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Essay on Spencer’s Theory of Evolution

“Evolutionary Theory” or “The Laws of Evolution” is often regarded as the greatest contribution of the British sociologist Herbert Spencer to the realm of social thought. Spencer’s ideals have left an indelible impression on the succeeding writers.

It is true that his social theories have caused more controversy than those of any other writer in the sociological field. The controversies that his ideas created, of course, will not obscure the important role that he had played in enriching the field of social thought.

“Evolution” – The Most Exciting Concept of the 19th Century:

“Evolution” was one of the most exciting ideas of the 19th century. Its most influential spon­sor was the naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin developed the concept of “Evolution” in his “Origin of Species – 1859.” Spencer, the sociological giant of the second half of the 19th century, was enamoured by the idea of evolution. He applied the principle of evolution to the social world and called it “social evolution.” He saw social evolution as “a set of stages through which all the societies moved from simple to the complex and from the homogenous to the heterogeneous.”

Meaning of the Concept of “Evolution”:

The term “evolution” comes from the Latin word “evolvere” which means “to develop” or to “unfold.” It closely corresponds to the Sanskrit word “Vikas”. Evolution literally means gradual “unfolding” or “unrolling.” It indicates changes from “within” and not from “without”-, it is sponta­neous, but not automatic.

It must take place on its own accord. It implies continuous change that takes place especially in some structure. The concept applies more precisely to the internal growth of an organism.

Meaning of “Social Evolution”:

The term “evolution” is borrowed from biological science to sociology. The term “organic evolution” is replaced by “social evolution” in sociology. Whereas the term “organic evolution” is used to denote the evolution of organism, the expression “social evolution” is used to explain the evolution of human society. Here the term implies the evolution of man’s social relations. It was hoped that the theory of social evolution would explain the origin and development of man.

Anthropologists and sociologists wanted to find a satisfactory and significant explanation of how our society evolved. They wanted an explanation in this regard rather than a description.

They were impressed by the idea of organic evolution which could convincingly explain how one species evolves into another, and wanted to apply the same to the social world. Hence the concept of social evolution is quite popular m sociological discussion. It was Herbert Spencer who made the concepts of “evolution” and “social evolution “, the central concepts in his sociological theories.

Spencer’s Theory of Evolution:

As L.A. Coser has pointed out the “evolutionary principle” or “the law of evolution” consti­tutes the very basis of Spencerism. Spencerian interpretations relating to “evolution” could be di­vided into two parts: (A) General Theory of Evolution, and (B) Theory of Social Evolution. In his book “First Principles” -1862 we get his views about the first theory, and information and interpre­tations about the second theory, are available in his sociological treaties namely, “The Study of Sociology” and “The Principles of Sociology.”

A. General Theory of Evolution:

Spencer’s “Theory of Social Evolution” is grounded in his “General Theory of Evolution.” But the evolutionary perspective as such, Spencer borrowed from Charles Darwin’s “Theory of Organic Evolution “.

Spencer’s Concept of “Universal Evolution”:

Spencer made “evolution” a universal principle in his treatise “First Principles.” The fundamen­tal principle behind every phenomenon or every development whether it is physical or social in nature, there is the supreme law of evolution operating. The law of evolution, according to him, is the supreme law of every becoming.

According to Spencer, “evolution is a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity.”

For Spencer, this law of evolution was universal in character for it was applicable to the physical, organic and the social world. Spencer was of the opinion that this universal process of evolution would explain the “earliest change which the universe at large is supposed to have undergone “It also explains the law of evolution “as a master key to the riddles of the uni­verse.”

Three Basic Laws as Proposed by Spencer:

Within the framework of universal evolution, Spencer developed his “three basic laws” and his “four secondary propositions” – each building upon each and all upon the doctrine of evolution.

The Three Basic Laws:

1. Law of Persistence of Energy or Force:

There is a persistence of force in the world. There is the persistence of some sustaining energy in which all phenomena are rooted and upon which all phenomena rest. But this force or energy itself lies beyond our knowledge. This is a major, irreducible fact which we cannot explain, but which we are obliged simply to accept.

2. The Law of Indestructibility of Matter:

The basic elements of matter and energy in the world are neither created nor destroyed, but conserved. It means there is a basic “indestructibility” of the elements of matter.

