Spencerian Evolution


Darwin’s version of evolution is responsive only to local stimuli and apparently serves no ultimate purpose. Different species branch out into daughter subspecies (and eventual entirely new species) in an open-ended, multi-directional way bound to no great, overarching plan.

Herbert Spencer advocates a different version of evolution. Spencer’s evolution has a plan, a direction.  And Spencer’s Nature is not just changing… it is PROGRESSING.

According to the excellent book, The Philosophy Of Herbert Spencer written by Michael W. Taylor, Spencer sees Nature-as-a-whole as operating along the same lines as Nature-in-the-specific… It sounds as if Spencer would whole-heartedly agree with von Bauer, who sees in the development of the caterpillar an obvious goal-oriented plan in which complex biochemical events are “harmoniously interconnected in each development stage.” Von Bauer maintains that “every organism in the process of coming into being has a goal.” Why should we refuse to believe that Big Nature works on the same general principles as Small Nature?

Spencer believes that organisms are forced to evolve to higher stages of complexity in order to deal with their ever-changing environment. The lowest organisms –mere unconscious automata– rely on reflex and instinct.  More complex organisms also utilize varying degrees of memory to assist them in handling their environment.  And the highest organisms have also evolved the power of reasoning as part of their arsenal of life. Spencer contends that Reason is merely an extension of memory allowing us to recognize event-pairs which always occur in an ordered tandem… certain specific events are always connected to and followed by certain other specific events. A dropped ball, the conditions being the same, will always fall toward the center of the earth. We call these event-pairs “cause and effect” or “causation.” All reasoning is based on the assumption that experienced– and remembered– event-pairs will continue to remain locked in their ordered pairing (conditions remaining virtually the same).

Conscious life also possesses sentiment and Will. For Spencer, the Will is an evolved form of reflex. The Will is NOT some uncaused cause, separate from the physical world, but is continuous with Nature. The Ego, itself, is no more than a composite of complex reflexes we call the Will.

Organisms, says Spencer, can be said to possess more Intelligence as their understanding of the world grows to match more and more the facts of the world. Our mental representation of the world will always be an imperfect copy of the actual world, but as intelligence grows, the discrepancies between the picture and the actuality grow less and less.

The life of an organism is spent in “the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”  Life is that which maintains a dynamic, or moving, equilibrium with its environment. Thus, to maintain this equilibrium, whenever the environment changes, the organism must change as well. This is the basis of evolutionary development.

Spencer can bring his version of evolution all the way down to most basic level of physics, where forces act upon matter. Forces are not distributed evenly throughout the Cosmos, and so therefore, even if matter were to start out as a completely “homogeneous aggregate,” the fact that different parts of it are subject to unequal forces would naturally lead to different reactions, resulting in:  1) motion, and  2) the differentiation of the different areas.  Through this fundamental process, the heterogeneity of the world is born, perpetuated, and increased.

The heterogeneity of the Universe is destined to continue increasing until all forces are so equally spread-out that they counter-balance each other perfectly. Then movement is stopped and equilibrium is achieved. Until that day, it is an iron law of Spencerian Evolution that the movement toward greater and greater heterogeneity will continue. This is what Spencer defines as “Progress.”

Under this “Progress” of the world, the increasing differentiation will result in a Universe moving away from a collection of “like parts which have but little mutual dependence” to “a whole made up of unlike parts which are mutually dependent.” As the situation continues to evolve, the differentiated, interdependent parts will be more and more specialized in their functions, and they will be pressured by their environment to better and better coordinate their actions, eventually resulting in a central processing unit which will monitor and orchestrate affairs.

There is an argument against Spencer’s, for lack of a better term, “physics” of evolution which contends that, under the Law Of Conservation Of Energy, and as far as the Universe is concerned, there is no “forward” or “backward” when it comes to the interaction of force and matter. Under this argument, the Universe is just as likely to switch into reverse gear at any moment as to continue its “progress” toward the (re-?)establishment of equalized forces through increasing heterogeneity.

However, as nice as this looks on paper (and inspite of the fact that I think most any physicist would agree with this under the currently accepted physics regime), I personally think that the history of the Universe argues against it.

