Evolution - Unilinear or Multilinear

In many passagesSpencer expresses what seems to be a belief in the unilinear evolutionof mankind, in which it appears that mankind's progress through stagesof development is as rigidly determined as the evolution of individualsfrom childhood to maturity. "As between infancy and maturity there isno shortcut by which there may be avoided the tedious process of growthand development through insensible increments; so there is no way fromthe lower forms of social life to the higher, but one passing throughsmall successive modifications . . . The process cannot be abridged andmust be gone through with due patience." At times, especially in hisearlier writings, Spencer pictures the process of evolution asunremitting, unrelenting, and ever present. "The change from thehomogeneous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress ofcivilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; andit is still going on with increasing rapidity."

Yet the matureSpencer, perhaps under the impact of his disappointment over the"collectivist" course English society was taking toward the end of thenineteenth century, recognized that, though the evolution of mankind asa whole was certain, particular societies may retrogress as well asprogress. "Though taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolutionmay be held inevitable . . . yet it cannot be held inevitable in eachparticular society, or even probable." "While the current degradationtheory is untenable, the theory of progression, in its ordinary form,seems to me untenable also . . . . It is possible and, I believe,probable, that retrogression has been as frequent as progression." "Asocial organism," Spencer argued, "like an individual organism,undergoes modifications until it comes into equilibrium with environingconditions; and thereupon continues without further change ofstructure." Once such equilibrium has been reached, evolution continues"to show itself only in the progressing integration that ends inrigidity [and] practically ceases."

Although passages to thecontrary could be quoted, Spencer by and large believed that societiesdo not develop irreversibly through predetermined stages. Rather, itwas his general view that they developed in response to their social andnatural environment.

Like other kinds of progress,social progress is not linear but divergent and re-divergent . . . .While spreading over the earth mankind have found environments ofvarious characters, and in each case the social life fallen into, partlydetermined by the social life previously led, has been partly determinedby the influences of the new environment; so that the multiplying groupshave tended ever to acquire differences, now major and now minor: therehave arisen genera and species of societies.

Spencerspecifically distinguished his own thought from that of rigid upholdersof theories of unilinear stages, such as Comte, when he wrote, "Hencearose, among other erroneous preconceptions, this serious one, that thedifferent forms of society presented by savage and civilized races allover the globe are but different stages in the evolution of one form: the truth being rather that social types, like the types of individualorganisms, do not form a series, but are classifiable only in divergentand re-divergent groups."

By introducing the factors ofstagnation and retrogression, Spencer no doubt made his theory moreflexible, but it thereby lost some of its appeal as a universal key tothe riddles of the universe. Beatrice Webb reports in herautobiography, My Apprenticeship, that her father, a successfulbusinessman, once told her in dispraise of Spencer, "Some businessesgrow divers and complicated, others get simpler and more uniform, othersgo into the Bankruptcy Court. In the long run and over the whole fieldthere is no more reason for expecting one process rather than theother."

From Coser, 1977:96-97.

Forward to "Functionalism"
Back to "Social Types: Militant and Industrial Societies"
Back to the Index