Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/March 1875/Social Evolution

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
For works with similar titles, see Social Evolution.


By Prof. J. E. CAIRNES.[1]

ANXIOUS as all who take an interest in social speculation cannot fail to be for the completion of Mr. Spencer's forthcoming work on the "Principles of Sociology," they will scarcely regret that he should have allowed himself to be drawn aside for a time from his principal occupation in order to compose the present volume. Several reasons concur to make it desirable that such an avant-coureur should be sent forth; but it is sufficient here to mention one. With every possible disposition to acknowledge the great services of M. Comte in his masterly ébauche and partial development of the science of society, it is impossible not to see that even the elementary principles of this branch of inquiry have yet to be formulated. To constitute these, or at least some portion of them, is doubtless the aim of Mr. Spencer's grand undertaking. It is to this that the labors of his life have been leading up; but, if his work is to prove in any sense definitive, it is plainly an indispensable condition that it should be preceded by a tolerably full and thorough discussion of the more elementary doctrines of the new science. Mr. Spencer has not, indeed, waited till now to give the world his ideas on many social topics of the highest importance; but it was well thus to bring together into a single volume his sociological views scattered over many essays, and, by giving them fresh exposition and illustration, to invite fresh criticism. Never before has the conception of a social science been put forth with equal distinctness and clearness; and never has its claim to take rank as a recognized branch of scientific investigation been placed upon surer grounds, or asserted with more just emphasis. The wealth of illustration lavished on the various topics discussed is almost marvelous; and, when one considers that Mr. Spencer has already on hand a great work on the same subject, augurs a rare profusion of resources. The purpose of the present essay, however, is not to render to Mr. Spencer a homage of which he has no need, but to invite attention to some positions of his philosophical system, so far as it has been given to the public, which have scarcely yet received that amount of consideration and criticism which their great importance demands. As will be seen, and indeed has already appeared, the following remarks have been conceived from the point of view of one who fully accepts the possibility of a social science, and who, to a large extent, concurs in Mr. Spencer's conception of the nature of that inquiry.

The part of Mr. Spencer's social philosophy to which he has hitherto given most prominence, and which he has elaborated with most care, is his doctrine of Social Evolution. The idea was put forward by him, many years ago, in a well-known essay entitled the "Social Organism;" it has since received further elucidation in a discussion with Prof. Huxley in this Review; and it has once more been expounded anew, and with fresh illustration, in the present volume. There is a certain sense in which, I presume, the doctrine of "Social Evolution" would be now pretty widely accepted, at least among those who have concerned themselves with the philosophy of history and kindred speculations. I mean the sense in which it expresses the fact that each stage in human progress is the outcome and result of the stage which has immediately preceded it, and that the whole series of stages, beginning with savage life and ending with the most advanced existing civilization, represents a connected chain, of which the links are bound together as sequences, in precisely the same way as in the instances of causation presented by other departments of Nature. Some such assumption as this must necessarily form the basis of all attempts at a rational interpretation of history. But, as enunciated and expounded by Mr. Spencer, social evolution carries with it a meaning much more precise and significant. As his readers are aware, Mr. Spencer insists very strongly on the analogy of evolution, as exhibited in the animal kingdom, whether in the individual animal or in the species, and evolution in human society—in other words, between the development, individual and specific, of the animal organism, and the development of what he calls "the social organism," meaning, thereby, organized social life. He finds in this analogy not merely a metaphor and an illustration, but a type, and even a clew. Thus he observes a law of development governing the growth of an individual organism from birth to maturity; and, again, a similar law governing the development of species from existence in an all but amorphous germ to the attainment of a very high and complex form of animal life; and he transfers these laws from physiology and zoology to the domain of social science; treating them not merely as the means of elucidating social phenomena, but as exhibiting the real character of the processes by which mankind have in fact attained their present civilization, and as foreshadowing, also, the lines along which society in its future development is destined to move. It is, for instance, a characteristic of the evolution of individual organisms under the laws of animal growth, as well as of that of the several species of animals under the influence of the struggle for existence and the law of the "survival of the fittest," that development takes place "spontaneously"—that is to say, is the incidental result of actions not consciously undertaken with that object in view. This is evidently so in the growth of an individual animal, and it is no less certainly so in the development of species. In neither case is the progress attained the result of efforts consciously put forth for its accomplishment. And the whole drift of Mr. Spencer's teaching on this subject is to show that the process is similar in the case of human society; that its growth and development are in no degree, or at all events in quite an insignificant degree, the consequence of efforts put forth by those who compose it to improve their social condition, but mainly, if not exclusively, the result of actions undertaken with quite other ends in view. A favorite illustration, accordingly, with Mr. Spencer of the process by which society undergoes development is the growth of language:

"Not only has it been natural from the beginning, but it has been spontaneous. No language is a cunningly-devised scheme of a ruler or body of legislators. There is no council of savages to invent the parts of speech, and decide on what principles they should be used. Nay, more. Going on without any authority or appointed regulation, this natural process went on without any man observing that it was going on. Solely under pressure of the need for communicating their ideas and feelings, solely in pursuit of their personal interests, men little by little developed speech in absolute unconsciousness that they were doing any thing more than pursuing their personal interests." (Essays, vol. iii., p. 129.)