An elephant is NOT just as likely to fall “up” because what is at work in the Universe is not simply a single force and a few pieces of matter, but a vast, complicated, interrelated COMPLEX of forces and matter acting, interacting, and reacting. It is not a question, for instance, of whether a single atom absorbs or releases a photon– but whether ALL (or some great number) of the billions of atoms would SIMULTANEOUSLY reverse course.  Thus, I argue that Spencer is completely legimate in his contention that there is a forward bias to the Universe.  After a few million years of development, pretending that the Universe could just as likely switch the reverse gear would be like pretending that a snowball gathering snow on its way down hill was just as likely to suddenly start rolling backward and uphill.

A better objection is that Spencer pictured the end of the Universe as a vast, extremely heterogeneous place possessing equally dispersed force, whereas, when the Universe finally does reach equilibrium– if it ever does– the state is much more likely to be one of a vast, boring homogeneity. As Clausius described it in 1854, all stores of Energy will by then have been converted into a heat energy uniformly distributed, with all remaining matter in mechanical equilibrium, and all further change forever impossible. Tyndall called the situation one of “omnipresent death,” and the common term for it now is “the heat death of the Universe.”

Spencer responds to this objection, by admitting that, yeah okay, the Universe will end in omnipresent death, but BEFORE that– there will be a “penultimate” period in which extreme but perfectly harmonized heterogeneity will rule the Cosmos. Spencer remains convinced that even human society will get to partake of this perfectly harmonized heterogeneity, and the final state of society will be one running so smoothly that it will be for its citizens a living paradise.

Writes Spencer… “The penultimate stage of equilibration in the organic world, in which the extremest multiformity and most complex moving equilibrium are established, must be one implying the highest state of humanity.”


Personally, I’ve always felt that Lamarck will one day be vindicated. Lamarck theorized that an individual’s responses and adaptations to his or her environment could be passed-down to the next generation, making that generation better-adapted for the world. This idea has been scoffed at for over a hundred years because Darwin’s version of evolution maintained that unchanging, maladapted lineages CANNOT improve, but will be driven out by adapting lineages, and that evolution thus only occurs at the level of the population— with the strong lineages displacing the weak ones.

However, I contend that one’s environment can indeed affect one’s DNA– or more correctly– can affect ones genetic development– for the activities of the mother have already been proven to influence the epigenetic factors of the unborn’s development, including the timing and sequence of developmental events.  And I am far from convinced that parental activities and environment can never have any effect on the genes they pass on. 

As I said, Lamarck’s ideas have long been scoffed-at, and really– for now– I can allow that (until evidence arrives supporting me) it probably deserves to be.  Unfortunately for Spencer’s reputation, he shares my laughable idea, known sometimes as “use-inheritance,” and so– since one part of Spencer’s philosophy is considered ridiculous– his whole (I think quite thought-provoking and illuminating) philosophy is all too quickly brushed off into the wastebasket of history.

And, while we’re on the subject, I must add that Spencer’s reputation is not at all helped by the fact that he does not support the shielding of maladapted lineages from the natural results of their behavior, maintaining that this results in a weakened general population.  When this belief is reformulated into harsher language, it is known as Social Darwinism:  the belief that only the strong survive in Society as well as in Nature.  And many would take this a step farther and contend that only the strong SHOULD survive.  Needless to say, such an idea is completely out of vogue, and Spencer’s reputation therefore suffers.

On the other hand, I personally can hang with Spencer for awhile in his reasoning– until, however, he then takes the idea of use-inheritance that small step from the plausible to the ludicrous…

Spencer believes the things a parent learns in life can change the structure of his or her brain, and that this changed-brain can be passed down to the next generation. Thus, according to Spencer, the accumulated experiences and ideas of the parent-generation can be passed directly down to their offspring. These ideas would include everything from (what feels like) an innate sense of right and wrong to predispositions to think in logical or mathematical terms.

Spencer contended that a single individual’s life-experience is not enough to account for his or her quick and easy acceptance-and-use of:  mathematical truths, logical thinking, and moral rules.


