Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/February 1879/Scientific Relation of Sociology to Biology II

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BIOLOGICAL Methods applicable to Sociology.—We have thus shown the use in sociology of the ideas and doctrines characteristic of biology. We have shown that they are applicable, but with some limitations and modifications imposed by the presence of a nature higher than the animal. We come now to show the use of biological methods in the cultivation of sociology.

The great characteristic method of biology is the method of comparison. The reason is obvious. The phenomena of life are so complex that it is impossible to reduce them to law without simplifying them. But the mode of simplification adopted in physics and chemistry, viz., experiment, or the arranging of simple artificial conditions, is only to a slight extent applicable to biology. The phenomena are not only complex, but they are so delicately balanced that the introduction of our rude hands in the way of experiment often overthrows the equilibrium, destroys the conditions of biological experiment, viz., life, and thus throws the whole subject into the realm of chemistry and physics. But, fortunately, nature has prepared for us an elaborate series of experiments. We have organisms of every degree of increasing simplicity, from the body of man to the microscopic spherule of almost unorganized protoplasm called a moner. The complex problem of life, as we go down this scale, is made simpler by the successive removal of added complications, until it is finally reduced to its simplest terms, and thus only we begin to understand the essential phenomena—thus only may we find the value of the unknown quantity. It is, therefore, by extensive comparison of organisms in all stages of complication with each other, that the foundations of a scientific biology have been laid. Anatomy has become scientific only through comparative anatomy; physiology through comparative physiology; and, we may add, psychology is now awaiting the development of comparative psychology.

But this general method of comparison is subdivided into three or four sub-methods. Nature has prepared not only one but three or four series, not identical, not mere duplicates of each other, but varied, yet resembling and illustrating each other. The first of these is the natural history or taxonomic series. It consists of the whole series of organisms as they now exist, from the complexly structured mammal to the simple unicelled plant or animal. The second of these is the embrionic or ontogenic series. It consists of the successive stages of development of one of the higher animals, from the germ-cell to the mature condition. The third is the geological or phylogenic series. It consists of the organisms inhabiting the earth in successive epochs, from the Archæan until now. The fourth is the pathological series. It consists of all possible variations from the normal type by monstrosity or by disease. Though much less full than either of the others, it must not be neglected by biologists.

It is wholly by extensive comparison in these four series that biology has recently risen to the rank of a true science. In this great work, the chief credit is due to three men, viz., Cuvier, Agassiz, and Darwin; for these three are the great founders of the comparative method. Cuvier laid the foundations of comparative anatomy and physiology, by comparison in the taxonomic series. Agassiz extended the comparison to the ontogenic and phylogenic series, showed the resemblance between the three, and determined and announced all the formal laws of evolution of the organic kingdom as now recognized. Darwin has made the bold and in large measure successful attempt to explain these laws by the operation of secondary causes. If Agassiz may be called the Kepler of the time universe, Darwin may with some though with much less show of reason be called its Newton. I say with less show of reason, for the causes of evolution are yet very imperfectly known.

Now, not only are all these methods applicable to the study of sociology, but all the advance in this science which has taken place in recent times has been the result of their application. For how has sociology been advanced, and must continue to be advanced? 1. By the comparison of social organisms, nations, tribes, etc., as they now exist in different portions of the earth and in different grades and kinds of civilization, with each other, in institutions, habits, customs, forms of government, etc. Is not this the taxonomic series? 2. By comparing the different stages of development of the same social organism, from savagism to the highest degree of civilization, and marking the origin, growth, and modification of government, institutions, customs, etc. Is not this the embryonic or ontogenic series? 3. By comparing with each other the successive stages of advance of all social organisms of the whole race through the rude stone, the polished stone, the bronze, and the iron conditions. This is M. Comte's historic method; but is it not the geological or phylogenic series? 4. By comparing the same social organism with itself in its normal and abnormal conditions, i. e., in a state of peace, prosperity, social health, and social sanity, with the same in various states of commotion, revolution, anarchy, social fever, and social frenzy. Is not this the pathological series? It is impossible to doubt that these are the true scientific methods of sociology. But they were all first used in biology, and only afterward imported into sociology.


