Herbert Spencer Survival Of The Fittest Essay

This paper was written in 1996 for a history course taught by Professor Robert Bannister at Swarthmore College.

On April 17, 1996, former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, and Objectivist philosopher and talk show host Leonard Peikoff appeared on cable television talk show, “Politically Incorrect.” The host, Bill Maher, brought up the topic of the ideas of the alleged Unabomber: that technology has gone “too far.” Many people, said Maher, such as Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, think we should return to nature. The following views are expressed:

Reich: Buchanan’s message is not, back to nature. Buchanan’s message is, back to the jungle, back to Social Darwinism, back to …

Peikoff: I wish we could get back to Social Darwinism.

Maher (to Peikoff): What are you saying, let’s go back to Social Darwinism?

Peikoff: Oh, I’m for complete laissez-faire capitalism.

What current views of Social Darwinism can we extract from the above rhetoric? Robert Reich appears think Social Darwinism advocates the return to a Hobbesian state of nature, where people deal with each other as animals do in the jungle, by force.

Peikoff, an unabashed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, expresses his wish to “get back to Social Darwinism.” From his later comments, he appears to equate Social Darwinism with capitalism.

President Bill Clinton echoed Reich’s view in his State of the Union address: “The era of big government is over, but we can not let people fend for themselves.” Again the message is that government prevents people from acting according to their animal nature of looking out for themselves at the expense of, or at least, the non-consideration of others.

In the following essay I will investigate a concept associated with Social Darwinism, “the survival of the fittest,” first formulated by British philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s views propagated in the United States primarily through the magazine established for this purpose, The Popular Science Monthly. The magazine’s scope extended into social issues of the late 19th Century such as the strikes and increasing crime. Its analysis of them will reveal Spencer’s influence on American thought at the time.

Who first defined the concept of Social Darwinism?

Important in understanding Social Darwinism is that no one ever considered himself a Social Darwinist. People used the term to characterize certain ideas that they disagreed with. Pacifist Jacques Novicow described the 1890’s rise of imperialism and militarism as le Darwinisme social. Applications of Darwin’s theory of evolution has also been used to ground socialism and eugenics. According to intellectual historian Robert Bannister (1979, 4), European sociologists Achille Loria and Emile de Laveleye used the term Darwinisme sociale to mean the callous and predatory individualism they accused Herbert Spencer of advocating.

Herbert Spencer

In his first Book, Social Statics, Herbert Spencer attempted to ground the British moral sense philosophy in evolution as a means to give a moral basis for his free market political beliefs. He opposed the grounding of free-market liberalism in the utilitarianism because he did not believe the theory was true (Bannister, 36).

The moral sense refers to the human attribute that determines our emotional reaction to something and our evaluation of its morality (Blackburn, 1994). Spencer, while accepting the moral sense philosophy, attempted to ground it and systematize it in the thermodynamics and biology of his time. Spencer posited that moral sense had survival value: “The moral sentiment developed in [man] was intend to be instrumental in producing further progress; and to gag it, or to conceal the thoughts it generates is to balk creative design.” (Bannister, 38)

Such gagging and thought repression can be done by a the initiation of force upon someone, i.e., violating one’s natural rights as a person. Acknowledging that people are neither omniscient nor infallible, and share the same “imperfect intuition,” Spencer considered no person or institution to be a moral authority. Hence it is wrong to force another to act according to one’s own concept of moral action. Spencer had arrived at his foundation of Classical Liberalism by applying modern science to the moral sense philosophy (Bannister, 38).

Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” was the linchpin connecting Darwin’s theory of natural selection to ideas of the social sciences rather than restricting its application to the natural sciences. People’s equating “fittest” with “best” led them to associate Darwin’s description of an organism’s struggle for sustaining existence with a doctrine of social progress (Bannister, 15).