And this is given as a typical specimen of the "workings-out of sociological processes"—of the marvelous results "indirectly and unintentionally achieved by the coöperation of men who are severally pursuing their private ends." The numerous and complex arrangements which, under the stimulus of individual self-interest, have arisen in this and other civilized countries for the distribution of wealth, and the growth from small beginnings of our vast system of credit and banking, serve as an illustration of the same principle. "When it is questioned," he remarks, "whether the spontaneous cooperation of men in pursuit of personal benefits will adequately work out the general good, we may get guidance for judgment by comparing the results;" and he proceeds to give examples which could only lead to an affirmative conclusion.

The nature of social development is thus, according to Mr. Spencer, essentially identical with that of development in the animal kingdom; and it is a necessary corollary from this that the course of both should lie along parallel lines. Thus, when we find the individual animal growing from birth to maturity, developing its structure and functions according to a regular scheme; and, similarly, the several species of animals constantly tending, under the influence of the struggle for existence, to adapt themselves more and more perfectly to the conditions of their environment, and so to rise into a higher and higher order of being; when we find all this, and perceive that the processes by which society is developed are exactly analogous, the conclusion seems inevitable that so it must be also with social evolution—that here, too, progress and improvement arise by way of spontaneous growth in the natural order of things, and that consequently efforts to advance the common interest are superfluous—much more likely, in effect, to impede and disturb than to assist the harmonious order of human development.

Such, so far as I have been able to extract his meaning from his various essays on this subject, is Mr. Spencer's theory of social evolution. The practical effect of such a doctrine on all engaged in helping forward, according to the measure of their strength, the cause of human well-being, it is not difficult to perceive; nor does Mr. Spencer altogether blink this aspect of the case. In the last two pages of his recent work he has the following remarks:

"If, as seems likely, some should propose to draw the seemingly awkward corollary, that it matters not what we believe, or what we teach, since the process of social evolution will take its own course in spite of us; I reply that, while this corollary is in one sense true, it is in another sense untrue. Doubtless, from all that has been said, it follows that, supposing surrounding conditions continue the same, the evolution of a society cannot be in any essential way diverted from its general course; though it also follows (and here the corollary is at fault) that the thoughts and actions of individuals, being natural factors that arise in the course of the evolution itself, and aid in further advancing it, cannot be dispensed with, but must be severally valued as increments of the aggregate force producing change."

Whether this explanation will be satisfactory to those who draw the "seemingly awkward corollary," may, perhaps, be doubted. Mr. Spencer apparently does not rely much on the practical efficacy of his answer, for he at once proceeds to supplement it as follows:

"Though the process of social evolution is, in its general character, so far predetermined that its successive stages cannot be antedated, and that hence no teaching or policy can advance it beyond a certain normal rate, which is limited by the rate of organic modification in human beings, yet it is quite possible to perturb, to retard, or to disorder the process. The analogy of individual development again serves us. The unfolding of an organism after its special type has its approximately-uniform course, taking its tolerably-definite time, and no treatment that may be devised will fundamentally change or greatly accelerate these; the best that can be done is to maintain the required favorable conditions. But it is quite easy to adopt a treatment which shall dwarf, or deform, or otherwise injure; the processes of growth and development may be, and very often are, hindered and deranged, though they cannot be artificially bettered. Similarly with the social organism."

