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Nigel Costley

Herbert Spencer’s influence on Sir Frederic Truby King

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Highly sexist, intellectually eclectic, and champion of numerous public health campaigns, the founder of Plunket, Sir Frederic Truby King (1858 – 1938) is a difficult customer for the modern mind to understand. But some coherence can be brought to bear to King’s mercurial career when seen in the light of the influence of the British libertarian philosopher, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

The pre-eminent philosopher of evolution, Spencer – it was he who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ – has not fared well at the hands of history. The ‘devil take the hindmost’ element of his system has been unfairly overemphasized to the exclusion of its humanitarian core which advocates compassion, not through the state but the actions of individuals acting through voluntary cooperation.

For Spencer evolution worked through the agency of individual human beings, psychologically and socially, just as much as on the physical aspects of the natural world.   “Instead of civilization being artificial it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower,” he wrote.

The key driver is the development of character through the regular exercise of adaptive facilities. As nature is always working in favor of useful adaptations, if individuals are allowed to make their own choices, progress is not only possible but inevitable.

From Social Statics: “as surely as the musician learns to detect an error of a semitone amidst what seems to others as a very babel of sounds; as surely as a passion grows by indulgence and diminishes when restrained; as surely as a disregarded conscience becomes inert and one that is obeyed active; as surely as there is any meaning in such terms as habit, custom, practice; – so surely must the human faculties be molded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect”.

Spencer’s brand of highly optimistic philosophy, bordering on Utopian, captured the Zeitgeist of an age which saw science and social progress as virtually synonymous.

If mankind is adapted to the social state, why he asks in Social Statics (a book written to rebut utilitarian arguments of his good friend John Stuart Mill): “do men living in the social state suffer under numerous evils?”

He answers this question by dividing societies into two groups: militant and industrial. For most of history societies have been militant, ie based on the dictates of regular warfare and characterized by the principle of coercion. Conformity was ensured by the threat of punishment. The tyranny of compulsion extended to all aspects of a militant society: one tribe enslaving another, a feudal lord over his serfs, a husband over his wife. These societies tend to be stagnant, lacking in innovation and inherently degrading as the principle of compulsion makes the compeller brutal and cruel, while the compelled are stupid and docile.

Industrial society, in Spencer’s terms, is based on a completely contrary principle: that of voluntary cooperation. Afterall, the great inventions and trading enterprises that drove the industrial revolution did not result from the decree of some almighty potentate but from the cooperation of disparate individuals for their mutual benefit.

In his own lifetime Spencer had seen the humanizing aspect of this development: the abolition of public executions, the extension of the vote, some property rights granted to women. It was a time of transition between the two types of society. He saw the great social problems of his era as being the persistence of maladaptive coercive behaviours that would eventually give way completely to voluntary cooperation in the mature industrial society which he foresaw.

When treated with compassion and respect, most individuals, even those society regards as insane, behave in a more civilized manner. As at the Hanwell Asylum for the insane where a thousand ‘lunatics’ are managed without force, characterized by calmness, contentment and frequent recoveries, “that have followed the abandonment of the strait-jacket regime”.

These principles are much in evidence in King’s work as superintendent of Seacliff mental hospital. Unless given overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he always treated his patients from the start as potentially recoverable. No matter how troublesome a patient was any physical violence against them by the staff met with instant dismissal. A great believer in the healthy mind in a healthy body principle, King encouraged his charges to start the day with a brisk walk and busy themselves in a variety of occupations. Using scientific methods derived from his own experiments, King turned Seacliff into a thriving farm and market garden which according to his biographer, Mary King’s conjecture had a larger percentage of cures than any mental hospital in the southern hemisphere.

For Spencer human progress lies in abandoning repressive forms of government towards ones where the freedom of the individual is the most sacred principle. On this basis Spencer was a most vehement critic of socialism which, based on compulsion, was inherently regressive. In his book Man Versus the State he warns that the growth of state power will result in a tyranny far in excess of that exercised by any capitalist. Several commentators, as varied as Havelock Ellis and Hilaire Belloc, held that the unprecedented carnage of the First World War was a vindication of Spencer’s prophecy that the growth of state power would inevitably lead back to a state of barbarous militarianism.

As an exemplar of Spencer’s voluntary cooperation in action, the Plunket Society (formed in Dunedin 1907) was founded on the principle of ‘self help’. Its aims and objects were to uphold the sacredness of the body and the duty of health, with the Plunket nurses duties performed with a view to conserving the health and strength of the rising generation, and rendering mother and offspring hardy, healthy and resistive to disease. Acting as custodians for future generations was implicit.

Spencer termed his system ‘synthetic philosophy’. Not because it was artificial or contrived but rather it drew together all branches of learning, disparate only on the surface, with over-arching first principles. A good example of this is law of conservation of energy which states that within a closed system, energy can be neither lost nor gained, only redistributed. This helps to explain their sexism. Given women’s biological role of conceiving, delivering and nurturing babies the amount of energy they have to devote to reproduction would always be vastly greater than that required by men. So, if women devoted too much of their energies to intellect pursuits there would be a corresponding deficiency towards their biological functions. It was a simple matter of finite physics – more of one then less of the other.

It wasn’t that they believed in the inherent superiority of men, it was more that they saw the difficulties that women where having with babies resulted from them being maladapted to the childbearing state.

In 1905 King wrote: “If women in general were rendered more fit for maternity … if infants were nourished by their mothers and if boys and girls were given a rational education, the main supply of population for our asylums, hospitals, benevolent institutions, goals and slums would be cut off at the source.”

The law of conservation of energy was another reason for Spencer’s hostility to intervention by the state in social welfare issues. Any addition of energy to system will inevitably lead to stagnation or depletion somewhere else in the system and goes a long way to explain the law of unintended consequences so familiar to those who have studied welfare dependency in modern times.

Today we’re skeptical about the capacity for evolution to work as quickly and favorably on individual conduct as Spencer thought. Unlike Darwin , he believed in the Lamarckian idea of the inherence of acquired characteristics – a doctrine now widely discredited. In addition, repeatedly drawing a long bow, he generalized too freely – a tendency nicely satirized by his great friend Thomas Huxley who said: “Spencer’s idea of tragedy is a deduction killed by a fact”.

Where Truby King differed most from Spencer in practice was in the involvement of the state in funding of Plunket. From the outset the government pledged a pound for pound subsidy for the establishment of Plunket centres. Once the success of King’s methods was demonstrated – the mortality from infant diarrhoea fell dramatically in babies under his care – politicians were falling over themselves to throw money at Plunket.

While welcoming of the financial support, Plunket always fought to maintain its autonomy from the Department of Health. Arguing that they were an ‘educational and patriotic’ organisation, Plunket managed to resist intense pressure to combine with district nurses.

Although still enjoying enormous popularity with the general public, King fell out bitterly with the Dominion Council which ran Plunket in the 1930s. He caused great alarm when he declared that Plunket should begin charging mother’s for service. Free services were, he said, demoralizing and ‘that people got into the bad habits of taking everything as a right and giving nothing in return’. As a free service had been a cornerstone policy of the society since its inception this suggestion was seen as a sad reflection of Truby King’s mental deterioration. But equally, it could be argued that he saw his creation as moving too far away from the Spencerian principles of self reliance and voluntary cooperation on which it was founded.