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

Herbert Spencer

Found in The Principles of Sociology, vol. 2 (1898)

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.

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.