How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

The most famous philosopher of the Victorian age, Herbert Spencer, coined the term "survival of the fittest", tried to apply the concepts of evolution to human society, and was described by Charles Darwin himself as "twenty times my superior." He was also a shameless hypochondriac, a sadistic prankster, and liked to dress in a one-piece suit that made him look like a bear.

How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

On The Origins Of Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820 in Derby, England, the son of William George Spencer, a religious dissenter with a love of learning and an anti-authoritarian streak. The older Spencer instilled these values in his son Herbert, teaching him the basics of scientific empiricism while his friends in the Derby Philosophical Society - an organization founded by Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, and of which George Spencer was secretary - gave the younger Spencer lessons in biology, particularly the proto-evolutionary ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.

Beyond some math and Latin lessons from his uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, the rest of Herbert's education was completely self-taught. Herbert Spencer had a remarkable ability to extract all possible information from a chosen text, carefully picking out readings that would expand his understanding of a given topic. He also gained as much information as he could from those he spoke with, folding the knowledge of all those he met into his own rapidly growing intellect.

Spencer bounced around a few jobs, finding success as a young man writing and editing various radical journals advocating for free trade. His ideas were a mix of cutting edge economic theory and proto-Darwinian notions of evolution, which together he used to chart the future of humanity. In 1851, he published Social Statics, which danced around the concept of "survival of the fittest" that he would coin fifteen years later. Consider this passage, which melds social theory with notions of Lamarckian evolution:

"It is clear that any being whose constitution is to be moulded into fitness for new conditions of existence must be placed under those conditions. Or, putting the proposition specifically - it is clear that man can become adapted to the social state, only by being retained in the social state...Only by the process of adaptation itself can be produced that character which makes social equilibrium spontaneous."

Man Of The Salon

As Spencer gained so much of his knowledge from those he conversed with, it was hugely important for Spencer to pick the right friends. On this point, he was helped by Social Statics publisher John Chapman, who brought him into contact with an intellectual salon full of the United Kingdom's most radical thinkers. Interaction with these men and women cemented his political philosophy, a libertarian system that believed the natural progression of humanity would make all government wither away. To this end, Spencer at times advocated for universal suffrage for women and children, and he argued for the nationalization of land to diminish the power of the aristocracy.

The salon's ranks included the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, literary critics and religious skeptic George Henry Lewes, pioneering sociologist Harriet Martineau, and writer Mary Ann Evans, better known as pseudonymous Silas Marner author George Eliot. Spencer became particularly close to Lewes and Evans, and Evans even once proposed marriage to him, although Spencer turned out to be just one of several men who did not reciprocate her more romantic feelings.

Lewes and Evans helped bring Spencer's thinking to the next level, and the result was 1855's Principles of Psychology, in which Spencer argued the workings of the human mind were fundamentally knowable through application of natural laws. This pronouncement staked out a position in extreme opposition to that of religious orthodoxy, which maintained certain parts of the world - the human consciousness chief among them - were inherently beyond the understanding of science. This made Spencer's book unpopular with the establishment, and it failed to achieve much critical or public support. Still, Spencer was just getting warmed up.

How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

The Other Father Of Evolution

As early as 1852 - seven years before Charles Darwin went public with his evolutionary theories in On the Origin of Species - Herbert Spencer sketched out the basics of evolution and natural selection. His basic idea was that human development was naturally progressive and everywhere increasing. This optimistic view led him to what he termed "evolution", arguably making him the real popularizer of this term, not Darwin. The key distinction is that Spencer could not advance an actual theoretical framework for this evolutionary process, which Darwin was able to do with his notions of natural selection.

Spencer's philosophy became hugely popular, offering the growing intellectual class a ready-made substitute to conventional religion. His system suggested everything from biological evolution to the laws of thermodynamics could be used to predict the future of humanity and, more specifically, the future perfection of humanity. The cosmos existed to promote human happiness, as far as Spencer was concerned, and the laws of nature were universal in their reach.

But let's focus on Spencer's take on evolution, because it could take years to unravel his entire argument. It's important to keep in mind that Spencer was not simply taking Darwin's ideas and applying them to society as a whole. It's an understandable mistake - indeed, what other assumption is possible when Spencer is generally credited as the inventor of something called "Social Darwinism"?

In actual fact, Spencer was more comfortable with Lamarck's earlier notions of acquired characteristics, which hold that how particular organs or traits are used during a person's lifetime can affect their physical makeup and then be passed down to their children. Darwin's idea of a directionless evolution, in which there was no endpoint but simply adaptation to changing environmental niches as governed by natural selection, was not an easy fit for Spencer's earlier ideas, and it was only with some reluctance that he incorporated these ideas into his work.