But it will perhaps be objected: "This supposed relation of sociology to biology is but an analogy which has not even the merit of being new or recent. It has always been recognized. It is well expressed by the story told by Menenius Agrippa to the mutinous Roman plebeians, in which he showed the absurdity of their conduct by comparing the condition of Rome to a state of war among the members of the body. It is also admirably expressed by St. Paul in his comparison of the church to a well-organized body with different members having different functions. The analogy has always been recognized, but has not borne any special fruit in the advancement of social science, or the betterment of the social condition." To this I answer: Yes, it has always been recognized; but there are different degrees of recognition, and it is only the higher degrees which bear any scientific fruit. In this, as in other departments, a recognition of the laws of nature by the imagination gives rise to metaphor, simile, poetry, art, and in its highest manifestations is what we call genius. A dim, imperfect recognition of the same by the reason constitutes analogy. The clear recognition by the reason of the same in all its details, so that the application of appropriate methods becomes possible, constitutes science. Thus sociology, like all other sciences, has its three stages: 1. The facts of sociology are collected and recorded in chronicle and history. This is descriptive sociology. 2. These facts are reduced more or less successfully to general formal laws. This is philosophical history, or formal sociology. Thus far sociology is built upon its own basis of facts and phenomena; an analogical connection with biology may have been recognized, but not a scientific connection. 3. These formal laws are connected with and explained by the fundamental laws controlling organisms as their cause, and sociology becomes finally a causal science. In this, as in all other sciences, this last step is attended with prodigious impulse-and steady advance, for it is this last step which connects it with the hierarchy and gives it the assistance of all other sciences. It is this step which has only recently been made, and its effect is already visible.

But it will be again objected that society is already highly organized; how, then, can it be said that the science of social organization is of recent origin? How could the principles of social organization be embodied without a knowledge of those principles? The answer to this is quite plain, and brings to view an additional resemblance between society and other lower forms of organization. As the organic body passes from lower to higher and still higher forms without any will or consciousness or knowledge of the process on the part of the organism itself—or, still better, because more closely analogous to the social organism, as the organic kingdom, regarded as an organism, throughout all geological times developed into higher conditions without any intention on the part of the many individuals of which it is composed, but only as the natural result of each seeking its own ends in the struggle for life—even so society advances to more and more highly organized conditions without any intention on the part of the individual members, much less any knowledge of the principles of social organization, but purely as the natural result of the struggle for life, and each member seeking his own immediate ends. In both cases it is natural law working out its legitimate result. In both cases it is God (for natural law is the mode of Divine activity) working to a given end without the conscious coöperation of individuals. But there is this wide difference: In the latter case, if the development continues, there inevitably comes a time when man turns about and reflects upon what he has unconsciously or at least intuitively done: there eventually comes a time when he consciously cooperates with God or nature, and strives by the use of reason and science to modify and improve the social organism.

Or, regarding it from a slightly different point of view, the social organism is a work of art, the noblest of all arts. Now art always precedes science, and not the reverse, as many seem to suppose. It is fortunate that it is so, or emergence from barbarism would be impossible. The art of walking is acquired in great perfection before the principles of equilibrium involved are understood. Handspikes and pulleys and screws were used before the principles of the lever and inclined plane involved in their use were understood. The art of music was carried to exquisite perfection before the scientific principles of harmony were known. Pottery, agriculture, and many other useful arts were not only practiced, but carried to a high degree of perfection, before the corresponding sciences were born. The capacity for art is inherited from the animal kingdom. Science is born of humanity, and is therefore distinctively human. Art is born of instinct or intuition; science of the conscious reason. Art is the result, at first, of the empirical method; science always of the rational method. I repeat, then, art precedes, leads upward to the comprehension of science; but science, when sufficiently perfect, turns again and perfects art. Art is the earthly mother of science; but the celestial daughter, when mature, turns again and blesses and helps her mother. Even so is it with human society. The art of government and of social organization precedes the corresponding science, and is its necessary condition; but when sufficiently perfect, sociology will undertake to modify and better the social organization, and guide the social development.

But I said, art is inherited from the animal kingdom; science is born of humanity. For this reason art is of itself limited; science is unlimited, for it is connected only with the highest nature of man, the spiritual and eternal. Art may be carried to a high degree of perfection, but unless assisted by science quickly culminates and declines, or else becomes petrified and immutable; but if its principles be understood, if it becomes allied with science, if it passes under the dominion of the self-conscious reason, it then becomes indefinitely progressive. So also that highest art, the art of government and social organization, may reach, unassisted by science, a high degree of perfection; but if it be simply an art it quickly culminates and declines, or else becomes petrified and immutable, as we see in the Chinese and Japanese. As in the organic kingdom each organic form is specialized to the greatest extent and then becomes immutable and generally perishes; as the tree of life branches, and each branch grows its several way—flowers, fruits, and dies—even so each isolated nation, or branch of the social tree, pushes its growth it knows not whither, but as far as possible in its direction, then flowers, fruits, and dies. But if the scientific principles of sociology be once understood, if science or self-conscious reason guide the social development, there can no longer be any limit to its progress. But observe: this indefinite progress is due wholly to the introduction of other principles than those derived from purely animal nature; it violates the perfect analogy to material organisms. In fact science, which determines and guides that indefinite progress, is itself born only of that higher nature.