3. The Law of Continuity of Motion:

There is a continuous motion in the world. All things continue in motion. As it is in the case of matter, motion also cannot be stopped or destroyed. When the form of the matter changes, motion also changes. Though energy passes from one form to another, it always persists, and never disappears nor does it get extinguished.

Four Secondary Propositions or Laws:

In relation to the evolutionary process, Spencer has mentioned four secondary propositions or laws in addition to the three basic laws. They are as follows.

(a) Uniformity of Law:

There is a persistence of certain relationship among the forces in the world. The world is an order of elements. Recurring manifestations of events in the natural world, the forces, elements of matter, and relations of motion existing among them have a definite regularity.

(b) Law of Transformation and Equivalence of Forces:

The force, the elements of matter, the motion, are never lost or dissipated entirely in a process of change. They are merely transformed into the manifestation of some other event or some other form of existence.

(c) The Law of Least Resistance and Great Attraction:

There is tendency of everything [all forces and elements] to move along the line of least resistance and of greatest attraction.

(d) The Principle of Alteration or Rhythm of Motion:

All phenomena in nature have their own particular rate and rhythm of movement, of duration and development. Force, matter and motion, each of these, has its appropriate pattern of transformation.

Evolutionary Theory – A Joint Product of the Seven Laws:

It is significant to note that Spencer derived from these basic propositions his “law of evolution.” According to Spencer, when we examine the nature of both order and change in any kind of phenomena in the world we find that the pattern of transformation is the same, and could be formulated in the following words.

“Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, during which the matter passes from relatively indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite coherent homogeneity.”

“According to Spencer, all the phenomena of nature, the stars and planetary systems, the earth and all terrestrial phenomena, biological organisms and the development of species and all the changing psychological and sociological process of human experience and behaviour – followed this pattern of change.

All process of change are similar, in that they emerge out of the physical stuff of the world…… in this condition of organised complexity; from a condition of indefiniteness to a condition of definiteness This was how Spencer made evolution a universally applicable system of analysis. Spencer thus made applicable the laws of evolution to analyse the development and evolution of the human society. It is in this context he gave birth to “the theory of social evolution.”

B. Social Evolution Theory:

Two of the main books written by Spencer namely, (i) “The Study of Sociology “, (ii) “The Principles of Sociology”, provide us more details about his “theory of social evolution.” Just as “the theory of organic evolution” analyses the birth, development, evolution and finally death of the organism, in the same manner “the theory of social evolution” analyses the genesis, development, evolution and finally the decay (?) of the society.

Spencer was of the opinion that the evolutionary principle could be applied to the human society for he treated human society as an organism. Both the organism and the society grow from simple to complex and from homogeneous to heterogeneous.

As Abraham and Morgan have pointed out “Spencer’s Theory of Evolution” involves two essential but interrelated trends or strains of thought:
  1. Change from simplicity to complexity or movement from simple society to various levels of compound societies; and
  2. Change from military society to industrial society.

1. Change from Simplicity to Complexity, or Movement from Simple Society to Various Levels of Compound Society:

As Spencer repeatedly argued all phenomena in all fields proceed from simplicity to complexity. Societies also undergo evolutionary stages of development. Spencer identified four types of societies in terms of stages of their evolutionary development – simple, compound, doubly compound and trebly compound.

(a) Simple Society:

This is the most primitive society without any complexities and consisting of several families.

(b) Compound Society:

A large number of above mentioned simple societies make a compound society. This is clan society.

(c) Doubly Compound Society:

These consist of several clans compounded into tribes or tribal society.

(d) Trebly Compound Society: 

Here the tribes are organised into nation states. This is the present form of the world.

The master trend in this process of universal evolution is the increased differentiation of social structures which leads inevitably to better integration and adaptation to environment.