If I am not mistaken, however, the case of the social organism is not similar. The favorable conditions which it is important to maintain with reference to the individual organism are conditions external to the organism; whereas that condition of social development, the efficacy of which forms the question in dispute, consists in efforts after social improvement made by the units composing the organism. The analogy, therefore, of individual development completely fails us here, unless, indeed, Mr. Spencer supposes the objectors he is addressing to be standing outside the social organism, and proposing to experiment upon it as upon a foreign body. But, not to dwell on this point, the conclusion arrived at is that, "by maintaining favorable conditions, there cannot be more good done than that of letting social progress go on unhindered;" whereas "an immensity of mischief may be done in the way of disturbing and distorting and repressing, by policies carried out in pursuit of erroneous conceptions." Indifferent comfort, this, for the friends of humanity; but it is all Mr. Spencer has to offer. He adds "a few words," however, "to those who think these general conclusions discouraging. Probably the more enthusiastic, hopeful of great ameliorations in the state of mankind, to be brought about rapidly by propagating this belief or initiating that reform, will feel that a doctrine negativing their sanguine expectations takes away much of the stimulus to exertion. If large advances in human welfare can come only in the slow process of things, which will inevitably bring them, why should we trouble ourselves?" A very natural question. And what is Mr. Spencer's answer? Simply that on visionary hopes rational criticisms cannot but have a depressing influence. But "it is better," he adds, "to recognize the truth."

Doubtless "it is better to recognize the truth;" but before accepting as true a doctrine admittedly so depressing, carrying with it such "seemingly awkward corollaries," it will, at least, be well to subject it to a somewhat careful examination. And, in the first place, there is tins remark to be made, that no verification whatever has yet been offered, or, so far as I know, attempted, of the theory of social evolution set forth with so much appearance of scientific authority. It represents a speculation transferred from the domain of physiology and zoology into that of social inquiry, and the speculation, so transferred, is applied, without question or scruple, to the interpretation of human affairs; no attempt having been made to ascertain how far the course of these affairs hitherto has corresponded with the doctrine thus formulated. The range of human history now covers upward of 3,000 years, and presents, in a very incomplete and imperfect manner, no doubt, the phenomena of moral, intellectual, religious, and other evolution in numerous societies of men. Surely, before propounding his speculation as a law of human society, from which he is at once justified in deducing consequences of the largest kind bearing upon human conduct, Mr. Spencer was bound to consider what amount of countenance or support it received from the evidence derivable from such fields of research; but from the application of this test he has wholly abstained. Will it be said that our knowledge of past history is so exceedingly slight and untrustworthy as to be unfit to furnish a datum for social speculation, and that verification had thus to be dispensed with as impracticable? Such a defense, it seems to me, is scarcely available in the present instance; for, while it is true that about particular events in history there is, in general, much room for doubt and for difference of opinion, this is not the case, or is in a very slight degree the case, with regard to certain broad generalizations which come out with considerable distinctness from the study of the past, and which are, in effect, the very generalizations needed in order to test Mr. Spencer's doctrine. Thus there cannot be much doubt that certain nations have, during certain centuries of their history, made rather rapid progress in civilization, but have afterward suffered an arrest, which has, in some instances, been followed by temporary or permanent decline; while, on the other hand, others, and these by far the more numerous, have continued for thousands of years in a condition almost, if not altogether, stationary. In his work on "Ancient Law," Sir H. Maine does not hesitate to say that—

"The stationary condition of the human race is the rule; the progressive, the exception." "In spite of overwhelming evidence," he remarks, "it is most difficult for a citizen of Western Europe to bring thoroughly home to himself the truth that the civilization which surrounds him is a rare exception in the history of the world.... It is indisputable that much the greatest part of mankind has never shown a particle of desire that its civil institutions should be improved, since the moment when external completeness was first given to them by their embodiment in some permanent record."

Again, it is a point upon which, I suppose, it may be said, historians are agreed, that, even in Europe for many centuries—starting, let us say, from the age of the Antonines, and ending with the eleventh or twelfth century—the movement in human affairs was on the whole steadily backward; the state of things existing at the latter date being, according to all the main tests of human well-being, far in arrear of the condition attained in the former epoch. It may be that these generalizations are superficial, that the learning of the world is here at fault, and that history better understood would support Mr. Spencer's view; or it may be that the current beliefs on the points in question are capable of being reconciled with the new doctrine. Be this as it may, it is not the less true that the verdict of history, as now understood by its most competent interpreters, is distinctly opposed to the theory of social evolution enunciated by Mr. Spencer. Now, this is a fact which has been completely ignored by that distinguished writer; he has simply passed it by as not concerning his argument; and in doing so has, as I contend, set at naught one of the best-understood canons of the inductive method—the canon that requires that hypotheses, before being accepted as laws of Nature, or made the bases of confident deduction, should be carefully verified by comparison with all available facts pertinent to the question in hand. M. Comte, who, as regards the particular point under consideration—the necessarily progressive character of human evolution—is at one with Mr. Spencer, understood otherwise the claims of the positive philosophy, and does, in fact, fairly attempt to grapple with the historical difficulties to which I have referred. It is true, indeed, his argument is by no means successful—at least so it seems to me—in establishing the required conclusion; but it is, at least, more satisfactory than total silence.

