Darwin vs Spencer: Chicken, egg or German Romantics?

BBC R4 had a great In Our Time episode last week. It discussed Social Darwinism and taught me (I fear for the first time) to wonder which came first: the sociology, as in social, or the biology, as in Darwinism? Put it another way: who was the precursor of whom? Who got to evolution – and got to its messages – first? Was it our obvious hero Charles Darwin, or the famous old villain, Herbert Spencer? Naturally, I was rooting for Spencer….

I suppose I should have learned by now that ideas – whether in the social or the life sciences – seldom come out of the ether. Various strands lead to Darwin and Spencer, and some of these they shared and others they didn’t. They batted ideas between themselves, as amongst plenty of other contacts. Presumably, it is obvious that Darwin was the greater influence on science. But it is fair to say that Spencer presents a far greater challenge to social, political and economic thought.

Googling around in the wake of the show, I came across the remarkable writing of Robert J Richards. He gives us a wonderfully sharp and sympathetic account of the intellectual relations between the two men. He also roots Darwin strongly, and Spencer somewhat, in German thought (Humboldt and the German Romantics, and Kant, respectively). [Robert J. Richards, The University of Chicago, “The Relation of Spencer’s Evolutionary Theory to Darwin’s,” in Great Jones and Robert Peel (eds.), Herbert Spencer: The Intellectual Legacy, London: The Galton Institute, 2004, pp. 17-36. Available as Word Doc here.]

(Apropos my strictures on character vs transparency, Richards’ piece includes a funny account of Spencer telling Beatrice Webb that government interference always led to red tape stifling the basic good sense and goodwill of its employees. Spencer made this remark in the Royal Academy, where people tend to unbutton themselves, rather as my grandfather Stanley did in conversation with Anthony Blunt on the merits of Boucher.)

I like Richards’ defence of Spencer as more attractive than he at first seems, and his explanation for the wide dislike of Spencer’s creeds.

It seems – being a bit blunter than is Richards – that Spencer is advertised as stressing that mankind thrives only by being brutal with weakness and Darwin, on the other hand, escapes such censure by sticking to safer ground. Actually, Spencer (I am pretty sure) does not say that people must be nasty to thrive or to help their society or species survive. Rather, he is a conventional utilitarian (in the “people are good because it’s useful” sense) with some political theory knobs on: the state crushes goodness when it tries to do good.

This latter is of course the right-wing creed, a weak version of which I strongly endorse against “soft-left liberal”, and especially against hard-left, notions. (It’s all over my The Right-wing Guide to Nearly Everything.)

So we can see why Spencer’s Social Darwinism is unpopular. It reminds us of the nasty bits that one can derive from Darwin and Darwinism. And, worse, it is the scientific underpinning for everything right-wing ever since. Goodness knows, what follows from Social Darwinism can be unpleasant and worse. Little by little though, I think the brightest and best are breaking out of the stereotypes of the right which the left has foisted on us for too long.

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Publication date

25 February 2014