(27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903)
Herbert Spencer was a philosopher and sociologist, contemporary with Charles Darwin. Contrary to popular usage, the phrase ‘Surivial of the fittest’ was actually coined by Spencer and not Darwin.
Born in Derby, England, Spencer was the only child of nine to survive infancy. He was largely educated by his father, William George Spencer, a Methodist Dissenter and was influenced by anti-establishment and anti-clerical views from an early age.
Spencer is most recognized for using the ideas of biology and evolutionary theory to inform his views on society. His most influencial publication was A System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862-93). Synthetic Philosphy would bring together his ideas of biology, sociology, ethics and politics. However, it should be noted that Spencer’s view of evolution involved Lamarckian inherited traits and not Darwin’s method of natural selection.
Spencer, widely recognized as an agnostic, was enormously popular amongst ethicical and humanist circles, with his works widely promoted by the Rationalist Press Association. Spencer was an intellectual heavy weight in the Victorian Era, even nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902. His reputation has suffered somewhat in historiography as he was often inconsistent in his conclusions.
In his later years Spencer was a hypochondriac, suffering from a variety of unrecognisable maladies. He died in 1903 at the age of 83 and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery.