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Herbert Spencer on customs which are the result of human action but not of deliberate design (1876)

The English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) notes that human “conventions” or customs are not the result of any deliberate design by human beings but usually evolve gradually and spontaneously over very long periods of time:

We find, then, that rules of behaviour are not results of conventions at one time or other deliberately made, as people tacitly assume. Contrariwise, they are natural products of social life which have gradually evolved. Apart from detailed proofs of this, we find a general proof in their conformity to the laws of Evolution at large.

CHAPTER XII.: CEREMONIAL RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT.

§ 427. We find, then, that rules of behaviour are not results of conventions at one time or other deliberately made, as people tacitly assume. Contrariwise, they are natural products of social life which have gradually evolved. Apart from detailed proofs of this, we find a general proof in their conformity to the laws of Evolution at large.

In primitive headless groups of men, such customs as regulate conduct form but a small aggregate. A few naturally prompted actions on meeting strangers; in certain cases bodily mutilations; and in some interdicts on foods monopolized by adult men; constitute a brief code. But with consolidation into compound, doubly compound, and trebly compound societies, there arise great accumulations of ceremonial arrangements regulating all the actions of life—there is increase in the mass of observances.

Originally simple, these observances become progressively complex. From the same root grow up various kinds of obeisances. Primitive descriptive names develop into numerous graduated titles. From aboriginal salutes come, in course of time, complimentary forms of address adjusted to persons and occasions. Weapons taken in war give origin to symbols of authority, assuming, little by little, great diversities in their shapes. While certain trophies, differentiating into badges, dresses and decorations, eventually in each of these divisions present multitudinous varieties, no [217] longer bearing any resemblance to their originals. And besides the increasing heterogeneity which in each society arises among products having a common origin, there is the further heterogeneity which arises between this aggregate of products in one society and the allied aggregates in other societies.

Simultaneously there is progress in definiteness; ending, as in the East, in fixed forms prescribed in all their details, which must not under penalty be departed from. And in sundry places the vast assemblages of complex and definite ceremonies thus elaborated, are consolidated into coherent codes set forth in books.

The advance in integration, in heterogeneity, in definiteness, and in coherence, is thus fully exemplified.

About this Quotation:

Friedrich Hayek made famous a line from Adam Ferguson about institutions coming about because they were the result of human action but not through the deliberate design of individuals. See quote number 104. Among these Hayekian spontaneous orders are language and money. To these the English sociologist Herbert Spencer would add custom or conventions such as greeting rituals, religious ceremonies, and other human behaviours used in groups. He has a detailed schema to explain how the simple evolves gradually into more complex forms which he applies to both the evolution of societies and economies, as well as to other forms of human behaviour. The exceptions he notes to all forms of evolution are those institutions and behaviours which come about through top-down intervention or by violence. Among the latter he would include those forms of deference to military and kingly leaders which are imposed on others often by threats of violence. Shaking hands is an example of the peaceful and voluntary evolution of a custom. Bowing to a king is not.

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