Herbert Spencer and Organism-Environment Interaction

In Morganti, Philosophy of Biology on March 28, 2013 at 8:54 AM

In a recently published paper Trevor Pearce (2010) has provided an interesting account of the steps which conducted Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) to adopt the term ‘environment’ as opposed to the plural noun ‘circumstances’. According to Pearce, this shift took place as Spencer moved to a conception of both organism and environment as opposite and distinct entities. Undoubtedly, Pearce’s article has the historiographical merit of identifying some important contributions to the development of Spencer’s biological thought (such as Lamarck 1809; Chambers 1844; Comte via Martineau 1845). Nevertheless, the hypothesis that Spencer held a conception of the organism-environment interaction as that indicated by Pearce is fairly arguable. In the first place, though Spencer came to adopt the singular noun ‘environment’ (which he had found in Martineau 1845), he conceived the environment itself not as a monolithic block, but rather as a plurality of physical forces. Secondly, and most notably, he believed that those very forces were constantly redefined by organisms themselves according to their level of heterogeneity and complexity (Spencer 1864-67, I, 418, 421-23; 1870-72, I, 193-227). Thus, it is difficult to credit Spencer with a view of organism and environment as polarly opposed entities. On the whole, it is not easy to place Spencer in the history of the concept of environment. In fact, while his advocacy of the idea of a reciprocal construction of organisms and environments seems close to modern thinking, still he is quite distant from it in his constant attempt to reduce biological and ecological notions to the language of physics.

Federico Morganti



Lamarck, J.-B. (1809), Philosophie zoologique, ou exposition des considérations relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux (2 vols.), Dentu: Paris.

Chambers, R. (1844), Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, J. Churchill: London.

Martineau, H. (1845), The Positive Philosophy of August Comte (2 vols.), J. Chapman: London.

Pearce, T. (2010). From ‘circumstances’ to ‘environment’: Herbert Spencer and the origins of the idea of organism-environment interaction. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41: 241-52.

Spencer, H. (1864-67), The Principles of Biology (2 vols.), Williams and Norgate: London.

Spencer, H. (1870-72), The Principles of Psychology, 2nd ed. (2 vols.), Williams and Norgate: London.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: