The second of three autumn 2015 ‘Tetley Talks’ on the theme of ‘Civilization and its Discontents’
Herbert Spencer is seen as the father of Social Darwinism; though it’s a term only later applied to him. In fact, the ideas of Social Darwinism – that society is governed by biological laws, independent of human will – pre-date both Spencer and Darwin. Spencer was one of the most popular thinkers of the nineteenth century whose conception of the organic society, and notions of progress and change governed by the law of “the survival of the fittest”, remained hugely influential well into the twentieth century on the politics of both right and left, and in the disciplines of sociology and Freudian psychology; and are arguably still evident today in explanations of society phenomena.
However, Ellie Lee will argue that Social Darwinism’s most important and lasting legacy is in the undermining of human agency. For Spencer, if society is governed by laws of nature, human agency is not only undermined, but becomes dangerous to social evolution. And, without free will, politics itself becomes unseated.