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The Demon Spencer

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

When I first started to read philosophy and history I heard about this demon. His name was Herbert Spencer, and he was famous for three things:demon-spencer.jpeg

  1. Incomprehensible prose

  2. Coining “Survival of the Fittest”, and

  3. Coming up with a “devil take the hindmost” laissez faire political philosophy that was called “social Darwinism”.

I have since learned that demons are figments of the imagination, and so it is here, as well.
A recent issue of The Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization was devoted to Spencer. It provides an interesting contrast in approaches. Discovery Institute Fellow (and serial occasional denier of same) Richard Weikart reprises his slander against Spencer and Darwin being responsible for the Holocaust. It seems that if you want to create a demon, the Holocaust is the event the demon must shoulder responsibility for (and not, say, the last 500 years of Christian antisemitism). That Hitler’s ideas are a mishmash of Romantic religious belief, folk religion, racist anthropology that predates Darwin and Spencer by a century or more, and in fact owes more to animal husbandry and possibly Plato’s Republic than anything Darwin set in train is irrelevant. The slander is all that matters. It’s a bit like the “blood libel” against Jews. Strike that demon! I love the way Weikart sets up a false dichotomy: either Darwin or Spencer are responsible for Hitler. That neither are escapes his eagle eye (and similar things can be said about Haeckel’s supposed contributions to Nazism, although he was more plausibly antisemitic).

In the same issue, though, is a measured and responsible article by Thomas Leonard, in which he observes that scholarship, since the late 70s, has shown that (i) there never was a social Darwinism apart from the ideas of one economist at Harvard, Sumner, and (ii), the myth arose in 1944 when Richard Hofstadter wrote a polemic in the guise of a historical review, which has been since shown to be of very poor quality.

Several of the rest of the authors reiterate the myth in that issue. Why? What’s going on?

I think the reason is obvious. There is a certain mindset, that the Disco Institute exemplifies, that cannot tell an “ought” from an “is”, and so they think that if someone says, as Spencer did, that

“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”

then that is a moral prescription.

As Damon Root noted:

That certainly sounds rough, but as it turns out, Hofstadter failed to mention the first sentence of Spencer’s next paragraph, which reads, “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” As philosophy professor Roderick Long has remarked, “The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial.” …

Nearly every so-called “social Darwinian”, from Malthus and Adam Smith writing before Darwin, through Darwin himself, to Spencer and even the so-called “robber barons” held that it was a moral duty to care for the poor and to contribute back to society. Darwin even gave large amounts of his own money anonymously to care for the parish poor, which only came to light decades after his death. Hofstadter invented a convenient target to make his political points, and both sides of politics have repeated it ever since, Weikart’s dishonest scholarship being only the latest in a series. See the link above, “the slander is all that matters”, for references to criticisms of Weikart’s “scholarship”.

One of my favourite quotes from a philosopher illustrates this mistake:

“Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic, but praiseworthy, tendency to die before reproducing their kind”, W. V. O. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” in Ontological Relativity (1969)

If Quine had left out the clause “but praiseworthy”, this would stand as a descriptive truth (we might even agree that it is full of pathos, objectively), but by adding the normativity of praise, Quine tries (and fails) to make evolution deliver moral values, which even Thomas Huxley knew was a mistake. Hitler is not an outcome of descriptions of how things work in biology. Even if he had the slightest knowledge of and made the slightest use of evolutionary biology, which he doesn’t (he makes a use of animal husbandry, though, and so we should immediately conclude that horse breeders are moral degenerates according to Weikart’s line of argument), Hitler’s program would not follow from evolutionary biology. Weikart knows this, of course, and is using a fallacy known as poisoning the well, a legal manoeuvre that he probably learned from Phillip Johnson, the father of ID. But the well is fine before that poison is added. Strike that demon.

The theists who are critical of evolution need to have evil demons to bolster the necessity for their brand of salvation. No matter that it is historically false; falsity seems not to be a barrier to ID, especially not in its scientific arguments. All that matters is that the rhetoric works. The Sophist, indeed.

It’s not just the Disco Tiny Dancers that run this line. Left and Right do it too, also for rhetorical effect. Economists seem especially prone to the fallacy of deriving ises from oughts, or ascribing it to others. The only defenders of Spencer are the libertarians, who also make the same error in reverse (it is thus, therefore it should be thus). Spencer and Darwin were liberals – a term that means they stood for individual freedom, support for the deserving poor, and a moral consensus (rather than the mishmash that gets called “liberal” in American politics. They had more in common with the Mill of On Liberty than anything else, as most forward thinking intellectuals of their day did. It’s time that got out… stop demonising Spencer. The man was human, and will have human flaws.


  1. See here for an explanation of John’s “serial denial” comment.

  2. Not only a defense of Darwin against the Philistines, but a defense of Spencer, too!

    It just goes to show: Read the originals. It’s pretty damn clear the DI people don’t.

  3. Spencer is also famous for inventing the paper clip – although I am far from sure that he did.

  4. ChrisE ChrisE

    I’m not sure that in that line Quine is suggesting that evolution might deliver moral values. I read it differently, as saying just that QUINE approves of creatures who consistently fail at induction not reproducing. Their reproduction often leads to suffering, which it’s praiseworthy to avoid.

    • Snowflake Snowflake

      But Quine wants a normative epistemology to come out of evolution, and so it is not hard to see that he wants other kinds of normativity.

  5. RBH RBH

    I wait in vain for a condemnation of Newton’s laws of motion, since they account for so many deaths in virtue of their description of how bullets, speeding automobiles, and the like generate so much energy of impact. F=MA must be immoral.

  6. Sorry to clog up your comments section here, but if the published Leonard article bears any resemblance to the draft at his website, it’s fairly unimpressive.

    The knock on Spencer has never been that he invented individualism, it’s that he lent it fresh support grounded in recent scientific discovery. Whether he gets Darwin wrong or not is hardly the point, any more than it would be for Deepak Chopra to make social claims on the basis of quantum physics. It’s the category error that’s the problem, not the faithfulness of the scientific doctrine.

    Leonard writes that “American businessmen who invoked Darwin to defend the Gilded Age economic order were, it turns out, scarcer than hen’s teeth,” and, quoting R.J. Wilson, “No more than a small handful of American business leaders or intellectuals were ‘social Darwinists’ in any sense precise enough to have a useful meaning.” Without providing a metric on how many industrialists would be invoking Darwin if social Darwinism were to be considered influential, or how long we should wait to see these results, this is not a very meaningful objection. I’ve got one: Does anyone who has followed the financial sector over the last 5 (or 50) years have any doubt that Wall Street has internalized a deeply entrenched “law of the jungle” ethic?

    Leonard is on to something when he points out that the Progressive movement Hofstadter valorized in his early career (not the same as the small-p progressive movement of today) was prone to some similar ideological shortcomings regarding the role of eugenics in improving society (e.g. Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw). But this inconsistency on Hofstadter’s part is hardly a vindication of Spencer’s philosophy; it’s just a demonstration that the prospect of applying Darwinian mechanics to society toward one utopian idea or another was more seductive and influential than Hofstadter was able to credit, not wanting to smear his political allies. Both capitalist and socialist partisans embraced the notion of social engineering, though with different means and ends in mind.

    • Snowflake Snowflake

      As to the “law of the jungle” doctrine, note that

      1. It predates Darwin by a number of years, and Spencer as well, and

      2. It is not anything like Darwin’s or Spencer’s (or Adam Smith’s, for that matter) doctrine of competition. While the mid-nineteenth century and later laissez faire economics may have been kicked along by Darwin and Spencer, I rather doubt that they made much impact on a debate that began with the Corn Law problem in the 1820s, commented on by Ricardo, among others.

