Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/The Economic Function of Vice
By JOHN McELROY.
FOR some inscrutable reason, which she has as yet given no hint of revealing, Nature is wondrously wasteful in the matter of generation. She creates a thousand where she intends to make use of one. Impelled by maternal instinct, the female cod casts millions of eggs upon the waters, expecting them to return after many days as troops of interesting offspring. Instead, half the embryotic gadi are almost immediately devoured by spawn-eaters, hundreds of thousands perish in incubation, hundreds of thousands more succumb to the perils attending ichthyic infancy, leaving but a few score to attain to adult usefulness, and pass an honored old age, with the fragrance of a well-spent life, in a country grocery.
The oak showers down ten thousand acorns, each capable of producing a tree. Three fourths of them are straightway diverted from their arboreal intent, through conversion into food by the provident squirrel and the improvident hog. Great numbers rot uselessly upon the ground, and the few hundreds that finally succeed in germinating grow up in a dense thicket, where at last the strongest smothers out all the rest, like an oaken Othello in a harem of quercine Desdemonas.
This is the law of all life, animal as well as vegetable. From the humble hyssop on the wall to the towering cedar of Lebanon—from the meek and lowly amœba, which has no more character or individuality than any other pinpoint of jelly—to the lordly tyrant, man, the rule is inevitable and invariable. Life is sown broadcast, only to be followed almost immediately by a destruction nearly as sweeping. Nature creates by the million, apparently that she may destroy by the myriad. She gives life one instant, only that she may snatch it away the next. The main difference is that, the higher we ascend, the less lavish the creation, and the less sweeping the destruction. Thus, while probably but one fish in a thousand reaches maturity, of every 1,000 children born 604 attain adult age. That is, Nature flings aside 999 out of every 1.000 fishes as useless for her purposes, and two out of every five human beings.
Many see in this relentless weeding out and destruction of her inferior products a remarkable illustration of the wisdom of Nature's methods. What would they think of a workman so bungling that two fifths of the products of his handicraft were only fit for destruction?
The "struggle for existence" is a murderous scramble to get rid of this vast surplusage. The "survival of the fittest" is the success of the minority in demonstrating that the majority are superfluous. It is the Kilkenny-cat episode multiplied by infinity. It will be remembered that the whole trouble arose from their common belief that two cats were a surplus of one for the Kilkenny environment.
Darwin's theory recognizes in this super-fecundity of Nature her most potent agency for improvement. He says, in effect, that the impossibility of providing subsistence for more than a fraction of the multitudinous creation causes a mortal struggle, in which the weaker and inferior are exterminated, and only the stronger and superior survive. These in turn have offspring like the leaves of the forest, which in like turn are winnowed out by alien enemies, and ruthless reciprocal extermination, the process going on continually with the sanguinary regularity of the King of Dahomey's administration of the internal economy of his realm. The benignity of this method of arranging the order of Nature is not so apparent as a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might desire.
But our opinion of this law is not cared for. The main importance attaches to the recognition of the fact that it is a law. Its application to society is obvious: Since the propagation of human beings goes on with entire recklessness as to the quality of the product and the means of subsistence, some strong corrective is absolutely necessary to establish limits to population, and to secure the continued development of the race. If every begotten child lived to the average age of forty, in a very few years there would not be standing-room on the earth for its people! Even with such limited propagators as the elephant, each female of which produces but six offspring in her bearing period of ninety years, we are told that, if the species had no parasitic or other enemies, it would only be 740 years until elephants overran the earth. Where, then, should we assign limits to the productiveness of the 700,000,000 human females on the globe, each of whom is capable of producing twenty children in her thirty years of bearing? If, too, every child had the same chance of life, without reference to its mental and physical fitness to live, humanity would soon become a stagnant slough of vicious vitality. As there are only food and room for the best, and as the development of the race demands it, only the best survive, and continue the work of propagation. The rest are destroyed. By "the best" is understood those having that harmony of mental and physical development which brings them most nearly into accord with natural laws.
