Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and the Origin of the Terms “the Survival of the Fittest,” “Natural Selection,” and “Social Darwinism.”
The Evolution of Terms and the Natural Selection of Thinkers
Although Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution eludes to the concept of the “survival of the fittest,” the actual phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer who was trying to apply Darwin’s theory to socioeconomics in 1864.
Spencer’s application of Darwin’s theory to the social sciences started its own whole ideology “Social Darwinism” (Darwinistic theory applied to the social sciences rather than just the natural sciences). To add another layer of complexity, Spencer didn’t coin the term “Social Darwinism,” that was Thomas Henry Huxley in his April 1860 review of On the Origin of Species.
Darwin set out an evolutionary theory that is easily comparable to the social sciences in 1859’s, On the Origin of Species. Huxley then called the mechanism of natural selection “social Darwinism” in an 1860 review of the book. Spencer applied the concept to socioeconomics and coined the term “survival of the fittest” in his 1864 book Principles of Sociology. Today we tend to attribute all this mistakenly to Darwin.
Of course, it should be no surprise that this sort of thing is a collective effort in which the “fittest” (in this case, the most well-remembered name and favored theory) survive.
- What does “natural selection” mean?: Natural selection is the process by which “fit traits” (traits fit to survive a given environment) are bred into upcoming generations as they allow organisms to survive, thrive, and procreate best in their current environment. See also Lamarckism (Lamarck’s theory of inherited traits on which Darwin and Spencer were working off of).
- What does “survival of the fittest” mean? Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean ONLY the physically or mentally strongest survive. It means the organism with traits most fit for survival in a given environment survives, thrives, and procreates regardless of what trait makes it most fit. See Six things Darwin never said – and one he did.
- What is Social Darwinism? Social Darwinism is the application of natural selection and survival of the fittest theories to human society. It essentially describes both natural and unnatural eugenics in regards to social, economic, and political theories. Many were influenced by Darwin, including many in the social sciences including economists and politicians who were attracted to this theory of “Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.“
Sociological Theory: Herbert Spencer and the Tragedy of Modernity, Part 1
FACT: Spencer was not described as a Social Darwinist until the 1930s, long after his death.
What is Natural Selection?
FACT: The actual title of the book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Charles Darwin Influences (Social Darwinism) Darwin is hardly the only Darwinist. Malthus, Spencer, and even Marx embraced Darwin’s theories and applied them to all the social sciences. Social Darwinism isn’t always as pretty in everyone’s theory as it is as an explainer for evolution (consider, Hitler was in many ways, “a Darwinist”… and this brings us to, the great shame of western intellectuals, Eugenics theory).
TIMELINE: Darwin first published in 1859, and Spencer first presented the concept of “the survival of the fittest” in his 1864 book, Principles of Sociology. Darwin liked Spencer’s idea and added it to later editions of On the Origin of Species. The line can be found starting in The fifth edition, published on first on February 10th, 1869 (ten years after he first published Origin).