Best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, Herbert Spencer was a prominent Victorian-era philosopher, biologist, sociologist, anthropologist and political theorist.
Born in Derby, he lived a long life to the age of 83, during which he achieved incredible respect and authority in the English-speaking academic world.
Let’s have a look at the most interesting facts about Herbert Spencer.
Herbert Spencer Interesting Facts
1. He is at the origin of the phrase “survival of the fittest”
One of today’s very popular phrases, the term “survival of the fittest” doesn’t actually come from Charles Darwin’s work, as many of us would quickly believe.
In his book Principles of Biology (1864), Spencer used this expression after studying Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Interestingly, Darwin then embraced the term himself. Alfred Russel Wallace, another prominent naturalist and anthropologist of the time, suggested that the term “survival of the fittest” should be used as an alternative to Darwin’s “natural selection”. This led to him using the term in some of his other works and actually including it in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869.
2. He had a theory of evolution before Darwin
Spencer’s work predated Darwin by seven years, but it lacked an effective theoretical system and wasn’t taken seriously, an interesting fact about Herbert Spencer. In 1852, he published an essay called “The Development Hypothesis” in The Leader.
3. He didn’t invent the paperclip
One of the myths about Herbert Spencer, given what an influential figure he appeared to be in his time, was that he invented the ubiquitous paperclip.
While that’s not true, in his autobiography, Spencer claimed that he invented a “binding pin” in 1846, and it was distributed by Ackermann & Co. This was true, and it looked more like a “cotter pin” or split pin to hold sheets of paper together, unlike the modern paperclip we use today. So, somewhat close!
4. He almost had an affair with George Eliot
We know that Herbert Spencer met and became friends with Mary Ann Evans (known as George Eliot). They had a true “meeting of the minds” given Eliot’s interest in the evolution of science and philosophy, and an intense friendship, which looked like it could develop into more. An interesting fact about Herbert Spencer is that he was put off by Eliot’s “unconventional looks” and George Eliot went on to meet and marry George Henry Lewes.
5. He had an “angry suit”
Herbert Spencer had a moody personality and owned a so-called “angry suit”. Harold Nicolson describes him sitting “upstairs in his angry overalls, too angry to come down to luncheon. And next morning he would dress in a neat suit of grey tweed, and be again his bright and petulant self.”
Spencer appears to have been prone to neuroses and panic attacks, as well as bouts of depression, so overall his mental health was never very stable.
6. Spencer had a difficult childhood
Growing up, Herbet Spencer was exposed to emotional imbalance in his own father, which may explain why he had swinging moods too. George Herbert was apparently unable to control his anger and Herbert described this in his autobiography. His parents’ marriage was miserable, and he subsequently grew up finding it difficult to show emotional intimacy. Apparently he found physical intimacy impossible, an unfortunate fact about Herbert Spencer.
7. He ran away from home
When he was 13, Herbert Spencer lived with his uncle Thomas Spencer, a clergyman living near Bath. Thomas was supposed to educate Herbert and did teach him mathematics, physics and Latin.
However, young Herbert was unhappy there and ran away, managing to cover 115 miles in three days before eventually being returned to his uncle.
8. He disliked formal wear because of his convictions
In Spencer’s view, formal coats and hats were the symbol aristocratic or bourgeois supremacy. He refused to wear formal outfits – especially top hats – and declined public invitations that would involve putting on the “garments of oppression.”
Other accounts mention that he refused to wear a necktie and stated that those who invited him should “take him as he chose to come.”
9. He was quite the eccentric traveller
Spencer’s strange and eccentric looks became a well-known attribute of his. When he took the train, he would bring the manuscript he was working on tied to his waist with two to three yards of string coming from underneath his coat, a fun Herbert Spencer fact.
As he valued individuality above all, we can assume that he did things like this deliberately, as well as his choice of dressing against the dress code of the time. However, there was always a fine line between a deliberate eccentricity and his changing behaviours and moods.
10. He was a best-selling author
For a philosopher, Spencer enjoyed huge popularity in the 1870s and 1880s, and sold an enormous number of books. It is believed he was the first and maybe only philosopher in history to sell over a million copy of his books while he was still alive.
He sold lots of books in the United States and Britain, but also across the entire world. The skilled working class were his main admirers, as they embraced his emphasis on individual self-improvement.
11. His reputation declined sharply after his death
Despite being known as a hypochondriac, Herbert Spencer lived to the age of 83 and enjoyed popularity up to his death. However, in the early 20th century, his reputation in philosophy declined quickly and he went from being considered the “Aristotle of the nineteenth century” to his work being considered a “parody of philosophy”.
Herbert Spencer’s work was influential for a very long time and seeped into politics and literature too. His political philosophy fueled those who believed that individuals controlled their own fate, and was quoted in US Supreme Court cases. His thinking on the need for a strong central authority to promote social development inspired Chinese and Japanese government policies. One can see how his influence travelled far and wide and made him an exceptional figure of his time – leading to these 11 interesting facts!
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