Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/May 1892/Herbert Spencer and the Synthetic Philosophy
|HERBERT SPENCER AND THE SYNTHETIC PHILOSOPHY.|||
By WILLIAM H. HUDSON.
ASSISTANT LIBRARIAN, CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
THE present paper aims at furnishing an introduction to the study of Mr. Spencer's philosophic system; but, to avoid all possibility of misconception, it may be well to state at the outset in what sense the word introduction is here employed. Let it be understood, then, that by it we mean neither an exposition nor a criticism; in other words, we do not now undertake either to summarize the arguments and conclusions of the Synthetic Philosophy, or to pass judgment upon them. Popular introductions to abstruse and voluminous works too often confine themselves to one or both of these methods; our course, on the other hand, will be a humbler, but, we may trust, not less useful one. Assuming that the student of any great epoch-making work will feel himself the better prepared to grapple with that work if he knows something of its genetic history — I mean, of its inception, formulation, and growth; and will be placed in a more advantageous position for judging of its essential merits if he understands its relation to the thought and speculation of the time, we purpose to approach Mr. Spencer's philosophy by way of its evolution; to consider, not what it is to-day, but rather how it came to be what it is to-day. In a brief outline of the gradual unfolding and consolidation of Mr. Spencer's thought, and in some appreciation of the historic significance of his writings, will, we believe, be found the best kind of introduction for those who would prepare themselves for the direct and personal study of his works. In the first place, then, we have to review the growth and solidification of Mr. Spencer's thought — in other words, the elaboration, as exhibited in his earlier writings, of that conception of evolution which was to find its definite expression in the majestic series of works of which the Synthetic Philosophy is composed. Let us begin by making ourselves acquainted with the starting-point of his mental development — that is, with the general theory of things which was current during his early years, and under the influence of which, in common with all his contemporaries, he grew to man's estate.
The period of Spencer's youth and ripening manhood was a period of transition in scientific and philosophic thought. On the ushering in of the present century the old cosmology still held sway with unabated vigor, along with all those time-worn dogmas concerning human life and destiny which had grown up with it during ages of ignorance and superstition, and with which its own existence was now inextricably bound up. What that cosmology and what those dogmas meant is a matter of such common history that we need not linger over them here. Suffice it to say that the unquestioned doctrines of special creation, fixed types, and a recent origin of the universe, lay at the bottom of them all, and that it was in the light of those doctrines that the world and life and man were one and all interpreted.
But before the century had got far upon its way, signs began to manifest themselves of an approaching change in the higher regions of thought. The special-creation hypothesis and the postulate of the world's recent origin and rapid manufacture had served well enough so long as their field had remained uninvaded by the results of investigation — so long as they had not been confronted with definite facts. In perfect keeping with the little that had been known of the universe in the darkness of the middle ages, they required that no jot or tittle should be added to that knowledge, to hold their place secure. But this could no longer be. The time came when investigation grew active, and definite facts — angular, awkward, unpleasant facts, which (after their reprehensible manner) were irreverent enough to refuse to fit into the most sacred and deeply cherished theory — began to accumulate with startling rapidity. The result was that the old conception of things began, little by little, to fall into disrepute, and the theological edifice of ages was shaken at its very foundations. Science showed, with a conclusiveness which remained untouched by all the special pleading with which her arguments and revelations were assailed, that the popular assumptions about the age of the world were absolutely untenable; that the commencement of life, and even of human life upon our globe, so far from taking us back only a few paltry thousands of years, lay countless millions of ages behind us; and that such vague vestiges of our race as have been handed down to us in sacred book and popular legend are as nothing compared with that tremendous mass of human experiences which will never find their historian. Worse than all, turning full upon the doctrine of special manufacture, she opened up the grand geologic record, and read thence, as from the pages of a mighty volume, the long, stupendous story of those vast cosmic changes which, through aeons of unreckoned time, have slowly molded and fashioned the world into the condition in which we find it to-day.
That these revelations were of the most vital interest to all thinking men needs hardly be said; nor is it necessary here to dwell on the feverish panic of the theologians, who hurried into the field with all their heavy artillery, prominent amid which was the great-gun argument, which had already done yeoman service on many another such occasion, that the very existence of Christianity was bound up with the story of creation as narrated in the first chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. What is here of moment is to notice the general effect of the new discoveries upon the scientific mind. That effect was at the outset almost entirely a negative one. The old theories had been destroyed, but as yet there was nothing to take their place; the theological interpretation of the world's history was seen to be absurdly insufficient and unreasonable, but for the time being no scientific interpretation in lieu thereof appeared to be forthcoming. Hence followed a kind of intellectual interregnum, during which everything was vague, shifting, tentative. Meanwhile, however, things were not by any means standing still. The unceasing activity of investigators in the special sciences resulted in vast accumulations of well-established facts, and thus yielded the materials in the absence of which nothing of real or permanent value could have been accomplished. And at the same time (largely, indeed, as a consequence of this extension upon all sides of the scientific domain) there was ever growing and deepening a conception of unbroken causation in cosmic changes, of the universality of law, and the unity of Nature and of natural processes — a conception in no small degree led up to by such discoveries as those of the undulatory theory of light and heat, and of the correlation of all the forces known to exact science. Thus, in spite of the temporary suspense and hesitation, no time was being lost. As we can now see, the way was being slowly prepared for a great scientific generalization — a generalization which, overthrowing all the old positions once and for all, was in the sequel to alter absolutely and fundamentally the whole trend and current of thought, not only as regards the outer organic world and the phenomena presented by it, but as regards also the countless practical problems in life and society, in morality and religion, which are forever pressing on as for solution.
Such, in the briefest possible summary, was the general intellectual character of the period at which Mr. Spencer began the labors of his life. Even the sketch just given, crude and imperfect as it necessarily is, will help us to understand the growth of his own ideas, and their relation to the changing thought of the day.
During the year 1842 Spencer, then in his twenty-second year, had contributed to a weekly newspaper, called The Nonconformist, a series of letters which were afterward republished in pamphlet form under the title of The Proper Sphere of Government. With the political doctrines of this production we have here no special concern, though it may be worth while to mention that the keynote is there struck of that famous doctrine of governmental non-interference, since so fully worked out and so frequently insisted on by the author. The pamphlet is significant for us from quite another point of view. In the attempt which is made in it to establish the nature, scope, and limits — that is, the fundamental principles — of civil government, there is everywhere implied a belief in the ultimate dependence of social organization upon natural causes and natural laws. In other words, society is from first to last regarded, not as a manufacture but as a growth — a view which, it maybe remarked incidentally, though familiar enough in our own day, at all events in its theoretic aspects, was then little known, even as a matter of mere speculation. Throughout the entire argument there run the conceptions of gradual changes naturally necessitated, and of the possibility of a better and better adjustment of man, physically, intellectually, and morally, to the needs imposed by the conditions of social life. As Mr. Spencer himself wrote, many years later, "In these letters will be found, along with many crude ideas," a "belief in the conformity of social phenomena to invariable laws," and "in human progression as determined by such laws." All this revealed, even at so early a stage of mental growth, a marked tendency to regard the complicated and entangled phenomena of society from a strictly scientific point of view — as phenomena exhibiting relations of cause and effect, and thus to be included in the realm of natural law. But it meant something more than this. The distinct and conscious acceptance of the doctrine that society is a thing, not artificially pieced together, but of slow and natural growth, implied dissatisfaction with, the current ideas of progress as an irregular and fortuitous process, and bore testimony to at least a vague germinal belief in a social development or evolution.
