Survival of the Fittest Applied to Human Kind (1851)
by Herbert Spencer


Even before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his work on evolution and the struggle for survival in 1859, such concepts were known. Indeed, one can argue that the basic tenets of liberalism were imbued with the concept of survival of the fittest: those with greater intelligence, will power, industriousness, etc., succeeded while those without these qualities failed. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a social scientist, pushed this concept to its logical extension in his Social Statics (1851), arguing that charity for the poor contradicted natural law. In many ways, Spencer was following in the footsteps of Thomas Malthus's (1766-1834) demographic pronouncements on working-class poverty and sexual profligacy. Spencer was one of the leading figures in the pseudo-scientific movement known as Social Darwinism, an intellectual trend that further justified the widening gap between rich and poor, the racial superiority inherent in European imperialism, and, ultimately, war.

Questions to Consider 
Why should the state refrain from providing charity to the poor? 
What, according to Spencer, was the cause of poverty? 

In common with its other assumptions of secondary offices, the assumption by a government of the office of Reliever General to the Poor, is necessarily forbidden by the principle that a government cannot rightly do anything more than protect. In demanding from a citizen contributions for the mitigation of distress--contributions not needed for the due administration of men's rights--the state is, as we have seen, reversing its function, and diminishing that liberty to exercise the faculties which it was instituted to maintain. Possibly, some will assert that by satisfying the wants of the pauper, a government is in reality extending his liberty to exercise his faculties. But this statement of the case implies a confounding of two widely different things. To enforce the fundamental law--to take care that every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man--this is the special purpose for which the civil power exists. Now insuring to each the right to pursue within the specified limits the objects of his desires without let or hindrance, is quite a separate thing from insuring him satisfaction.

Pervading all nature we may see at work a stern discipline, which is a little cruel that it may be very kind. That state of universal warfare maintained throughout the lower creation, to the great perplexity of many worthy people, is at bottom the most merciful provision which the circumstances admit of. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all its efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence--the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Source: Herbert Spencer, "Social Statics," in J. Salwyn Schapiro, ed., Liberalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1958), 136-137.