More than Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer popularized evolutionism in the second half of the nineteenth century (Peel 1971). A whole Victorian world view seems to have precipitated in his Synthetic Philosophy together with personal idiosyncrasies and some mistakes. Consequently the popularity of his explanatory system seems to simply have ceased along with the Victorian era. It may therefore be helpful to think of Spencer as one of the first popular science writers assimilating ideas from his environment and integrating them into his writings. From this assessment of Spencer's role, it would be futile to delve into debates about priority questions.

If Spencer is still referred to at all, this is usually done with one of a few purposes. Sociologists seem to be the most benign citing Spencer as one of the founders of their science even crediting him with some achievements (e.g., Peel 1971; Turner 1985). Biologists rather take the learning-from-mistakes approach, though this often remains no more than straw man beating (e.g., Mayr 1982). Philosophers of science seem to be in the habit of taking Spencer or any other historical figure in order to illustrate concepts such as externalism (Godfrey-Smith 1996), progressionism (Ruse 1996), or any other '-ism'. While scholars of other disciplines (e.g., Oldroyd 1983; Runciman 1989; Taylor 1992; Offer 1999; Rowlandson 2000; Werhane 2000) cultivate yet other attitudes, my approach differs in being more like that of a literary critic trying to come up with an apt metaphor that will put an image of the whole story before the reader's mind.

Ideally, this image can be used as a reading tool or compass for navigating through the vast opus of Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy. I hope this will be useful to students of any discipline interested in Spencer for whatever reason. Apt metaphors are not unusual in communicating the central messages of scientific writings. Recent examples are The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976), Gaia (Lovelock 1988), or The Red Queen (Ridley 1993). While Spencer used all sorts of metaphors, he provided none for his own explanatory system. Nevertheless, his pattern of thought seems to have impressed itself on all his writings and can still be recovered. Without metaphor, Kingsland (1990) has stressed many of the same points as I will in the following.

The metaphor for Herbert Spencer's explanatory system


Fig. 1: A mobile of balances of forces each in moving equilibrium as a metaphor (illustration) for the structure of Spencer's explanatory system.

Spencer's explanatory system is organized like an ornamental mobile of dynamic balances. At each level some Ying and Yang like forces are in a moving equilibrium (Spencer's moving equilibrium concept will be detailed below). The primary Ying and Yang forces in First Principles (Spencer 1900) are evolution and dissolution, while the balances of forces of all other parts 'dangle' from the evolution side of this top level balance (fig. 1).

According to Spencer, 'Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity' (Spencer, 1900, pt 2, ch 17, § 145, p. 367), while dissolution is the reverse process (disintegration of matter with concomitant absorption of motion, etc.). A notorious parody on the 'law of evolution'', as Spencer called it, has been coined by a mathematician and preserved in an appendix: 'Evolution is a change from nohowish, untalkaboutable, all-alikeness, to a somehowish and in-general-talkaboutable not-all-alikeness, by continuous somethingelseifications, and sticktogetherations.' (Kirkman quoted in Spencer 1900, appendix B, p. 519).

Spencer's explanatory system is also structured like a hologram, where each part reflects the whole, albeit from a different perspective. The entire Synthetic Philosophy comprises ten volumes coming in even more books that are all 'thicker and squarer than Gibbon's, each bound in a cloth which has acquired with age a reptilian colour and texture, so putting one in mind some great extinct monster of philosophic learning' (Medawar 1967, p. 39). This suggest that many more details can be found and the above given image -- a holographic mobile of dynamic balances of forces -- is a bare skeleton.

Evidence for the validity of the proposed metaphor

Nowadays, Spencer seems to be most famous not only for having popularized the idea of evolution through survival of the fittest, but also for having made it into a universal world view (e.g., Ruse 1996). This begs the question how Spencer managed to describe phenomena such as the 'evolution' of our solar system in terms of the survival of the fittest? In fact, he did the opposite by reformulated organic evolution according to the prevailing balance-of-nature paradigm (Egerton 1973) in terms of moving equilibration of forces. In biological evolution these were internal and external forces (fig. 1). The following passage illustrates Spencer's conception of external forces:

Besides changes in the incidence of inorganic forces, there are equally continuous, and still more involved, changes in the incidence of forces which organisms exercise on one another. As before pointed out (§ 105), the plants and animals inhabiting each locality are held together in so entangled a web of relations, that any considerable modification which one species undergoes, acts indirectly on many other species, and eventually changes, in some degree, the circumstances of nearly all the rest. If any increase of heat, or modification of soil, or decrease of humidity, causes a particular kind of plant either to thrive or to dwindle, an unfavourable or favourable effect is wrought on all such competing kinds of plants as are not immediately influenced in the same way. The animals which eat the seeds or browse on the leaves, either of the plant primarily affected or those of its competitors, are severally altered in their states of nutrition and in their numbers; and this change presently tells on various predatory animals and parasites. And since each of these secondary and tertiary changes becomes itself a centre of others, the increase or decrease of each species produces waves of influence which spread and reverberate and reverberate throughout the whole Flora and Fauna of the locality. (Spencer, 1898, pt 3, ch 9, § 151, p. 504f).