      • Yes, Snowflake, as I wrote above, I don’t think the issue is whether the ideology began with Spencer, but whether he furthered it, and claimed scientific support for it. Anyway, I meant “law of the jungle” very loosely, so as not to repeat myself. The point about the ethic of the investment house is that it is eminently “Social Darwinist” — that the rich deserve to get richer by virtue of being richer, even if (especially if) the wealth is gotten by duplicitous means. (Also note that J.L. Mackie used “Law of the Jungle” when writing in 1978 of a biological foundation for the code of vendetta. I had just written about this at my place, so the phrase was ready on my tongue.)

  7. I don’t find this very convincing as a defense of Spencer. Surely there are other standards short of full Demon-hood that would still allow us to oppose a system of thinking, at least in part.

    Even if the passage quoted by Hofstadter is softened by the passage not quoted, it still contains both an “is” (they do live, they do die) and an “ought” (it is best that they live, best that they die.) To say that “human sympathy” mitigates the severity of this process (though the institution of charity) doesn’t change the fact that Spencer believed that physical or biological robustness had a moral quality, and believed that in the long run the strong “should” survive.

    This differs from Hitler’s program in the significant sense that Hitler wanted to put (and did put) the “weak” in labor camps and death camps, where Spencer just wanted to put them in (privately funded, or even better, underfunded) poor houses. Spencer was not a Nazi, and would probably have been horrified by most of the 20th century just like the rest of us. But that shouldn’t lead us to whitewash the racist and eugenicist strains of the Progessive movement. We don’t blame the Holocaust on H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw either, but we shouldn’t overlook that Hitler was able to make use of their explicit endorsement of racial purity through eugenic means.

    • Snowflake Snowflake

      Chris, you raise several issues, all worthy. The valuative aspects of Spencer’s thought were real. They are also there in Darwin, Smith and Malthus. The natural order is, to some extent, a good thing in 19thC thought. But I read Spencer’s comment about the weak along the same lines one might say of a badly deformed fetus that it is best that it spontaneously died. If born one should, out of sympathy, aid it. That does not lead by any sensible argument or extension to the death camps.

      And do you have textual evidence that Spencer wanted the poor and weak in poor houses? I am unfamiliar with that passage in his writings. He has all kinds of arguments about why the State (in Social Statics and The Man and The State) ought not to house the poor (largely because it sets up a power elite of “poor law guardians”, but also because, Malthusianly, it makes the problem worse down the track), but none I know of that say the State should do so.

      As to the use by Hitler of eugenics, the whole eugenics movement is both independent of evolution, or at any rate, Darwinian evolution, and is founded upon animal husbandry applied to humans. This goes back to Plato’s Republic, and the Spartans on which he based this story. The notion of the “aristocracy” in the middle ages was likewise about “good breeding”, and all Galton did was to revive these ideas under what was then modern ideas.

      But while some evolutionary biologists did support Galton’s “positive” eugenics (encourage the fit to breed more), none ever suggested, so far as I know, that evolution required that we act to eliminate the unfit, for a very simple reason: nature would do that anyway. When you hear someone saying that we must remove the unfit from society, they are always relying upon a genetic justification (“society is permitting those who would otherwise die to survive, increasing the load of deleterious genes in the population”). Evolution has nothing to do here – because strictly under a Darwinian account, the environment has changed so that these are now fit genotypes. If they cease to be fit down the track, well, nature will take care of them, and so on.

      Even when it was accepted, e.g., by Dobzhansky, that these genetic forms were deleterious, he noted that most species carry such a load and are not made extinct. And that was before the war.

      Hitler appealed to anything he could cheery pick to support his prior racialism – Lutheran theology, Catholic doctrine, pagan myth, pseudoscientific anthropology, pseudoeconomics. It really didn’t matter so long as he could turn it to the appearance of justification for what he was going to do anyway. Darwin was irrelevant. So was Spencer. If neither had ever written, Hitler could still have done what he wanted.

  8. Lucas Lucas

    “Man is born free, responsible and without excuses”
    Jean Paul Sartre

  9. Veronica Abbass Veronica Abbass

    Herbert Spencer, “was famous for [four] things:

    4. Not marrying George Eliot.

  10. TomS TomS

    Hitler appealed to anything he could [cherry ] pick to support his prior racialism … It really didn’t matter so long as he could turn it to the appearance of justification for what he was going to do anyway. Darwin was irrelevant. So was Spencer. If neither had ever written, Hitler could still have done what he wanted.

