First use of the phrase 'survival of the fittest'


The Principles of Biology by Herbert Spencer (1864) looked at biology in terms of themes, such as Function, Adaptation and Variation. In this book Spencer introduced the expression ‘survival of the fittest’, in the sense of ‘the most appropriate to its environment’. 

What did Spencer’s thinking embrace? 

Spencer was a polymath whose work includes writings on religion, economics, literature, biology, sociology, and political theory. He built an understanding of evolution as the progressive development of all creation from simple forms based on homogeneity towards an integrated equilibrium of differentiated forms, against the theories of Darwin. It also worked against the idea that everything moves towards homogeneity rather than heterogeneity (the second law of thermodynamics). 

Spencer, against the thinking of Darwin, incorporated into his thinking Lamarckian models – the idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited. These models explained the extraordinarily accelerated development of the human species. 

What is understood by ‘social Darwinism’? 

Spencer has been credited with the idea that Darwinian evolution provides a natural justification for the notion that ‘might is right’. In fact he believed that the model for economic competition could be found in competition for resources in nature; but competition could be managed for the good of society, so long as it did not lead to increased power for the state. If private charity led to the support for an idle underclass then it was a failure, an idea that when combined with population management, tends towards support for eugenics.

Full title:
The Principles of Biology
1864-67, London
Herbert Spencer
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Related articles

Darwin and the theory of evolution

Article by:
Carolyn Burdett
Fin de siècle, Technology and science

Charles Darwin’s ideas had a profound impact on the understanding of human life. Carolyn Burdett looks at the way he developed his theory of evolution, and how it became part of the Victorian imagination.

Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics

Article by:
Carolyn Burdett
Fin de siècle, Technology and science, Visions of the future

Dr Carolyn Burdett explores how Victorian thinkers used Darwin's theory of evolution in forming their own social, economic and racial theories, thereby extending Darwin's influence far beyond its original sphere.

Thinking with animals

Article by:

Animals have always been central to human culture, as cave paintings around the world attest. In more recent times, they have also been used to reflect on what it is that defines us as human. Here, one of the curators of the 2015 British Library Animal Tales exhibition, Matthew Shaw, explores some examples of how this has changed over time.

Related collection items