The Complicated Legacy of Herbert Spencer, the Man Who Coined ‘Survival of the Fittest’

Spencer’s ideas laid the groundwork for social Darwinism, but scholars say there was much more to the Victorian Age thinker than that

Dan Falk | Smithonian Magazine

Herbert Spencer introduced the phrase „survival of the fittest“ in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology. (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images and public domain)

Victorian England had its fair share of great minds. Some, like Charles Darwin, changed the way we think about the world, while many more have faded into obscurity—along with their ideas. Teetering on the boundary is Herbert Spencer, born 200 years ago this week.

Spencer’s first writings on evolution came in 1851, eight years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. And it was Spencer, not Darwin, who gave us the phrase “survival of the fittest,” though Darwin would later use it in his writing. Spencer introduced the phrase in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology, where he saw parallels between his conservative ideas about economics and what Darwin had written about the natural world: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.”

“For a brief period, for a couple of decades at the end of the 19th century, he was world-famous,” says Bernard Lightman, a historian of science at York University in Toronto.

Like his more famous contemporary, Spencer was enamored with the idea of evolution. But where Darwin focused on biology, Spencer imagined that evolutionary thinking could be applied much more broadly. In his mind, it governed entire societies. Today, when Spencer is remembered at all, it is usually for inspiring the ideology known as “social Darwinism”: roughly, the idea that the successful deserve their success while those who fail deserve their failure.

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