The momentous questions thus raised and briefly dealt with by Mr. Spencer in this youthful production came in for more thorough and extended treatment a few years later in his first considerable work, Social Statics, which was published in 1850, when the author was just thirty years of age. The conception of this work had entered his mind not long after the appearance of the just-mentioned pamphlet; for, owing to the rapid growth and expansion of his ideas at the time, Spencer soon became aware of the inadequacy of his handling of the various problems there opened up. "The writing of Social Statics," he has since said, "arose from a dissatisfaction with the basis on which the doctrines set forth in those letters were placed." Even the briefest comparison of the earlier and later books is sufficient to show the enormous strides which his mind had taken during the seven critical years which divide them one from the other. In Social Statics almost everything is made to turn upon the doctrine — previously hardly more than hinted at — that from the very beginning of social life down to the present time there has been going on, and that there still is going on, a process of slow but none the less certain adjustment of the natures of men to society, and of the social organization to the natures of its constituent units: this adjustment being the result of a perpetual interaction between units and aggregate which ever tends to bring them into more perfect adaptation the one to the other. Such adaptation, it is further shown, is produced by the direct action of circumstances upon the natures of men, and by the preservation and accumulation by inheritance from generation to generation of the modifications thus initiated; though another process comes in for passing recognition — the process of the dying out of those individuals who fail to adapt themselves to the changing conditions of their environment: which process may be conversely stated as the survival of those only who so far change as to fit themselves to the necessities imposed upon them by the totality of their surroundings. Here, it will be seen, is a faint and partial adumbration of the doctrine of the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. Moreover, another important point is emphasized — the point that all our social evils and imperfections are due to want of complete adjustment between men and the conditions of social life — are, indeed, nothing more than the temporary jarring and wrenching of a machine the parts of which are not yet brought into thorough working order. Yet, as the process of adaptation is still continuing, and is in the nature of things tending ever to produce between units and aggregate a state of more perfect equilibrium, the inevitable if optimistic corollary is, that the evil which we deplore will in the end work itself out altogether, and that eventually all friction will entirely disappear: a prophecy which seems to point to a realization of the gorgeous dreams of speculators like Godwin and Condorcet, far as the arguments upon which it is based are seen to differ from their own. Finally, all these special changes in man and in society are regarded as phases only of a process of universal development or unfolding, which is everywhere conducing, in obedience to an inherent metaphysical tendency, to the production in man, as throughout the whole of the animate creation, of more complete individuation and higher and higher types.
We thus see that, unlike Darwin and Wallace, Mr. Spencer approached the question of general evolution not from the organic but from the super-organic point of view — by the way of ethical and sociological investigations. His first conception of development was in the limited shape of progress — of development, that is, of man individually and in society. But Mr. Spencer's was not the mind to rest content with these vague and partial glimpses of a stupendous truth. Before long he began to work his way round through researches of quite a different character, toward the affiliation of these special and disjointed facts and inferences upon other facts and inferences of wider sweep and meaning.
His labors upon Social Statics had led him up to a realization of the important truth that beneath all the much-debated questions of morality and society lay the fundamental doctrines of biology and psychology; and that any really scientific or efficient treatment of man as a moral being or social unit must depend upon a thorough study of the problems of life and mind. Full of these ideas he turned with increased enthusiasm to biological and psychological studies, and to the prosecution of various lines of research in connection with these two subjects a large part, though by no means the whole, of his energies was for some time devoted.
The ten years which followed — the years between 1850 and 1860 (it is well to notice the dates, because, as we shall presently see, they have their own importance) — were years of great activity — an activity to be measured not so much by their productiveness, though that was sufficiently remarkable, as by the amazing growth and organization of ideas which took place in them. During this period some twenty-five exhaustive articles from Spencer's pen were published in the leading organs of liberal thought; and in these articles, if we take them in the order of their appearance, we can trace a gradual closing in from all sides, as it were, upon the great generalizations which were by and by to fall into their places as integral parts of a coherent system of thought. As a matter of fact, these years may be regarded, from the point of view of subsequent achievement, as years of special and methodical training; and these essays, diverse as they are in form and matter, as separate and tentative contributions toward the treatment of various isolated phenomena which were ultimately to be taken up in their interrelations and dealt with in the mass. It would be impossible here to subject these essays one by one to anything like close analysis, even if it would materially further our present purpose to do so. But a few words must be devoted to their general drift and character; and, should one or two of them be made the subjects of special mention, it will not be because these are to be considered the most important in themselves, but simply because they are the most important for the object which at the moment I have in view.
