Durant 1926: Criticism: Biology and Psychology (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 8.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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VIII. 2. Criticism: Biology and Psychology

In a foot-note to his essay on “Progress,” Spencer candidly confesses that his ideas of evolution were based on Lamarck’s theory of the transmissibility of acquired characters, and were not really an anticipation of Darwin, whose essential idea was the theory of natural selection. He is rather the philosopher of Lamarckianism, then, than the philosopher of Darwinism. He was almost forty when the Origin of Species appeared; and at forty, one’s categories are hardened into immutability.

Spencer believed in the transmissibility of acquired characters rather than the theory of natural selection.

Aside from lesser difficulties, like the failure to reconcile his illuminating principle—that reproduction decreases as development advances—with such facts as the higher rate of reproduction in civilized Europe, as compared with savage peoples, the major defects of his biological theory are his reliance on Lamarck and his failure to find a dynamic conception of life. When he confesses that life “cannot be conceived in physico-chemical terms,” the “admission is fatal to his formula of evolution, to his definition of life, and to the coherence of the Synthetic Philosophy.” The secret of life might better have been sought in the power of mind to adjust external to internal relations than in the almost passive adjustment of the organism to the environment. On Spencer’s premises, complete adaptation would be death.

The major defects of Spencer’s biological theory are his reliance on Lamarck and his failure to find a dynamic conception of life.

The volumes on psychology formulate rather than inform. What we knew is reshaped into an almost barbarously complex terminology, which obscures where it should clarify. The reader is so fatigued with formulas and definitions and questionable reductions of psychological facts to neural structures that he may fail to observe that the origin of mind and consciousness is left quite unexplained. It is true that Spencer tries to cover up this gaping chasm in his system of thought by arguing that mind is the subjective accompaniment of nerve processes evolved mechanically, somehow, out of the primeval nebula; but why there should be this subjective accompaniment in addition to the neural mechanism, he does not say. And that, of course, is just the point of all psychology.

Spencer tries to cover up this gaping chasm of omitted origin of mind and consciousness by arguing that mind is the subjective accompaniment of nerve processes evolved mechanically, somehow, out of the primeval nebula.

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