Survival Of The Fittest

Spencer's most famous idea is encapsulated by "survival of the fittest", although it's often mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin. Spencer came up with this iconic turn of phrase in his 1864 book Principles of Biology, in which he writes:

"This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called 'natural selection', or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

Darwin would then use the phrase himself in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, although his use was only metaphorical, and not intended as a scientific description. Indeed, the term doesn't really capture the evolutionary process, as it's not just the fittest that survive to reproduce - it's all organisms that are fit enough to not die young, which has led later biologists to suggest "survival of the fit enough" is the more accurate term.

Besides, Spencer's use of the phrase might have been redundant, a mere tautology. He seemed to use "fittest" as "best-equipped to survive", which makes the phrase "survival of the best-equipped to survive" a bit useless. Still, though his ideas proved a clumsy fit for the actual science of evolution, they captured - and still capture - the public imagination, and they proved to be much better fits for Spencer's primary concern, which was an evolution-based theory of society.

A Word About Social Darwinism

In general, Spencer's positive reputation is as the coiner of "survival of fittest" and as the popularizer of Darwin. His negative reputation comes from his attempts to wed these ideas to society at large. Social Darwinism - the term generally applied to Spencer's sociological efforts - is often thought of as apologism for the wealthy, as it says those who are successful in society are those best-adapted to it, meaning the poor are less fit to survive in society.

It's an understandable misconception, and other philosophers have advanced ideas more along those lines, but that wasn't really what Spencer was driving at. The main focus of his social evolution was focused on the state itself, which he basically believed evolved first to give society structure, and then withered away as the members of that society were sufficiently evolved to do without it. (This is, like most paragraph-long summaries of a lifetime's work, something of an oversimplification. But it will do for our purposes.)

As we previously mentioned, his writings proved staggeringly popular, and he became the most famous philosopher of the Victorian Age. He became an international inspiration for revolutionary groups looking for an innovative system that could replace their failed states, and his ideas were influential in various movements as far away as Poland, China, and Japan. No less than Charles Darwin called him "twenty times my superior", and wrote these glowing words:

"Every one with eyes to see and ears to hear (the number, I fear, are not many) ought to bow their knee to you, and I for one do."

Spencer was often compared favorably to Aristotle, and there's a decent argument that he was, in his own time, the most famous philosopher ever. But as interesting as Spencer's ideas were, the man behind those ideas was often far more fascinating. Let's now consider just who Spencer really was...because he was a strange man indeed.

How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

The Hypochondriac And The Hammock

Herbert Spencer was never particularly healthy, and his constant intellectual exertion took its toll on his frail physique. Of course, no one was more keenly aware of this than Spencer himself, who spent the final decades of his life an incorrigible hypochondriac, constantly complaining of various illnesses that no doctor could ever diagnose. Chief among these was "the mischief", an odd sensation he sometimes felt inside his head.

Amazingly, Spencer was by far the strongest member of his family - tragically, he was the only one of William George Spencer's nine children that even reached adulthood. He was known to be a chronic insomniac, which kept him in a state of perpetual exhaustion that limited his ability to work to just a few hours a day, and he suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. These bouts didn't do wonders for his social skills, as he often took to wearing earplugs whenever he felt over-excited...particularly if he was on the verge of losing an argument.

Traveling was a particular ordeal for Spencer, and he was constantly convinced that any coach ride would spell his doom. Indeed, he would frequently demand the coachman pull over so that Spencer could check his pulse, just to be absolutely certain he was still alive. The fact that the coachman had responded to him at all should have been proof enough, really, but Spencer was nothing if not thorough.

Train rides weren't much better. Spencer kept two men on constant retainer to help him whenever he got on a train. One of the assistants was in charge of his traveling hammock, which would be set up in his compartment and Spencer would clamber in, where he remained for the length of the stay. The rest of the work consisted of moving all his luggage, which included several rugs and air cushions meant to increase the comfort of the trip.

But the strangest part had to be how Spencer was dressed. He had designed a rather ridiculous-looking one-piece, overall-like costume, and this became his preferred thing to wear. It was designed to reduce the great effort it took to wear all that excessive Victorian attire, as Spencer now had no need to wear boots, socks, pants, shirt, or a coat. There was a trade-off though - Spencer looked like a big brown bear whenever he wore his overalls. On second thought, maybe that wasn't really a trade-off.

Is It Water On The Brain?

Still, Spencer wasn't so obsessed with his health that he couldn't enjoy himself. He could have a wicked sense of humor, as a fellow academic named Trimbell discovered. Hydrocephalus, better known as water on the brain, was one of the most feared conditions of the Victorian world, and it wouldn't be until the 20th century that medical science came up with effective treatments for the disease.

