. In his day his works were important in popularizing the concept of evolution and played an important part in the development of economics, political science, biology, and philosophy.

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby on April 27, 1820. His childhood, described in An Autobiography (1904), reflected the attitudes of a family which was known on both sides to include religious nonconformists, social critics, and rebels. His father, a teacher, had been a Wesleyan, but he separated himself from organized religion as he did from political and social authority. Spencer's father and an uncle saw that he received a highly individualized education that emphasized the family traditions of dissent and independence of thought. He was particularly instructed in the study of nature and the fundamentals of science, neglecting such traditional subjects as history.

Spencer initially followed up the scientific interests encouraged by his father and studied engineering. For a few years, until 1841, he practiced the profession of civil engineer as an employee of the London and Birmingham Railway. His interest in evolution is said to have arisen from the examination of fossils that came from the rail-road cuts.

Spencer left the railroad to take up a literary career and to follow up some of his scientific interests. He began by contributing to The Non-Conformist, writing a series of letters called The Proper Sphere of Government. This was his first major work and contained his basic concepts of individualism and laissez-faire, which were to be later developed more fully in his Social Statics (1850) and other works. Especially stressed were the right of the individual and the ideal of noninterference on the part of the state. He also foreshadowed some of his later ideas on evolution and spoke of society as an individual organism.

A System of Evolution

The concept of organic evolution was elaborated fully for the first time in his famous essay "The Developmental Hypothesis," published in the Leader in 1852. In a series of articles and writings Spencer gradually refined his concept of organic and inorganic evolution and popularized the term itself. Particularly in "Progress: Its Law and Cause," an essay published in 1857, he extended the idea of evolutionary progress to human society as well as to the animal and physical worlds. All nature moves from the simple to the complex. This fundamental law is seen in the evolution of human society as it is seen in the geological transformation of the earth and in the origin and development of plant and animal species.

Natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, published in 1859, completed Spencer's evolutionary system by providing the mechanism by which organic evolution occurred. Spencer enthusiastically elaborated on Darwin's process of natural selection, applying it to human society, and made his own contribution in the notion of "survival of the fittest." From the beginning Spencer applied his harsh dictum to human society, races, and the state—judging them in the process: "If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die."

Spencer systematically tried to establish the basis of a scientific study of education, psychology, sociology, and ethics from an evolutionary point of view. Although many of his specific ideas are no longer fashionable, Spencer went a long way in helping to establish the separate existence of sociology as a social science. His idea of evolutionary progress, from the simple to the complex, provided a conceptual framework that was productive and that justifies granting to him the title father of comparative sociology. His views concerning a science of sociology are elaborated in two major works, Descriptive Sociology (published in 17 volumes, 1873-1934) and The Study of Sociology (1873).

Spencer was particularly influential in the United States until the turn of the century. According to William Graham Sumner, who used The Study of Sociology as a text in the first sociology course offered in an American university, it was Spencer's work which established sociology as a separate, legitimate field in its own right. Spencer's demand that historians present the "natural history of society," in order to furnish data for a comparative sociology, is also credited with inspiring James Harvey Robinson and the others involved in the writing of the New History in the United States.

Economic Theories

Social philosophy in the latter part of the 19th century in the United States was dominated by Spencer. His ideas of laissez-faire and the survival of the fittest by natural selection fitted very well into an age of rapid expansion and ruthless business competition. Spencer provided businessmen with the reassuring notion that what they were doing was not just ruthless self-interest but was a natural law operating in nature and human society. Not only was competition in harmony with nature, but it was also in the interest of the general welfare and progress. Social Darwinism, or Spencerism, became a total view of life which justified opposition to social reform on the basis that reform interfered with the operation of the natural law of survival of the fittest.

Spencer visited the United States in 1882 and was much impressed by what he observed on a triumphal tour. He prophetically saw in the industrial might of the United States the seeds of world power. He admired the American industrialists and became a close friend of the great industrialist and steel baron Andrew Carnegie.

By the 1880s and 1890s Spencer had become a universally recognized philosopher and scientist. His books were published widely, and his ideas commanded a great deal of respect and attention. His Principles of Biology was a standard text at Oxford. At Harvard, William James used his Principles of Psychology as a textbook.

