Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/June 1892/The Relation of Biology to Sociology

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


IN the preface to his recently published volume on Justice, Mr. Herbert Spencer newly emphasizes his conviction of the importance of the bearing of biological laws upon the study of sociological phenomena. Comparing the method of his present work with that of Social Statics, which covered a similar field of discussion, he asserts that "whereas, a biological origin for ethics was, in Social Statics, only indicated, such origin has now been definitely set forth; and the elaboration of its consequences has become a cardinal trait." The influence of this conviction is everywhere observable throughout the work.

It is not the purpose of the present writer, however, to discuss the applications which Mr. Spencer has made of this principle, except incidentally; but rather to reaffirm its importance, and to call attention to certain inferential dangers which spring from an unqualified acceptance of the conception that there is an entire identity of principle between the laws of social and organic growth.

While it is my firm conviction that Mr. Spencer has in no way exaggerated the importance of recognizing the bearing of biological principles in the study of societary evolution, it is equally important to guard at the outset against a fundamental though common misapplication of the analogy which would lead to results entirely divergent from the actual trend of social progress, as bearing upon the true scientific relations of the individual to the state.

On the one hand, it is undoubtedly true that nearly all our writers upon sociological, ethical, and economic topics are insufficiently grounded in a knowledge of the scientific method as revealed and illustrated in the physical and biological sciences. Their arguments rest largely upon an a priori and metaphysical basis of reasoning. They treat man as a being dissevered from the world. They fail to recognize the fact, demonstrated by the triumph of the doctrine of evolution, that man is one with the universe; that he can not be studied apart from his connection with the laws and principles which govern the physical world and the vital activities of the lower organisms. It may not be necessary for the sociologist, moralist, or political economist to be a complete master of physics and biology in all their branches—life is too short for such a preparation; but he should at least be sufficiently acquainted with these sciences to be thoroughly conversant with the scientific method of investigation, the tone and temper of mind requisite in the investigator, and have a general understanding of the laws and processes of biological growth as they are related to and distinguished from those exemplified in the evolution of inorganic structures.

On the other hand, theorists of the socialistic school have eagerly seized upon the assertion made by evolutionary writers that "society is an organism," and, by exaggerating the analogies between social and biological processes, have thence logically deduced their own doctrine of the supremacy of the state over the individual, claiming for it scientific and evolutionary sanction. Though Mr. Spencer has carefully guarded himself against this misapprehension, and his own philosophy of society is diametrically opposed to that of socialism, it is often claimed by writers of this school, and even by those who are of quite another way of thinking,[1] that it is only by a breach of logical sequence that he escapes socialistic conclusions.

Mr. Spencer, however, early noted the important fact that society differs from the higher products of biological evolution in that no social sensorium is discoverable; and in Justice he reaffirms and emphasizes this distinction in discussing the nature of the state. "The end to be achieved by society in its corporate capacity that is, by the state," he declares, "is the welfare of its units; for the society having as an aggregate no sentiency, its preservation is a desideratum only as subserving individual sentiencies." He subsequently repeats this statement with renewed emphasis, evidently regarding it as of great importance.

In organic structures the unit or cell exists for the sake of the completed organism; its individual sentiency, if it possesses such a psychic quality, is subordinate to the sentiency of the organic whole. In society, however, the fact is the reverse: the social organism exists for the sake of the individual, or social unit. This relation of the individual to the social structure is one unquestionably which should be borne in mind and given its due weight in the application of biological analogies to the solution of the problems of society. Mr. Spencer's recognition of it completely absolves him from the logic of socialistic conclusions.

The resemblances between social and organic structures, however, are more notable and important than their differences, and are recognized not only by philosophical students of society, on the one hand, but also by eminent biologists on the other. Prof. Haeckel, speaking of the structure of animal tissues, says: "All the numerous tissues of the animal body, such as the entirely dissimilar tissues of the nerves, muscles, bones, outer skin, mucous skin, and other similar parts, are originally composed of cells; and the same is true of the various tissues of the vegetable body. These cells . . . are independent living beings, the citizens of the state, which constitutes the entire multicellular organism."[2]

Again, he declares: "Every cell is an independent organism. ... It performs all the essential functions which the entire organism accomplishes. Every one of these little beings grows and feeds itself independently. It assimilates juices from without, absorbing them from the surrounding fluid; the naked cells can even take up solid particles at any point of their surface, and therefore eat without using any mouth or stomach. Each separate cell is also able to reproduce itself and increase. The single cell is also able to move and creep about, if it has room for motion, and is not prevented by a solid covering; from its outer surface it sends forth and draws back again finger-like processes, thereby modifying its form. Finally, the young cell has feeling, and is more or less sensitive."[3]

