What Theory of Social Change Did Spencer Introduce?


Vincent White

The theory of social change introduced by Herbert Spencer is known as Social Darwinism. This theory draws inspiration from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and applies it to human societies. It suggests that societies evolve and progress through a process of “survival of the fittest,” where only the strongest and most adaptable individuals or groups survive and thrive.

Origins of Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism emerged in the late 19th century as a response to the social, economic, and political changes brought about by industrialization and urbanization. Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, sociologist, and biologist, popularized this theory through his writings.

Spencer believed that society was akin to an organism, with different parts working together for its survival. He argued that societies evolve from simple to complex forms through a process of adaptation and competition.

The Survival of the Fittest

At the core of Spencer’s theory is the concept of “survival of the fittest.” According to him, individuals or groups who possess advantageous traits are more likely to succeed in society. These advantageous traits could be physical strength, intelligence, or any other characteristic that provides an advantage over others.

Social Darwinism emphasizes that those who are successful have earned their position through their own merit and abilities. In contrast, those who struggle or fail are seen as lacking these qualities.

Social Progress

Spencer believed that societies progress over time through a process he called “social evolution.” He argued that societies become more complex and advanced as they adapt to changing circumstances through competition.

This idea of social evolution suggests that progress occurs naturally without intervention. It is driven by individual efforts rather than collective action or government intervention.

Criticisms of Social Darwinism

While Social Darwinism gained popularity during its time, it also faced significant criticism. Some argued that it justified social inequality and exploitation by suggesting that those who were successful deserved their wealth and power.

The theory was also criticized for oversimplifying complex social issues and ignoring the role of factors like privilege, discrimination, and social structures in shaping society.

  • Opponents of Social Darwinism argued that it ignored the importance of empathy, compassion, and cooperation in building a just society.
  • They also criticized the theory for promoting a “survival of the fittest” mentality that disregarded the needs and well-being of marginalized groups.

The Legacy of Social Darwinism

Despite its criticisms, Social Darwinism had a lasting impact on various fields. It influenced economic theories like laissez-faire capitalism and contributed to the rise of eugenics movements in the early 20th century.

In conclusion, Herbert Spencer’s theory of social change, known as Social Darwinism, applied the concept of natural selection to human societies. It emphasized competition, adaptation, and individual merit as drivers of progress. While it faced criticism for justifying inequality and overlooking important societal factors, its influence on subsequent ideologies cannot be denied.