The life and work of philosopher and writer Herbert Spencer, in five pieces of trivia
1. He had a bit of a fling with novelist George Eliot. The friendship of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Mary Ann Evans (or George Eliot) represents a true meeting of minds: Eliot was a multi-talented writer, translator, and thinker who incorporated many contemporary scientific and philosophical ideas into her fiction, and Spencer was a key proponent of evolutionary biology. At one point it looked as though romance might be in the air, but Spencer was put off by Eliot’s unconventional looks. Eliot later met and hooked up with George Henry Lewes, becoming his common-law wife. Spencer was a man of intense moods, and owned an ‘angry suit’ which he would don whenever he was feeling especially peevish.
2. He coined the phrase survival of the fittest. As we’ve revealed in our pick of the best Charles Darwin facts, Darwin wasn’t the first person to propose a theory of evolution, but nor was he quite the first to coin the phrase ‘natural selection’. And although Darwin would make the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ well-known, it was actually Herbert Spencer who came up with the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ (in his 1864 book Principles of Biology) to describe the way natural selection works – i.e. those creatures which are best-adapted to their environment are the ones who will survive and procreate.
3. Indeed, Spencer put forward a theory of evolution seven years before Darwin published his. In 1852, Spencer published an essay titled ‘The Development Hypothesis’ in The Leader. However, Spencer’s theory was not taken especially seriously because it lacked an effective theoretical system. Nevertheless, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who first used the phrase ‘theory of evolution’, in an essay of 1858, one year before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published.
4. It has been claimed that Herbert Spencer invented the paperclip; this isn’t quite true, but he invented something similar. In his 1904 autobiography, Spencer claimed that he invented a ‘binding-pin’ in 1846, and that the device was distributed by Ackermann & Co. This was indeed used to fasten sheets of paper or ‘unstitched publications’ together, though it resembled the ‘cotter pin’ or split pin rather than the modern paperclip.
5. Spencer was hugely influential throughout the nineteenth century, but his reputation declined dramatically in the twentieth. In 1862, Spencer developed a philosophical system based around evolution – not only Darwinian but Lamarckian models (Lamarck was the one who proposed the idea of ‘acquired characteristics’, whereby improvements or adaptations cultivated over the parents’ lifetime would be transmitted to their offspring) – in his book First Principles. He continued to add to this, collecting his philosophical theories in 1893 as the System of Synthetic Philosophy. In Britain and America, he was regarded as a colossal figure. But his reputation dropped off after his death. The American philosopher and pragmatist William James (1842-1910) admired Spencer’s attempt at an evolutionary philosophy – as a young man, at least. Later in life, he wrote that Spencer’s ‘whole system [was] wooden, as if knocked together out of cracked hemlock boards.’ In 1937, American sociologist asked: ‘Who now reads Spencer?’ Who indeed? But his influence on Victorian culture means it’s worth knowing about him.
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Image: Herbert Spencer in c. 1880; Wikimedia Commons.