Last year I decided to pay a visit to Highgate cemetery in London and wandered around the ivy chocked gravestones in search of Karl Marx, Douglas Adams and Herbert Spencer. Karl Marx was easy to find. The poor chap chose a rather modest grave the first time around, but in the fullness of time, as his fame became ever greater, he was dug up by his admirers and given a rather grandiose monument adorned with an oversized bust. In 1970 some Vandals tried to blow it up with a fizzing cocktail of weed-killer and sugar, either as a form of protest or as an expression of artistic taste. Across from Marx’s arresting stare lies the grave of Herbert Spencer who developed Social Darwinism, an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies; he also coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.
The novelist George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) is apparently buried a couple of rows behind Spencer. Unfortunately, cursed by a short attention span and frustrated after about ten minutes of scrabbling and tripping over weeds I was unable to find it. For Eliot, Herbert Spencer was one of a series of men on whom, well into her 30's, she was developing painful, messy crushes. She had a brief, intense emotional involvement with him, which ended in July of 1852 with his rejection of her affections
As their relationship had blossomed Herbert Spencer had described George Eliot as ‘ the most admirable woman, mentally, I have ever met’. He noted in his autobiography that the ‘greatness of her conjoined with her womanly qualities and manner, generally keep by her side most of the morning'. George Eliot for her part reciprocated in gushing terms, saying:
‘I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this –but I am not ashamed of it, for I am concious that in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me....If you become attracted to someone else, then I must die, but until then, I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything- I would be very good and cheerful and never annoy you. But I find it impossible to contemplate life under any other conditions’.
Some historians have argued that Darwinian evolution influenced Herbert Spencer to such a profound degree that it caused him to apply his own theories to his love life. He had rejected Eliot’s advances, reputedly because of his conviction that the natural function of a woman is to be beautiful, which Eliot was not. Spencer later wrote in reference to Eliot that ‘Physical beauty is a sine qua non with me as was once unhappily proved where the intellectual traints and the emotional traits were of the highest’. Rather Spencer believed that, ‘nature’s supreme aim is the welfare of prosperity’ and that ‘as far as prosperity is concerned, a cultivated intelligence based on a bad physique is of little worth, seeing that its descendants will die out in a generation or two’. In a subsequent essay, “Physical Training,” Spencer argued that “of the many elements uniting in various proportions to produce in a man’s breast that complex emotion which we call love, the strongest are those produced by the physical attractions; the weakest are those produced by intellectual attractions…". Having rigorously applied this principle till the end of his life he died a bachelor.
Of course if he had consulted Friedrich Nietzsche for advice he would have received some more sage guidance. The cynical German philosopher, not known for his relationship tips, once remarked that:
When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory.
George Eliot for her part went on to enter into a scandalous relationship with Spencer’s acquaintance, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. Perhaps with all that concentration on the ‘survival of the fittest’ Spencer had forgotten that evolution is about what is able to breed and pass its genes into the next generation. Take the wrong attitude and you may end up selecting yourself out of the gene-pool.
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