This article is from
Creation 32(4):52–54, October 2010

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Herbert Spencer

The father of social Darwinism


Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was an enormously influential English philosopher and agnostic of the Victorian era who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Dubbed ‘the philosopher of the Evolution movement’,1 he published a theory of evolution seven years before Darwin. After reading the Origin, he became the first to apply Darwinian principles rigorously to society, a concept now known as Social Darwinism.

Early life and education

Born in Derby, England, in 1820, Herbert was a sickly child and the only one of nine siblings to survive infancy. His education included several years of home-schooling by his school-teacher father, George, who “sought to stimulate individuality rather than to inform”.2 He also implanted strong anti-establishment and anti-clerical views in his son.

As a teenager, Herbert lived with his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, who offered to send him to Cambridge University. However, Herbert declined this, so his relatively restricted higher education mostly resulted from his own reading. He absorbed the evolutionary concepts of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather3) and Lamarck, and at age 20, Lyell’s long-age geology. Along the way he acquired an opposition to discipline and authority, especially political and religious.

Influence that led to agnosticism

Herbert’s father taught his son by constantly asking him, “Can you tell me the cause of this?” In his Autobiography, Herbert says this established his belief that everything could be explained by natural causes and nothing by the supernatural. He wrote: “I do not remember my father ever referring to anything as explicable by supernatural agency.”4

At age 26, in a letter to his father, Herbert wrote: “An uncaused Deity is just as inconceivable as an uncaused Universe. If the existence of matter from all eternity is incomprehensible, the creation of matter out of nothing is equally incomprehensible. Thus finding that either attempt to conceive the origin of things is futile, I am content to leave the question unsettled as the insoluble mystery.5,6


In the late 1830s, Herbert worked as a civil engineer during the railway boom, and spent his spare time writing articles for various politically radical journals. As writer and then subeditor for The Economist financial weekly, he came into contact with the female novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans), with whom he had a lengthy, though apparently purely intellectual, association. Other friends included the liberal socialist John Stuart Mill, and Darwin’s ‘Bulldog’, Thomas H. Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’ to describe views like Spencer’s above (and his own).7

Herbert inherited enough money to enable him to live frugally as an author without other employment. He wrote copiously, producing essays and volumes on psychology, philosophy, sociology, morality and biology. In these he argued vehemently for the preeminence of the individual over society (e.g. “Society exists for the benefit of its members; not its members for the benefit of society”),8 and of science over religion (e.g. “We have to deal with man as a product of evolution, with society as a product of evolution, and with moral phenomena as a product of evolution”).9 His books were translated into several European languages, with some one million copies being sold during his lifetime.10

In the last half of his life he suffered from mental and physical ill-health and then chronic insomnia. He died a lonely bachelor, aged 83, having been “one of the most argumentative and most discussed thinkers of the Victorian period”.11

Spencer’s theory of evolution

Spencer published his ideas on the theory of evolution in a 2,100-word essay titled The Development Hypothesis12 in The Leader13 of March 20, 1852. This was seven years before Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared. Spencer’s two main points were:

  1. He dismissed creation as a ‘myth’ and wrote, “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”12
  2. He then argued that complex organic forms are daily being produced, as when a seed becomes a tree, and a human ovum becomes a child. He wrote: “Surely, if a single cell may, when subjected to certain influences, become a man in the space of twenty years; there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that under certain other influences, a cell may, in the course of millions of years, give origin to the human race.”12

But, of course, no cell will ever give rise to a man unless it is programmed to do so—and programming needs an intelligent programmer. Sadly, Spencer did not have access to the huge amount of creationist data now available (including over 8,000 articles on our own website (creation.com) which comprehensively refute both of his above assertions.14

It was Spencer, not Darwin, who first popularized the term ‘evolution’; it was Spencer who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’.

Spencer’s theory of evolution was basically Lamarckism, i.e. that organs develop or diminish by use or disuse, and that such changes are inherited by future generations. Since many people realized this is nonsense (e.g. the children of amputees don’t have body parts missing), his first essay did not cause the ‘stir’ that Darwin’s Origin did. Nevertheless it was Spencer, not Darwin, who first popularized the term ‘evolution’; it was Spencer who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. And his application of evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society from the 1860s meant that “the influence of Spencer’s evolutionary theory was on a par with that of Charles Darwin”.10 Henry Morris wrote: “Herbert Spencer was almost as effective as Thomas Huxley in promoting Darwinism in England and the United States.”15

Survival of the fittest

Spencer first used this term in his Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. He wrote: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms is what Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”16

Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-inventor of modern evolutionary theory,17 discussed this with Darwin in 1866 (emphases in original): “This term [survival of the fittest] is the plain expression of the facts,—Nat. selection is a metaphorical expression of it—and to a certain degree indirect & incorrect, since, even personifying Nature, she does not so much select special variations as exterminate the most unfavourable ones. … I find you use the term ‘Natural Selection’ in two senses. 1st for the simple preservation of favourable and rejection of unfavourable variations, in which case it is equivalent to ‘survival of the fittest’,—or 2nd for the effect or change produced by this preservation … .”18

To this, Darwin replied: “I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer’s excellent expression of ‘the survival of the fittest.’ This, however, had not occurred to me till reading your letter. … I wish I had received your letter two months ago, for I would have worked in ‘the survival, etc’ often in the new edition of the Origin which is now almost printed off … . Your criticism on the double sense in which I have used Natural Selection is new to me and unanswerable; but my blunder has done no harm, for I do not believe that any one, excepting you has ever observed it.”19

The above mentioned edition of the Origin was the 4th. Darwin then added the term ‘survival of the fittest’ to the 5th edition (1869), as the heading of chapter 4 as well as at 13 places in the text of that edition.

Notice in passing, Wallace’s correct understanding of the term ‘natural selection’—not selection of special variations, but extermination of the most unfavourable ones, i.e. not a creating mechanism, but a culling one, or ‘natural rejection’! Notice, too, Darwin’s acknowledgment that Wallace’s point was unanswerable. Note also that Wallace identified Darwin’s equivocation in using ‘natural selection’ to mean two different things—an observable process and the hypothetical effect. Evolutionists use similar ‘bait-and-switch’ trickery today in defining evolution as change (observable) but also the conjectural idea that microbes changed into mankind.

Under ‘social Darwinism’ human social order was the result of evolution—those on top of the heap deserved to be there.

Social Darwinism as a worldview

Spencer is most (in)famous for applying the concept of survival of the fittest to human society—the strongest and fittest should flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. In his Social Statistics (1851), he opposed welfare systems, compulsory sanitation, free public schools, mandatory vaccinations, and any form of ‘poor law’. Why? Because under ‘social Darwinism’ human social order was the result of evolution—those on top of the heap deserved to be there. The rich were rich because they were more fit and so were entitled to benefit at the expense of the weak, e.g. in the exploitative excesses of capitalism.20

Likewise, superior nations were entitled to dominate native peoples and seize their lands and possessions, e.g. the excesses of colonialism (and the Germans applied this in WW121). He wrote: “A nation which fosters its good-for-nothings will end by becoming a good-for-nothing nation.”22 According to Spencer, not only was survival of the fittest natural, it was morally correct also!

In but a few years these ideas were extended, by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to eugenics, i.e. the belief that humans, like animals, should be selectively bred—the fittest encouraged to do so, and the unfit restrained—by force and by law.23 The application of this idea in the USA in the 20th century resulted in the forced sterilization of some 70,000 victims, including criminals, the mentally retarded, drug addicts, paupers, the blind, the deaf, and people with epilepsy, TB or syphilis.24

There were similar practices in Sweden, Norway and Canada. In Germany, Hitler’s Nazis superseded sterilization by the genocide of over 11 million people considered to be subhuman or unworthy of life. Now, in many countries, the same evolutionary thinking has been invoked to legalise abortion and euthanasia.

Modern-day evolutionists have tried to argue that these were unwarranted applications of evolutionary theory. They are wrong. Darwin was himself a social Darwinist.25 “Darwinism is not merely a false, anti-biblical theory of biological origins; it is also a false worldview that distorts everything in sight.”26 An essential part of this worldview is the elimination of God, not only as Creator,27 but also as the Judge of all mankind. What is there then to limit the evil which human beings may do to each other in the name of evolutionary progress?

Posted on homepage: 6 February 2012

References and notes

  1. Thomson, J.A., Herbert Spencer, J.M. Dent & Co, London, 1906, p. 135. Return to text.
  2. Ref. 1, p. 4. Return to text.
  3. See Grigg, R., Darwinism: it was all in the family: Erasmus Darwin’s famous grandson learned early about evolution, Creation 26(1):16–18, 2003. Return to text.
  4. Spencer, H., Autobiography, Williams and Norgate, London, 1904, Vol. 1, p. 89–90. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 4, Vol. 1, p. 346. Return to text.
  6. For a rebuttal see Batten, D., Who created God? in this issue. Return to text.
  7. Grigg, R., Darwin’s Bulldog Thomas H. Huxley, Creation 31(3):39–43, August, 2009. Return to text.
  8. Spencer, H., Principles of Sociology, Herbert Spencer quotes, quote from p. 461, Google Books. Return to text.
  9. Spencer, H., Principles of Ethics, vol. 1, 1897, Part III The Ethics of Individual Life, Chapter 1, Introductory, The Online Library of Liberty. Return to text.
  10. Sweet. W., Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), iep.utm.edu/spencer. Return to text.
  11. “Spencer, Herbert”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11:83–84, 1992. Return to text.
  12. It can be read in full at victorianweb.org/science/science_texts/spencer_dev_hypothesis.html. Return to text.
  13. A 24-page, six-penny English weekly radical newspaper (1850–1859), with the “master principle” of “the right of every opinion to its own free utterance”. See www.ncse.ac.uk/headnotes/ldr.html. Return to text.
  14. See for example, Batten. D., (ed.) The Creation Answers Book, Creation Book Publishers, Queensland, 2006, Ch. 1 Does God exist?; Ch. 7 What about arguments for evolution? See also Sarfati, J., The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, 2010, Ch. 5 Embryos and self-assembly. Return to text.
  15. Morris, H., The Long War Against God, Baker Book House, Michigan, 1989, p. 39. Return to text.
  16. Spencer, H., The Principles of Biology, Williams and Norgate, London, 1864, Vol. I, pp. 444–445. Return to text.
  17. Grigg, R., Alfred Russel Wallace co-inventor of Darwinism, Creation 27(4):33–35, 2005. Return to text.
  18. Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 5140—Wallace, A. R. to Darwin, C. R , 2 July 1866. Return to text.
  19. Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 5145—Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 5 July [1866]. Return to text.
  20. See also Bergman, J., Darwin’s critical influence on the ruthless extremes of capitalism, Journal of Creation 16(2):105–109, 2002. Return to text.
  21. Cosner, L., Darwinism and World War One, Creation 32(2):15–17, 2010. Return to text.
  22. Ref. 1, p. 71. Return to text.
  23. Grigg, R., Eugenics death of the defenceless, Creation 28(1):18–22. Return to text.
  24. See also Black, E., War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York/London, 2003; reviewed in Creation 27(2):49, 2005. Return to text.
  25. Muehlenberg, W., Darwin and eugenics: Darwin was indeed a Social Darwinist , 18 May 2007. Return to text.
  26. Crowe, D., Creation without Compromise, Creation Book Publishers, Queensland, 2009, p. 238. Return to text.
  27. As evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin famously wrote in 1997, evolutionists have “a commitment to materialism … [which] is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” See creation.com/lewontin. Return to text.

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