Darwin, and those who best understood Darwin’s “social speculations,” such as Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, believed that people should not look to nature for principles of social policy. Unlike these “Darwinians,” it was Herbert Spencer and others natural-law theorists who were social Darwinists because they tried to apply Darwin’s concepts of evolution to society (Bannister, 16).

Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology in the process of reconciling his Darwinian beliefs and his own idea of “Universal Evolution,” proposed in First Principles (1861). Based in classical mechanics, they theory states that continuous rearrangements of matter and motion establish equilibria, a temporary balance of inner and outer forces. Spencer applied this theory to economics as well as physics and biology. Universal evolution, wrote Spencer, resulted in a final equilibrium. Just as two gasses mix and reach equilibrium, the evolution of a society ends in “greatest perfection and most complete happiness.” (Bannister, 42).

To Spencer, the concept of Natural Selection suggested the existence of a volitional being who does the selecting. Such notions did not fit into Spencer’s godless and deterministic picture of Universal Evolution.

Though it does not personalize the cause, and does not assimilate its mode of working to a human mode of working, kindred objections may be urged against he expression [Natural Selection] to which I was led when seeking to present the phenomena in literal terms rather than metaphysical terms-the survival of the fittest[.] (Spencer, Essays I, 429)

Spencer used the term “survival of the fittest” the same way Darwin used natural selection: to denote the mechanism by which species evolve. Spencer phrased it in his language of physics. “Indirect equilibration” is achieved when members of a species that survived a forced induced environmental change reach equilibrium with the new environment. “[T]hose will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces.” (Bannister, 45-6)

In the context of Spencer’s notions equilibrium as a means and end to an ideal state, the term “fittest” has a moral connotation. Yet Spencer denied that survival of the fittest applied to human civilization, except for weeding out “those who are constitutionally too feeble to live, even [n.b] with external aid.” Spencer credited “direct equilibration,” an individual’s (not species) adaptation to constant changes in external environment, to the advancement of civilization (Bannister 46,7).

In his revisions of First Principles, Spencer changed his meaning of “survival of the fittest” as his world view became more biological and less mechanistic. As a “moving equilibrium” replacing the notion of a perfect final equilibrium, the moral implications of “survival of the fittest” left Spencer’s thoughts (Bannister, 48).

The remains of the survival of the fittest concept were deceptively simple. Classical Liberal scholar George H. Smith (1990) notes that in his Essays, Spencer writes that “The law is not the survival of the ‘better’ or ‘stronger’…It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.”

Smith emphasizes that “survival of the fittest” is a description rather than an evaluation. It is based in the fact that an organism must generate its own actions in order to live; and that the nature of these actions depends on the nature of the organism and its environment. Fitness denotes adaptation “to the requirements of survival….If, for instance, a society executed all redheads, then it follows that the persons best fitted for survival in such a society would be non-redheads. And the redheads who would stand the best chance of survival would be those who adapted themselves to the conditions, e.g., those who dyes their hair another color.”

Given Spencer’s belief in the “survival of the fittest” and Classical Liberalism, how can the term conjure up visions of Lord of the Flies? In a jungle, animals survive by acquiring values through predation, initiating force upon other animals and dealing with them on an involuntary basis.

Spencer thought that an industrial type of society had evolved from such a jungle like “militant phase.” Such a society “bristles with military weapons, trains its people for warfare, replies on a despotic state, submerges the individual, and imposes a vast amount of compulsory cooperation.” The winners, survivors, of wars among such societies will be those who are best at killing (Hofstadter, 42).

With every conquest and absorption of the conquered, larger social units form and extend the authority of the state. The geographic area held in peace allows for industrial societies to arise where people interact as traders rather than predators and prey (Hofstadter, 42).

In such a free market society that Spencer advocates, people who act as predators would be criminals and brought to justice. Those who were ambitious, productive and honest have the best chance of surviving in a society where individual rights are protected.

