Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Evolution

Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Evolution

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was a British philosopher, scientist, and sociologist. He was a famous theorist of the nineteenth century, especially in the disciplines of social Darwinism and evolutionary theory.

Spencer was primarily self-educated, and his diverse interests led him to write on topics ranging from psychology to ethics, political philosophy, and education. His theory of social evolution, which proposed that civilizations advance through a process of differentiation and integration in which more sophisticated forms of social structure arise from simpler ones, is possibly his most well-known contribution.

Spencer was also heavily influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1859) The Origin of Species and applied Darwins theory of natural selection to human societies, arguing that social progress was driven by competition between individuals and groups and that the most advanced and successful societies were the ones that had evolved the most.

Spencers theories were controversial at the time, and they have been extensively criticized for emphasizing competition and individuality, which many feel ignores the critical role of collaboration and social solidarity in human society. Nonetheless, his work is a significant element of 19th-century intellectual history, and it continues to impact arguments on a variety of subjects.

Spencer Main Works of Spencer

Spencer is one of the greatest writers of the 19th century who started his writing career at the early age of 22. He was impressive in his writing that his thoughts and philosophy were read and translated not only in England but also in far-off countries like China and Japan. He was perhaps one of the earliest philosophers whose teachings were studied with attention and regards not only in his own country were studied with attention and regard not only in his own country but also in other countries of the world. The greatest quality of his writings, for which he was studied with thoroughness, was that he was a great system builder. Bacon and Hobbes were, of course, systematic thinkers, but Spencer was perhaps the only thinker after Hobbes who systematized things in such a way that everything suited his system. The second reason for his popularity was that he applied the system of evolution to politics and political institutions. Hitherto the political system was not considered a product of evolution, but evolution was applied only to biology. He applied evolution to politics also. His significant writings are :

  1. Proper Sphere of Government (1842)

  2. Social Statistics (1850)

  3. Principles of Psychology (1855) (2 Vols.)

  4. Social Organism (1860)

  5. First Principles of Administration (1862)

  6. The Principles of Biology (1864-1867) (2 Vols.)

  7. Specialised Administration (1871)

  8. Descriptive Sociology (1873-1894) (2 Vols.)

  9. The Principles of Sociology (1876-1896) (3 Vols.)

  10. Principles of Sociology (1880)         (3 Vols.)

  11. Man vs. State (1884)

  12. Justice (1891)

  13. Principles of Ethics (1891)         (2 Vols.)

  14. Synthetic Philosophy (1896)

In addition to these works, his political philosophical is available in one of his important works, namely ‘Political Institution’.

The Theory of Evolution

Spencer’s first and foremost concern was with evolutionary change in social structures and social institutions. Spencer developed and clarified his theory of social evolution using the concepts of physical and biological evolution.

  1. Physical evolution: 

Spencer was persuaded by the analysis of physical evolution that there are two fundamental principles guiding all evolution along with the fundamental idea of physical development, which is the transition from homogeneity to heterogeneity and simple to complex.

  1. Biological evolution: 

Spencer also made use of the fundamental tenet of biological evolution, which holds that only those organisms survive the struggle for survival that is able to adapt successfully to changing conditions.

Herbert Spencer utilized these two principles, physical and biological evolution, in order to explain the theory of social evolution. Spencer’s theory of social evolution points out two stages:

  1. The movement from simple societies to various levels of compound societies:

The first two types he called simple societies and the other two societies were referred to as complex societies on the basis of political complexities.

  1. Simple Society: 

Spencer defined the simple society as “one which forms a single working whole un-subjected to any other and of which the parts co-operate with or without a regulating centre for certain public ends.” These societies were predominantly small, nomadic, and lacking in stable relationship structure. They had low degrees of differentiation, specialization, and integration.  

Examples are the Eskimos, the Fuegians, the Guiana tribes, the new Caledonians and the Pueblo Indians.

  1. Compound Societies: 

Compound societies were presented as having generally come about through either a peaceful or a violent merger of two or more simple societies. They tended to be predominantly settled agricultural societies, although a majority were mainly pastoral, and tended to be characterized by a division of four or five social strata and an organized priestly group. They are also characterized by Industrial structures that show an advancing division of labour, general and local.

Examples are the Teutonic peoples in the fifth century, Homeric Greeks, New Zealanders, Hottentots Dahomans and Ashantees.

  1. Doubly Compound Societies: 

Doubly compound societies were completely settled, were more integrated and had a larger and more definite political structure, a religious hierarchy, a more or less rigid caste system and a more complex division of labour. In such societies, to a greater and lesser extent, the custom has passed into positive law and religious observances have grown definite, rigid and complex. Towns and roads have become general, and considerable progress in knowledge and the arts has taken place.

Examples are thirteen-Century France, Eleventh Century England, the Spartan Confederacy, the ancient Peruvians and the Guatemalans.

  1. Trebly Compound Societies: It includes “the great civilized nations” such as the Assyrian Empire, modern Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Spencer does not outline their traits in detail but points to their increased overall size, complexity, division of labour, popular density, integration and general cultural complexity.


  1. Ancient Greek city-states: In ancient Greece, the polis was the largest political unit, consisting of a city and its surrounding territory. Each polis was composed of smaller neighbourhoods or villages, which in turn were organized around kinship groups.

  2. Medieval European feudalism: In medieval Europe, the feudal system was a hierarchical social structure that consisted of lords, vassals, and peasants. Each lord had his own castle and land, which was divided into smaller manors. Each manor was composed of a village and surrounding farmland, and the peasants who worked the land were organized into kinship groups.

  3. Native American tribes: Many Native American tribes had a social organization that was trebly compound, with families or clans forming the basic unit of society, villages or towns as the next level of social organization, and larger political entities such as confederacies or nations as the highest level of organization.

  4. Chinese society: In traditional Chinese society, the family was the basic unit of social organization, and extended families or clans were organized into local communities or villages. These communities were then organized into larger political entities such as provinces or states.

  5. Hindu caste system: In Hindu society, the caste system was a hierarchical social structure that was organized into three levels: the Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), and the Shudras (labourers and servants). Each caste was composed of families or clans, and these clans were organized into local communities or villages.

  1. Change from the military (or militant) to industrial society:

When the internal control is coercive and centralized, Spencer called it militant and when the internal control is peaceful and mutually dependent, he called the society an industrial society. The characteristic traits are given below:

  1. Military society is characterized by compulsory cooperation, whereas industrial soci­ety is based on voluntary cooperation.

  2. While the military society has a centralized government, the industrial society has a decentralized government.

  3. Military society has economic autonomy, whereas it is not found in industrial society.

  4. There is the domination of the state over all other social organizations in the military society, whereas, in the industrial society, the functions of the states are very much limited.

However, Spencer cautioned that social complexity in these two types of societies is independent of the type of internal control.

Spencer utilized these two principles to propound his theory of social evolution. He put forward the theory that, like physical evolution, in social evolution also, there is a movement from simple to complex. Society is gradually moving from a homogeneous structure to a heterogeneous structure. Besides, society is also moving from an indefinite state to a definite state. Transporting the idea of struggle for existence from biological evolution to social evolution. Spencer proposed that only those cultures survive and are able to adjust themselves to the changing circumstances. A strong culture is that which is able to make adjustments to changing environments. If civilization is unable to make adjustments to the changing circumstance, it caves in and gradually becomes extinct.

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