Social Evolution: Herbert Spencer and Lewis Morgan
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a proponent of organic analogy, which equates societies, and their progressions, to biological processes and organisms. In Spencer’s eyes, societies, and the cosmos as a whole, began as homogeneity and increased into a complex and discriminate heterogeneity. Spencer believed that modern societies are the result of social evolution. He made great effort to apply Darwinian principles to this theoretical framework, although his application appears to be more in agreement with Lamarkian principles than anything else. Lamark felt that organisms inherit acquired characteristics – characteristics that are acquired during an organism’s lifespan – from previous generations, and this fits well with Spencer’s social theory. Spencer’s stance was that of a unilineal evolutionist. In this theoretical framework, the highest order is comprised of modern societies, and the lowest involve prehistoric societies that supposedly lacked complex, social structure. Like Morgan, Spencer used the comparative method to study the progression of social systems. It was assumed that contemporary aboriginal peoples (termed as “living fossils) represented the lowest, prehistoric stages. Both 19th century theorists reflect the socio-historic conditions of their time. During this period, there was a cultural shift from religion to science. Noteworthy, historical events that contributed to this shift were: 1) The publication of The Origin of Species. 2) The publication of Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, which was highly influential in disproving the biblical notion that the earth is less than 6,000 years old.
Lewis H. Morgan (1818-1881) categorized social evolution in three stages. These are savagery (Australians/Polynesians), barbarism (Pueblos), and civilization (Greeks/Latins/Europeans). Further, he divided each societal form into varying stages of technical innovation:
“It is probable that the successive arts of subsistence which arose at long intervals will ultimately, from the great influence they have exercised upon the condition of mankind, afford the most satisfactory basis for these divisions” (60).
It is by means of technical innovation, according to Morgan, that societies progress. Morgan believed that this progression is the same for all social systems, and he attributed this to the psychic unity of humankind.
There are obvious problems with both theorists. Other than the absurd assumptions made in regard to the superiority of modern civilization, neither Spencer or Morgan had a proper understanding of evolution. Although having coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” Spencer’s claims in regard to natural selection are haphazard at best. I do find it interesting, however, that people to this day continue to believe in the evolution of humanity. We easily witness this in the areas of Western morality and ethics. Many folks appear to be under the impression that one day, in some distant future, humankind will have evolved to the point in which suffering and social inequality will have become nonexistent – at the very least, toned down a bit. Some point to technology as the answer. Others to silly forms of patriotism, activism, and government. Regardless of whatever means, many continue to strive for a world in which all are equal and human life has become some heavenly gift to the planet that is meant to continue on indefinitely. But, evolution, and life for that matter, really doesn’t work this way, does it? We are encased in a world of suffering and joy, pain and pleasure, and loss and gain. I find the duality of human existence, as opposed to heightened notions of morality, far more rewarding to contemplate and study. It is a bit more realistic anyway.
McGee, R. & R. Warms. (2007). Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw-Hill.