Despite Spencer’s true meaning of the term “survival of the fittest,” critics jumped at the chance to brand him cruel and heartless. In Man vs. the State(1884), Spencer expressed that England was moving toward Communism and reverting to a militant society. He marveled at the tragedy that while “most cultivated people” recognize the truth of the survival of the fittest, they are statists, and “are doing all they can do to guarantee the survival of the unfittest!” (Bannister, 50)

Spencer’s other thoughts on survival of the fittest sheds light on what he means by “unfittest,” above. He wrote that “the ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” (Smith, 1990). Socialist policies to shield men from folly (and success) by taking choices away from them and discouraging self-responsibility. Such a social system breeds “fools,” and it is the fools who survive. But if the world is “filled with these fools,” are they not “the fittest,” as they did survive?

Here, we can see that Spencer is inconsistent in his use of the term “fittest.” In one case, from the tautology of Spencer’s doctrine, it describes those who survive. But in Man vs. the State, Spencer writes that socialist policies ensure the survival of the unfittest. Here, Spencer expresses an ethical judgment of the nature of those who survive in a socialist society. Socialism is a clear case where, as Spencer wrote, “very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.” Socialism rewards idleness and punishes productivity and independent thought. Since life requires production, and production requires action and thought, socialism breeds people who are unfit for providing for their own lives.

The true connection between the concept of the survival of the fittest and social policy is that since the concept is true, as a description, one of the reasons capitalism is moral, is that those who survive in such a system have the characteristics required to produce values people need to live. This argument needs flushing out, but it is not in the scope of this paper.

Smith (1990) classifies ideological opposition to Spencer as the typical reaction of welfare statists to anyone who opposes welfare policies. Spencer opposed welfare on the grounds of its violating individual rights, yet he advocated private charities. Still, critics could not see past his anti-statist attitude.

Yet, because of his early notions of a final equilibrium, Spencer could have brought harsh criticism upon himself. In First Principles, Spencer still held the teleological view of evolution, with its end in the “establishment of the greatest perfection and human happiness.” (Hofstadter., 37, Bannister) Spencer’s past haunted him, as no matter how often he stressed that fittest did not imply best, and that there was nothing wrong with helping others, people still branded him as heartless. Spencer’s teleological notions of evolution and his survival of the fittest provided perfect ammunition for a critic with a socialist bias to brand Spencer and the free market as evil.

An example of such a critic is modern liberal historian John Kenneth Galbraith. He cited Spencer’s advocating private charity as “ennobling” to those who help, their “own ennoblement came at the expense of the race.” He cites a passage from Spencer’s Social Statics, where Spencer writes that it is impossible to weed out “those of lowest development” without hindering, in Spencer’s words, “the growth of a race who shall both understand the conditions of existence and be able to act up to them. (Galbraith, 45).

In the BBC production of Galbraith’s work, Spencer is shown reading a passage, “suitable ripped from context to appear reprehensible,” about the survival of the fittest. In the background is a scene of a jungle and wild animals (Smith). The passage is probably the one mentioned above, as this is the only one contained in the book, adapted from the production.

In Galbraith’s presentation of Spencer was that in the passage he cited, Spencer used a moral, not purely descriptive, notion of the survival of the fittest. The passage is from his first work, when Spencer still had a mechanistic notion of evolution. So perhaps Galbraith was justified in at least his analysis. Yet, Smith was correct: The context of the passage was not private charities, but the wisdom of policies such as the FDA’s forbidding people from using medicines it does not approve of. The few sentences immediately after the quote Galbraith selected sheds light on the historian’s academic integrity:

Unpityfying as it looks, it is best to let the foolish man suffer the appointed penalty of his foolishness. For the pain-he must bear it as well as he can: for the experience-he must treasure it up, and act more rationally in the future (Social Statics, 413).

In The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, Spencer wrote that “There cannot be more done than that of letting social progress go on uninhabited; yet an immensity of mischief may be done in the way of disturbing, and distorting and repressing, by policies carried out in pursuit of erroneous misconceptions.” (Hofstadter, 44, Hofstadter writes that the quote is on p. 401-2 of Letters, but I could not find it.)