2. Change from Military [Militant] Society to Industrial Society:

According to Spencer, evolution proceeds from military society to industrial society. The type of social structure depends on the relation of a society to other societies in its significant characteristics.
  • Thus while the military society is characterized by compulsory co-operation, industrial society is based on voluntary co-operation.
  • While the military society has a centralized government, the industrial society has a decen­tralised government.
  • Military society has economic autonomy whereas it is not found in industrial society.
  • There is the domination of the state over all other social organisations in the military society whereas in the industrial society the functions of the states are very much limited;

Some Observations Relating to Spencer’s “Theory of Social Evolution”:

1. Social Evolution is also as Rigid as Organic Evolution:

It can be said that Spencer had a belief in the unilinear evolution of mankind. It means “The mankind’s progress through stages of development is as rigidly determined as the evolution of individuals from childhood to maturity.”

“As between infancy and maturity there is no short cut so there is no way from the lower forms of social life to the higher, but one passing through small successive modification The process cannot be abridged and must be gone through with due patience” – Spencer wrote in his “Study of Sociology.”

2. Is Evolution Bound to Move Towards Progress?

It could be questioned whether Spencer believed that evolution, the law of becoming, was directed towards progress. Spencer had claimed that the ever-present process of evolution was inevitably leading towards progress. He believed that “man by nature was pre-destined to progress.”

Spencer in his earlier writings pictures the process of evolution as unremitting, unrelenting, and ever present. “The change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress of civilisation as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and it is still going on with increasing rapidity.”

Though Spencer very strongly asserted in the beginning that evolution is inevitably and unre­mittingly heading towards progress, the political developments that took place in England at the far end of the 19th century made him suspect the power of evolution to promise progress always. He felt that “Evolution is not endless progress…………. There is a limit to it after which disintegration and death take place. Moreover, disintegration is also gradual and involves a process of evolution in reverse. Evolution is thus cyclical in nature.

3. The Process of Equilibrium involved in Evolution:

According to Spencer, evolution is a process heading towards equilibrium. He wrote: “A social organism like an individual organism undergoes modifications until it comes into equilibrium with environing conditions; and thereupon continues without further change of structure”

The so called equilibrium will be established through what Darwin called “The struggle for existence.” Once the equilibrium is established societies will obtain greater freedom and peace. Since societies and institutions are subject to the “automatic process” of evolution they do not have the capacity to alter the conditions but will have to adjust to the conditions.

Critical Remarks

Comments in Appreciation:

  1. As Bogardus has pointed out, “Spencer emphasised the laws of evolution and natural causation. He described social evolution as a phase of natural evolution.
  2. Spencer has made the principles of evolution universal in character. It is indeed, a remarkable intellectual exercise.
  3. Spencer’s work inspired the British social thought to a great extent. “L.T. Hobhouse, G.C. Wheeler, and in later generation, Morris Ginsberg continued work in his general evolutionary tradition while rejecting his anti-reformist individualism. In America, W.G. Sumner……..may be said to have been a disciple of Spencer, Ward, Cooley, Veblen, Giddings, Ross, and Park, whether agreeing with his ideas or using them as a springboard for dissent, were all in Spencer’s debt.”
  4. According to Bogardus, “Spencer deserves credit, however, for developing the concept of social evolution as a phase of natural evolution and for stressing the idea of natural sequences in secretary matters.”
  5. Abraham and Morgan have rightly commented:”No one after Spencer ever matched either the sheer volume of sociological writing nor made more significant contributions to the science of human society.

Comments against Spencer’s Views:

  1. No modern sociologist subscribes to the “theory of social evolution” in its original form as put forward by Spencer. His attempt to equalise evolution with progress is totally rejected. But its modified form known as “Theory of Neo-Evolutionism” advocated by the anthropologists like, Leslie A. White, V. Gordon Childe and others, is getting some publicity in the anthropological circles.
  2. Bogardus is unhappy with Spencer’s theory of social evolution for it underestimates the importance of man. He writes: “The emphasis upon ‘man’ as a primary unit neglects the importance of the ‘group’ in the social evolutionary process. Moreover, Spencer underrated the intellectual nature of primitive man; he denied to early man the qualities involving exclusiveness of thought, imagination, and original ideas.”
  3. Spencer had spoken of uniformity in the process of evolution. He “did not realise that societies at the same stage of evolution do not necessarily possess identical politics, ethics, art and religion.”
  4. “While Spencer believed that social part exists for the social whole, today, society is believed to exist for the welfare of the individuals.

Related Article: Theory of Social Evolution

Source: Study of Social Thought by C. N. Shankar Rao
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