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Life and Work of Herbert Spencer

What it now concerns us to note is, that the subject had not yet been brought into the domain of science. One portion of it was still held to be above Nature, and therefore inaccessible to rational inquiry; while that part of the problem which was withheld from science was really the key to the whole situation. Under the new view, the question of the origin of living forms, or of the action of natural agencies in their production, was as completely barred to science as it had formerly been under the literal Mosaic interpretation; and, as questions of origin were thus virtually interdicted, the old traditional opinions regarding the genesis of the present constitution of things remained in full force.

It is in relation to this great crisis in the course of advancing thought that Herbert Spencer is to be regarded. Like many others, he assumed, at the outset, that the study of the whole phenomenal sphere of Nature belongs to science; but he may claim the honor of being the first to discern the full significance of the new intellectual position.

It had been proved that a vast course of orderly changes in the past has led up to the present, and is leading on to the future: Mr. Spencer saw that it was of transcendent moment that the laws of these changes be determined. If natural agencies have been at work in vast periods of time to bring about the present condition of things, he perceived that a new set of problems of immense range and importance is open to inquiry, the effect of which must be to work an extensive revolution of ideas. It was apparent to him that the hitherto forbidden question as to how things have originated had at length come to be the supreme question.

When the conception that the present order had been called into being at once and in all its completeness was found to be no longer defensible, it was claimed that it makes no difference how it originated—that the existing system is the same whatever may have been its source. Starting from the point of view made probable by the astronomers, and demonstrated by the geologists, that, in the mighty past, Nature has conformed to one system of laws; and assuming that the existing order, at any time, is to be regarded as growing out of a pre-existing order, Mr.

Spencer saw that nothing remained for science but to consider all the contents of Nature from the same point of view.

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It was, therefore, apparent that life, mind, man, science, art, language, morality, society, government, and institutions, are things that have undergone a gradual and continuous unfolding, and can be explained in no other way than by a theory of growth and derivation. It is not claimed that Mr. Spencer was the first to adopt this mode of inquiry in relation to special subjects, but that he was the first to grasp it as a general method, the first to see that it must give us a new view of human nature, a new science of mind, a new theory of society—all as parts of one coherent body of thought, and that he was, moreover, the first to work out a comprehensive philosophical system from this point of inquiry, or on the basis of the principle of Evolution.

By reading various books upon moral philosophy he had become dissatisfied with the basis of morality which they adopt; and it became clear to him that the question of the proper sphere of government could be dealt with only by tracing ethical principles to their roots. The plan of this work was formed while Mr.

Spencer was still a civil-engineer; and it was commenced in , before he abandoned engineering and accepted the position of sub-editor of the Economist. It was issued, under the title of Social Statics , at the close of There is the idea that all social evils result from the want of this adaptation, and are in process of disappearance as the adaptation progresses.

There is the notion that all morality consists in conformity to such principles of conduct as allow of the life of each individual being fulfilled, to the uttermost, consistently with the fulfillment of the lives of other individuals; and that the vital activities of the social human being are gradually being molded into such form that they may be realized to the uttermost without mutual hindrance. Social progress is in fact viewed as a natural evolution, in which human beings are molded into fitness for the social state, and society adjusted into fitness for the natures of men, the units and the aggregate perpetually acting and reacting, until equilibrium is reached.

There is recognized not only the process of continual direct adaptation of men to their circumstances by the inherited modifications of habit, but there is also recognized the process of the dying out of the unfit and the survival of the fit. And these changes are regarded as parts of a process of general evolution, tacitly affirmed as running through all animate Nature, tending ever to produce a more complete and self-sufficing individuality, and ending in the highest type of man as the most complete individual. Some of the fundamental conceptions contained in this remarkable work now began to take shape in his mind.

Various traits of the general doctrine of Evolution are here clearly marked out in their relations to social progress. Throughout the argument there is a tacit implication that, as a consequence of the cause of Evolution, the production of species will go on, not in ascending linear series, but by perpetual divergence and redivergence—branching and again branching. The general conception, however, differs from that of Mr.

Darwin in this—that adaptation and re-adaptation to continually changing conditions is the only process recognized. We have now passed in rapid review the intellectual work of Mr.


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Spencer for nearly twenty years, and have shown that, though apparently miscellaneous, it was, in reality, of a highly methodical character. Though treating of many subjects, he was steadily engaged with an extensive problem which was resolved, step by step, through the successive discovery of those processes and principles of Nature which constitute the general law of Evolution.

