A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book called The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics that charted the history of such clear-eyed evolutionists who accepted Darwin's new world, but applied the consequences only to slim segments of life that they considered the fittest. They focused entirely on the competition for survival they suddenly realised they were in, and the results were a predictable horror show of classism, bigotry, and speciesism driven by underlying existential angst that has unfortunately tarnished the field of evolutionary philosophy and prejudiced "more enlightened thinkers" against such a crude school of thought. Chief among these thinkers who went down the wrong path was Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the term survival of the fittest. Clearly that shows where his head was at, but let's look at how his resulting ideas fared in my examination of the survival of the fittest philosophers.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903 CE) was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. He was an enthusiastic exponent of evolution and even wrote about evolution before Darwin did. Spencer is best known for coining the concept "survival of the fittest.” He was probably the first, and possibly the only, philosopher in history to sell over a million copies of his works during his own lifetime.
In 1858, Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. This immense undertaking, which has few parallels in the English language, aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology, and morality. He appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief, which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science. Hey, this guy sounds pretty promising.
The first objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was to demonstrate that there were no exceptions to being able to discover scientific explanations in the form of natural laws of all the phenomena of the universe. Spencer’s volumes on biology, psychology, and sociology were all intended to demonstrate the existence of natural laws in these specific disciplines. Even in his writings on ethics, he held that it was possible to discover laws of morality that had the status of laws of nature while still having normative content. Yes. The physicalist view of the universe is correct. Also, Spencer is quite prescient to accept evolution as explaining the natural basis for morality.
Needs to Adapt
The second objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was to show that these same laws led inexorably to progress. In contrast to Comte, who stressed only the unity of the scientific method, Spencer sought the unification of scientific knowledge in the form of the reduction of all natural laws to one fundamental law, the law of evolution. Spencer posited that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated, homogeneity to a complex, differentiated, heterogeneity, while being accompanied by a process of greater integration of the differentiated parts. This evolutionary process could be found at work, Spencer believed, throughout the cosmos. It was a universal law, applying to the stars and the galaxies as much as to biological organisms, and to human social organization as much as to the human mind. The end point of the evolutionary process would be the creation of “the perfect man in the perfect society” with human beings becoming completely adapted to social life. Spencer didn’t have the cosmological science that we have today so his view of the starting point of undifferentiated homogeneity was certainly incomplete. In the sense that survivors have learned something new, then progress does occur, but it is by no means inexorable in a universe with asteroids, supernovae, and black holes ready to tear life apart. And as long as the universe exists and moves and changes, then evolution will have no endpoint. The early naïveté of believers in evolution is starting to show in Spencer’s thinking.
For evolution to produce the perfect individual it was necessary for present and future generations to experience the “natural” consequences of their conduct. Only in this way would individuals have the incentives required to work on self-improvement and thus to hand an improved moral constitution to their descendants. Hence anything that interfered with the natural relationship of conduct and consequence was to be resisted, and this included the use of the coercive power of the state to relieve poverty, to provide public education, or to require compulsory vaccination. Although charitable giving was to be encouraged, even it had to be limited by the consideration that suffering was frequently the result of individuals receiving the consequences of their actions. Hence too much individual benevolence directed to the undeserving poor would break the link between conduct and consequence that Spencer considered fundamental to ensuring that humanity continued to evolve to a higher level of development. And here is where Spencer’s understanding of evolution goes completely off the rails. He misunderstands the fact that cooperation, society, and even government are all “natural” outgrowths of a species trying to survive.
Starting either from religious belief or from science, Spencer argued we are ultimately driven to accept certain indispensable but literally inconceivable notions. Whether we are concerned with a Creator or the substratum that underlies our experience of phenomena, we can frame no conception of it. Therefore, Spencer concluded, religion and science agree in the supreme truth that the human understanding is only capable of relative knowledge. This is the case since, owing to the inherent limitations of the human mind, it is only possible to obtain knowledge of phenomena, not of the reality underlying phenomena. Hence, both science and religion must come to recognize as the most certain of all facts that the Power, which the Universe manifests to us, is utterly inscrutable. He called this Awareness of the Unknowable and he presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith that could substitute for conventional religion. Indeed, he thought that the Unknowable represented the ultimate stage in the evolution of religion, the final elimination of its last anthropomorphic vestiges. Why deify that which we do not know? It only hurts us to worship our ignorance. We should instead continue to seek to know, or accept any true limitations that we do find and do what we can with the rest of our knowledge.
Spencer's last years were characterized by a collapse of his initial optimism, replaced instead by a pessimism regarding the future of mankind. It’s not surprising given the way he advocated for the strict half of evolution characterized by competition. Given our understanding of the other half of evolutionary strategy - cooperation - there is much cause for optimism.
Spencer was "an autodidact who acquired most of his knowledge from narrowly focused readings and conversations with his friends and acquaintances." His father "ran a school founded on progressive teaching methods and also served as Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, a scientific society which had been founded in the 1790s by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Spencer was educated in empirical science by his father, while the members of the Derby Philosophical Society introduced him to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution, particularly those of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His uncle completed Spencer's limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts." So while he was primed and quick to accept the reality of evolution, Spencer had none of the understanding of ecological niches, mutually beneficial relationships, and cooperative behaviours that exist throughout nature in every place found so far where life exists. He had no way of expanding the circle of the in-group of survivors until all of life was accepted into it. We know how to do that now, and we know that each member of that group must struggle with tradeoffs between choices that benefit either individuals, societies, species, ecologies, or environments over evolutionary timelines. But even if we can't forgive Spencer for some of his thoughts, we can at least understand him for not knowing all these facts about nature and morality. Besides, the man wasn't all bad who was able to say things like this:
The current opinion that science and poetry are opposed is a delusion. The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded.
All evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions. This is true of everything that lives.
Man needed one moral constitution to fit him for his original state; he needs another to fit him for his present state; and he has been, is, and will long continue to be, in process of adaptation.
The essential trait in the moral consciousness, is the control of some feeling or feelings by some other feeling or feelings.
People … become so preoccupied with the means by which an end is achieved, as eventually to mistake it for the end. Just as money, which is a means of satisfying wants, comes to be regarded by a miser as the sole thing to be worked for, leaving the wants unsatisfied; so the conduct men have found preferable because most conducive to happiness, has come to be thought of as intrinsically preferable: not only to be made a proximate end (which it should be), but to be made an ultimate end, to the exclusion of the true ultimate end.
Spencer and the rest of the early evolutionary ethicists may have poisoned the well for research and thought into this field, but it's obvious there was promise there. Luckily, life will always explore fallow fields until it figures out a way to adapt and survive there, and hopefully my evolutionary philosophy can learn from that trick to help revive this dormant area of research. Onwards.