Herbert Spencer: Evolution - Unilinear or Multilinear


Evolution - Unilinear or Multilinear

In many passages Spencer expresses what seems to be a belief in the unilinear evolution of mankind, in which it appears that mankind's progress through stages of development is as rigidly determined as the evolution of individuals from childhood to maturity. "As between infancy and maturity there is no shortcut by which there may be avoided the tedious process of growth and development through insensible increments; so there is no way from the lower forms of social life to the higher, but one passing through small successive modifications . . . The process cannot be abridged and must be gone through with due patience." At times, especially in his earlier writings, Spencer pictures the process of evolution as unremitting, unrelenting, and ever present. "The change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and it is still going on with increasing rapidity."

Yet the mature Spencer, perhaps under the impact of his disappointment over the "collectivist" course English society was taking toward the end of the nineteenth century, recognized that, though the evolution of mankind as a whole was certain, particular societies may retrogress as well as progress. "Though taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolution may be held inevitable . . . yet it cannot be held inevitable in each particular society, or even probable." "While the current degradation theory is untenable, the theory of progression, in its ordinary form, seems to me untenable also . . . . It is possible and, I believe, probable, that retrogression has been as frequent as progression." "A social organism," Spencer argued, "like an individual organism, undergoes modifications until it comes into equilibrium with environing conditions; and thereupon continues without further change of structure." Once such equilibrium has been reached, evolution continues "to show itself only in the progressing integration that ends in rigidity [and] practically ceases."

Although passages to the contrary could be quoted, Spencer by and large believed that societies do not develop irreversibly through predetermined stages. Rather, it was his general view that they developed in response to their social and natural environment.

Like other kinds of progress, social progress is not linear but divergent and re-divergent . . . . While spreading over the earth mankind have found environments of various characters, and in each case the social life fallen into, partly determined by the social life previously led, has been partly determined by the influences of the new environment; so that the multiplying groups have tended ever to acquire differences, now major and now minor: there have arisen genera and species of societies.

Spencer specifically distinguished his own thought from that of rigid upholders of theories of unilinear stages, such as Comte, when he wrote, "Hence arose, among other erroneous preconceptions, this serious one, that the different forms of society presented by savage and civilized races all over the globe are but different stages in the evolution of one form: the truth being rather that social types, like the types of individual organisms, do not form a series, but are classifiable only in divergent and re-divergent groups."

By introducing the factors of stagnation and retrogression, Spencer no doubt made his theory more flexible, but it thereby lost some of its appeal as a universal key to the riddles of the universe. Beatrice Webb reports in her autobiography, My Apprenticeship, that her father, a successful businessman, once told her in dispraise of Spencer, "Some businesses grow divers and complicated, others get simpler and more uniform, others go into the Bankruptcy Court. In the long run and over the whole field there is no more reason for expecting one process rather than the other."

From Coser, 1977:96-97.