Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/The Uniformity of Social Phenomena

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THE surprising consequences which have attended investigations in natural science have excited among the representatives of historical and speculative studies a desire to reach results of corresponding value by the application of observation and analysis to the affairs of life. In this manner has arisen a new school of historical research, which applies the facts of physical geography, anthropology, ethnography, and other related branches of science, to the explanation of events, and by this means has passed from mechanical transcription and compilation to the examination into the natural, causal connection of things. In the same way, speculative philosophy has happily become an inductive branch of investigation, and instead of the "eloquent words" with which metaphysics used to labor, scientific analysis satisfies the aspirations in that direction, and is reviving with its refreshing breath the withered branches of the world's wisdom. It is not out of course, then, that the sciences of social life also should try to discard the tinsel of empty words and to gain by scientific methods a concrete understanding and a real view of their conditions. The question has thus arisen, whether the endlessly complicated and shifting events which are incessantly modifying the aspects of human society can be followed up and explained by natural laws; whether there is, in fact, a social physiology. Investigation in the ordinary sciences was facilitated by the discovery, which was early made, that its objects grouped themselves in classes, of which each individual corresponded with a common type, and that what was observed of one could be predicated of all of its class. Were social phenomena susceptible of a similar generalization?

The question has only recently been answered with clear knowledge; but hints of the solution were given two or three hundred years ago to one or two favored thinkers. Giambattista Vico made the first approach to it toward the close of the seventeenth century, in his "Scienza nuova." Johann Peter Süssmilch gained another glimpse of it a hundred years afterward. Half a century after him. Herder advanced the doctrine that a plan ruled in social development, the discovery of which must be sought through the study of the philosophy of history. The application of mathematical calculations to human events is due to two astronomers. Laplace, investigating the law of probabilities, suggested that the methods of observation and calculation might be of service in social and intellectual studies. The second astronomer, Quetelet, was the real founder of social physiology. Since his investigations there has been no doubt of the practicability of studying, by the methods of natural research, those social phenomena which had previously been only looked at through the telescope of speculation; for he, not contented with mere suggestions, made actual analyses of civil society; instituted mathematical investigations with groups of vital phenomena, to which only a few before him had ventured to apply the measuring-rod; showed the regularity of the formation of the social body and of its vital manifestations; and made apparent the close relations of cause and effect in the apparently voluntary acts of men in society. The followers on Quetelet's lines during the last thirty years have been very numerous. A whole school have adopted exactly his spirit and methods; others have worked analytically; and others have endeavored to build up a metaphysical sociology. The literature of many nations, particularly of England, Germany, France, and Italy, has now a legion of works aiming to investigate the phenomena of social life from the most diversified points of view, tenable and untenable; they differ widely in character, but all agree that the laws of human social phenomena are a legitimate subject of study. The mathematical method has been vastly aided during the same period by the operations of the statistical bureaus that have been established in most civilized countries, in collecting and classifying facts, which, with the averages they afford, are to the social philosopher what his chemicals, microscopes and instruments of precision, and his experiments, are to the natural philosopher.

The great progress which has been made in the comprehension of the principles of social philosophy is due to the method which has been adopted of laying aside for a time the consideration of single things and individuals in society and viewing it as a whole. The aggregate of those hundred thousands or millions of men which we call a people, a nation, or a society, forms, when regarded as if from without, a higher unit, in which the willing, transitory individual disappears and no longer exerts a disturbing influence on the observation of the great average. The society as an organization, not the individuals in themselves, is thus the object of social physiology. We can give such descriptions of society as a whole, of its structure, form, connections, and other peculiarities, as the mineralogist or the chemist, the botanist or zoölogist gives of matter and plants and animals; which are just and useful for a time, and form the descriptive or anaomical part. We can, too, further observe the organic functions of society as such, and deduce laws of cause and effect which are also available for a time as physiological laws—for a time, but not for always; for, quite in accord with more recent natural research, which endures no pause, but is always in movement and in a state of evolution, is a constant process of change exhibited in the circumstances of human society, without our meeting, on account of it, any contradiction with the principles from which we may have started.

We may describe social phenomena as vital and physical, and as ethical and psychical.

