Unlike Comte, who was strongly influenced by the upheavals of the French Revolution, the British social theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was born in a more peaceful and optimistic period in his country’s history. Spencer’s major contribution to sociology was an evolutionary perspective on social order and social change. Although the term evolution has various meanings, evolutionary theory should be taken to mean “a theory to explain the mechanisms of organidsocial change» (Haines, 1997: 81). According to Spencer’s Theory of General Evolution, society, like a biological organism, has various interdependent parts (such as the family, the economy, and the government) that work to ensure the stability and survival of the entire society. Spencer believed that societies developed through a process of “struggle” (for existence) and “fitness” (for survival), which he referred to as the “survival of the fittest” Because this phrase is often attributed to Charles Darwin, Spencer’s view of society is known as social Darwinism-the belief that those species of animals, including human beings, best adapted to their environment survive and prosper, whereas those poorly adapted die out. Spencer equated this process of natural selection with progress because only the “fittest” members of society would survive the competition, and the ·untill would be filtered out of society. Based on this belief, he strongly opposed any social reform that might interfere with the natural selection process and, thus, damage society by favoring its least-worthy’ members. Critics have suggested that many of Spencer’s ideas contain serious flaws. For one thing, societies are not the same as biological systems; people are able to create and transform the environment in which they live.
Moreover, the notion of the survival of the fittest can easily be used to justify class, racial-ethnic, and gender inequalities and to rationalize the lack of action to eliminate harmful practices that contribute to such inequalities. Not surprisingly, Spencer’s “hands-off” view was applauded by many wealthy industrialists of his day. John D. Rockefeller, who gained monopolistic control of much of the u.s. oil industry early in the twentieth century, maintained that the growth of giant businesses was merely the “survival of the fittest” (Feagin, Baker, and Feagin, 2006).
Social Darwinism served as a rationalization for some people’s assertion of the superiority of the white race. After the Civil War, it was used to justify the repression and neglect of African Americans as well as the policies that resulted in the annihilation of Native American populations. Although some social reformers spoke out against these justifications, “scientific” racism continued to exist (Turner, Singleton, and Musick, 1984). In both positive and negative ways, many of Spencer’s ideas and concepts have been deeply embedded in social thinking and public policy for over a century.