Herbert Spencer

The Survival of the Fittest

The most memorable idea of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was his assertion that the passing of time witnesses “the survival of the fittest.” Many people associate this immortal phrase with the theory of species evolution developed by the natural scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The expression was actually Spencer’s, however. and he used it to refer to society, not to living creatures. In it. we find not only an example of early structural-functional analysis, but a controversial theory that reflects the popular view in Spencer’s day that society mirrored biology. Spencer’s ideas. which came to be known as social Darwinism. rested on the assertion that. if)eft to compete among themselves, the most intelligent, ambitious, and productive people will inevitably win out. Spencer endorsed a world of fierce competition, thinking that as the ‘fittest” survived, society would undergo steady improvements,Society rewards its best members. Spencer continued, by allowing a free-market economy to function without government interference. Welfare. or other programs aimed at redistributing money to benefit the poor. Spencer maintained, do just the opposite, They drag society down by elevating its weakest and least worthy members. For such opinions. nineteenth-century industrialists loudly applauded Spencer, and the rich saw in Spencer’s analysis a scientific justification for big business to remain free of government regulation or social conscience. Indeed, John D. Rockefeller, who built a vast financial empire that included most of the U.S oil industry, often recited Spencer’s “social gospel” to young children in Sunday school, casting the growth of giant corporations as merely the naturally ordained “survival of the fittest.”But others objected to the idea that society amounted to little more than a jungle where self interest reigned supreme. Gradually, social Darwinism fell out of favor among social scientists. although it still surfaces today as an influential element of conservative political thought. From a sociological point of view. Spencer’s thinking is flawed because we now realize that ability only partly accounts for personal success, and favoring the rich and powerful does not necessarily benefit society as a whole. In addition. the heartlessness of Spencer’s ideas strikes many people as cruel. with little room for human compassion.

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