Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/The Influence of Race in History
By M. GUSTAVE LE BON.
HISTORICAL studies have undergone a great transformation in our days. Almost exclusively literary a few years ago, they are tending at this time to become almost as exclusively scientific. It is not the recent progress of archaeology alone that has caused a remodeling of our knowledge and our ideas in history. The discoveries in the physical and natural sciences have had a still greater effect upon them; and it is by means of these discoveries that the notion of natural causes is entering into history more and more, and that we are habituating ourselves to consider historical phenomena as subject to laws as invariable as those that control the course of the stars and the transformations of bodies. The part which all the ancient historians attributed to Providence or to chance, is now no longer attributed to anything but natural laws, as entirely removed from chance as from the will of the gods.
The new ideas which are entering into history are due chiefly to the progress of natural science. Making more and more evident the preponderant influence of the past on the evolution of beings, it teaches us that we must first study the past in societies to comprehend their present condition and foresee their future. In the same way that the naturalist now finds the explanation of beings in the study of their ancestral forms, the philosopher who wishes to comprehend the genesis of our ideas and institutions should examine primitive usages. Thus regarded, history, the interest of which might seem but slight so long as it is limited to the enumeration of dynasties and battles, is acquiring an immense significance.
The method which the modern man of science applies to history to-day is identical with that which the naturalist applies in his laboratory. A society can be regarded as an organism in process of development. There is a social embryology as there are an animal and a vegetable embryology, and the laws of evolution that govern them all are of the same order. Social embryology, or the study of civilizations, shows us the series of advances by which the marvelous and complicated mechanism of refined societies has issued from the savage condition in which the first men long lived; how our thoughts, feelings, institutions, and creeds had their roots in the primal ages of mankind. Instead of, as formerly, seeing a gulf between the peoples who ate their aged parents and those who lavish cares upon them in their old age and weep at their tombs; between those who look upon their women as lower animals belonging to all the members of the tribe, and those who have made them the object of a chivalrous cult; between those who expose their malformed children to perish, and those who lodge their idiots and incurables in magnificent hospitals—we trace out the close bonds which connect, through the ages, the most different thoughts, institutions, and creeds. We realize that present civilizations have been derived from past civilizations, and contain in the germ all the civilizations to come. The evolution of thoughts, religions, industries, and art—in short, of all the elements that enter into the constitution of a civilization—is as regular and inevitable as that of the different forms of an animal series.
The factors that determine the birth and development of the constituent elements of a civilization are as numerous as those which control the development of a living being. The study of them has as yet hardly begun; but the influence of some of them can be brought into evidence. One of the most important among these factors is race—that is, the aggregation of the physical, moral, and mental traits that characterize a people.
When human races appear in history they have generally already acquired marked characteristics, which afterward undergo only very slow transformations. The oldest Egyptian bas reliefs, on which are depicted the various types of the peoples with whom the Pharaohs had to do, are proof that our present grand characterizations of races could have been applied even then, in the dawn of history.
The various human races had formed themselves during the hundreds of thousands of years that preceded historical times. They were so formed, no doubt, like all the animal species, by means of slow changes produced by variability of the environment, limited by selection and enforced by heredity. The first step toward understanding the history of a people and the origin of their institutions, moral ideas, and creeds, is to study their mental constitution. It is vain to ask from anatomical characteristics, as has been done for a long time, for the means of differentiating races. Psychology alone permits a precise definition of racial distinctions. It shows us that peoples of similar mental constitution will have similar fates when placed in like circumstances, however they may differ in external aspect. In this way we have been able to make a rational comparison between the modern English and the ancient Romans. There exists, in fact, an evident mental relationship between these two peoples; the same indomitable energy of character, the same respect for their institutions, the same capacity for conquering people and for holding colonies. But, regarding the external type, there is a complete want of resemblance between the two peoples.
Two fundamental psychological elements to be always studied among any people are character and intelligence. Character is infinitely more important to the success of an individual or a race than intelligence. Rome, in her decline, certainly possessed more superior minds than the Rome of the earlier ages of the republic. Brilliant artists, eloquent rhetoricians, and graceful writers appeared then by the hundred. But she was lacking in men of manly and energetic character, who may perhaps have been careless of the refinements of art, but were very careful of the power of the city whose grandeur they had founded. When it had lost all of these, Rome had to give way to peoples much less intelligent but more energetic. The conquest of the ancient, refined, and lettered Græco-Latin world by tribes of semi-barbarous Arabs constitutes another example of the same kind. History is full of such.
While character thus plays the chief part in the historical development of a people, it is intelligence that prevails in determining their civilization; but it must be creative, and not assimilative only. Peoples having only an assimilative intelligence, like the Phoenicians of old and the Mongolians and the Russians of the present time, are capable of appropriating more or less of foreign civilization, but can not make civilization advance. Peoples endowed with a certain intelligence, like the Greeks in antiquity and the Arabs in the middle ages, have been the factors of all the general progress by which mankind has profited.
The most superficial observation soon demonstrates that the several individuals composing a race differ from one another in physical aspect as well as in moral and mental constitution; but a little more attentive observation will show that under these apparent diversities is hidden a mass of characteristics common to all the individuals of the race, the aggregation of which constitutes what has justly been named the national character of a people. When we speak of an Englishman, a Japanese, or a negro, we at once attribute to him—and without hardly ever being much mistaken—a collection of general traits which are a kind of precise condensation of the characteristics of his race. These national characteristics, created among homogeneous peoples by the long-continued influences of the same mediums, the same institutions, and the same creeds, play a fundamental, though invisible, part in the life of peoples.
In human races, as in animal species, some offer many varieties, others but few. The fewer varieties a race presents—or the less they diverge from a mean type—the more homogeneous it is. Such, for example, is the modern English race, in which the ancient Briton, the Saxon, and the Norman have been effaced to form a wholly new and quite distinct type. If, on the contrary, the groups have been juxtaposed without having been sufficiently mixed, the race continues heterogeneous, and the mean type becomes more difficult to establish, because the common traits that compose it are less numerous. It is easy to comprehend that the more homogeneous a race is, the stronger it will be, and the more called upon to march rapidly in the way of progress. When, on the contrary, thoughts, traditions, creeds, and interests remain separated, dissensions will be frequent, and progress always slow and often completely hindered.
We see by this how important to the explanation of the history of a people is the study of its composition. We see also that the word "people" can not be in any case considered synonymous with "race." An empire, a people, or a state is a more or less considerable number of men united by the same political or geographical necessities, and subjected to the same institutions and laws. These men may belong to the same race, but they may equally belong to different races. If the races are too dissimilar, no fusion is possible. They may, under necessity, live side by side, like Hindus subject to Europeans, but we must not think of giving them common institutions. All great empires uniting dissimilar peoples are created only by force, and are condemned to perish by violence. Those only can endure which are formed slowly by the gradual mixture of races differing but little, continually crossing with one another, living on the same soil, subject to the action of the same climate, and having the same institutions and creeds. These different races may thus, after a few centuries, form a new homogeneous race.
As the world grew old, the races gradually became more stable, and their transformations by mixture rarer. In prehistorical times, when man's hereditary past was not so long, when he had neither well-fixed institutions nor well-assured conditions of existence, mediums had a more profound action upon him than now. Civilization has permitted man to subtract himself, to a large extent, from the influence of the medium, but not from that of his past. As mankind grows older, the weight of heredity grows heavier. For heredity to act in the mixture of races, it is necessary that one of the races shall not be too inferior to the other in numbers, and that their physical and mental constitutions shall not be too different.
The first of these conditions is fundamental. When two different races are brought together, the more numerous one absorbs the other. In a black population, a few families of whites will disappear without leaving any traces. Such has been the lot of all conquering peoples which, though strong in arms, have been weak in numbers. Those only have escaped obliteration which, like the Aryans in India, formerly, and the English, also in India, to-day, have observed a rigid system of castes, preventing the mixture of conquerors and conquered. Except where the rule of caste has operated, the general result has been to see the conquering people absorbed, after a few generations, by the conquered. It has not disappeared, however, without having left traces of its work in civilization behind it. Egypt, conquered by the Arabs, quickly absorbed its conquerors; but they left the most important elements of civilization—religion, language, and arts—there. A like phenomenon took place in Europe among the peoples called Latin. The French, Italians, and Spaniards have, in reality, no traces of Latin blood in their veins; but the institutions of the Romans were so strong, their organization was so perfect, their influence in civilization so great, that the countries occupied by them for centuries have remained Latin in language, institutions, and peculiar genius.
It is not, however, by reason of its strength that one people imposes its civilization upon another; very often the conquered people leads the conquerors in this line. The Franks finally triumphed over the Gallo-Roman society, but they were in a short time morally conquered by it. They were also physically overcome, for they had plunged into a population more numerous than themselves. This conquest of the conquerors by the conquered is to be seen in a still higher degree among the Mussulman peoples. It was precisely when the political power of the Arabs had wholly disappeared, that their religion, language, and arts were spread most extensively.
But when races too dissimilar are brought in contact by the chance of invasions and conquest, fusion is impossible by any force, and the only result that can be produced is the extermination of the weaker race. This disappearance of the inferior people in the face of a superior race does not always take place by means of a systematic and sanguinary extermination; the simple action of presence, to use a chemical term, is sufficient to bring on destruction. When the superior people has established itself in a barbarous country, with its complicated mode of life and its numerous means of subsistence, it monopolizes and masters the living forces of the country much more easily and speedily than the former occupants. The latter, formerly masters of all the resources of the land, come at last to only toilsomely gleaning what their conquerors have left.
When two different races become mingled, notwithstanding a great inequality of civilization, the result is disastrous rather to the inferior than to the superior race. It soon disappears, and gives place to a race which may represent, in a mental respect, a kind of mean between the two races, but morally is inferior to either of them. Half-breeds have never made a society advance; the part they have played has been to degrade the civilizations of which they have by chance been the heirs. The disastrous results of such mixtures of superior races with inferior were clearly perceived by the most ancient civilized peoples. This was doubtless the origin of that rule of castes, preventing unions between persons of different races, which we find in many ancient societies. Without it, man would never have risen above the dawn of civilization.
But, while the mixture of races which have reached very unequal stages of evolution is always disastrous, the result is otherwise when these races, although still possessing different qualities, have arrived at nearly the same period of development. Their qualities can then very usefully complement one another. The republic of the United States has been formed by precisely such a mixture of races, already elevated in civilization and having qualities complementary to one another. The people owes its astonishing vigor to the fact not only that it is constituted of a mixture of elements—English, Irish, French, German, etc.—already highly developed, but also that the individuals through whom the crossing was effected were themselves the results of a selection from among the most active and vigorous members of those nations.
The general laws which we have just summarized can of themselves furnish the explanation of a large number of historical events.' They show, for example, why one conquest was the origin of a brilliant civilization, and why another introduced an era of disorder and anarchy; why the Oriental has always easily imposed his yoke and his customs upon Orientals whose mental constitution was like his own; and why struggles between Orientals and Westerners have been so ferocious, and usually terminated in pitiless massacres of the conquered. They likewise tell us why certain peoples have been colonizers, and how they have been able, naturally, if they were of the race of the conquered, or by respecting their customs and creeds if they were of a different stock, to maintain their authority over distant nations.
A question has arisen as to whether the steady advance of man tends to equalize races, or to differentiate them more and more. To it we have to answer that the upper level of civilization is always ascending; but by this fact itself, and since there are always nations at the lowest step, the gulf between them and the higher races is constantly growing deeper. There is progress, it is true, even in the most backward groups. But the law of this progress gives it an accelerated march as it advances. The superior races are now developing themselves by giant steps, while the others still demand the long ages which our ancestors traversed in order to reach the point where we are now. And when the inferior races reach that point, where shall we he? Farther from them, without doubt, than we are now, unless we shall have disappeared. The evident conclusion then is, that as human races become civilized they tend to greater differentiation rather than to an approach to equality. Civilization not being able to act equally on unequal intelligences, and the most developed necessarily profiting more than those who are less so, it is easy to see that the difference between them will increase considerably in each generation. It increases all the more because the division of labor, condemning the lower strata to a uniform and identical work, tends to destroy all intelligence in them. The engineer of our days, who composes a new machine, needs much more intelligence than the engineer of the last century; but the modern workman requires much less intelligence to make the detached piece of a watch, which he will keep on making all his life, than his ancestors had to have to make the whole watch.
