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Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

Here’s noted evolutionary biologist and village atheist Richard Dawkins, in the course of his review of what seems to be a laughable little documentary that he was tricked into giving an interview for:

My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ought from an is. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism.

— Richard Dawkins (2008-03-28): Lying for Jesus?

There’s a fair amount to praise here, and a fair amount to pick at. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out that Dawkins’ characterization of Herbert Spencer — the 19th century radical libertarian sociologist and philosopher — is completely wrong on two different counts.

Herbert Spencer, dirty evolutionist hippie

First, Spencer was not a Social Darwinist. He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form.

Second, Dawkins is completely wrong about Spencer’s radical political views, which bear virtually no resemblence to the belligerent Rightism and economic royalism of Thatcher, Bush, Nixon, or Rockefeller. Spencer was in fact a feminist, a labor radical, and a vehement critic of European imperialism (which he described as bearing a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers). Contrary to the most popular, and most wildly inaccurate, caricature of his social views, Spencer did not believe in cutting off charitable relief to, or mutual aid among, the poor, sick, or other folks whom the powers that be might marginalize and dismiss as unfit, in the name of survival of the fittest. (That is his phrase, but it is being misapplied.) Spencer opposed government welfare programs — because he opposed all forms of government command-and-control — but he believed that voluntary charity and mutual aid were not only a positive moral obligation, but in fact were features of the highest forms of social evolution (Social Statics, pp. 291-2), as the old militant mode of hierarchy and command was supplanted by the new industrial mode of solidarity and voluntary co-operation. Spencer devoted ten chapters of his late work, Principles of Ethics, to the duty of Positive Beneficence. He advocated the organization of voluntary labor unions as a bulwark against exploitation by capitalist bosses, and favored an economy organized primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for the slavery of capitalist wage-labor.. For those — like the cartoon Social Darwinist that Spencer is so often portrayed to be — who advocated indifference or harshness towards the poor and blamed poverty on the ignorance, folly, or vices of the poor people themselves, Spencer himself had nothing but contempt:

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed the great unwashed; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social Statics, pp. 203–5)

Of course, there is plenty in Spencer’s views that Dawkins, as a Social Democrat, would object to. But Dawkins has not yet succeeded in identifying what those disagreements would be. Spencer’s humanitarian, pro-labor, pro-charity radical left libertarianism has just about nothing in common with the authoritarian Right-wing political economy that Dawkins rightly condemns.

Further reading:

12 replies to Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Laura J.

    I daresay that benevolence to other members of our species is a highly adaptive trait, rather than a maladaptive one, when one considers how many more individuals of our species can survive with such a disposition floating about in the gene pool than if it didn’t exist, and as such, it would be expected to be very much selected for. It gets my goat when people construct elaborate arguments presupposing that extending goodwill to members of humankind who might not survive without it is somehow evolutionarily insane, regardless of whether it is morally right or wrong to do so. Dawkins should know better than to take such a statement for granted and make it the premise of his arguments, but apparently he doesn’t.

  2. Rad Geek

    Yeah, I agree (as would Spencer, and Kropotkin), and that claim is puzzling from Dawkins, actually, because my understanding was that he personally accepts some form of the argument that sociobiologists and their ilk tend to give for the adaptiveness of watered or conditional altruism. (It’s genes that Dawkins regards as selfish, not necessarily the bearers of those genes.) I actually think that that would be accepting not-quite-the-right conclusion for almost entirely the wrong reasons: sociobiologists tend to write as if the game-theoretic ideality of a particular strategy for propagating genes were reason enough to believe that faculties that will go for precisely that strategy is what will develop over time, which is baloney, and which doesn’t actually explain the scope of human compassion or altruism. But in any case I was surprised to see Dawkins treating natural selection as a devil-take-the-hindmost process when I thought that he had explicitly endorsed a different view in previous writings.

    One possible explanation is that Dawkins may have been giving a very much oversimplified version of his views in order to address a point that he takes to be more important in context — i.e., that even if a certain attitude or practice is demonstrably somehow more Darwinian than other attitudes or practices, that’s not a good argument for it being morally or politically justified. Which is certainly very true, and very important. He may believe that it will be easier to convince skeptics of that position than to convince them of some scientific proposition about the mechanism of natural selection.

    But, whatever the case, he shouldn’t try to make his point by contributing to the standing (and wildly false) caricature of Herbert Spencer as some kind of proto-fascist socio-economic revanchist, when Spencer was nothing of the sort.