Internal forces were illustrated as follows:

Suppose that the head of a bison becomes much heavier, what must be the indirect result? The muscles of the neck are put to greater exertions; and its vertebrae have to bear additional tensions and pressures, caused both by the increased weight of the head, and by the stronger contractions of the muscles that support and move it. These muscles also affect their special attachments: several of the dorsal spines suffer augmented strains; and the vertebrae to which they are fixed are more severely taxed. Further, this heavier head and the more massive neck it necessitates, require a stronger fulcrum: the whole thoracic arch, and the fore-limbs which support it, are subject to greater continuous stress and more violent occasional shocks. And the required strengthening of the fore-quarters cannot take place without the centre of gravity being changed, and the hind limbs being differently reacted upon during locomotion. Any one who compares the outline of the bison with that of its congener, the ox, will see how profoundly a heavier head affects the entire osseous and muscular system. Besides this multiplication of mechanical effects, there is a multiplication of physiological effects. [...] (Spencer, 1898, pt 3, ch 10, §155, p. 512)

The strikingly ecological ring to the above quotes could be due to the fact that Arthur George Tansley, one of the first professional ecologists, has helped Spencer to revise this second edition of the Principles of Biology (cf. acknowledgement in vol. 1).

Anyway, Spencer reformulated biological evolution as a moving equilibrium between external and internal forces achieved through biological functions and concluded: 'Rejecting metaphor we see that the process called Natural Selection is literally a survival of the fittest; and the outcome of the above argument is that survival of the fittest is a maintenance of the moving equilibrium' (Spencer, 1898, pt 3, ch 12, § 168, p. 548). This has been the crucial translation through which Spencer integrated his 'Lamarckian' scheme of natural selection, an idea conceived independently of Darwin (1859) in Spencer (1852), into his universal balance-of-forces paradigm. On 9 June 1864, he wrote his father: '... yesterday I arrived at a point of view from which Darwin's doctrine of 'Natural Selection' is seen to be absorbed into the general theory of Evolution as I am interpreting it' (Spencer quoted in Freeman 1974, p. 216).

The final section of the Principles of Biology 2, called "Laws of Multiplication," is particularly relevant to ecological questions, because forces contributing to vitality or fertility and those contributing to mortality -- the Ying and Yang of population dynamics -- were seen in a moving equilibrium (Kingsland 1990, p. 15). Though published first, the Principles of Psychology logically follow on those of biology. Herein, Spencer conceives the mind as a sophisticated tool for achieving equilibration between internal and external forces evolved by organisms that need to deal with complex environments (Godfrey-Smith 1996). The psychological forces communicating this balance are pleasure and pain (Spencer 1880). This illustrates how, although the Principles of Psychology were published first, the pleasure and pain balance 'dangles' from the internal and external forces one in the final integration of the work (fig. 1). Additionally, militancy and industry have been identified as an important pair of forces in the Principles of Sociology (e.g. Peel 1971, Offer 1999, Runciman 2000) and altruism and egoism in the Principles of Ethics (Spencer 1892).

Moving equilibrium and the multiplication of effects

Although Spencer discriminated four types of equilibrium, the third called dependent moving equilibrium was most important (Spencer, 1900, pt 2, ch 22, § 170, p. 450). It meant that the system's state depends on an infusion of energy (e.g., a steam engine). In contrast, the independent moving equilibrium is stable over long times without such an input (e.g., the solar system). Hence the systems were always thought to be open, but the state either dependent or independent on exchange. Evolution and dissolution tended to equilibrate each other, but the equilibrium was moving, even oscillating around the equilibrium point, which itself was not a constant. This concept of a dependent moving equilibrium seems to have anticipated later concepts of dynamic equilibrium, e.g., that of Lotka (1925).

