thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Great god progress

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Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was as passionate about evolution as his contemporary and life-long friend TH Huxley. On its relation to ethics, though, he came to a very different conclusion.

This article follows Darwin’s bulldog in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Spencer was firmly of the ‘evolution is good’ persuasion. But he also did not see evolution itself quite the way Darwin and Huxley did. For Spencer evolution was nothing less than a universal natural law of progress. It was applicable within not only biology, but also the physical and cosmological sciences, psychology, language, art, music, religion, politics, economic activity, industry, sociology and ethics.

His 1857 essay Progress: its law and cause1 drew on a variety of sources (including Wolff, Goethe, Coleridge, Schelling, and von Baer‘s work in embryology) to propose a universal law of nature by which original simplicity evolved into greater complexity and integration. This was then developed in later work:

Evolution is definable as a change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and integration of matter.2

This was a conception of evolution very different from Darwin’s. Although Spencer did not discount natural selection of randomly-generated variation, he considered an important engine of biological diversity was use-inheritance – otherwise known as ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’. This was originally posited by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, entertained by Darwin, but now generally consigned to science history. For example in a discussion of the giraffe’s ‘ludicrous’ gallop:

If the effects of use and disuse of parts are inheritable, then any change in the foreparts of the giraffe which affects the action of the hind limbs and back, will simultaneously cause, by the greater or less exercise of it, a re-moulding of each component in the hind limbs and back in a way adapted to the new demands; and generation after generation the entire structure of the hind-quarters will be progressively fitted to the changed structure of the forequarters: all the appliances for nutrition and innervation being at the same time progressively fitted to both. But in the absence of this inheritance of functionally-produced modifications, there is no seeing how the required re-adjustments can be made.3

Another key difference was that Spencer’s concept of evolution was directed towards a final state of ‘equilibrium’. For Darwin evolution just happened, driven by natural selection. Spencer reluctantly admitted natural selection into his own thinking – it was he who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest‘ – but it sat uneasily with the rest of his ‘System of Synthetic Philosophy’.4

Evolution for Spencer was synonymous with progress. It would end with the creation of ‘the perfect man in the perfect society’, as predicted in his first book, Social Statics.5 For example human aggression was necessary for survival in a primitive context but less appropriate as communities advanced. Spencer believed instincts were located in particular areas of brain tissue. As the instinct of aggression became less exercised (because civilised life had less call for it), then in accordance with Lamarckian use-inheritance theory, less aggression would be passed on to future generations. Humans would become less aggressive and more altruistic, as they and their society evolved towards greater perfection:

…[D]uring the growth of … civilization … there have been slowly evolving the altruistic sentiments. Development of these has gone on only as fast as society has advanced to a state in which the activities are mainly peaceful. The root of all the altruistic sentiments is sympathy; and sympathy could become dominant only when the mode of life, instead of being one that habitually inflicted direct pain, became one which conferred direct and indirect benefits…6

Thinking like this had social and political implications:

If functionally-produced modifications are inheritable, then the mental associations habitually produced in individuals by experiences of the relations between actions and their consequences, pleasurable or painful, may, in the successions of individuals, generate innate tendencies to like or dislike such actions. But if not, the genesis of such tendencies is… not satisfactorily explicable.

…If a nation is modified en masse by transmission of the effects produced on the natures of its members by those modes of daily activity which its institutions and circumstances involve; then we must infer that such institutions and circumstances mould its members far more rapidly and comprehensively than they can do if the sole cause of adaptation to them is the more frequent survival of individuals who happen to have varied in favourable ways.7

To ensure that evolution moved in a positive, progressive direction people should not be shielded from the consequences of their behaviour. Otherwise the necessary improvements would not be generated and passed on to their offspring. Spencer was therefore against state intervention in eg public education, public health and poverty relief. Even private philanthropy if directed towards the ‘undeserving poor’ would hinder human progress by removing the link between behaviour and consequences.

But with obstacles like state intervention and indiscriminate philanthropy removed the perfect society would eventually evolve. People would instinctively respect the rights of others and, following utilitarian principles, would both get pleasure from exercising ‘positive beneficence’ (altruism) and practise ‘negative beneficence’ by not causing pain to others. Spencer’s eventual ‘Absolute Ethics’ was a moral system based on science which could replace outmoded codes backed by divine command, with his ‘Relative Ethics’ being guidance on how to get there while humans were still constrained by imperfection.