Elsewhere, even more pointedly, he affirms, "The many-celled organism is ordered and constituted on the same principles as the civilized state, in which the several citizens have devoted themselves to various services directed toward common ends."[4]

Both biology and sociology treat of the phenomena of life; both involve psychological as well as merely physical conditions. In the natural order of the sciences the one leads up to the other by an inevitable sequence. There is a similarity in the processes of growth between biological and sociological structures which is noteworthy and most suggestive. Inorganic substances grow by simple accretion, or addition to their bulk. Their growth is involuntary, and is chiefly determined by the operation of external forces and conditions. Organic substances, on the contrary, grow by intussusception a process of waste and repair initiated and carried on in the individual cells or structural units throughout the internal constitution of the organism; and their growth is mainly stimulated by internal, volitional effort. In this respect, as I have elsewhere argued, "the growth of societies resembles that of organic substances; it is a sort of vital chemistry."[5] The individual in his relation to society resembles the cell in its relation to the vegetal or animal organism. The death of individuals, and the birth and growth of others to fill their places in society, proceed in like manner with the processes of waste and repair in organic structures.

In the biological structure, however, the attractive forces which bind atoms into cells and cells into an organic unity are molecular and physical. In the sociological structure they are functional and psychical. And herein, I think, lies the explanation of that difference between these structures to which Mr. Spencer, Mr. Fiske, and others have called attention.[6]

As to the essential nature of those purely physical forces which we call attractive—e. g., gravitation, cohesion, and chemical affinity—we really know nothing. We know these forces only through their observed effects; and their "laws" which we deduce from repeated observations of these effects are merely our subjective classifications of orderly recurrent phenomena and their recognized conditions. In regard to sociological phenomena, however, we have an additional source of information. We can study the attractive forces which bind society together, not only in the secondary relation of their observed effects, but also in their primary relation, as movements of our own thought. Affection and self-interest are thus seen to be the attractive forces which bind society together, and these forces are consciously directed and made steadily operative solely by individual volition. Therefore it is that in its psychical aspect—the aspect directly involved in all measures of social advancement—society is subordinated to the individual, the structure to the unit, instead of the reverse, as in the evolution of animal and vegetal organisms.

All actual and permanent expansion and integration of society proceeds from the voluntary, co-operative action of individuals. The social reformer, therefore, who would work in harmony with the tendencies and laws of Nature must direct his efforts toward convincing the judgments and influencing the motives and moral natures of individual men and women, rather than toward forcibly changing the customs of society by legal enactments, official pronunciamentos, or majority votes under the white heat of an emotional political campaign. All of these popular and customary agencies of political action are doubtless of some service as educational influences, inciting thought among large classes of people who would otherwise remain passive puppets or unreflecting adherents of conventional social customs; but as means of finally solving and disposing of social and political problems they are lamentable failures.

It is strange that our socialistic reformers, who advocate the cure of societary ills by legislation and the paternal control of the Government over the affairs of the individual, do not see that men and women must first be personally convinced of the utility of such public arrangements as they advocate, with substantial unanimity, before legislation in their behalf could possibly be effective. And when the practical unity of sentiment has been wrought out in the community which would insure the enforcement of the law, the law is usually no longer necessary. In other words, voluntary consent is the essential condition of all stable social arrangements, instead of governmental coercion.

It may be objected that the social philosopher is compelled to recognize that, under the law of relativity, arbitrary and paternal forms of government have had and still have their proper place in the order of societary evolution. They are adapted to certain phases of culture and civilization, wherein order could not be maintained under freer and more democratic governmental institutions. This is true; but such forms of government are always temporary and unstable, where the conditions of social progress are steadily operative. As populations attain to a higher degree of intelligence and culture, a larger freedom is demanded; and no arbitrary government can long resist this popular demand. The result of such resistance, when it is attempted, if not revolution, is stagnation, atrophy, and arrested development.

This principle of voluntary consent is well illustrated in the earliest and most primitive type of societary development the family. The family is based upon the marriage relation; and while, in the savage and barbarous stages of human evolution, we have marriage by capture and the exercise of various modes of coercion sanctioned by custom and authority, it is universally admitted in all highly civilized communities that true marriage rests upon the uncoerced consent of both contracting parties. As this consent is less a matter of mere formality and becomes more perfect and complete, involving the recognition of attractions not only emotional and physical, but also intellectual, moral, and spiritual, so is the union more permanent and satisfying.

