|Biography: 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...