By using the term “policies,” rather than the more general “actions,” Spencer makes clear that he is critical of coercive government action rather than all actions intended to help those in need. For someone aiming to slam Spencer, this such subtlety can easily go unnoticed. Yet Smith notes that Spencer devotes over one hundred pages of The Principles of Ethics to the virtue of helping others, and that he praised the rich helping the poor.

Spencer’s Ideas in the United States

Spencer’s ideas propagated in the United States through the efforts of Edward Livingston Youmans. Since his father was an ardent abolitionist and a religious free thinker, Youmans’ ideological upbringing was not at odds with Spencer’s secularism and free market politics. He loved the beauty of the natural world and the process which the probing mind can discover its laws. After arranging the publication of Spencer’s Essays and Social Statics in the 1860’s, Youman’s began his own magazine in 1872, Popular Science Monthly, which contained installments of Spencer’s Principles of Sociology as well as his own work. (Bannister, 69-70).

Popular Science served as a vehicle not just for Spencer’s work, and current scientific study, but for social analysis based in Spencer’s politics. Notable among these is the response to labor strikes.

Labor movements centered around the demand for an eight-hour work day had been growing since the early 1860’s. Ira Steward, known as “the eight-hour monomaniac,” saw the eight-hour work day as a means to higher wages. People who work long days, over ten hours, will never demand much in terms of wages because of their chronic fatigue. A shorter work day will give people more energy and time to reflect on their lives and desires, and hence they will demand higher wages. Steward advocated that people “vote themselves an eight-hour work day,” (i.e., get the government on their side) as means to achieve his goal, as the voluntary interaction of trade unions and employers might not be successful for all workers in all fields (Raybeck, 115-6).

The National Labor Union was formed in 1866 at a meeting of seventy-seven delegates representing 60,000 workers from thirteen states. Its primary goal was to establish eight-hours as, in Raybeck’s terms, a “legal day’s work.” In 1867, six states established laws that in some way or another dictated what agreements between employers and employees are legal (Raybeck, 116).

Between 1868 and 1872, demand for labor increased and local unions began to demand eight-hour work days. Raybeck (119) reports that most of the strikes over this issue were successful, but Youmans, as the editor of Popular Science , reported that, as of September 1872, they were not.

The strikers, consisting of 80,000 workers from “all the leading industrial crafts: carpenters, bricklayers, cabinet makers, upholsterers, carriage makers, iron and metal workers, piano-makers, plumbers, sugar-refiners, gas-makers, [and] car-drivers” did not achieve their goals and most returned to their jobs under the same conditions.

Yet the losses were large. Families lost their source of income and the production stoppage hurt consumers and business owners. The strikes strained labor relations and yielded an “organization of employers to resist future efforts of the same kind.” Youmans cites the “dangerous and destructive ideas” behind some laborers: that “capitalists are the deadly enemies of the working class,” that workers, rather than having a right to what their contract stipulates, but to what they create, and that is it moral to prevent employers from enjoying what, in their eyes, was stolen from the working class.

Youmans acknowledged that “their are evils to be overcome, and wrongs to be righted,…[laborers] have no right to sort to violence or measures of intimidation to carry their points,” and that there are “legitimate means to advancing the interests of labor.” To succeed, laborers need to know “the laws which govern a healthy social advancement,” and “accept the spirit of civilization, which is pacific, constructive, controlled by reason, and slowly ameliorating and progressive.”

Placed into Spencer’s terms, since the laborers lived in an industrial society, the survival of the fittest dictates that dealing with others as trader rather is more conducive to long term survival than aggression. “Violent measures,” writes Youmans, “aim at great and sudden advantages, [but] are sure to be illusory.”

Youmans also employs Spencer’s teleological notion of an evolution toward a better society. Social change occurs slowly and most effectively when based on “moral considerations.” Since morality in this case means respect for individual rights, as Spencer formulates it, it is based in human nature. Laborers should “wait patiently until my these [moral] means their ends can be accomplished.”

At this point I can not help quoting a 20th Century philosopher whose notions of human nature and politics echo Spencer, Ayn Rand: “To attempt to deal with men by force is as impractical as trying to deal with nature by persuasion.”

In 1892, Popular Science retained its Spencerian influence not only by publishing Spencer’s essays (now contained in The Principles of Ethics), but by publishing an article titled “The Survival of the Unfit,” by Henry Dwight Chapin, M.D.

Chapin cites the increasing proportion of the “unfit” in late 19th Century America: the mentally ill, homeless (then called “paupers”), and criminals. Heredity and environment, he writes, is the Darwinian account for the presence of such “destructive factors” in society. He advocates efforts to eliminate the cause of problems rather those that are “industrially providing for their survival”:

Municipal governments annually devote large sums of money for care for the sick, the criminal, and the insane, but devote no energy to investigating and striving to prevent the factors that are constantly at work in producing these classes….The way we can cure is by preventing. We permit factors to exist that degenerate men physically, mentally, and morally, and then bring up a clumsy, mechanical, outside philanthropy to try to reform by patchwork.

The current criminal justice system, he says, overly emphasizes punishment and created prisons that cultivate criminal behavior. Chapin proposes that the State attempt to reform the convicts in an attempt to prevent further crimes when they are released. Such rehabilitation would consist of “physical renovation, industrial and intellectual education, and general moral impression.”

Modern liberals echo Chapins view on the purpose of the justice system as well as the origins of crime: free will does not play a part in criminality. Heredity and environment are responsible: “Criminals are first made to a certain extent by unfortunate heredity and unfavorable social conditions, and then confirmed by imprisonment.”

While the title of Chapin’s article sounds Spencerian, is the content? Spencer applies his philosophy to the subject of crime in an essay called “Prison Ethics,” contained Volume III of his Essays. Spencer grounds his arguments in “absolute morality, conformity to the laws of complete life.” An essential aspect of a complete life is the natural connection between a human being’s achievement or creation of a value and his benefit from it. If this connection is severed, i.e., if someone coercively prevents someone from enjoying the fruits of his labor, the victim’s life is damaged. Here Spencer grounds the necessity of laws protecting property rights for ensuring that people can live a “complete life.”

From the above ideas, Spencer deduces the proper acts of retaliatory force people may inflict upon the initiator of force, the criminal. Justice requires the criminal to compensate the victim for his crime. The criminal should return the victims state of affairs to their status before the aggression took place. Fellow-citizens also have the right to restrict the aggressor’s actions to prevent further aggressions. Any restrictions beyond those necessary to prevent further crimes are immoral as they are in violations of the criminal’s rights. The above two principles guide Spencer’s views on prison ethics.

In practice, how Spencer’s ideas translate into a type reformation of the criminal? Spencer holds that the criminals provide for their own needs in prison, otherwise they would live off tax funds and still be criminals. Further, this environment makes living by predation impossible, so if the prisoners want to live they must produce something of value. Such conditions adapt prisoners to the proper means of social interaction, trade, so they are prepared to live after prison.

Incarceration for the purpose of punishment rather than compensation and defense victimizes the prisoner and gives him incentive to seek revenge after serving the sentence. In a system based on Spencer’s proposals, a prisoner would understand that his sentence reflected only what other traders needed for self defense. He would not seek revenge against those who incarcerated him. Instead he would regard is sentence as a natural consequence of his actions.

Chapin’s notions of rehabilitation can be compatible with Spencer’s. Spencer cites a prison in Valencia that reflected his ideal of low security and self-sufficiency. The prisoners could choose from forty trades or jobs, and the convicts sustained the establishment. The prison keeps half of the prisoner’s pay, while the prisoner can spend a quarter of it while in prison, and receives the other quarter upon leaving. Spencer notes that “often” the prison runs without need of government funding.

While Herbert Spencer was both misunderstood in his own time as well as today, the magazine started to propagate his ideas is still in print. I investigated two articles from Popular Science., and Spencer’s influence was prominent in the one from Volume 1, and reflected in the title and some of the content of the volume 21 article. I found no mention of him in the magazine’s current issues.

Spencer’s influence, or lack of, on American Industrialists of his time has been investigated (cf. Bannister). How Spencer’s ideas transcended the bounds of print and influenced late 19th Century politicians and public policy is worthy of investigation.


  1. Bannister, Robert, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press), 1979.
  2. Blackburn, Simon, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, (Oxford, New York), 1994.
  3. Chapin, Dwight D., The Popular Science Monthly, 21, 182, 1892.
  4. Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Age of Uncertainty, (Houghton Mifflin, New York), 1977.
  5. Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, Revised Edition, (G. Braziller, New York), 1959.
  6. Rayback A.,A History of American Labor, Expanded and Updated, (The Free Press, New York), 1966.
  7. Smith, George H., Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York), 1991. Also on-line: “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?,” Libertarian Review, December 1978.
  8. Spencer, Herbert, Essays
  9. _____, Social Statics, (D. Appleton and Company, New York), 1865.
  10. Youmans, E.L., The Popular Science Monthly, 1, 623, 1872.

Like this:



On April 3, President Obama called Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” In a Huffington Post article, Obama Sparks Debate On His Meaning Of ‘Social Darwinism’, a quizzical Jennifer C. Kerr asked: “But what exactly does the president mean? And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?”

The key word in Kerr’s first question is “exactly.” This question can easily be answered: Obama didn’t mean anything exactly. The expression “social Darwinism,” when applied to free-market economics and a limited government, has no precise meaning, and it never did. Nor has the term ever been embraced by libertarian advocates of laissez-faire. Rather, “social Darwinism,” a term that first appeared during the 1880s, was concocted by the enemies of free-market capitalism to smear their adversaries. And this is how President Obama used the term, exactly.

Kerr’s second question – “And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?” – is a curious one, especially since she cites the questionable opinion of a “language expert” to the effect that “social Darwinism” is “a risky term to use for political ammunition.”

Here we may chalk one up to President Obama and demagogues everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not people understand what Obama meant by “social Darwinism.” All that matters is that “social Darwinism” evokes ugly connotations of the “law of the jungle” — a society without compassion in which the helpless poor are sacrificed to the avaricious rich.

In a speech given in January of this year, President Obama declared:“We are not a country that was built on the idea of survival of the fittest.” Here at least we have an expression that was actually used by free-market advocates – most notably the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who coined the term; and his American counterpart, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), the first professor of sociology at Yale.

It is clear that “social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” were intended by Obama to evoke feelings of fear and disgust. It is highly doubtful that Obama knows anything about the history of these ideas, and it is even more doubtful that he cares. A concern for truth is not the coin of the political realm. But these expressions have long been of interest to me, mainly because the great libertarian Herbert Spencer is frequently said to have originated social Darwinism.

Spencer – again, he never used the term “social Darwinism” — repeatedly protested that his views had been grievously distorted, but to no avail. The myths surrounding his theory of survival of the fittest became standard fare in generations of textbooks, and these myths received a shot of adrenaline in the 1977 BBC production of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty. This thirteen-part television series, which was the basis for Galbraith’s best-selling book of the same title, purports to be a history of economic thought from Adam Smith to modern times, one that focuses on ideas about capitalism. But the series is little more than leftist propaganda, chock-full of distortions and falsehoods. Galbraith stated explicitly what Obama left to the imagination of the American booboisie (to use H.L. Mencken’s memorable word).

I first watched The Age of Uncertainty in 1977, when it was aired by a PBS station in Los Angeles. I found the series annoying throughout, but what especially incurred my wrath was Galbraith’s treatment of Herbert Spencer – a segment, around five minutes long, that barely contains a shred of truth. (The segment can be seen here, beginning at 3.50.)