Spencer had long ago abandoned Christianity, and along with it any kind of ‘anthropomorphic’ deity. But his mature thinking displayed unmistakeable features of the Deism he had absorbed from his father and other influential figures in his formative years. Deism saw the cosmos as the creation of a benevolent and transcendentally kind designer, and as subject to natural laws decreed to promote human happiness. Spencer kept the natural laws, which were themselves benevolent in their universality.

It is illuminating to consider how significant a Lamarckian model of adaptation would be to this sort of world view. It draws together a number of powerful strands. There is human social, economic, industrial and intellectual progress as exemplified by triumphant Victorian exuberance. There is the explosion of knowledge about the living world and its buried history, proclaiming a further triumph of progressive evolution. Where these two pictures overlap Homo sapiens proudly stands, representing yet another explosion of knowledge – as both knower and known. The supernatural can finally be nudged aside, now we have an even bigger marvel, this time founded on irrefutable scientific knowledge.

Human civilisation progresses by striving, learning and improving. The Lamarckian model provides the same driving force for the rest of the organic universe; and if organic nature is itself a manifestation of inorganic nature, then perhaps for the whole cosmos. Striving, learning and improving: the macrocosm obeys the same natural law of progress as the giraffe stretching and stretching its neck to get at the leaves its competitors cannot reach.

Strict Darwinian natural selection does not contradict this vision but it does not exactly fit. Survival by striving, learning and improvement is endogenous in an industriously Victorian self-help kind of way. The giraffe who sticks its neck out bequeaths both its longer neck and its determination to its offspring. This is not quite a world where an external ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’8 takes out every proto-giraffe except the lucky mutant with the long-neck gene.

Every component of Spencer’s universe has at least some power to survive by striving, learning and improving. At least some of the ‘selection’ is self-selection. By the same token although the vision was taken to imply definite social and political policy, this does not necessarily lead to eugenics. Yes there are superior and inferior individuals, and the superior individuals are those aligned with progress and therefore ‘more evolved’. But even an inferior individual can strive, learn, improve – and then pass its improvement onto offspring who can then improve still more. This is not eugenics, with its sinister vision of futuristic human farmers scientifically breeding human livestock. Eugenics would address the genotype as manifest in the phenotype. Spencerian social policy would address the phenotype so as to modify the genotype.

Alas Lamarck’s use-inheritance has fallen from grace as an explanation of how evolution happens. And with this out of the equation the link which seemed so obvious between human social progress and the arrow of organic evolution suddenly disappears.

The contemporary consensus is that if there is ‘progress’ in evolution it is a result of competition between genetic blueprints as they are realised in the development and replication of organisms.9 10 Incremental growth in complexity and sophistication certainly occurs, if this is what survival demands. But the appropriate analogy is not so much an arrow progressing towards a preordained or inevitable target, but an arms race, for example between predators and their prey.

Is Homo sapiens more ‘evolved’ than the cheetah? Is the legless slow-worm more or less ‘evolved’ than its four-legged ancestor? Greater simplicity can also be selected for, not just greater complexity. The driver is economics, not design for design’s sake. And even the design is not designed – it is design without a designer; economics without a planner. It is blind, with no direction and no striving.

Read on


1 Herbert Spencer, Progress: its law and cause, 1857; later expanded into First principles of a new system of philosophy, First Edition, 1862.

2 Herbert Spencer, First principles, Second Edition, 1867.

3 Herbert Spencer, The factors of organic evolution, first published in The Nineteenth Century, April and May 1886.

4 Herbert Spencer, System of Synthetic Philosophy, 1862-1897.

5 Herbert Spencer, Social statics: or, The conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed, 1851.

6 Herbert Spencer, Morals and moral sentiments, first published in The Fortnightly Review, April 1871.

7 Herbert Spencer, Preface to the republication of The factors of organic evolution: see 3 above.

8 Tennyson, In memoriam, 1849.

9 Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker, 1986.

10 Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996.

© Chris Lawrence 2008.


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