In order to obtain a proper position for deducing the general laws of social phenomena, it is necessary to overlook for the moment all concrete personality or individuality, and to regard, say, all the forty-five million inhabitants of the German Empire, or all the Germans in Europe, only as parts of a great whole, of a grand aggregate, describable under the name of a social body. We must imagine these men as in so close a reciprocal connection that, like the cells of a plant or animal, we can not conceive them as dismembered, but must regard them as forming by their union a single organism, a society, or a state. As in plants and animals each group of cells has its particular functional distinction, so here we meet groups of men among the millions constituting the whole, performing different parts in the common structure. One group will be engaged in material labors, another in the intellectual labors of religion and instruction; others in pursuits of art, science, jurisprudence, law, or the aesthetic development of the organism, and so on in an infinite diversity of adaptations, as among the parts of single living beings. Such a vision could be obtained in perfection if, as Huxley has imagined, one were an inhabitant of another planet, come to take a view of the whole earth and its inhabitants from some convenient distance where he could include the whole at a single glance. As we approach the realization of such a view, we gain a marvelous comprehension of the regularity of the types of masses of men, and of their normal composition and common properties. Take the sexual division of mankind. Although over the whole earth a general equality in the numbers of the two sexes prevails, nevertheless each land has its peculiar, apparently constant characteristic sexual composition. In Europe there anciently and still is a greater excess of women in the north than in the states of middle Europe and the east, in some of which the women are in the minority. Through Europe as a whole the number of women is very definitely in excess of that of the men, and the excess appears to be increasing. It was very great after the Napoleonic wars; then the numbers gradually tended toward equality and nearly reached it (1847 to 1850, 1,009 to 1,000); then they diverged again, and stood, in 1870, 1,037 to 1,000. The phases of increased difference are generally observable after wars, and latterly appear to be the result partly of the enormous emigration which has taken place to other quarters of the earth. In America as a whole, and in Australia and Africa, on the other hand, whither this emigration with its preponderance of males is tending, the men are in excess, and the excess is increasing with the constant arrival of new parties of immigrants. Nevertheless, a near approach to equality prevails over the earth as a whole, and this whether we regard the white, black, or red races, or their mixtures.

Another instance of typical regularity of structure is seen in the constitution of society by ages. Each country has its characteristic peculiarities in this respect. In France, for example, the percentage of children is the smallest, and that of men of from forty to sixty years, and of old men, is the greatest; while in the United States the exact contrary rules. European states generally lie between the two extremes, and present constant normal figures. The age-constitution of each country might be represented by a pyramid, the base of which should be made up of the class of the youngest, and the summit of that of the highest age. Such pyramids would have their particular proportions for each country, which would suffer only gradual changes through the continual operation of social and political influences. The pyramids standing for the United States and Hungary would have very broad bases, and rise by much sharper angles to their tops than those in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where children are relatively less, and middle-aged and old men more numerous.

A similar constancy is observed in respect to civil condition. Except in France—where the proportion of the married is greater and that of the single is less—of the whole population of all ages in the several European states, and with but little variation in any single state, sixty-two per cent of the male and fifty-nine per cent of the female inhabitants are single, thirty-four and thirty-three per cent are married, and six and eight per cent are widowed. Taking only that part of the population between forty-one and fifty years of age, with similar constancy, seventy to eighty-four per cent of them are married. Similar constants have been established with reference to religious confession, nationality, the choice of occupations, and other features and habits of different nations, but we pass to the consideration of a few special qualities. We are accustomed to distinguish our friends and acquaintances by their individual peculiarities, and we think we find very marked differences between them. Every man has his peculiarities of stature, girth, weight, color of hair, skin, and eyes, proportion between his limbs, strength, and pulse, but they all disappear, as Quetelet and others have shown, in the aggregate. The margin of variations in the individual traits of men is shown, by the measurements which these authors have applied to large groups, to be really very small. Among large masses of the population of a land as a whole, we find the same relative proportions of large, small, and middle-sized men, and constant relations in the number of thin, delicate, and bandy-legged persons, Falstaffs, strong and weak, quick tempered and cool-blooded. The same is the case with the color of the hair, eyes, and skin, as Virchow has shown in Germany and Bertillon in the schools of France. Such a constancy in these traits has been shown on all the points hitherto inquired into, that we are able to draw similar conclusions on questions of race and nationality from these anthropological researches to those which the geologist deduces from the strata concerning the age of the formation.

Even those afflictions which we regard and lament as purely casual visitations on some families, such as blindness and deaf-mutism, exhibit a remarkable constancy of prevalence in whole societies. It may be a sufficient illustration of this to mention the striking fact that several computations of the number of persons suffering from these defects in Austria-Hungary and the German Empire, made independently of each other, at different times, and in different ways, have given the same numerical results; and that the numbers in other states are curiously near to those in the two mentioned, often differing only by a decimal. Although there are groups of states in which somewhat different ratios prevail, the frequent recurrence of the same average per ten thousand inhabitants, in a whole series of states, and for different decades in time, justifies the assumption that some law of proportion prevails, and forbids our supposing that the number is merely an affair of accident. On the basis of a number of coincidences of this kind, Quetelet constructed his ideal of the "average man," as a general standard by which to estimate the conforming proportion of the aggregate, and compare the individual with the type.