Probably the points which would most strike any one reading these essays casually and for the first time would be their strong grasp upon deep-lying principles, and their extraordinary originality. On every page they reveal, be the subject what it may, an astonishing independence of thought, and an absolute freedom from all trace of traditional methods and ideas. It was this freshness of treatment and firmness of touch which perhaps most attracted the attention of thoughtful readers when they were first published — for the most part anonymously — in the pages of the various English magazines and reviews. But, turning back to them to-day and regarding them in their mutual relations (as we are able to do now that they have long since been available in a collected and permanent form), we are impressed by something beyond the depth, clearness, and vigor of mind to which they everywhere bear witness. And that something is the essential unity of their thought, the oneness of idea which is throughout seen to underlie and inform the extraordinary diversity of materials with which they deal. It matters not whether the author is concerned with the moot questions of physiology and psychology; or with the intrinsic principles of a correct literary style; or with the changes of the sidereal system; or with ill-timed and hasty political panaceas; or with curiosities of social manners and behavior: all these subjects are systematically approached from one point of view; all are made to cluster about and find interpretation in one dominant hypothesis. And what is this hypothesis? What is this great cardinal doctrine which is thus made to weld together subjects so diverse and even so incongruous that on any merely superficial examination they would never be supposed to possess anything in common? It need hardly be said that it is the doctrine of development or evolution — a doctrine which manifests itself in every essay with continually increasing distinctness, and which is thus shown to be taking year after year a stronger and stronger hold upon the author's mind and a deeper and deeper place in all his speculations.
As early as the year 1852 he had published in a periodical entitled The Leader a short but pithy paper on the Development Hypothesis, which was afterward referred to by Darwin, in the historical sketch prefixed to the Origin of Species, as presenting the general argument for the developmental as against the special-creation interpretation of the universe with remarkable cogency and skill. But, while reasons were here briefly but clearly stated for a belief in the gradual development of all organisms, not excluding man, it must be remembered that the essay does not contain any indication of factors adequate to the production of the alleged effects. One process only is recognized — the process of direct modification by the conditions of life; and, as with this process alone it is obviously impossible to account for all the facts of organic creation, the way was left open to the uniformitarians to make good a temporary escape.
But this noteworthy little paper, though it contained a kind of systematized confession of faith, was only, after all, a starting-point for a long and thorough investigation of various aspects of the subject with which it dealt. Its leading ideas, as I have said, came little by little to suffuse all his work, and in the years which followed they underwent consolidation and reached an expression at once more definite and more complete. Was it a question of deducing a theory of population from the general law of animal fertility? Then we find distinct recognition of an advance from lower to higher brought about by excessive reproduction and the continual pressure of rapidly multiplying organisms upon the slowly increasing means of support (a statement in regard to which we shall have a word to say further on). Did the discussion turn upon the elaboration on a scientific basis of a true philosophy of style? Then, along with the application to the special phenomena of expression of the general law of "the line of least resistance," there is further reached the generalization — set down as applying to all products both of man and of Nature — of those two fundamental processes of evolution — the process of differentiation and the process of integration; since it is shown that a highly developed style "will be, not a series of like parts simply in juxtaposition, but one whole made up of unlike parts that are mutually dependent." Are the right and wrong objects and methods of education brought up for consideration? Then the answer given is firmly established upon the doctrine of a gradual unfolding of the mental faculties in obedience to natural law, the unfolding taking the form of a double-sided change from the simple to the complex, and from the indefinite to the definite. So is it with all other subjects whatsoever. In the essay on Manners and Fashions, for example, emphasis is laid upon the truths that the various forms of restraint exercised by society as an aggregate over its individual members — such restraints being now clearly differentiated into ecclesiastical, political, and ceremonial — are all natural developments from one primordial form, and that the divergence of one from the other and of all from such primordial form takes place "in conformity with the laws of evolution of all organized bodies."
And once again a similar line of argument is followed out in the extremely attractive articles on the Genesis of Science and The Origin and Function of Music. Finally, in the elaborate essay on Progress: its Law and Cause, evolutionary principles are enunciated with the utmost distinctness. The law of progress is shown to consist in the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous (a partial statement afterward completed by the addition of a factor for the time being overlooked); and this process is illustrated by examples taken from all orders of phenomena, while the cause of the transformation is found in the law of the multiplication of effects, afterward brought out more fully in First Principles. In this essay, too, as in that on the Development Hypothesis, the general law of evolution is presented as holding good in the production of species and varieties, though here again direct adaptation to the conditions of existence is the only factor recognized as playing a part in the stupendous drama of unfolding life.
I have said enough, I think, to show how active was the period with which we have just been dealing — active alike in original production and in the absorption of fresh material and the organization of new ideas. But the enumeration of these five-and-twenty essays does not exhaust the record of Spencer's labors during this time. His studies in psychology, of which the essays on The Universal Postulate (1853) and The Art of Education (1854) were the immediate results, took more systematic form about the date of the publication of the latter paper; and in 1855 the first edition of his Principles of Psychology made its appearance. As this work was subsequently included as a portion of the two volumes on the Principles of Psychology in the synthetic system, any analysis of its contents does not fall within the scope of the present paper. Two remarks may, however, be appropriately made in the present oonnection ere we pass on. In the first place, it is well that we should remind ourselves how enormously this book was in advance of the whole thought of the time — not the common thought only, but the cultivated thought as well. It was in the fullest sense of the term an epoch-making book — epoch-making because it placed the study of mind, theretofore in the hands of the metaphysicians as sterile a subject as it had proved in the days of mediæval scholasticism, upon an entirely new and promisingly fertile basis. Hitherto, mental philosophy had concerned itself only with the facts of adult human consciousness. Spencer, realizing as we are now all able to realize, how little could ever be accomplished by this time-worn and superficial method, broke away from all the traditions of the schools, and started out on an original investigation of the phenomena of mind, in the wide sweep of which he took in not only the mental growth of children and savages, but also the phenomena of intelligence as displayed by the whole range of the animate world down to the lowest creatures. To quote his own words, "Life in its multitudinous and infinitely varied embodiments has arisen out of the lowest and simplest beginnings by steps as gradual as those which evolved an homogeneous germ into a complete organism."
Starting from this conception, the author proceeds to treat of the whole subject of intelligence and its forms of manifestation from an evolutionary point of view; the Principles having "for their object the establishment by a double process of analysis and of synthesis, the unity of composition of the phenomena of mind, and the continuity of their development." My second remark is purely a personal one, yet one which has its interest and importance — though these are of a somewhat melancholy character — in any account of Mr. Spencer's earlier writings. It was in consequence of overwork while producing the volume now referred to, that Mr. Spencer suffered a nervous breakdown which completely incapacitated him for a period of eighteen months, and which, even after his general recovery, left him stranded in that condition of partial and varying invalidism in which he has continued from that day to this, and under the burden of which all subsequent great work has been done.
It is not, I think, needful to pause, after even such a rapid summary of the activities of these ten momentous years, to say anything about the extraordinary perversion of judgment which has led critics from whom, having regard to their positions and general culture, something better was to have been expected, to treat these writings as "stock-writings," and to refer to their author as having "the weakness of omniscience" and a desire to discourse on a great diversity of subjects, from the nebular hypothesis to music and dancing. We are now, I believe, in a fair position to realize how much, or rather how little, these curiosities of oracular criticism are really worth. So far from Mr. Spencer's various essays during this epoch being merely examples of flippant journalistic versatility (as such remarks as we have spoken of would imply), we have seen how they are all united and held together by that thread of common principle and common purpose which runs through them all. Random and unrelated as they may appear to superficial or careless readers, they may, broadly speaking, be regarded as separate and methodical studies in preparation for a complete working out in general and in detail of the doctrine of universal evolution.
