Darwiniana: Notes on Evolutionary History

Herbert Spencer coined the term "survival of the fittest" in 1852 and suggested that Darwin use it himself after he read On the Origin of Species in 1859. However, Darwin was resistant because he thought it could be misinterpreted. According to historian Thomas Leonard, Spencer then appealed to Alfred Russell Wallace to pressure Darwin to accept the term. Darwin eventually agreed and it appeared in the fifth edition of Origin in 1869.

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Eric, you really should check with Wikipedia ;-)

Herbert Spencer introduced the expression `survival of the fittestâ in Principles of biology, vol. 1, 1864 â after he'd read On the Origin of Species, not before! The 1852 date seems to be a common error, but the phrase doesn't appear in his Social Statics of 1851 or any other early writings, as far as I can tell.


By dave souza (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

Thanks for the tip Dave. I'll look into that. But here's what historian Gregory Claeys has to say in his paper "'Survival of the Fittest' and the Origins of Social Darwinism" (which is where I got this date).

[W]e know of course that Darwin was not the inventor of the term, "the survival of the fittest." That honor belongs to Herbert Spencer, today best known as a founder of sociology, but the greatest polymath-and to Darwin, as well as Wallace, the greatest philosopher-of his day. Spencer coined the term in 1852 in an article on population theory, while suggesting that intraspecific struggle-largely provoked by the pressure of population growth-resulted in "progress," with the survival of plant and animal species being dependent on their fertility.

The source Claeys cites is Spencer's 1852 essay "A Theory of Population Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility," Westminster Review. It's possible that Claeys is wrong and that this wasn't picked up when his article went out for peer review. I'll look into it.

As far as I can tell there is no scan of the Westminster Review from that year available on the web. I will seek out a copy at the library when I can. However, I found this transcription of Spencer's essay at Victorian Web. The specific phrase "survival of the fittest" doesn't appear, but he uses the word fitness several times and Spencer is unambiguous that he's talking about the survival of those individuals that are most fit.

From the lowly fungus which, under varying circumstances, assumes varying forms of organization, up to the tree that grows obliquey, if it cannot otherwise get to the lightâfrom the highest human faculty which increases or dwindles according to the demands made on it, down to the polype that changes its skin into stomach and its stomach into skin when turned inside outâhe everywhere sees at work an essential beneficence. Equally in the attainment of fitness for a new climate, or skill in a new occupationâin the diminuition of a suppressed desire, and in the growing pleasure that attends the performance of a dutyâin the gradual evanescence of grief, and in the callousness that follows long-continued privationsâhe perceives this remedial action. Whether he contemplates the acquirement, by each race, of a liking for the mode of life circumstances dictateâwhether he regards the process by which different nations are slowly forced to produce those commodities only, that it is best for the world they should produceâor whether he looks at the repeated re-establishment, amongst a turbulent people, of the form of government best fitted for themâhe is alike struck with the self-sufficingness of things.

I would say that whoever entered that into Wikipedia is technically correct and that Spencer may not have used the exact phrase until 1864, but they're wrong that he didn't come up with the idea until he read Darwin. Spencer also shows how he conflates the natural with the social and perceives evolution to be progressive (both of which Darwin rejected). This essay clearly shows that "survival of the fittest" was being advocated by Spencer seven years before Darwin published his book.

Thanks, I'll be glad to be corrected if mistaken!

Skimming a transcription, Spencer seems to have anticipated natural selection (in humans) in the essay, but not used the famous phrase. It doesn't show up on a search, but I may have missed it.


Darwin acknowledged that Spencer had put the idea of selection clearly in his letter, available from the Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 3126 â Darwin, C. R. to Spencer, Herbert, 23 [Feb 1860] â I've not given a link, but that should lead to the relevant letter.

Interesting puzzle, there do seem to be a number of sources claiming the phrase was in that essay, while others say that claim is mistaken.

By dave souza (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink