The father of social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was an enormously influential English philosopher and agnostic of the Victorian era who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Dubbed ‘the philosopher of the Evolution movement’,1 he published a theory of evolution seven years before Darwin. After reading the Origin, he became the first to apply Darwinian principles rigorously to society, a concept now known as Social Darwinism.

Early life and education

Born in Derby, England, in 1820, Herbert was a sickly child and the only one of nine siblings to survive infancy. His education included several years of home-schooling by his school-teacher father, George, who “sought to stimulate individuality rather than to inform”.2 He also implanted strong anti-establishment and anti-clerical views in his son.

As a teenager, Herbert lived with his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, who offered to send him to Cambridge University. However, Herbert declined this, so his relatively restricted higher education mostly resulted from his own reading. He absorbed the evolutionary concepts of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather3) and Lamarck, and at age 20, Lyell’s long-age geology. Along the way he acquired an opposition to discipline and authority, especially political and religious.

Influence that led to agnosticism

Herbert’s father taught his son by constantly asking him, “Can you tell me the cause of this?” In his Autobiography, Herbert says this established his belief that everything could be explained by natural causes and nothing by the supernatural. He wrote: “I do not remember my father ever referring to anything as explicable by supernatural agency.”4

At age 26, in a letter to his father, Herbert wrote: “An uncaused Deity is just as inconceivable as an uncaused Universe. If the existence of matter from all eternity is incomprehensible, the creation of matter out of nothing is equally incomprehensible. Thus finding that either attempt to conceive the origin of things is futile, I am content to leave the question unsettled as the insoluble mystery.5,6


In the late 1830s, Herbert worked as a civil engineer during the railway boom, and spent his spare time writing articles for various politically radical journals. As writer and then subeditor for The Economist financial weekly, he came into contact with the female novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans), with whom he had a lengthy, though apparently purely intellectual, association. Other friends included the liberal socialist John Stuart Mill, and Darwin’s ‘Bulldog’, Thomas H. Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’ to describe views like Spencer’s above (and his own).7….

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