And now, why have I devoted so large a portion of the present paper to the consideration and analysis of these earlier, more miscellaneous, and, as it might seem, less important of Mr. Spencer's writings? Passing over the fact that in the merest sketch of the growth and development of such a mind as his we are presented with a study of which it would not be easy to overrate either the interest or the value, I may say that I had hopes of achieving two objects by following the present course. In the first place, by thus making ourselves to some extent acquainted with the progression and consolidation of Spencer's thought, we have, I think, very materially aided in fitting ourselves for the study of those ideas in the full and highly developed forms in which they appear in the pages of the Synthetic Philosophy; and, in the second place, it is by traveling together over this preparatory ground, as we have done, that we have been enabled to reach a vantage-point from which I trust it will now be easy for us to take such a survey of the general field as will help us to estimate with some degree of accuracy the real relation of Herbert Spencer to the great modern doctrine of evolution.
And this is a question upon which I would fain make myself particularly clear, because it is one in reference to which there has long been and still is current an enormous amount of misconception, not only among the mass of men and women (which would be only natural), but also, and as it seems a little strangely, among even the thoughtful and generally well informed. A vagueness and instability in the meaning of certain words in common use has been in this case, as in so many others, a main cause of confusion of ideas; another instance being thus furnished of the truth of Lord Bacon's dictum that, while we fondly suppose that we govern our vocabulary, it not infrequently happens that, as a matter of fact, our vocabulary governs us. In the common speech of the day the word Darwinism is almost invariably employed as if it were absolutely synonymous with the word evolution: the one is treated as being at all points not only coextensive but also cointensive with the other. Two noteworthy results of this indiscrimination are: first, that Darwin is habitually regarded as the author of the modern doctrine of evolution at large; and, secondly, that this doctrine has, ever since the publication of his great work on the Origin of Species, become so intimately bound up with the special views therein contained, that by the correctness or incorrectness of those special views the whole theory of evolution is supposed to stand or fall.
That this confusion, like all such confusions, has been fraught with many and varied philosophic drawbacks and dangers is a point which we need not here pause to emphasize; such drawbacks and dangers must be sufficiently patent to all. Here we are principally concerned with the entirely unjust and erroneous estimate of the historical significance of Mr. Spencer's work, and consequently of the relations of Mr. Spencer himself to the greatest of modern generalizations, which originated from or which at least has been largely kept alive by the misconception of which I speak.
To what extent this unjust and erroneous estimate has taken root, even in more cultivated thought, may be shown briefly and conclusively by one or two quotations. For example, we find the London Saturday Review remarking, in the course of an article on Prof. Tyndall's famous Belfast address, that "what Darwin has done for physiology[!] Spencer would do for psychology, by applying to the nervous system particularly the principles which his teacher had already enunciated for the physical system generally." In much the same strain, and obviously under the same impression that Mr. Spencer's ideas were all obtained at second hand, a gentleman whom we are sorry to detect in such carelessness — Colonel Higginson — writes, "It seems rather absurd to attribute to him [Spencer] as a scientific achievement any vast enlargement or further generalization of the modern scientific doctrine of evolution." Once more, sketching out the college life of his friend, the late lamented Prof. Clifford, with whose untimely death so many brilliant promises came to naught, Mr. Frederick Pollock says, "Meanwhile, he [Clifford] was eagerly assimilating the ideas which had become established as an assured possession of science by Mr. Darwin, and were being applied to the systematic grouping and gathering together of human knowledge by Mr. Herbert Spencer." And, finally (not to weary by needlessly multiplying quotations), a man whose name is of infinitely greater weight in the world of philosophy and of letters than that of the pert critic of the Saturday Review, or the gallant American colonel, or the well-known English lawyer — a man from whom, on account of his own contributions to the study of psychology and of his wide and deep knowledge of England and English thought, a more correct judgment might have been looked for — I mean M. Taine — has thus summed up his view of Mr. Spencer's work: "Mr. Spencer possesses the rare merit of having extended to the sum of phenomena — to the whole history of Nature and of mind — the two master-thoughts which for the past thirty years have been giving new form to the positive sciences; the one being Mayer and Joule's Conservation of Energy, the other Darwin's Natural Selection."
