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This week’s New Yorker has a fascinating article about Herbert Spencer, the man credited with coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Ironically it’s been used to promote survival of the fattest – cats that is.

Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher and social commentator who strongly influenced Darwin, and was hailed for his ideas about evolution and the natural way of things. His phrase “survival of the fittest” was zealously embraced by late 19th century industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and used to support their preferred form of laissez-faire capitalism.

Basically they wanted government to keep its hands off business and let the strongest man/company win – no matter what tactics are used. It’s just the way of nature, they said, pointing to Spencer’s ideas. And these men, later known as the Robber Barons, went at it with gusto – while their workers and competitors often fell prey in this game of survival that took full advantage of the Machiavellian rule that the end justifies the means.

Although some, such as Carnegie, certainly made efforts to cleanse their souls by becoming renowned philanthropists whose contributions still reverberate to this day. Unfortunately, so do many of the practices they perfected.

Herbert Spencer’s Real Opinion of America

But, according to this article, it seems that Spencer was misinterpreted and in fact thought America was going about things all wrong:

“He did not approve of the culture of American capitalism, and, while he admired its material achievements, he was concerned that, for Americans, work had become a pathological obsession. Americans were endangering their mental and physical health through overwork, and many were turning gray before their time—ten years earlier than the British, Spencer believed. America needed “a revised ideal of life,” he said, and it was time to “preach the gospel of relaxation.” He went on, “Life is not for learning, nor is life for working, but learning and working are for life.””

It’s a shame modern business, as it strives for ever-increasing productivity and places mounting pressure on employees, didn’t learn that lesson. I wish we had a Spencer around today. Someone respected enough and bold enough to shake up business practices. Someone who could help business grow in a way that makes sense for the health and well-being of employees as well as society – and not just the bottom line.

OK. I have to add that there are many things Spencer believed in to which I take exception – mainly related to the role of government in resolving societal inequities. (He was rigidly against government meddling, although he did not believe in a society based on inequality. Not sure how he resolved the gap.) But that said…in this case, when it comes to the culture of American capitalism, we are definitely in synch.


If you’d like to read The New Yorker article:

Man with a Plan