Below the human strata, superabundant generation is neutralized by the simple device of having every organism prey upon some other one. In her ten years of fruitful life the female cod lays 50,000,000 eggs. If nothing thwarted the amiable efforts of herself and offspring to multiply and replenish, they would shortly pack the ocean as full as a box of sardines. But, while giving one animal the desire and capacity to produce 50,000,000 lives, Nature has given other animals the desire and capacity to annihilate those 50,000,000 lives. So, all through the animal kingdom it is nearly a neck-and-neck race between Production and Extermination.
Man alone is practically exempt from what is apparently an inseparable condition of all other forms of animal life. While he preys on a myriad of created things, there is no created thing that preys on him, and assists in keeping his excessive reproductiveness within the limits of subsistence. Most singular of all, not even a parasite wages destructive warfare against him.
This absence of destructive enemies must be compensated for in some way, and it is accomplished by making vicious inclinations the agents to weed out the redundant growths, and to select for extermination those which are inferior, depraved, weak, and unfit for preservation or reproduction.
If five human beings are procreated where there is present room and provision for but three, how are the surplus two to be picked out and exterminated? Of course, each one of us feels entirely competent to pick out in his own community the persons who could be best spared, but public opinion is at present hostile both to any practicable plan of making the necessary thinning out, and also to lodging the power of selection in the hands of even those of us best qualified for the duty.
Fortunately, the surplus ones relieve us from embarrassment on this score, by selecting and exterminating themselves. Their methods of suicide cover a wide range of expedients, but all are very effectual. Most beneficent of any of the facts that we have to consider is the one that each of those chosen for extermination embraces his fate with eagerness, under the delusion that he is about to enhance his own happiness. Immoderate use of stimulants, and the various excesses and vital errors which are grouped under the general head of "dissipation," a "life of pleasure," or the still more expressive phrase, "a short life and a merry one," etc., are favorite plans of self-annihilation, and leave little to be desired in the completeness with which they do their work.
Competent English statisticians estimate that, after a man has begun drinking beer in large quantities, it takes him 21·7 years to kill himself, and a whiskey-drinker shortens the time to 16·1 years. Intemperance, being among the milder vices, kills slowly. Sexual sins slay more rapidly, and the higher grades of vice do their work with a swiftness proportioned to their flagrancy. The Psalmist says, "Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days," but police records will show that David materially overstates the average. "One quarter their days" would approach much nearer exactness.
Returning to the major premise, that the "survival of the fittest" means the selection and preservation of those individuals who are most nearly in harmony with the conditions of their environment, and that the progress of the race or species involves the destruction of the weaker and inferior, who are not in such harmony, the conclusion follows that any aberration toward vice shows such a discordance in the individual with the laws of his environment as marks him as inferior, weak, and obstructive of the race's development.
Vice is not so much a cause as an effect—not so much a disease as a symptom. Vice does not make a nature weak or defective: a weak and defective nature expresses its weaknesses and defects in vice, and that expression brings about, in one way or another, the sovereign remedy of extermination.
Temperance agitators fill our ears continually with wails as to how the "demon Alcohol is yearly dragging down to dishonorable graves hundreds of thousands of the brightest and fairest of our land." This is supreme nonsense. With very few exceptions, every one who goes to perdition by the Alcohol route would reach that destination by some other highway, if the Alcohol line were not running.
Every man whose sloth or improvidence has brought himself and his family to beggary, every thieving tramp upon the highways, every rascal in the penitentiary, every murderer upon the gallows, hastens to plead, "Whisky brought me to this!" because he knows that such a plea will bring him a gush of sloppy sympathy not obtainable by any other means. But whisky makes no man lazy, shiftless, dishonest, false, cowardly, or brutal. These must be original qualities with him. If he has them, he will probably take to whisky—though not inevitably—which then does the community the splendid service of hurrying him along to destruction, and of abridging their infliction upon the public. People who have done much in the way of reforming drunkards have been astonished to find how little real manhood remained after eliminating whisky from the equation. They have supposed the manhood to be only obscured, and have been disheartened to find how frequently it happens to be demonstrated that there was never enough of it to pay for the trouble of "saving the victim of intemperance."