But how could moving equilibration ever lead to progress? According to Freeman (1974, p. 215) and Ruse (1996, p. 186), Spencer's belief in progress was rooted in the cogent triviality that 'Every active force produces more than one change -- every cause produces more than one effect' (Spencer, 1857, p. 466). This 'multiplication of effects' (Spencer, 1900, pt 2, ch 20, p. 398-422) was not confined to Spencerian evolution and counted for dissolution as well. In fact, Spencer illustrated the multiplication of effects with two examples of 'dissolution', a glass being shattered and a candle being burned, before turning to examples of the multiplication of effects in the Spencerian 'evolution' (Spencer, 1900, pt 2, ch 20, p. 398ff). Glasses would never get shattered were they not manufactured first. The glasses that are not broken and ready for use at a moment reflect the moving equilibrium between their production and destruction. The same counts for a the turnover of candles being produced and burned. Whatever the turnover rate or 'moving equilibrium', many new things can be done with glasses and candles, like having a party, and social life will become more complex. Therefore, the idea of moving equilibration in combination with the multiplication of effects seems to have convinced Spencer of an overall trend towards the complex and heterogeneous, that is, to evolution. Nevertheless, this conviction i sprobably as much due to a leap of faith (Runciman 1989) as to any rationalization.

The use of the metaphor

The mental picture of 'some great monster of philosophical learning' (Medawar 1967, p. 39) is not only fitting, it probably scares many potential readers from taking their pick on Spencer in the first place. Knowing the meta-structure should ease picking parts and looking at them in closer detail. The metaphor of a holographic mobile of moving equilibria is also meant as an antidote against the great monster of philosophical learning. Nevertheless, the usefulness as a reading tool goes deeper.

Comparing the structure of Spencer's explanatory system with actual standards of science several incompatibilities to current thinking can be appreciated. Two incompatibilities can readily be gathered from his explanatory system being a balance-of-forces paradigm. Spencer reduced the scientific ideas of space, time, matter, and motion to manifestations of force (in part two of the First Principles called The Knowable), because he thought phenomena bestowed with extension, duration, mass, or impulse are only conceivable through the mediation of forces acting on the body or mind, whereas science seems to have advanced through an energy paradigm towards an information paradigm. In later parts of the Synthetic Philosophy, Spencer has also called his transcendental force the 'Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed' (Spencer quoted in Freeman 1974, p. 230), but his explanatory system remains a balance-of-forces paradigm. Secondly, the idea of a balance of nature, moving or not, is no longer an uncontroversial and ruling paradigm (e.g., Cooper 2001; Cuddington 2001).

Furthermore, Spencer's dualistic conception of evolution and dissolution was not congruent with the general usage of the term evolution. The so called 'evolution' of a gas towards thermodynamic equilibrium, for example, was a case of Spencerian dissolution (from heterogeneous, etc., to homogeneous, etc.), while the formation of a crystal or the aggregation of a solar system out of a nebular state were cases of Spencerian evolution. Hence, Spencer's evolution-dissolution conception cut across the distinction between approaching and departing from thermodynamic equilibrium. Spencer (1900, pt 2, ch 23, § 182b, p. 492f) stubbornly insisted against the pessimistic message of the second law of thermodynamics: '[...] it is not inferable from the general progress towards equilibrium that a state of universal quiescence or death will be reached; but that if a process of reasoning ends in that conclusion, a further process of reasoning points to renewals of activity and life.' Likewise, the reduction of toe number in the evolution of the horse would qualify as a case of partial dissolution, while it has sometimes been held to falsify Spencer's philosophy (e.g. Ruse, 1986, p. 40). Spencer's Lamarckism is not compatible with modern Darwinnism, because he never accepted August Weismann's distinction germ-line and soma.

Last but not least, Spencer's explanatory system should be at odds with current reading habits. Scientific standards of rigor enforce the structure of a linear story on almost any publication that deserves to be called scientific. While more complex narrative structures might become fashionable again in hypertexts, Darwin's 'one long argument' (Darwin 1859) has been uniquely congenial to modern science, while Spencer's 'crazy diamond of thought' showing the same picture through ever new facets has not.


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Cuddington, K.: 2001, 'The 'Balance of Nature' metaphor and equilibrium in population ecology', Biology and Philosophy 16, 463-479.

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Freeman, D.: 1974, 'The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer', Current Anthropology 15, 211-237.

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Spencer, H.: 1857, 'Progress: its law and cause', Westminster Review 67, 445-485.

Spencer, H.: 1864, 1900, First Principles. Appleton and Company, New York.

Spencer, H.: 1866, 1898, Principles of biology. vol. 1, Appleton and Company, New York.

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Taylor, M.W.: 1992, Men Versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. Claredon, Oxford.

Turner, J.H.: 1985, Herbert Spencer: A renewed Appreciation. Sage, Beverly Hills.

Werhane P.H.: 2000, 'Business ethics and the origins of contemporary capitalism: economics and ethics in the work of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer', J. Business Ethics 24, 185-198.

Philosophy Victorian Psychology Science Herbert Spencer

Last modified 28 August 2003