Beginning in with the vague conception of a social progress, he subjected this idea to systematic scientific analysis, gave it gradually a more definite and comprehensive form, propounded the principles of heredity and adaptation in their social applications, recognized the working of the principle of selection in the case of human beings, and affiliated the conception of social progress upon the more general principle of Evolution governing all animate Nature. Seizing the idea of increasing heterogeneity in organic growth, he gradually extended it in various directions.

When the great conception, thus pursued, had grown into a clear, coherent, and well-defined doctrine, he took up the subject of psychology, and, combining the principle of differentiation with that of integration, he placed the interpretation of mental phenomena upon the basis of Evolution.

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Spencer had arrived at the law of Evolution as a universal principle of Nature, and worked it out both inductively as a process of increasing heterogeneity and deductively from the principles of the instability of the homogeneous and the multiplication of effects. How far Mr. Spencer was here in advance of all other workers in this field will appear, when we consider that the doctrine of Evolution, as it now stands, was thus, in its universality, and in its chief outlines, announced by him two years before the appearance of Mr.

A principle of natural changes more universal than any other known, applicable to all orders of phenomena, and so deep as to involve the very origin of things, having thus been established, the final step remained to be taken, which was, to give it the same ruling place in the world of thought and of knowledge that it has in the world of fact and of Nature. Turner goes on to say that he hopes to re-kindle interest in this forgotten giant. One must first recognize the difficulty in predicting social change with any degree of accuracy. The one thing that seems certain is that the process of globalization will continue for some time.

The increasing societal complexity anticipated by Spencer in the midnineteenth century is today being realized at the global level. And while international borders still exist and remain partial barriers to the free flow of goods, they are less likely to hinder the global exchange of information via the Internet. This puts not only individuals but also different systems and whole societies in direct competition for resources, markets and influence.

The rapid development of computers and especially the advent of the Internet make it a necessity to master computer skills. The employment sector demands these skills. Private entrepreneurs recognize that it is imperative to be computer savvy. This implies that one must have, at least basic level, skills in technology. Those who fail to adapt to this changing environment run the greatest risk of economic failure. And so this pressure to adapt or die does indeed drive forward the progress in this particular sense of the word of society.

In economic terms, it is a good thing. There are countless other examples of the need to adapt to the changing environment. In the professional world these changes are often even more dramatic: Medical doctors must be aware of the latest advancements and techniques; lawyers must keep informed with new court rulings; law enforcement officers must enforce new laws; and so on.

Athletes and fans of sport have long realized the survival of fittest principle. On the playing field, for every winner there is at least one loser. In society, only those who adapt to changes in the system will succeed.

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This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. He has acted under the guidance of his own free will, and, if he suffers, he has no one to blame but himself ….

A large class of officiously humane people, can never see any social evil, but they propose to pass some law for its future prevention. It never strikes them that the misfortunes of one are lessons for thousands—that the world generally learns more by its mistakes than by its successes—and that it is by the continual endeavour to avoid errors, difficulties, and dangers, that society is to become wiser.

But, admitting this, it does not follow that it is not the wisest in the end, to let things take their own course. Such conduct may at first sight appear unkind, but when its effects upon future generations are considered, it will be found to be the reverse. Establish a poor [welfare] law to render his forethought and self-denial unnecessary—enact a system of national education to take the care of his children off his hands—set up a national church to look after his religious wants—make laws for the preservation of his health, that he may have less occasion to look after it himself—do all this, and he may then, to a great extent, dispense with the faculties that the Almighty has given to him.

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Every powerful spring of action is destroyed—acuteness of intellect is not wanted—force of moral feeling is never called for—the higher powers of his mind are deprived of their natural exercise, and a gradual deterioration of character must ensue. Take away the demand for exertion, and you will ensure inactivity. Induce inactivity, and you will soon have degradation … [T]o do for the people what they are naturally fitted to do for themselves, is to adopt one of the most efficient means of lowering the standard of national character ….


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  7. The beneficial results of the survival of the fittest, prove to be immeasurably greater than those above indicated. Every animate creature stands in a specific relation to the external world in which it lives. From the meanest zoophyte, up to the most highly organised of the vertebrata, one and all have certain fixed principles of existence.