Spencer, who lived in England, eagerly followed the work of the natural scientist
Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin's theory of biological evolution held that a species changes physically over many generations as it adapts to the natural environment. Spencer incorrectly applied Darwin's theory to the operation of society, which does not operate according to biological principles. In Spencer's distorted view, society became the "jungle," with the "fittest" people rising to wealth and the "failures" sinking into miserable poverty.
It is no surprise that Spencer's views, as wrong as they were, were popular among the rising U.S. industrialists of the day. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), who made a vast fortune building the oil industry, recited Spencer's "social gospel" to young children in Sunday school. As Rockefeller saw it, the growth of giant corporations - and the astrounding wealth of their owners - was merely the result of the survival of the fittest, a basic fact of nature. Neither Spencer nor Rockefeller had much sympathy for the poor, seeing poverty as evidence of individuals' failing to measure up in a competitive world. Spencer opposed social welfare programs because he thgouth they penalized society's "best" people (through taxews) and rewarded its "worst" members (through welfare benefits). By incorrectly yusing Darwin's theory, the rich could turn their backs on everyone else, assuming that the existing inequality was inevitable and somehow "natural".
Today, sociologists point out that our society is far from a meritocracy, as Spencer claimed. And it is not the case that companies or individuals who generate lots of money necessarily benefit society. The people who made hundreds of millions of dollars selling sub-prime mortgages in everyone, But Spencer's view that the "fittest" rise to the top remains widespread in our very unequal and individualist culture.
What Do You Think?
1. Why do you think Spencer's ideas are still, popular in the United States today?