If, as the temperance agitators insist, "intemperance is yearly dragging a hundred thousand of the men and women of our country down to the grave," then a love of scientific truth compels the statement that intemperance, while doing some harm, as is usually the case with natural agents, is also doing an immense amount of good. By far the greater portion of those who thus succumb to alcoholization, and to the deadly practices that usually accompany it, are thieves, thugs, prostitutes, gamblers, sharpers, ruffians, and other members of the criminal and quasi-criminal classes, upon whom whisky accommodatingly performs the office of judge and executioner, cutting their careers off at an average of five years, where, without this interposition, they would be extended to possibly twenty or thirty. The certainty and celerity with which it ferrets out and destroys these classes recommends it strongly over the ordinary processes of justice.
It was exceedingly unfortunate for the community that all the leaders in the James gang were strictly temperate men. Had it not been so, their career, instead of extending over twenty terrible years, would have been cut short inside of five. Uncontrollable predilections for whisky and the society of strange women brought about the destruction of nearly all of the band, who from time to time were slain by each other's hands or those of justice. Temperance and chastity in a rascal of any kind mean an immense amount of mischief to the community. Fortunately, they are quite rare.
During the ages of terrible oppression of the European people, which culminated in the French Revolution, the main amelioration of the hardships endured was found in the vices of the oppressors. The sword of the duelist, the picturesque horrors of delirium tremens, and the loathsome mal de Naples, continually swept away hecatombs of tyrant lordlings, and frequently obliterated whole families. In fact, no aristocratic family ever withstood these adverse influences very long. Extinction came as promptly and as certainly as the curculio to the ripening plum.
The student of French and English history is continually astonished at the brief time in which noble names remain in view. They rise to dazzling eminence on one page, and on the next go down to oblivion. One rarely finds a name of a century or two ago mentioned in any of the European news of to-day. Mr. Freeman, the eminent English historian, shows conclusively that, in spite of the perennial vaunt of ancestors who "came over with the Conqueror," and of Tennyson's musical mendacity about the "daughter of a hundred earls," the families who can trace back to even so recent a date as the reign of the Stuarts are quite rare. Idleness, luxury, and more or less flagrant debauchery have done their appointed work in removing the deteriorated forms of human life from the world, that their room might be had for more acceptable growths.
Society has been most aptly likened to a vat of good wine, which is all scum and froth at the top, dregs and sediment at the bottom, and good, pure, clear liquor in the middle. Vice does admirable work in skimming away the supernatant scum, and in drawing off the dregs and settlings. Unceasing fermentation seems to be a condition necessary to the health of society. The humblest work incessantly to lift themselves into the ranks of the middle classes. The middle classes strive as earnestly to make themselves plutocrats, aristocrats, and lordlings. This passion for worldly advancement is one of society's most powerful engines for good. When a man at last reaches the social summit, he desists from further efforts at improvement, or, if this period comes too late in life, his children do it after him. He becomes like a man who has struggled forward to the head of a procession, and then refuses to march another step. Some vice speedily removes him, and clears the ground for another man to come to the front, who is also removed summarily when he becomes obstructive. Were it not for this, the upper stratum of society would speedily become so crowded that ascent to it would be impossible, all healthful, ambitious motive be taken away from the middle and lower classes, stagnation follow, and society perish from congestion.
History is full of illustrations of the benefits of vice in assisting to shape the destinies of nations and peoples. Take, for example, the Bourbons, whose stupidity and tyranny have passed into a proverb. In the last century their worse than worthless carcasses filled nearly every throne in Southern Europe. They seemed to breed like wolves in a famine-stricken land, and their fangs were at every people's throat. Fortunately, they had vices. Wine and lechery did what human enemies could not. The pack of wolves rotted away like a flock of diseased sheep. The mortality was so great that for a long time French kings were succeeded by their grandsons, and great-grandsons, their sons all burning themselves out before the time came for ascending the throne. The unutterably vile life of Louis XV was terminated by the small-pox, communicated to him in the course of a most disgraceful amour. His grandson, who succeeded him, had no destructive vices, and so the people were compelled at last to resort to the guillotine to rid themselves of him. The vast problem before the French in 1790 would have been greatly simplified if Louis XIV had been a short-lived débauché like his father and two brothers. The healthy German blood of his Saxon mother corrected somewhat the virus in the Bourbon veins, and he lived to become an intolerable cumberer and obstructive.
