Journal of the History of Biology 2005 (38):301-325
Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy is usually identified with right-wing doctrines such as individualism, laissez-faire liberalism and even conservatism. Since he himself defended similar positions, it is perhaps not surprising that the study of the political interpretations of his ideas has drawn relatively little attention. In this article I examine a rather atypical reading of Spencer’s organic analogy, though definitely not a marginal one: Enrico Ferri’s Marxist doctrine of Scientific Socialism. Ferri is not a figure unknown to scholars interested in the political aspects of the evolutionary debate. Nonetheless, the relationship between his theory and Spencer’s biosociology – notably the complex dialectic of themes such as ‘‘the struggle for existence’’ versus ‘‘class struggle,’’ or ‘‘evolution’’ versus ‘‘revolution’’ – has not yet received full-length analysis. In my study I investigate the diffusion of Spencer’s ideas in Italy and their impact on the new ‘‘positivist’’ sciences of psychology and sociology inasmuch as these questions are essential to understanding Ferri’s position. Throughout, I stress the importance of the intellectual and political context in the process of appropriation of ideas that led to this unexpected shift in meaning.