Although some of Spencer's more extreme formulations of laissez-faire were abandoned fairly rapidly, even in the United States, he will continue to exert an influence as long as competition, the profit motive, and individualism are held up as positive social values. His indirect influence on psychology, sociology, and history is too strong to be denied, even when his philosophical system as a whole has been discarded. He is a giant in the intellectual history of the 19th century.

Spencer spent his last years continuing his work and avoiding the honors and positions that were offered to him by a long list of colleges and universities. He died at Brighton on Dec. 8, 1903.

Further Reading

By far the best source on Spencer's life, education, and the development of his major ideas is his own An Autobiography (2 vols., 1904). Two of the more reliable and critical biographical works are Josiah Royce, Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904), and Hugh Elliot, Herbert Spencer (1917). For a careful study of Spencer's impact upon American intellectual history see Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; rev. ed. 1955). Recommended for general historical background are Ernest Barker, Political Thought in England, 1848-1914 (1915; 2d ed. 1963), and William James Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926; 2d ed. 1967).

Additional Sources

Hudson, William Henry, An introduction to the philosophy of Herbert Spencer: with a biographical sketch, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1974.

Kennedy, James Gettier, Herbert Spencer, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Thomson, J. Arthur (John Arthur), Herbert Spencer, New York:AMS Press, 1976. Turner, Jonathan H., Herbert Spencer: a renewed appreciation, Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985. □

Spencer, Herbert

views updated May 11 2018

Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903) The Victorian prophet of Social Darwinism, who was famous in his time, and especially admired in the United States. Many of his ideas have entered Western culture as conventional wisdoms—or at least as conventional prejudices—yet few people read his books or remember his name today.

Born in the English Midlands of non-conformist parents, Spencer became a railway engineer and a draughtsman. After a time he moved into journalism and began to produce a steady stream of books which are the basis of his reputation in social science. The complete bibliography is formidable, but includes Social Statics (1851), First Principles (1862), The Study of Sociology (1873), and First Principles of Sociology and Descriptive Sociology in parts through the 1870s and 1890s. (For a full account, which discusses Spencer against the social background of his time, see J. D. Y. Peel , Herbert Spencer, 1971

Spencer was the sociological prophet of the high Victorian era. Unlike Marx, he saw nothing but progress in the Industrial Revolution. Spencer interpreted society as a living, growing organism which, as it becomes more complex, must self-consciously understand and control the mechanisms of its own success. The most important of those mechanisms was the intense competition for resources which Spencer labelled ‘the survival of the fittest’ (anticipating Darwin's ‘natural selection’ by several years). Spencer believed that the unrestricted application of this principle would eventually lead to the best possible society. His ideas were adopted with enthusiasm in America, notably by William Graham Sumner, and remain to this day the foundation of libertarian and laissez-faire social and economic theories.

Spencer, Herbert

views updated May 11 2018

Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903). Philosopher. Spencer was the son of a Derbyshire schoolteacher of radical and dissenting views. In the 1840s he joined Sturge's Complete Suffrage Union and in 1848 became subeditor of The Economist. His Social Statics, published in 1851, allowed the state only the minimum of defence and police functions: the struggles of individuals would, Spencer argued, strengthen the nation in an evolutionary fashion. Despite considerable nervous affliction, he published Education in 1861, advocating a child-centred approach and emphasizing the importance of science. He next moved into sociology and had publishing success. But his main thesis—the need to limit the intervention of the state—was at variance with the spirit of the times. The miscellany of his thought gave him influence, but he was not a trained thinker or a wide reader, and his fame faded fast. His Autobiography appeared in 1904 and renewed anxiety about the state led to some revival of interest in the 1980s.

J. A. Cannon

Herbert Spencer

views updated May 14 2018

Herbert Spencer


English philosopher, psychologist, and sociologist who synthesized the social and natural sciences into the framework of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought. By asserting the relationship between progress and science, Spencer posited the progressive aspects of evolution and coined the term "survival of the fittest." He had a low standing among scientific specialists, but was well respected by scientific innovators such as Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Alfred Wallace. Spencer's work had only moderate influence in Europe, but it was widely accepted in the United States.

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