The only Bourbon still remaining on a throne is the King of Spain, with whom the race, as a royal family, will probably become extinct. His teeth are on edge from the sour grapes of unchastity which his fathers ate. Like his mother, the notorious Isabella II, his sisters and cousins, and indeed every one of the Bourbons, the scrofula, into which the ancestral syphilitic taint has been modified, has made of him a mass of physical decay. In his mother it has shown itself in a very disgusting cutaneous disease, which she has for years tried to ameliorate or cure, in a truly Bourbonish way, by wearing the underclothing of a nun of high repute for piety. His sisters and kinsmen all have some one or more of the scrofula's varied physical degradations or sickening deformities, and occasionally one of them goes out like an ill-made candle.
A few years ago the people of Holland were threatened with a most serious calamity. Depraved heredity, unwise sexual selection, or some other controlling cause, had resulted in the production, as the Prince of Orange—the crown prince—of an individual of a weak, inferior, and depraved nature. His was such a nature as, on a throne, becomes a fountain of numberless oppressions and evils, and rarely fails to goad the unhappy subjects into rebellion, attended with the usual frightful losses of life and property and vast sorrows. Fortunately, he had destructive vices. The appetites of these led him to Paris. A few years of riot and debauchery sapped away the dangerous life of "Lemons," as his worthless boon companions nicknamed him, and he died as the fool dieth. The only harm he was able to do was the indirect damage of a bad example, and the good people of the Netherlands were rid of a possible Louis XV, at no greater cost than that of some years of extravagant life in the French capital. His father's youthful excesses and present penchant for pretty ballet girls have rendered it wholly improbable that there will be any other heirs to the Dutch throne, and so the country will shortly glide into a republic, without any of the wrench and sanguinary convulsions that usually attend such political transitions. The superior economy and other advantages of a Parisian brothel over civil war as a political means are obvious to the naked eye.
The most commendable feature of this self-pruning of the objectionable growths in society is that the victims destroy themselves under the hallucination that they are drinking the richest wine of earthly pleasure. When execution can be made a matter of keen relish to the condemned, certainly nothing is wanting on the score of humanity.
I anticipate the objection that slaying bad men by means of their own vicious propensities brings much misery to those connected with them. But then all innocent persons connected with bad men are fated to suffer in exact proportion to the closeness of the connection, whether the bad men are destroyed or not. Weak, selfish, perverted, and criminal men always inflict misery upon their relatives and associates. This is not usually intensified by their being also drunkards, or débauchés. It is also true that no one of Nature's methods of extinction is pleasant to those connected with the victim. A thief or a thug providentially dying with the delirium tremens is certainly quite as bearable a sight to those before whose eyes it may come as the spectacle of a virtuous man, the sole support of his family, slowly wasting away with consumption, in spite of all that loving services and agonizing sympathy can do to retain for him a life that is of so much value to all.
To the next objection, that the practice of vice is not inevitably suicidal, since many rascals live to attain as green an old age as the most righteous, it is sufficient to say that, plentiful as these exceptions may occasionally seem, their proportion to the whole number is at least as small as that of the exceptions to any other general law of biology. The policeman on the next corner will bear decided testimony that the number of scoundrels who survive their thirtieth year is astonishingly small, and he can point out any number of very troublesome members of the community who are ending their lives in penitentiary or poor-house hospitals, at an age when well-behaved men are just entering upon the serious business of life.
It is also demonstrable that the proportion of vicious men to the whole population is much less to-day than at any previous period in the history of the race. This shows conclusively the improvement of society by the self-destructiveness of vice. The proportion of bad men is steadily diminishing, because bad men die sooner, and propagate fewer, than good ones.