Hydrocephalus occurs when an unusually high amount of cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the cavities of the brain. Although it mostly affects a small percentage of newborns, it is possible for adults to acquire the condition well. The condition is known to be extremely painful for any adults who contract it, and the damage it does to the brain can seriously affect thought and behavior.

So yes, that's the condition Spencer decided to convince his colleague Trimbell that he had. After outlining these symptoms and pointing out a swelling head was the first sign of hydrocephalus, Spencer started to sneakily add strips of paper inside his friend's hat. Every day Spencer added another tiny strip of paper, each time making the space inside the hat a little smaller and a little tighter for Trimbell's head.

Spencer was playing a long game here - it took weeks for Trimbell to realize that his head was "growing", but once he realized he was most distressed at how fast his water on the brain was progressing. If there was any justice in the world, Spencer's longstanding hypochondria should have been the result of poor souls like Trimbell exacting their revenge, fooling him with a set of equally fraudulent maladies that would be impossible for doctors to detect. Maybe they can throw that in when Hollywood makes the Herbert Spencer biopic.

How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

Spencer's End

As Spencer's health deteriorated, so too did his optimism in humanity. Spencer, once a champion of political ideals that fell somewhere between liberalism, libertarianism, and outright anarchy now drifted rightward towards reactionary conservatism. Spencer had always championed the progressive character of humanity, the notion that human minds and societies were always improving so that, eventually, no government would be needed. But, as his friends died off and he became increasingly isolated and lonely - Spencer was a lifelong bachelor - he became disillusioned with this view.

In a sense, the philosophical underpinnings of Spencer's politics hadn't really changed. He had been distrustful and skeptical of government his entire life, but what had once been a more abstract critique became increasingly focused on the policies of Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of the Liberal Party. Spencer's once revolutionary views slipped away one by one - he now opposed suffrage for women, and he now sought to protect the rights of traditional landowners against what he saw as the rising tide of socialism.

On one point, Spencer's old anti-conservatism remained, but it made him staggeringly unpopular. Spencer remained staunchly anti-military and anti-imperialism, and his final days were spent bitterly critiquing the Boer War. His once near universal influence was already on the wane, and a public that had once seen Spencer as the philosopher now dismissed him as a bitter old crank.

Survival Of The Fittest Reborn

Spencer died in 1903. He was cremated, with his ashes interred in London's Highgate Cemetary. In an odd coincidence, his gravestone faces that of Karl Marx. It seems appropriate that, even in death, Spencer would be provided with someone with whom he could have a fierce philosophical argument.

The backlash against Spencer, which had already begun before his death, reached its apex in the early 20th century. The most popular philosopher of the Victorian Age was now dismissed as a clueless buffoon whose works were little more than an unintentional parody of real philosophy.

In his 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought, historian Richard Hofstadter did what is known in academic circles as ripping him a new one, blasting Spencer as "the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual, and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic." Even more damagingly, it was Hofstadter who popularized the notion of Social Darwinism. It's an idea that, yes, is an important aspect of Spencer's work, but it's just one part of a rich, complex philosophical doctrine that often gets swept aside in modern discussion.

The last few decades have been far kinder to Spencer, and he's enjoyed a positive philosophical reappraisal. Although his personal fame has long since been eclipsed by Charles Darwin, his ideas are arguably still better known than those of the father of biological evolution. After all, ask a random person on the street what's the first thing they think when you mention "evolution." (Note - please don't actually do this. They might be busy.) Some will say "natural selection", yes, but just as many will say "survival of the fittest." Even if most people don't know the real context of that phrase, it lives on in our cultural lexicon.

How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented "survival of the fittest"

And Now, At Last, The Paper Clip

There's one other notable story about Herbert Spencer that we haven't yet touched - that he invented the paper clip. This is more or less an urban legend. The first paper clip is generally credited to the American inventor Samuel Fay, who panted the bent wire paper clip in 1867. His was one of about fifty paper clip designs patented before 1900, although none of them are actually all that similar to what we use today.

But where does Spencer enter into all this? He did mention in his autobiography that he had invented what he called a "binding pin", which at the time was distributed by the firm Ackermann & Company. An appendix to his autobiography includes a drawing of the pin, and it doesn't really look much like what we now consider a paper clip. It does look like cotter pins, sometimes known as an R-clip. You can see one above.

Of course, it is a perfectly workable design, and Spencer's apparent invention (there's technically no proof for his claims outside his autobiography) is one of the earliest known examples of a cotter pin. And besides, it was meant to hold together sheets of paper, so if we're being technical about this, it could certainly be considered a paper clip, even if it doesn't really fit the more precise definition of the term.

So now, if someone ever tries to impress you by mentioning that the "survival of the fittest" guy invented the paper clip, you can kindly correct them and tell them the real story of Herbert Spencer. Personally, I'd advise starting with his bear-looking one-piece.