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Spencer's Theory of Evolution

"Evolutionary Theory" or "The Law of Evolution" is often regarded as the greatest contribution of the British Sociologist Herbert Spencer to the realm 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, 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 homogeneous 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.


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: 
  1. General Theory of Evolution 
  2. Theory of Social Evolution. 

1. 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.

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.

a) The Three Basic Laws:

  1. Law of Persistence of Energy or Force
  2. The Law of Indestructibility of Matter
  3. The Law of Continuity of Motion

b) 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.
  1. Uniformity of Law
  2. Law of Transformation and Equivalence of Forces
  3. The Law of Least Resistance and Great Attraction
  4. The Principle of Alteration or Rhythm of Motion
.

2. Social Evolution Theory:


Two of the main books written by Spencer namely, (i) "The Study of Sociology" and (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.

"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 societies:

As Spencer repeatedly argued all phenomena in all field proceeds from simplicity to complicity  Societies also undergo evolutionary stages of development. Spencer identified four types of societies in terms of stages of their evolutionary development. They are;
  • Simple society: This is the most primitive society, no complexities and consisting of several families.
  • Compound society: A large number of simple societies make a compound society. This is clan society.
  • Double compound society: These consist of several clans compounded into tribes and tribal societies.
  • Triply compound society: Here the tribes are organised into nation states. This is the present form of the world. 

2. Evolution proceeds from military 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. 

Military Society
Industrial Society
a) Characterized by compulsory corporation  
a) Characterized by voluntary corporation
b) Centralized government
b) Decentralized  government
c) Sate control all social organizations
c) State has very limited functions
d) There will be economic autonomy
d) No economic autonomy

Read Full Article Here: Essay on Spencer's Theory of Evolution

Related Article: Theory of Social Evolution


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