Now, all this, to the extent to which expressly or by implication it relegates to Mr. Spencer merely the labors of an adapter, enlarger, or popularizer of other men's thoughts, is entirely false and unfounded — ludicrously false and unfounded, as the general survey of Mr. Spencer's writings which we have just taken shows beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt. So far from its seeming "rather absurd" to credit to Mr. Spencer any great personal contribution to the formulation of the doctrine of evolution; so far from his being in any sense of the term a pupil or unattached follower of Darwin, we have seen that he had worked his own way independently, from a different starting-point and through an entirely dissimilar course of investigation, to a conception of evolution as a universal process underlying all phenomena whatsoever, before Darwin himself had made public his special study of the operation of one of the factors of evolution in the limited sphere of the organic world. A simple comparison of dates will serve to make this point sufficiently clear. The first edition of the Origin of Species was published in the latter part of 1859. The essay on the Development Hypothesis appeared in 1852; in 1855 — or four years before the advent of Darwin's book — there came the first edition of the Principles of Psychology, in which the laws of evolution (already conceived as universal) were traced out in their operations in the domain of mind; and this was followed in 1857 by the essay on Progress: its Law and Cause, which contains a statement of the doctrine of evolution in its chief outlines, and an inductive and deductive development of that doctrine in its application to all classes of phenomena. Spencer's independence of Darwin is thus placed beyond possibility of question.
Let it not for a moment be imagined that I am endeavoring in the slightest degree to underestimate the special value or importance of Darwin's magnificent work. Yielding him the fullest meed of praise for the great part which he undoubtedly played in the development of scientific thought, I am aiming only to show, as can so easily be shown, and as simple justice requires to be shown, that it is altogether an exaggeration to speak of him as the father of the modern doctrine of evolution. What Darwin did was to amass an enormous number of facts from almost every department of biological science, and by the devoted labor, patient examination, and long-searching thought of many studious years, to establish, once and for all, not the reality of evolution, nor even the laws and conditions of evolution, but the operation of one of the main factors of evolution — a factor which, though it had till his time entirely eluded the scientific mind, was yet required to render comprehensible a vast array of phenomena otherwise without interpretation. How near Mr. Spencer's own investigations had led him to a realization of the process of natural selection, or, as he afterward called it, the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, we have already been able to remark, and he himself took occasion to point out, when in the course of his later work he came to deal more systematically with the whole problem of animal fertility and its practical implications. But the factors mainly relied upon by him, in common with all pre-Darwinian developmentalists, were the direct action of the environment and the inheritance, with increase, of functionally-produced modifications; and as these processes, whatever might be their individual importance (and this is probably somewhat underrated by scientists of the present day), were obviously incapable of throwing light upon a large part — perhaps the larger part — of the facts which pressed for explanation, the theory of evolution could not for the time being hope for inductive establishment. Darwin's book put the whole question upon a new foundation, by exhibiting a process which did account for the hitherto unmanageable facts; and undoubtedly it was thus to a large extent effectual in bringing the general theory into open court as an entertainable hypothesis. But while all this is freely conceded — while the greatness of Darwin's work in itself, and its importance as a contribution to scientific thought, are acknowledged without hesitation, it has still to be remembered that that work was special and limited in character, and that with the general doctrine of evolution at large it had itself nothing whatever to do. The laws of evolution as a universal process — a matter which the aims and objects of Darwin's work did not lead him to touch were worked out by Mr. Spencer quite irrespective of the special process of natural selection; and when Darwin's book appeared, that process fell into its place in Spencer's general system, quite naturally, as a supplementary and not in any way as a disturbing element. Thus it appears that if any one man is to be looked upon as the immediate progenitor of a doctrine which, in common phraseology, may be said to have been to some extent in the air, that man is not he who first elucidated one factor of its process in one domain of phenomena — the biological; but rather he who first seized upon it as a universal law, underlying all the phenomena of creation; in a word, it is not Charles Darwin, but Herbert Spencer.
