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Herbert Spencer was one of the leading sociologists of his time and was an influencer of the structural-functionalist perspective. Learn more about the man who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and understand the positive and negative aspects of social Darwinism.

Spencer and the Theory of Evolution

The idea of something changing naturally isn’t a new idea, but one that Charles Darwin explained with his theory of evolution. Herbert Spencer, an English sociologist, took Darwin’s theory and applied it to how societies change and evolve over time. As a sociologist, Spencer did not feel the need to correct or improve society, for he felt that societies were bound to change automatically.

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Societies can be compared to organisms in that both have three main systems
central nervous system. In societies, it would be a government that regulates everything.

The second system is the sustaining system. For animals, that’s the giving and receiving of nourishment. For societies, that would be industry – jobs, money, economy and those sorts of things. The third system would be the distribution system. In animals, that would be the veins and arteries.

In societies, it would be roads, transportation, internet – anything in which information and goods and services are exchanged.

Survival of the Fittest

It was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ due to the fact that he believed human behavior was designed in a way that strives for self-preservation. Darwin later used the term ‘survival of the fittest’ in his edition of Origins of the Species.

The theory of social Darwinism created the thinking of the ‘survival of the fittest’ as that the strongest and the fittest should survive and flourish in society, and the weak should be allowed to die out. This allowed Spencer to believe that the rich and powerful became so because they were better-suited to the social and economic climate of the time. He believed it was natural or normal that the strong survived at the cost of the weak.

Spencer believed that it was natural for the strong to survive at the cost of the weak
Survival of the Fittest

The negative side of believing in social Darwinism is a false concept that if something naturally happens then it is alright or good that humans do it as well. On the extreme side, this thinking is part of what led to the rise of the practice of eugenics with the Nazi party in Germany or the American eugenics movement of 1910-1930.

On the positive side, social Darwinism led to the creation of programs that allowed deserving participants to receive resources that would help them change their dire circumstances.

Structural-Functionalist Theorist

Spencer is one of the top three sociologists who influenced the thinking of the structural-functional perspective. This influence is placed right alongside those of Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, and Emile Durkheim.In helping to explain the structural-functional perspective, which simply believes that society is made up of various structures (or parts) and that each has a function (or a job) to perform, we see that when all the structures are performing their functions correctly, then society as a whole runs stable and smooth.Spencer equated this perspective to the human body: the body is made up of the structural parts like the skeleton, muscles and internal organs. Each of these structures serves a function, and the body runs smoothly if all functions are running correctly.However, have one structure not functioning correctly, and the body as a whole becomes affected.

When the structures of society perform correctly, society thrives
Structural-Functional Perspective

Spencer’s Life and Accomplishments

Spencer was a self-taught man of philosophy, religion, ethics, anthropology, psychology and sociology. He became a columnist for various journals who did not have any strong religious affiliations but radical political views.

His writings were translated into numerous languages around the world. By 1870, he was the most famous philosopher of his time. In 1902, he received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. Later in life, Spencer became more reserved and lived a rather lonely life. However, he has remained one of the most argumentative yet most discussed English thinkers of the Victorian era.

Lesson Summary

Spencer used Darwin’s theory of evolution to help explain that society was like a living organism in that it will evolve and change over time. He even coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ to explain how society was made up for the more powerful and strong to be in control and survive, while the weak would stay poor or even die.Spencer was a major contributor to the structural-functionalist perspective in that he believed that society is made up of various structures that each have a function to do. If all structures are functioning correctly, then society runs smoothly. However, if one structure is not functioning correctly, then society as a whole is not stable.

Herbert Spencer is known for his writing and as one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of his time.

Learning Outcome

At the end of the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain how Herbert Spencer applied the Theory of Evolution to society
  • Consider how survival of the fittest fits into society
  • Discuss the structural-functional perspective
  • Examine some of the accomplishments Spencer made in his lifetime

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