    And it appears that Darwin was not among those so used (I don’t know about Spencer) – whether Hitler was ignorant of Darwin, or he found Darwin useless. Why do later writers imagine such a use, when it would be irrelevant were it true, which it isn’t?

    • Snowflake Snowflake

      There is at least one justification for a “Darwinian” influence on National Socialism. During the first world war, an American diplomat recorded hearing some German industrialists arguing that Germany had to struggle to show it was a fit nation, using Darwin as justification. Of course, Darwin doesn’t treat natural selection as a national process, but he does talk about competition between civilisations and races. However, this is not a view that relies upon Darwin either. We can find similar arguments in the time of imperial expansion in Europe. Earlier, in the late nineteenth century, the Japanese also saw national struggle as a Darwinian process, but n competition with the West, not their neighbours.

      Hitler was ignorant of Darwin, and uses no term like “evolution” (and Entwicklung only in the sense of “development”) in Mein Kampf. His view of history is, if anything, a mishmash of Hegel and the scala naturae.

    • Lucas Lucas

      I guess it is clear that “man is the one that uses theories” and not the other way around. So each one of us are responsible of “that use”.
      Isn’t it like that?

  11. jeb jeb

    The Nazi party clearly put a range of subjects under its distorting lens in an attempt to make its madness seem reasonable. Archaeology and Ethnology were certainly used in this regard; that’s not to suggest that they are not credible subjects as a result. The scientific method is a victim of its own successes in this regard I think. People want there personal beliefs to be reasonable and the measure of humanity in regard to this activity in our own culture is science. But it’s a science reflected through the distorting lens of belief. Such inward processes are indeed what account for monsters, demons and other supernatural creatures.

    Acquiring reason is a slow and hard one processes and it can also be akin to a large bucket of cold water, it comes as a distinct shock. But it does wake you up at least although some sleepers may require more than one large bucket.

  12. As a supporter of the teaching of evolution in the public schools, I think you might be unwittingly throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Spencer was, if I remember correctly, opposed to public education. If my memory of reading him decades ago while attending a public university are accurate, his program would lead to strictly private education. Of course, that would lead to opening up science classes to creationism without even the veil of ID.

    Spencer was a pretty awful guy, his economic program is a lot like that of the most reactionary of Republicans in the United States. It’s always ironic to see how the ill informed programs of the new atheists come to the opposite of what a lot of them think they’re supporting.

    • John John

      I take your point, and I am not defending everything he ever said. In modern terms, he’d be an old fashioned liberal/conservative. It’s no mistake that the libertarians claim him. But he’s not a social Darwinian as that is usually understood, and the nineteenth century debates in Britain are rather nuanced. One could be against public education because that was still in the process of being debated, without being a bad guy. Spencer’s argument was, as I recall, that it would permit governments to control public debates.

      Like I said, he has human failings. But he’s not a demon.

  13. I’m not sure if I like this site or not. It creeps me out because my full legal name is “DeMon Spencer”. WTF?

  14. Zhongda Zhongda

    Well, this is a dead discussion, but I’ll write anyway as it might be googled.
    Chris Schoen wrote:

    “The point about the ethic of the investment house is that it is eminently “Social Darwinist” — that the rich deserve to get richer by virtue of being richer, even if (especially if) the wealth is gotten by duplicitous means.”

    Even if and especially if duplicitous means? You’re already decided upon Spencer before you even know what he was about. “He must be like this!” Well, he’s not. Spencer was a great opponent of imperialism and any other form of unjust acquisation of wealth. Stop making stuff up, please.

    And earlier:
    “where Spencer just wanted to put them in (privately funded, or even better, underfunded) poor houses.”

    Even better, underfunded poor houses?! Where do you take these accusations from? There’s no truth in that statement whatsoever! Stop slandering this man based on your prejudice.

    With that said. I’m not especially fond of Spencer. I am however, fond of intellectual integrity.

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