Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/687

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671
BIOLOGY AND ETHICS.
BIOLOGY AND ETHICS.[1]

By Sir JAMES CRICHTON BROWNE, M. D.,F. R. S.

IN the case of civilized man natural selection is subject to numerous and extensive limitations. The struggle for existence still goes on vehemently enough; but it is changed in character, and instead of animal rapine we have industrial competition. The brutal and relentless acts of self-assertion that in a savage state secured the survival of the fittest — that is to say, of those best adapted to savage surroundings — have been condemned as unsuitable to a more artificial existence and are punished as crimes, and the conflict is carried on by cunning devices which abolish the weakest slowly and unobtrusively and do not outrage certain moral feelings opposed to violence which have in the meantime grown up. But, more than that, in social progress the struggle for existence becomes in certain directions a surrender not of the feeblest but of the strongest and the best. A recognition of the obligations which man owes to his fellow-men and the promptings of "Love's divine self-abnegation" impose restraints on some of the competitors who, instead of forcing their way to the front, as they are well able to do, stand aside and allow themselves to be beaten by those less fitted to survive. To adapt the illustrations of Malthus, Nature still spreads her feast for twenty guests, while thirty stand by ready to partake of it, but, whereas in primitive times the twenty strongest would have unhesitatingly appropriated the sustenance, in these more virtuous days fifteen of the strongest and five of the weakest secure it, because five of the strongest have chosen to abrogate their natural claims. The census returns clearly show that while the age of marriage in this country steadily rises among the educated and affluent classes, it remains painfully low in agricultural districts and in the poorer quarters of the great towns.

The interference with the struggle for existence which civilization and ethical development involve is familiar to medical men above all others, for their professional career is one sustained endeavor to prevent the extermination of the unfittest and, therefore, to check the operation of natural selection. It is theirs to succor the victims who have been smitten in the fight, and who, but for their aid, would perish; it is theirs to preserve weakly lives which left unprotected would be ruthlessly stamped out; it is theirs to circumvent conquering bacteria and so prevent mortality and swell the millions contending for a bare sub-

  1. From an address delivered at the opening of the session of the Sheffield School of Medicine at Firth College, Sheffield, on October 2, 1893, and printed in the London Lancet.