Adaptation and Progress: Spencer’s Criticism of Lamarck

In Morganti on May 26, 2013 at 3:26 PM

Herbert Spencer’s conception of organic evolution is commonly interpreted as a form of Lamarckism (Peel 1971; Freeman 1974; Bowler 1996; Gissis 2005). To give an notable example, Moore (1981) once described Spencer as «Britain’s leading Lamarckian» of the last decades of the 19th century. Such a description is undoubtedly due to Spencer’s advocacy of the inheritance of acquired characters, against critics such as Wallace and Weismann. In this short notice I will briefly indicate two fundamental aspects of Spencer’s view of evolution that set him quite apart from Lamarck.

In the first place, while Lamarck considered evolution as a distinctly biological phenomenon, dependent on the properties which marked the division between the organic and the inorganic, Spencer regarded it as a special case of the basic physical transformations of matter, motion and forces. Secondly, while Lamarck had distinguished between a progressive (i.e. complexifying) and an adaptive factor of change, Spencer rather saw progress as dependent on the very process of adaptation.

It was the very bond between organic and physical evolution which in Spencer’s thought warranted the coincidence between progress and adaptation. According to the principle of the “instability of the homogeneous” (Spencer 1857), given the universe as a field of forces, the parts of any homogeneous aggregate would be necessarily exposed to the actions of different forces (both quantitatively and qualitatively), which would then produce different effects on each of those parts. The resulting heterogeneous parts would then be  exposed to forces as differentiated as the first, thus producing further heterogeneity. In other words, the production of more heterogeneous and complex phenomena is the predictable result of the interaction between matter and forces, a principle which in Spencer’s eyes held its validity at all levels of reality.

Such principle had also another important consequence, insofar as the heterogeneity of environmental forces was critically dependent on the complexity of the organism on which they acted: the more complex was the latter, the more diversified were the formers. Evolutionary progress, in other words, was embedded in the very encounter between organism and environments, thus being a direct consequence of adaptation.

Therefore, Spencer could reject Lamarck’s hypothesis of an intrinsic complexifying tendency of life, which he regarded – quite incorrectly, in my opinion – as a remnant of supernaturalism (i.e. an explanation in terms of God’s will rather than natural laws). At the same time, he could consider Lamarck’s failure to explain organic evolution in physical terms as a serious weakness of his theory (Spencer 1864-67).

Federico Morganti


Bowler P. J. (1996), Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Freeman D. (1974). The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Current Anthropology 15: 211-37.

Gissis S. (2005). Herbert Spencer’s two editions of the Principles of Psychology: 1855 and 1870/72. Biological heredity and cultural inheritance. S. Müller-Wille, H. G. Rheinberger (eds.), A Cultural History of Heredity II: 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science: Berlin, 137-51.

Moore J. R. (1981), Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Peel J. D. Y. (1971), Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist, Heinemann: London.

Spencer H. (1857). Progress: Its Law and Cause. Westminster Review 11: 445-85.

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


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