Spencer felt that the cumulative evolutionary effects upon individuals would eventually result in a second-level, evolutionarily driven effect– one acting not just upon individuals but upon the population as a whole.  His reasoning is as follows…

Certain individuals  –those whose lineage has evolved the best mechanisms to cope with the environment will survive–  perhaps even thrive– in their environment.  Whereas, individuals unfortunately provided by genetic inheritance with less helpful evolutionary modifications would NOT thrive in the environment.  Therefore, the odds are against them to:  survive until procreative maturity, to secure a mate, to have numerous and healthy offspring, and to have the wherewithal to keep those offspring healthy and safe until the offspring, too, reach maturity and can continue passing down the genes of that lineage to the next generation, and so on.

Over successive generations, the advantages, big and small, accruing to the more successful lineage, along with the exponential-like growth-factor inherent in multiple-viable-offspring procreation, would allow the more successful lineage to, eventually, vastly outproduce the less successful one– for we must keep in mind, as well, that the enormous power of near-exponential growth-factor of population-increase would be working strongly against the less successful lineage.

Meanwhile, the successful branch of the population is grabbing more and more resources, pushing the less successful branch even farther toward the fringes of existence. Eventually, the successful line will cover the population-area, and the unsuccessful line will die-out altogether.

Says Spencer: “the effect of pressure of population” […] “is not a uniform effect” […] “for as those prematurely carried off must, in the average of cases, be those in whom the power of self-preservation is the least, it unavoidably follows, that those left behind to continue the race must be those in whom the power of self-preservation in the greatest– must be the select of their generation.”

I would only amend Spencer’s thought here by adding that, in reality, the weaker individuals may be able to unite themselves to form a stronger faction, and thus, working together against the stronger individuals, become, in fact, the more successful lineages at resource-procurement and the securement of mates.  This “artificial” or social advantage would be all the more pronounced if the weaker-individual/stronger-faction group also gave birth to more childeren per coupling than the stronger-individiual/weaker-faction group.

But back to the quite legitimate mainline thrust of Spencerian Evolution…

As the Social Darwinists correctly maintain, not only does Nature function as a species-molder, but so too does Society.  Society, states Spencer, can function “as an ersatz biological medium,” forming an important part of the overall environment shaping a species.


Though I don’t think he outright says this (though he does come very close), Spencer basically believes that whatever is rewarded by the environment is moral, and whatever is punished by the environment is immoral. He rejected completely the idea of a fixed morality.

However, in this, I think Spencer was –probably unconsciously– disingenuous, for when he talks about environmentally determined morality, it smacks loudly of the morality to which the great religions of the world, as well as the general tenets of humanitarianism, all agree upon.  This strikes me as suspiciously coincidental.

At this point, we can take in hand the several strands of Spencer’s thought and bring them all together…

Because the world is not just changing but progressively changing– and because one’s environment determines the direction of the evolution of that individual’s lineage– and because the successful lineages will drive-out the unsuccessful ones– and because morality is a function of one’s success in dealing with one’s environment– THEREFORE, the population will grow more and more “moral” over generational time.

As a population grows more adept at following the rules of Nature, the result will be less pain and more pleasure for the individuals of that population, for pain and evil, says Spencer, are results due to the maladaption of a population to its environment.  The more moral (that is, the more in-tune with Nature) a society becomes, the less pain it will suffer.

Spencer believes it is counterproductive to shield individuals from the “natural consequences” of their conduct– not just in terms of the consequences to Society as a whole, but for the individuals, themselves.   This is because this will serve to improve neither the individual’s long-term happiness nor the individual’s “morality” (in the Spencerian, nature-derived sense).

Says Spencer… “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

I don’t read in Taylor’s book where Spencer gets into this, but since such shielding would result in a population generally less successfully adapted to its environment, I take it that if the environment grows harsh enough (the evolving population grows more and more incompatible with the also-evolving environment), or if that population is in competition with other, better-adapting populations, then the population, itself, may be driven out of the environment.

Again, Spencer doesn’t take into account that, under certain conditions, the weaker-individuals may band together to form the stronger-faction. Taking such community behavior into account complicates the evolutionarly situation, and blurs the picture as to what sort of individual may indeed emerge from each generation’s struggle for existence within the environment.

For instance, a certain environment may, for a time (several generations) favor aggressive individuals; however, if non-aggressive individuals band together to form the stronger faction, they may well succeed in weathering the storm, so to speak, until the environment has evolved in such a way that  –in the future– non-aggressive, cooperating individuals are favored by the environment.


Spencer, himself, considered the current Militaristic stage of humanity as a stage the species is passing through on its way to a higher form of society. The Military society encourages the virtues of obedience, vengeance, dominance-via-violence, and physical bravery.

“The Militant Society,” writes Spencer, is “the inevitable product of unsocialized individuals who were incapable of cooperation on any other terms than coercion.” It is destined to be replaced by –and indeed, is already in the process of being replaced by– the Industrial Society.

The Industrial Society is different from the Military one in several respects… The Industrial Society is more differentiated than the Military one; there exists a complex division of labor.  Cooperation is not coerced but spontaneous.  Social life is less determined by law and decree and more by self-regulating, personal and business interactions. Opportunity is more dispersed, based often not as much on hereditary as on talent and drive. The virtue of vengeance is replaced by the virtue of Justice.  Unswerving obedience becomes displaced by democratic decision-making.  The harsh struggle of all-against-all becomes largely replaced by acts of voluntary social cooperation.  And although many individuals still seek to dominate others, they must more and more often use less direct methods than the outright threat of violence– which, admitted Spencer, ain’t a perfect state of affairs, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.


The younger Spencer actually believed that one day, in the far-off future, humanity, advancing through the process of a progressive evolution, would achieve a condition of Earthly paradise– “the perfect man in the perfect society.” However, the older Spencer came to realize that, in reality, there is a diminishing-returns curve when it comes to human perfection.

Writes Spencer… “The rate of progress towards any adapted form must diminish with the approach to complete adaptation since the force producing it must diminish, so that, other causes apart, perfect adaptation can be reached only in infinite time.”

Nevertheless, Man will evolve to a state in which he possesses a natural sympathy for the well-being of his fellow Man.  This natural sympathy will be quite similar to the natural instinct possessed by a mother for the well-being of her offspring.  All Man’s behaviors and attitudes in that future society will, in fact, be perfectly in-tune with the requirements of social living.  All anti-social behavior will have withered-away.  As the Taylor puts it… in the far-off future, human beings will “engage in unreflective, instinctive altruism.”

No longer will Freud’s observation hold true that “the family, the community, and the State” are the sources of most human unhappiness. Instead, predicts Spencer, “pleasure will eventually accompany every mode of action demanded by social conditions.”  And, since pain stems from the individual’s maladaption to the environment, and since that future happy man will be almost perfectly adapted to his environment–both Natural and social– the experience of human pain will all but disappear from the face of the Earth.


Spencer goes on to describe an evolving population as behaving much like what we today would call a “superorganism.”  Under this view, a population can be considered in many ways as if it were in individual. For instance, Spencer remarks upon the fact that population, just like an individual, can grow and evolve.  And, similar to how the organs of an individual can grow more differentiated and complex as a species evolves, so too can the parts and institutions of an evolving population grow more differentiated and complex.  Furthermore, just as the life of an individual greatly exceeds the life of his or her individual cells, so does the existence of a population greatly exceed the life-span of the individuals comprising it.

However, Spencer also takes pains to point-out that the parallels between individual and superorganism only go so far.  For instance, unlike in the individual, the differentiation and specialization of the parts comprising a population will NOT result in one part, or “organ,” of that society assuming the sole role of decision-making and consciousness such as the brain/nervous-system does for the individual. Instead, this function will forever be spread out over the whole of the population– (or so Spencer and the rest of us hope!).

Another difference between individual and superorganism which Spencer points-out is that, though an individual can be said to have his own Will, a population does NOT.  Thus, never would Spencer agree to political arguments centering upon what is “best for society” for there is no separately existing will or desire possessed by some beast called “Society”– but merely the wills and desires of the individuals comprising it.  Never can the society have interests counter-to, or transcending, the interests of the individuals forming it.


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