Who first propounded the theory of social evolution? | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru

Social Evolution

Question: Who first propounded the theory of social evolution?

  1. Herbert Spencer
  2. Wallace and Darwin
  3. Aristotle
  4. Montesquieu

Answer: (1)

Herbert Spencer and the Theory of Social Evolution

The theory of social evolution, often associated with the name Herbert Spencer, stands as a significant contribution to the field of sociology and evolutionary thought. Herbert Spencer was a polymath of the 19th century, known for his works in philosophy, sociology, and political theory. This essay aims to explore the theory of social evolution attributed to Spencer, examining its key principles, historical context, criticisms, and its lasting impact on sociological discourse.

  1. Historical Context:

Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution emerged in the mid-to-late 19th century, a period marked by profound societal transformations, industrialization, and the rise of scientific inquiry. Influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin and drawing parallels between biological evolution and societal development, Spencer sought to apply evolutionary principles to the understanding of human societies.

  1. Key Principles of Social Evolution:

Spencer’s theory of social evolution was grounded in several key principles:

Survival of the Fittest: Borrowing from Darwinian evolution, Spencer applied the concept of “survival of the fittest” to societies. He argued that societies, like species, undergo a process of natural selection, where the most adapted and advanced forms survive and thrive.

Differentiation and Integration: Spencer proposed that social evolution involves a dual process of differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to the specialization of social functions and structures, while integration involves the coordination and unification of these specialized elements.

Evolutionary Stages: Spencer identified three main stages of societal evolution: the military or militant stage, the industrial or industrial stage, and the ultimate, ideal stage—the stage of voluntary cooperation. He believed that societies progress linearly through these stages.

Laissez-Faire Capitalism: Spencer was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism and argued that interference with the natural course of societal evolution, particularly by the state, would hinder progress. He believed that societies should evolve naturally, without external interventions.

  1. Criticisms of Spencer’s Social Evolutionism:

While Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution had a significant impact on contemporary thought, it was not without its criticisms:

Teleological Nature: Critics argued that Spencer’s theory was teleological, implying an inherent direction and purpose in societal evolution. This deterministic aspect drew skepticism from scholars who emphasized the contingent and unpredictable nature of historical development.

Eurocentrism: Spencer’s evolutionary schema was criticized for its Eurocentrism, as it tended to measure societal progress based on Western models. This ethnocentric bias overlooked the diversity of human cultures and societies.

Simplistic Application of Biological Analogies: Some critics objected to Spencer’s simplistic application of biological analogies to societal evolution. The complexities of human societies, they argued, cannot be reduced to a straightforward biological model.

Influence of Ideology: Spencer’s theory, particularly his advocacy for laissez-faire capitalism, was seen as reflective of his political and ideological biases. Critics argued that his social evolutionism served to justify existing social hierarchies and economic structures.

  1. Impact and Legacy:

Despite the criticisms, Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution left an enduring impact on the development of sociological thought:

Functionalism: Spencer’s emphasis on differentiation, integration, and the interdependence of social institutions influenced later functionalist sociologists. Émile Durkheim, for example, incorporated some of Spencer’s ideas into his own theories of social order and integration.

Evolutionary Sociology: The broader framework of evolutionary sociology, exploring the development of societies over time, owes a debt to Spencer’s pioneering work. Scholars within this tradition have continued to investigate the adaptive changes and transformations of human societies.

Critique and Reevaluation: Spencer’s work stimulated critical engagement, prompting subsequent sociologists to refine and critique his ideas. Contemporary scholars have revisited his theories, extracting valuable insights while discarding elements deemed problematic.

  1. Reevaluation in Modern Context:

In the contemporary landscape, scholars often approach Spencer’s theory with a nuanced perspective. While recognizing its historical significance, modern sociologists acknowledge its limitations and the need for a more inclusive, culturally sensitive understanding of societal development.


Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution, encapsulating the spirit of 19th-century evolutionary thought, remains a crucial milestone in the history of sociology. Its impact, both positive and negative, has reverberated through the discipline, shaping subsequent sociological paradigms and eliciting ongoing debates. As aspirants prepare for the MA CUET exam, an exploration of Spencer’s social evolutionism equips them with a deeper understanding of the historical roots and evolving nature of sociological theories.


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Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Question: Define the term “ethnic movement” and provide an example from India.

Answer: An ethnic movement refers to a collective effort by a group sharing common cultural, linguistic, or religious traits, seeking to assert their identity and rights; an example from India is the Khalistan Movement in Punjab.

2. Question: Identify the main objectives behind the Gorkhaland ethnic movement.

Answer: The Gorkhaland ethnic movement primarily seeks to establish a separate state for India’s Nepali-speaking population in the Darjeeling region, advocating for linguistic and cultural recognition and political autonomy.

3. Question: What was the Operation Blue Star, and which ethnic movement was it related to?
Answer: Operation Blue Star was a military action in 1984, aiming to remove Sikh militants hiding in the Golden Temple in Amritsar; it is related to the Khalistan movement, which sought a separate Sikh country.

4. Question: Mention a critical factor that triggered the emergence of ethnic movements in India, as discussed by Dipankar Gupta.
Answer: Dipankar Gupta emphasized that ethnicity is fundamentally a political process, wherein caste and religion, the key components of identity formation, are politicized by leaders for vested interests.

5. Question: What were the primary reasons for the Assam Ethnicity conflicts involving Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslim settlers?
Answer: The Assam Ethnicity conflicts primarily stemmed from issues related to immigration, land rights, and resource allocation, leading to clashes, riots, and evolving relationships among indigenous communities to address challenges.

6. Question: Briefly describe the role of the Dravidian Movement in terms of caste and societal structure.
Answer: The Dravidian Movement, led notably by E.V. Ramasamy, aimed to establish an egalitarian society, focusing on anti-Brahmanism and advocating for equal rights for backward castes, while also introducing reforms like self-respect marriages.

7. Question: Name the prominent ethnic movements in North-East India and specify one common objective.
Answer: Prominent ethnic movements in North-East India include the Nagas’ and Mizos’ struggles; a common objective was to gain autonomy and recognition for their distinct tribal identities and cultural uniqueness.

8. Question: What is the key argument of Gail Omveldt regarding traditional Indian society and multiculturalism?
Answer: Gail Omveldt opposed romanticizing traditional Indian society, arguing that hierarchy has always dominated it and dismissing the notion that multiculturalism is an intrinsic feature of Indian society as a myth.

9. Question: Briefly explain the social hierarchy factor as a contributing element to ethnic movements as suggested by Olzak.
Answer: Olzak suggests that the construction of hierarchies among ethnic communities, which often leads to the suppression of one group by another, is a key factor that can instigate social and ethnic movements.

10. Question: Identify one consequence of the unequal economic development factor within the context of ethnic movements in India.
Answer: One consequence of unequal economic development is the marginalization and underdevelopment of certain groups, leading to feelings of alienation and sometimes initiating ethnic movements as these groups strive for equality and recognition.

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