  3. Bob Kaercher

    Charles: This reminds me that I am woefully undereducated about Spencer, so thanks for the clarification. (Perhaps you and Long could start up an Anti-Defamation of Spencer League!)

    I’ll have to add the Spencester to my reading list. Would you say Social Statics is a good place to start? Or would you recommend something else for the novice?

  4. Serafina

    Didn’t Spencer reverse himself rather spectacularly on the issue of women’s rights, deciding that women’s rights were too much of a luxury and very likely to have bad evolutionary consequences?

  5. Rad Geek


    Spencer did become more conservative as he got older, especially on voting rights, including woman suffrage, and although he never endorsed the proto-eugenicist views often now attributed to him, he did say some stupid things and retract positions from his younger, more radical writings that he should not have retracted (with the exception of his opposition to imperialism and colonialism, which he never backslid on).

    He may eventually have reversed himself completely on women’s rights, but if he did so, I haven’t read it. I know that he did reverse himself partially, for pretty crappy reasons. In The Principles of Ethics (1897), what he argued is that women should have equal natural rights (rights to liberty of conscience, bodily integrity, ownership of property, etc.) to men, but that in the present (militant or mixed) evolutionary stage of society, it would be politically harmful for them to enjoy the same voting rights as men, which he backs up with a variety of ridiculously sexist reasons. (Most of them have either to do with male supremacist stereotypes of women being less capable of good reasoning than men, or with the view that they’d be more inclined than men to support authoritarian political causes.) He did hold out some hope that in time to come, when the existing political complications caused by our transitional state have disappeared, […] It is quite possible that the possession of votes by women would then be beneficial, but that’s small consolation for the sexist tripe that precedes it.

    (See Chapter 19 on natural rights for women, Chapter 24 on voting rights for women, and Chapter 22 on why Spencer considers the two questions to be separate.)

    Generally speaking, Spencer is also more willing, in his later work, to invoke various forms of sexism on behalf of male authority in culture, apart from the question of political rights. But even in his late work he still seems to think that the sphere of women’s autonomy should be radically expanded from the situation in Victorian England and America, and that respect for women’s liberty is an important feature of progress in social evolution.

    So, the short answer is that, so far as I know, Spencer didn’t completely reverse himself, but in his old age he did get substantially worse, from a feminist standpoint, as indeed he became less anti-authoritarian, generally.

    Does that help?

    • Lee

      Herbert Spencer was one of the most inconsistent philosophers out there, and he did, I’m sorry to inform you, completely reverse almost all of his views that were found in Social Statistics. You can find his most bigoted, sexist, and classist work in The Man Versus the State, and From Freedom to Bondage, in which he states that all government intervention is counterproductive, and that social programs of nearly any kind will create servitude over the long run. He was an extremely powerful thinker, but was all over the map with his ideas, and contradicted himself over time on various subjects. I’d suggest reading more before completely refuting Dawkins’ characterization of Spencer. Cheers!

  6. Roderick T. Long

    Later Spencer was significantly less feminist than early Spencer (but still significantly more feminist than most of his contemporaries — though that’s admittedly not saying a great deal). His main argument against women’s right to vote was that so long as men fight wars, only men have the right to make decisions about foreign policy; he seems to have thought it would be OK for women to have some more limited, purely domestic-policy representation. (Among the many objections he failed to consider were a) that women could fight in wars and b) that even if women don’t fight in wars it’s not true that only men bear the costs of war.)

    To Bob — yes, I’d say start with Social Statics.

  7. Discussed at darwiniana.com

    » Getting Spencer straight:

    […] Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???) First, Spencer was not a “Social Darwinist.” He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form. […]

  8. TGGP

    I’ve been arguing similarly about Spencer here and here. Will Wilkinson has a diavlog about him here.

  9. Dain Fitzgerald

    Now wasn’t William Graham Sumner a huge fan of Spencer’s, and more or less his American counterpart? And isn’t he quoted as saying something to the effect that “a drunk man in the gutter is exactly where he belongs”?

    Spencer and Sumner are certainly villified by the “goo goo” liberals, yet somehow Sidney and Beatrice Webb completely escape their wrath, and are indeed considered quite nice folks.

  10. Serafina

    Thanks for the explanation–that’s actually what I suspected.

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at aaeblog.com

    Forever on the Scaffold | Austro-Athenian Empire:

    […] Johnson defends Herbert Spencer against Richard […]

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