I felt like throwing my plaster bust of Adam Smith at the television screen, but I decided on a less destructive course of action. I wrote an article, “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?” that was published in Libertarian Review (December 1978) [PDF]. After calling Galbraith’s presentation “crude and grossly inaccurate,” I continued: “The traditional interpretation of Spencer on this point is so fundamentally wrong – in fact, Spencer explicitly repudiated it on many occasions – that one must wonder whether any of Spencer’s critics bother to read him.”

A few days ago, after reading Obama’s comment about social Darwinism and deciding to interrupt my Cato series on education with this essay (and one more to follow), I watched Galbraith’s segment on Spencer again. It is even more deplorable than I remembered. Ham-fisted from start to finish, it could be mistaken for a Monty Python parody.

Immediately after Herbert Spencer is mentioned, we see a caged tiger devouring a chunk of meat. Then, as a Spencer voice-over talks about survival of the species in a biological context, the camera pans up to a sign that reads: “THESE ANIMALS ARE DANGEROUS.”

Seconds later Galbraith enters stage left and surveys three dummies of Victorian capitalists. These figures, with money strewn about their feet – we all know that capitalists would rather throw money on the ground than give it to the poor – are labeled “CAPITALOPITHECUS ROBUSTUS.” Galbraith shuffles his feet and then drones on about the “higher primates” that survived through natural selection: “They are the strongest of the species, those best-adapted to their environment, and so they survived.”

Spencer is soon quoted again, but this time we are treated to more than a voice. We see an actor in pale-blue makeup who appears to have climbed out of a grave. After this zombie reads a passage from Spencer about how humans adapt to their “conditions of existence,” the camera moves back to Galbraith. With a stuffed tiger to his right – a prop to drive the message home, just in case the ravenous tiger shown earlier left any doubt – Galbraith lets us know he is a serious thinker by putting on his glasses in a professorial manner. He then proceeds to misrepresent Spencer’s ideas with reckless abandon.

Galbraith tells us that Spencer applied his doctrine of “survival of the fittest” not only to survival in the animal kingdom but also “to survival in the equally cutthroat world, as Spencer saw it, of economic life.” Spencer “eliminated all guilt” that the wealthy might experience by assuring them that “wealth was the natural result of strength, intelligence, capacity to adapt. The wealthy were innocent beneficiaries of their own superiority.” The poor, according to Galbraith’s fictional Spencer, were “biologically inferior” and “were being selected out.”

Cheesy theatrics aside, virtually the only reliable statements that Galbraith makes about Spencer are the years of his birth and death, and the fact that it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Our first impressions will often determine whether we will study a given thinker or theory in greater detail. We must be selective, after all; we cannot possibly read what every prominent writer has written about every significant issue. This is where secondary “textbook” accounts play a significant role in shaping public opinion. If a college student, in her first textbook encounter with Spencer or Sumner, is told that they favored a ruthless social Darwinism, she is unlikely to be enthusiastic about reading these villains for herself. And should that student ever become a teacher, she will teach her students the same errors that were taught to her.

Social Darwinism, as that label has been applied to libertarian theory, is sheer fabrication. For one thing, Spencer’s approach to evolution (which he developed independently of Darwin) was essentially Lamarckian. Spencer, unlike Darwin, believed that some acquired characteristics are genetically transmitted from one generation to the next, and he placed relatively little emphasis on the process of natural selection. This Lamarckian approach, despite its failures as a biological theory, is a better model of social development than is its Darwinian counterpart. Humans do indeed build upon the acquired skills and accomplishments of preceding generations — as we see in language, the transmission of knowledge, technology, capital investment, social institutions, and the like. 

Both Spencer and Sumner used the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and both men lived to regret it, because it made them easy targets for their critics. Spencer complained that his views were frequently distorted beyond recognition, and in some cases deliberately so. “I have had much experience in controversy,” he wrote in later life, “and my impression is that in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me.” Sumner became so frustrated by the same problem that he stopped using the phrase “survival of the fittest” altogether; it never appears in his later writings and speeches.

It is largely owing to the “survival of the fittest” doctrine that Spencer and Sumner have been condemned as social Darwinists. Social Darwinists, we are told, were infused with a stern and implacable contempt for the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged — those allegedly unfit persons who, by a law of nature, should give way in the struggle for existence to those who are more fit. It is a safe bet that if you consult a standard text on the history of ideas, you will find this view (or a close approximation) attributed to Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.

The ideological purpose of this caricature is evident. The textbook assaults on Spencer and Sumner are intended to characterize the attitude of laissez-faire advocates in general. We have advanced, it is said, from the heartless dog-eat-dog attitude of social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics to the compassionate welfare policies of modern governments. We are told that the modern liberal (in contrast to the classical liberal, or libertarian) cares about people more than profits, that he values human rights over property rights — and so on, until we drown in a sea of tiresome clichés.

So what did Spencer and Sumner mean by “survival of the fittest”? Before I address this question, we need to be clear about what they did not mean.

Spencer repeatedly emphasized that in using the terms “fit” and “fittest” in a social context, he was not expressing a value judgment; nor was he referring to a particular characteristic, such as strength, wealth, or intelligence; nor was he expressing any kind of approval or disapproval; nor was he referring to the biological competition to survive. This doctrine, wrote Spencer, “is expressible in purely physical terms, which neither imply competition nor imply better and worse.” Most importantly, “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.”

The law [of survival of the fittest] is not the survival of the ‘better’ or the ‘stronger.’… It is the survival of those which are constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed; and very often that which, humanly speaking is inferiority, causes the survival.

In a social context, the “fittest” are those persons who are able to adapt to the survival requirements of their society. If, for example, a government decrees that all redheads shall be executed on the spot, then it follows that the persons best fitted for survival in such a society would be non-redheads, or those natural redheads who adapt by changing their hair color or shaving their heads.

We can apply this survival of the fittest principle without condoning the penalty against redheads, and without regarding non-redheads as superior people. It is a simple, inescapable fact: If a government kills redheads, then (other things being equal) you will have a better chance to survive – that is, you will be more “fit” under the specified conditions – if you do not have red hair.

This interpretation, which treats “survival of the fittest” as a value-free description of what in fact does occur, rather than as a prescription or an approval of what ought to occur, was also put forward by Sumner, who tried – in vain, as it turned out – to correct the distorted interpretations of his critics.

At the meeting of the Liberal Union Club at which I read a paper, it seemed to me that there was some misapprehension in regard to the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Such misapprehension is very common in spite of many efforts of the leading evolutionists to correct it. It is supposed that the doctrine is that the best survive. This is an error, and it forms the basis for all disputes about evolution and ethics. For the word “best” implies moral standards, a moral standpoint, etc.; and if the doctrine were affirmed in that form, it would not be scientific at all, but would be theological, for it would involve the notion that man is the end of creation and that his notions of things are the standard to which things must conform. The doctrine is that those survive who are fittest to survive.

The idea expressed here was central to the sociological theories of Spencer and Sumner. Both believed that human beings respond to incentives and that they adapt to social conditions through the formation of their characters and habits. Both believed that character traits play a more important role in social interaction than do abstract beliefs and theories. Which character traits tend to develop in a given society depend a great deal on the social and political sanctions found in that society, i.e.., on what kinds of behavior are encouraged or discouraged, rewarded or punished.

Suppose a society rewards indolence and penalizes industry. In this case, according to Spencer, indolent people will tend to fare better than industrious people. The indolent, having adapted to the conditions of their society, will be more “fit” than the industrious who fail to adapt. This is the meaning of Spencer’s oft-quoted remark, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”

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