The principle herein laid down holds good in every stage of social combination, however complex and widely extended it may be. It is a sound political philosophy which is enunciated in that paragraph of our Declaration of Independence which affirms that all just powers of government rest upon the consent of the governed. This is as true of the older autocratic and monarchical systems as it is of our own democratic-republican form of government. An autocracy which finds no response in the hearts of the people, but is maintained solely by the iron rule of external compulsion, is a tyranny, unstable in its foundations, unadapted to its societary environment, and destined to early destruction, either by peaceful evolutionary measures or by forceful revolution. In such a state, nihilism and anarchism are natural products of the existing social conditions. The pent-up forces of an artificially restrained individualism must somehow find vent, even if it be by means of revolutionary violence. Russia to-day offers an instructive example of the truth of this principle.

The object of the social reformer should be, not only to accomplish the renovation of society, but to do it in the quickest possible time in which it can be so accomplished that the changes effected shall be permanent, and the trend of social evolution shall surely be directed toward the ideal end of individual enlightenment and liberation and social integration. These ends can be surely accomplished by the method of evolution; they are as surely retarded and indefinitely postponed by the methods of anarchical violence and artificial compulsion. The individualism fostered and aimed at by the evolutionary method should be sharply distinguished from that destructive anarchism which aims at the sudden and forceful abolishment of existing institutions.

Here, too, biology offers us a wise suggestion. Galton's law of "reversion toward mediocrity" shows that those biological changes which are suddenly effected by artificial selection and forcible deviation from the main trend of natural evolutionary tendency are not permanent. They endure only so long as the organisms are kept under the direct and active influence of the artificial conditions which produced them. The moment they are left to the unrestrained operation of purely natural forces, they speedily revert to their original status. This must be the case in sociological evolution also, whenever social and institutional conditions are artificially forced, in advance of the intellectual culture and functional development of the masses of the people.

The history of our own time is full of instructive examples illustrative of this sociological law: of innumerable co-operative experiments, ideal communities, and the like, that have arisen, obedient to philanthropic impulse, enjoyed a brief, precarious existence, and died for want of sustenance; of artificial commercial situations, the product of legislative interference with the natural laws of trade, which induce at first a feverish appearance of prosperity, followed by great fluctuations in values, and finally by panic and financial collapse. As artificial conditions thus established are always liable to be suddenly modified or annulled by variations in popular sentiment, the progress of discovery and invention, changes in governmental administration and administrative policy, the influx of foreign elements into the population of a given locality, and a thousand and one other causes, temporarily or permanently operating, it should manifestly be the purpose of the wise social reformer to build along the great lines of natural evolutionary tendency, and thus to make use of those elemental forces, social, moral, and biological, which will insure stability and permanent prosperity for the results of his efforts.

He will thus aim to encourage voluntary co-operation instead of an enforced regulation of society by means of legislative enactments. The success of this aim will, of course, depend upon the intelligence and moral development of the citizens of a given community. The liberation of the individual—his increasing ability to secure the satisfactions consequent upon the free and orderly use of all his faculties—will proceed pari passu with his increasing dependence on the co-operative labors of his fellows. The processes of social differentiation go on hand in hand with the tendencies to social integration. As occupations become more diversified, the individual acquires greater skill in his special vocation; he produces a greater amount of wealth, and thus conduces more to the well-being of society, as well as, under a properly regulated system of labor, to his own personal well-being. Fewer hours of labor are requisite to insure a livelihood, as labor becomes differentiated and automatic; more time may be bestowed upon general culture, social intercourse, and the service of the commonwealth—upon the development, in short, of that fullness of life which constitutes the ideal of a perfect manhood.

In wisely serving himself, the individual is thus rendering a greater service to society; and this, in turn, inures to his own roundabout development. Egoism is thus purged of its excesses, and made to promote the general well-being. This, in turn, conduces to the highest individual prosperity and culture. In the proper equilibration of egoistic and altruistic motives in the government of conduct, all conflict between these motives ceases. In wisely serving his neighbor man renders the truest service to himself, and vice versa. Thus society integrates by a natural process of growth, obedient to laws which are operative in the evolution of all living things; and its ultimate form constitutes a real brotherhood of consent, instead of a militant organization consolidated by external coercion.


  1. Cf. Mr. George Gunton, in The Principles of Social Economics, pp. 298-810.
  2. Evolution of Man, vol. i, p. 60.
  3. Ibid., p. 131.
  4. Ibid., pp. 149, 150.
  5. The Scope and Principles of the Evolution Philosophy, p. 22.
  6. The Doctrine of Evolution: its Scope and Influence. Popular Science Monthly, September, 1891, p. 592. Notably, also, Mr. George Gunton, in his Principles of Social Economics.