But again: all who have reflected much on the relation of science to art can not fail to have observed that while a mature science guides art with certainty, and continues to perfect it without limit, yet there is a certain stage in the development of science when its influence maybe even disastrous. In the passage from art to science there is a certain stage when the presumptuous application of an imperfect science interferes with the truer and better results of a perfect empiricism, and art is thereby hurt. This is true especially of the more complex arts and sciences. Thus the principles of science must be held in subordination to an enlightened empiricism in such arts as medicine, agriculture, etc. Science can not yet undertake to guide these arts with confidence. So is it also, and in a much greater degree, in the case of human society; for here we have the most difficult art, and the most complex and imperfect science. It must be yet a very long time before the science of sociology can presume to guide the course of social progress. Premature interference with the results of an enlightened empiricism can do nothing but harm.


I have now covered the ground which is implied in the title of this article. I have shown the close connection, both in doctrine and method, between social and organic sciences—a connection similar to that which exists between organic science and that immediately below it in the hierarchy. I have shown that sociology is one of that hierarchy, and the highest. I have shown that the cultivation of this science requires acquaintance with all other and simpler sciences, but especially biology. My task would seem to be done. But I would do violence to my feelings and convictions, and would be liable to serious misconstruction, if I stopped here. What I have thus far said gives but an imperfect idea of the comprehensiveness and complexity of social science. I have yet shown but one side of this complex subject, although the side which is most familiar to my thoughts, and, I believe, also the best developed. It is necessary at least to glance at the other side. I have developed one of the foundations or basic connections of sociology; but there is another, as I now proceed to show.

All along, in the course of this discussion, I have from time to time shown that there are certain limitations to the application of the doctrines and methods of biology to sociology, and that in every case such limitation is the result of the introduction of some new principle characteristic of humanity as distinguished from animality, of reason as distinguished from instinct, of spirit as distinguished from matter. This is precisely what, even from a purely scientific point of view, we ought to expect, and is in fact necessary. For in the scientific hierarchy each science, in addition to the forces and phenomena of the lower sciences, deals with a new force and a new group of phenomena, and therefore with new doctrines and new methods. In going up the scale of sciences we rise successively to a higher and higher plane of activity. On the plane of dead matter only physical and chemical forces operate, and only physical and chemical phenomena occur. On the plane of living matter, in addition to the preceding, we have also vital forces and phenomena. On the plane of sentient existence we have, in addition, nerve force and phenomena. On the plane of rational and moral existence we have, in addition to all the preceding, also rational and moral forces and their corresponding phenomena. With every rise to a higher plane we have also, as has already been shown, new doctrines and new characteristic methods. Shall we not, then, on this highest plane also, viz., on the plane of rational and moral existence, the plane of humanity, shall we not have here also new characteristic methods and doctrines connected with this new and higher form of force? It is evident that we must. All the doctrines and methods which I have developed are imported from biology. I have said nothing of characteristic methods and doctrines of sociology. Comte clearly saw the necessity, in accordance with the principles of a scientific hierarchy, of a characteristic method, and he thought he had found it in what he calls the historic method. But Comte's historic method, as we have already shown, is nothing but comparison in the phylogenic series—a method which is imported from geology. There must be characteristic methods and doctrines in this highest science also. What are they? Man is certainly something more than an animal. What is that something more? The answer to these two questions is the same. The characteristic doctrines and methods of sociology are evidently connected with man's higher rational and moral nature—with his distinctive humanity. But the science of this side of our nature is yet so imperfectly developed, our knowledge of these higher phenomena is yet so imperfectly reduced to law, that these characteristic doctrines and methods are not clearly recognized and distinctly formulated. In a word, our knowledge here is not yet scientific; the department has not yet even a distinctive name. For want of a better we shall call it psychology, although it really includes much more than usually goes under that name. But when (if ever) this department of knowledge shall take on a scientific form, then it also must become another basis, another fundamental science, on which must rest sociology. And what sociology is now waiting for, more than for anything else, is the scientific development of this second basis.

Thus then sociology, unlike other sciences, and because of man's twofold nature, rests not on one only but on two more fundamental sciences. The basis which I have developed is the material basis. This is all that the materialists admit. If a pure material philosophy were sufficient, this is all the basis which sociology requires. The fact that it is not sufficient, the fact that another basis is required, is demonstrative against a pure material philosophy. According to a pure material philosophy science is a straight shaft rising ever until it pierces heaven. But, on the contrary, if we watch its progress closely, we perceive that it indeed rises straight enough at first; but as it approaches the plane of humanity it begins to lean and curve to one side, until it inevitably falls over, unless it be supported on that side also. That support which it must receive is, or should be, the rising and arching shaft of psychology. But, alas! this shaft is yet too imperfectly built to support effectively, and hence the present unsteady condition of the whole fabric of science so far as it relates to man.