From the natural peculiarities, from the compositional structure of social bodies, we go a step further to their vital activities, their real physiology. Henceforth we may consider the curious variances in human generations, formerly regarded as accidental and voluntary combinations, as subject to a strict law. Within the circle of our acquaintance are childless families, and families that are blessed with hosts of children; families with all boys, and families with all girls; some strangely assorted marriages; men of extraordinary age, while we may remember other men who have died in the flower of their youth. All these things seem to us accidental and unaccountable; but social physiology shows that they, as well as other human movements, are governed by fixed and irrevocable laws.

We might expect some regularity in the rates of births and deaths, for these are necessarily conformable to the laws of Nature; but there is something to cause surprise in the fixedness of the rates, and the regular grouping of the various conceivable cases. It is also a curious fact that not only do a certain number of children come to each population year after year, but that the nativity figure also forms a characteristic trait of individual nations, and that in any particular course of years, when the regularity is not disturbed by any external cause, like a war or an epidemic, it hardly varies by a decimal part. This regularity extends even to the proportion of those who are born of either sex, the general average of which is expressed by the numbers—100 girls to 105·38, or, including still-born, 106'31 boys; and if this proportion is disturbed in any one year, it is almost certain to be made up in the following year.

International statistics show also a remarkable steadiness in the proportions characteristic of different countries of legitimate and illegitimate births, of quick and still-born, of twins, triplets, etc., which the complications often prevailing in the combinations only bring more clearly to light.

The same regularity is manifested in the death-rates, in which, whether we take long or short periods of time, the deviations from the fixed average are very slight; and all the acquisitions of modern civilization, with the great improvements that have been made in medical science and its applications, have not yet effected a material prolongation of the average of human life.

If any fundamental social fact is voluntary it is marriage; yet the ratio of marriages to the population is in most countries even more constant than that of deaths. The same regularity prevails in the peculiar features of the marriages; the same proportions of the marrying pairs are constituted of both single persons, widows and bachelors, widowers and spinsters, or both widowed. A curious uniformity prevails in the matter of disparity of ages, and other exceptional features, and finally of separations and divorced persons, of second, third, and more numerously repeated marriages. Each country has its own times of year or months when the most marriages take place. They are February and November in France, Austria, and Italy; May in Holland and Belgium; November and December in Sweden and Norway; and the fewest marriages take place in March, July, and August in France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands; in August and December in Austria.

The intellectual qualities of a people do not lend themselves to measurement so readily as do the concrete peculiarities we have noticed. There are, however, a few criteria within our reach by means of which we are enabled to judge with some approach to exactness of the extent of the range within which the average standards of these qualities vary. The criteria are afforded by intellectual defects and aberrations, such as insanity, idiocy, the mental disorders arising from certain physical diseases, criminality, and the propensity to suicide. The information given by the statistics of the circulation of newspapers, letters, and telegrams; the results of the examinations of schools and for the military service; and even the statistics of misdirected letters, are all made of service in this investigation. They exhibit a tendency to uniformity which, although it does not always appear as marked as in respect to some of the qualities that have been considered, is nevertheless real. It is particularly striking in the case of suicides, concerning which Morselli has published very complete and minute statistics.

There need be no real difficulty in showing that the freedom of will and action which we accord to human beings and societies is consistent with subjection to the laws of social physiology. While we have not sufficient physical vigor to live more than a certain number of decades; while we are restricted in our scientific and artistic efforts by the capacity of our brain and nervous system; while we are preponderantly subject to the influence of the intellectual, political, and social currents of the age; while we are dependent on our geographical situation, on climate, soil, and the price of food—it is not yet necessary that we should be deprived of the attribute of free will. The laws of social physiology, although they have been deduced by observation as laws of Nature, and have suffered modification only through a short evolutionary epoch as compared with that through which the laws of Nature have subsisted, give nevertheless sufficient room for individual development. Because in the whole social body only the final results appear of the endless diversities existing within it, the freedom of individuals is consistent with the regularity of the whole. This whole, moreover, is itself not a stationary or rigid body, but an organism that is giving itself specific cultivation, and is continually suffering change, metamorphosis, and further development. An entire civic society can, by its collective will, modify, within the limits imposed by natural laws, all those properties and laws which we have discovered in the domain of social physiology.—Translated and condensed from the Deutsche Rundschau.

Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace acknowledges that the Americans possess, in respect to educational institutions, some special advantages over his own countrymen. They are comparatively free from Old-World establishments and customs; are not afraid of experiments; and seek, in whatever they undertake, to have "the biggest thing attainable." These features are manifested in some of the great American museums, "which rival, in certain special departments, the long-established national museums."