These considerations do not rest on theoretical reasonings alone. We some time ago fortified them also by anatomical arguments. Studies of the skulls of human races have shown us that while among savages the heads of different individuals vary but little in their dimensions, the differences in our civilized societies are formidable. From the upper to the lower ranks of society the anatomical gulf is as immense as the psychological gulf, and the advance of civilization is constantly making it wider. Since, then, the differences among men of the same race become more and more extended as the race rises in civilization, we conclude that the higher the civilization the more considerable will be the intellectual diversities among individuals of the race. No doubt the mean level will also rise.
The study of all civilizations proves, in fact, that all progress has been accomplished by a small number of the higher minds. The mass has done nothing more than profit by the advance; it does not even like to see it extended, and the greatest thinkers or inventors have often been martyrs. Yet all the generations, the whole past of a race, bloom out in these fine geniuses. They do not appear by chance or miracle, but represent a long synthesis. To favor their birth and growth is to favor the birth of a progress by which all mankind will be benefited. If we should allow ourselves to be blinded by our dreams of universal equality, we should ourselves be the first victims of it. Equality can only exist in inferiority. To bring about a reign of equality in the world, it would be necessary gradually to pull all that gives value to a race down to the level of what in it is lowest. It would require ages to raise the intellectual level of the lowest peasants up to that of the genius of a Lavoisier, while a second and the stroke of the guillotine is sufficient to destroy such a brain. But while the part of superior men in the development of a civilization is considerable, it is not quite what it is generally believed to be. Their action, I repeat, consists in all the efforts of a race; their discoveries are always the result of a long series of prior discoveries; they build an edifice with stones which others have previously hewn. Historians fancy they must couple the name of a man with every invention; yet, among the great inventions which have transformed the world, like those of printing, gunpowder, and electric telegraphy, there is not one of which it can be said that it was created by a single man.
Of similar character is the part which great statesmen have played. They could without doubt destroy a society or disturb its evolution, but it is not given to them to change its course. The genius of a Cromwell or a Napoleon could not perform such a task. Great conquerors might destroy cities, men, and empires by sword and fire, as a child could burn a museum filled with treasures of art, but this destructive power should not subject us to illusions respecting the grandeur of their achievements. The work of great political men. is durable only when, like Caesar or Richelieu, they direct their efforts according to the demands of
the moment; the true cause of their success is, then, generally long anterior to themselves. The really great men in politics are those who anticipate the demands that are going to arise, the events for which the past has prepared, and point out the way to be followed. They, also, like the great inventors, the results of a long previous, work.
Of what, in the eye of philosophy, is history, as the books tell it, composed, except of the long recital of the struggles endured by men to create an ideal, adore it, and then destroy it? And have such ideals any more value in the eyes of pure science than the mirage of the desert? There have been, however, great enthusiasts, creators of such mirages, who have profoundly transformed the world. They still from their tombs hold the minds of multitudes under the sway of their thoughts. While not mistaking the significance of their achievements, let us not forget that they would not have succeeded in accomplishing what they did if they had not unconsciously incarnated and expressed the dominant ideal of their race and their time.
It is, in fact, ideas, and consequently those who incarnate them, that lead the world. They rise at first under vague forms, and float in the air, gradually changing their aspect, till some day they appear under the form of a great man or a great act. It is of little account, as determining the force with which they shall act, whether they are true or false. History teaches us that the most chimerical illusions have excited more enthusiasm among men than the best demonstrated truths. Such illusions are only shadows, but nevertheless have to be respected. Through them our fathers were hopeful, and in their heroic and heedless course they have brought us out of barbarism and led us to the point where we stand to-day. Mankind has expended most of its efforts, not in the pursuit of truth, but of error. It has not been able to reach the chimerical aims it was pursuing; but in pursuing them it has realized a progress that it was not seeking.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.
Mr. Gardiner C. Hubbard shows a good record, in his presidential address to the American Geographical Society, of American contributions to the extension of geographical knowledge. Our country "has contributed its quota of martyrs In the frozen North, and has led the way into the torrid regions of Africa." It has laid the foundations of the new science of the geography of the sea, by the discoveries of its explorers in ocean currents, the topography of the sea-bottoms, and deep-sea life, in which Americans were first to engage. "The exploring vessels of our Fish Commission have discovered in the deep sea, in one single season, more forms of life than were found by the Challenger Expedition in a three years' cruise." We have also led the way in founding the "geography of the air," or the science of storms, etc., and are still keeping at the front.