Thus, then, there are two fundamental sciences upon which sociology must rest. These are on the material side biology and on the spiritual side psychology. But sociology, like all other sciences, must first rise on its own basis of observed and collated facts and phenomena. Therefore we may describe the process of the building of a scientific sociology as follows: First, social facts, or building materials, are gathered in chronicles and detailed histories: this is descriptive sociology. Then these facts are collated and reduced to laws, the materials are chiseled and fitted and cemented into a rising column: this is formal sociology, or philosophic history and political economy. Then the column arches and connects in one direction with the more fundamental science of biology, and in another direction with that of psychology, and thus becomes causal or true scientific sociology. On this triune arch (not double arch, for the columns stand in triangle) rests the broad triply supported platform of social science, and from this must hereafter rise the beautiful shaft of increasing social knowledge.

On this triply-supported platform there are three regions from which spring respectively three shafts, distinct yet united to form one. The social organism is composed of three subordinate organisms; the social body is composed of three fundamental coördinate corporations, connected each most closely with one of the supporting columns. These are—1. The political organization; 2. The moral and religious organization; and, 3. The industrial organization: or the state, the church, and the guild. The first is connected directly with the history column; the second with the psychology column; and the third with the scientific column. They may be compared (though the comparison may be considered fanciful) to the three great regions of the organic body, viz., the head, the thorax, and the abdomen, or rather to the three great coordinate systems of the animal organism, viz., the nervous system, the blood and respiratory system, and the digestive system; the first controlling and directing, the second warming and vivifying, the third furnishing aliment. They correspond also to the three great divisions of the psyche, viz., the intellect, the affections, the will: the first directing and controlling; the second giving motive-stimulus, energy; the third, active and executive. They correspond finally to the three subordinate and coördinate courses of a perfect human culture insisted upon in my article "On Liberal Education,"[1] viz.: 1. The Language-Art course, commencing with language, ancient and modern, passing upward through literature, art, history, philosophical history, and thus connecting with sociology through the political organization or the state; 2. The Philosophic course, commencing with logic and passing upward through mental philosophy, moral philosophy, and so connecting again with sociology through the religious organization, the church; 3. The Scientific course, commencing with mathematics and passing up through the hierarchy of science, as already given, and so connecting again with sociology through the industrial organization, the guild.

I have made only three fundamental corporations of the social organism. Friedrich Schlegel, the celebrated writer on philosophy of history, in a series of articles entitled "Characteristics of the Age," makes five essential corporations rising one above the other in the following order, viz., the family, the guild, the state, the school, the church. But the least reflection, I think, will show that the family and the school belong to a different order from the other three, being subordinate and preparatory to them, not coördinate with them. The former are internal, elaborative; the latter external, visible, public, final results. I am sure that the more we reflect upon this subject, the more we will be convinced that there are only three fundamental and strictly coördinate corporations.

We have seen that it is the guild which is most directly and closely connected with the scientific column, and with our material nature. In accordance with this fact we find that it is this sub-organism which is by far the most perfectly organized. It is in this that we see most perfectly carried out the law of differentiation and specialization of social functions and mutual dependence of parts; and the strongest tendency to identification of the individual life with the social function. In other words, it is precisely here, as we should expect, that we find the nearest approach to the ideal of material organization. In accordance with the same fact we also find that the corresponding department of social science, viz., political economy, is that which is by far the most perfectly developed.

There are three mistakes made by thinkers on the subject of sociology, all founded on a too limited view of the structure of the social organism, each consisting of an attempt to absorb the whole organism into one of the fundamental corporations—to regard the great field of sociology as connected with only one of the supporting columns mentioned above. Lawyers, politicians, statesmen, and indeed people generally, regard sociology as most closely connected with the history column, and would make the state paramount. The state is for them the social organism. Theologians and moralists, on the other hand, would make the church paramount in importance if not absolutely absorbing the others, and sociology as most closely connected with the psychology column. The modern materialist would make the guild the paramount corporation, and sociology as most closely connected through biology with the scientific column. The political philosopher is apt, therefore, to cling only to empirical laws and so-called practical methods, unaware of or denying the connection of sociology with any more fundamental departments of science, and especially its connection with biology. The psychologist and the theologian are apt to ignore too much the material basis of sociology, the organic laws which through our material nature impress themselves upon the structure and development of society; while the materialist and the political economist are apt to overlook or belittle the importance of the other essential corporations, especially the church, and make sociology nothing more than the highest of the material sciences. But no steady, safe progress in social organization can be made unless we fully recognize the coordinate value of these three, nor in the science of sociology unless we approach the subject from these three sides.

  1. "Southern Presbyterian Review," 1859.