One word only, in conclusion, about the train of causes which immediately led up to the projection of the vast work with which Mr. Spencer's name is more particularly associated — the System of Synthetic Philosophy.
It was in 1858, while he was engaged on writing an essay on the Nebular Hypothesis, that there dawned upon him the possibility of dealing in a more systematic and connected manner than he had hitherto found possible, with those foundation principles of evolution to which he had been led by the miscellaneous studies of the past eight or nine years. The germ of thought thus implanted forthwith began to develop with amazing rapidity, and before long assumed the proportions of an elaborate scheme, in which all orders of concrete phenomena were to fall into their places as illustrations of the fundamental processes of evolution. Thus the conception of evolution presented itself to him as the basis of a system of thought under which was to be generalized the complete history of the knowable universe, and by virtue of which all branches of scientific knowledge were to be unified by affiliation upon the primal laws underlying them all. Though a rough sketch of the main outlines of the system, as they occurred to him at the time, was mapped out almost immediately, it was not till the following year, 1859 — a year otherwise memorable for the publication of Darwin's book — that a detailed plan of the various connected works in which these conceptions were to be developed was finally drawn up; and not till 1860 that it was given to the small handful of readers interested in such subjects in the form of a prospectus. This prospectus included a brief summary of a proposed series of ten volumes, embracing thirty-three divisions or topics; and any one who cares to take the trouble of comparing it, as it stood when it first saw the light, thirty years ago, with the contents of the different volumes and portions of volumes which have been published up to the present time, will, I think, be astounded to observe the singular correspondence between them — a correspondence which shows how fully and accurately Spencer himself must have had the whole vast plan marked out in his mind down to the veriest details, before he sat down to commit himself to the pinning of a single line.
And here, having followed Mr. Spencer to the verge of the great undertaking to the prosecution of which he has devoted the energies of his after-life, we draw our paper to a close; our present purpose not embracing any direct consideration of that undertaking in itself. The hope which we have ventured to entertain is, that even such a rapid review as we have thus taken of the earlier period of Mr. Spencer's intellectual activity may prove to be not altogether without its uses to the earnest student of that wonderful series of works which, by the common consent of all those most entitled to judge, have won for their author a foremost place long the greatest thinkers of all time.
- Read before the Unity Club, Ithaca, New York.
- How fierce and obstinate was the opposition offered to the doctrine of evolution from this standpoint, we of the present day find it no easy matter to imagine. Even such a man as Hugh Miller went so far as to declare that acceptance of evolution meant nullification of the central truths of Christianity.
- Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte.
- Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte.
- The Philosophy of Style. First published in the Westminster Review, October, 1852.
- This additional factor being increase in definiteness. A change must consist in increasing heterogeneity and increasing definiteness, to constitute evolution.
- Th. Ribot, English Psychology, p. 148. London, 1873.
- There has perhaps never been so original a thinker as Mr. Spencer who has had such a hard struggle to get or keep possession of the credit due to his own ideas. Not only is he thus reduced to the position of a mere aide-de-camp of Darwin, but manv of his critics are never weary in insisting, spite of all disproof of their assertions, upon his vital indebtedness to Auguste Comte.
- See Principles of Biology, vol. ii, p. 500, note. The whole of this very interesting note should be studied carefully, not only because it makes clear the scientific relations of Spencer and Darwin, but also for the foreshadowing which it contains of a reaction against that exclusive recognition of natural selection which soon became typical of biological students at large. In his little work, recently published, on The Factors of Organic Evolution, Mr. Spencer has opened the whole question up afresh, by showing that, to obtain a full view of the methods of evolution, other processes besides natural selection have to be taken into account.