It follows, then, that Mr. Spencer's theory of social evolution can only be regarded, as matters now stand, as an unverified hypothesis, with this presumption against it, that it is at variance with such knowledge as we possess of the past history of mankind; and the doubt as to its soundness, which this circumstance cannot but suggest, will, I think, find confirmation, when we look closely into that analogy between the social and the animal organisms on which the whole speculation is built up. In the striking and ingenious essay in which Mr. Spencer first traced this analogy he frankly admits that it does not run on all-fours, and he enumerates no less than four points in which the analogy fails. There will be no need at present to refer to more than one of these: it is to the effect that, unlike the sentient life of animals, which is concentrated in the brain, the sentient life of societies is diffused equally over the entire surface—

"A fact," says Mr. Spencer, "which reminds us that, while in individual bodies the welfare of all other parts is rightly subservient to the nervous system, whose pleasurable or painful activities make up the good or evil of life, in bodies politic the same thing does not hold, or holds but to a very slight extent. It is well that the lives of all parts of an animal should be merged in the life of the whole; because the whole has a corporate consciousness capable of happiness or misery. But it is not so with a society; since its living units do not and cannot lose individual consciousness, and since the community as a whole has no corporate consciousness. And this is an everlasting reason why the welfare of citizens cannot rightly be sacrificed to some supposed benefit of the state, but why, on the other hand, the state is to be maintained solely for the benefit of citizens. The corporate life must here be subservient to the lives of the parts, instead of the lives of the parts being subservient to the corporate life."

I have called attention to this admission because it appears to me to involve very much larger consequences than Mr. Spencer seems disposed to allow—consequences, if I mistake not, fatal to this theory. For what does it amount to? To this, that, however closely the two organisms he has been comparing may correspond in certain details of structure and function, the main purposes of the two schemes—the ends for which alone all the contrivances exist, and with reference to which their goodness or badness must be judged—are essentially different; the aim of the one being to sustain the corporate existence, and to contribute to the corporate happiness; while that of the other can properly have regard only to the existence and happiness of the individual elements which compose it. This being so, what can be more preposterous than to erect the modes of organization furnished by the animal kingdom into patterns and exemplars by which to regulate the relations of social life? What does such doctrine come to but a proposal deliberately to sacrifice the substance to the shadow the ends of social existence to the establishment of a fanciful analogy? The reader of Prof. Huxley's essay on "Administrative Nihilism" will probably remember the passage in which he turns the analogy in question against Mr. Spencer, and converts it into an argument in favor of extending the functions of the state, or rather shows how it might be thus converted:

"The fact is," says Prof. Huxley, "that the sovereign power of the body thinks for the physiological organism, acts for it, and rules the individual components with a rod of iron.... The questioning of his authority involves death, or that partial death which we call paralysis. Hence, if the analogy of the body politic with the body physiological counts for any thing, it seems to me to be in favor of a much larger amount of governmental interference than exists at present, or that I, for one, at all desire to see. But, tempting as the opportunity is, I am not disposed to build up any argument in favor of my own case upon this analogy, curious, interesting, and in many respects close as it is, for it takes no cognizance of certain profound and essential differences between the physiological and political bodies."

And Prof. Huxley proceeds to point out one of those profound and essential differences, which, if the reader will refer to his argument, will be seen to come, in effect, to very much what Mr. Spencer himself had admitted, in his original essay, in the passage which I have quoted. As the reader is probably aware, Mr. Spencer replied to Prof. Huxley's attack in an elaborate article, now printed in the third series of his collected essays; but, though he might have claimed to have anticipated the objection urged against him by pointing to the passage in which the failure of the analogy in the circumstance in question was admitted and even insisted on, he did not take this course. In truth, though he might thus have avoided the reductio ad absurdum with which he was pressed by Prof. Huxley, and might also have saved his own consistency, he could only have done so by the entire surrender of his main position; for he must have admitted that the all-sufficing analogy, "curious, interesting, and in many respects close" as no doubt it is, was yet, for the purpose of political argument, entirely destitute of cogency; and this was an admission which Mr. Spencer did not see his way to make.

It may still, however, be contended that, though of small account as a criterion in practical politics—in the sphere of what we may call the statics of sociology—this analogy between the individual and social organisms may nevertheless possess value in reference to the dynamical aspects of the social problem, as throwing light, that is to say, on the course of social evolution. And such, it appears to me, is the case so long as we confine ourselves to a very primitive stage in the social history of man. In that primitive stage (as Mr. Darwin has taught us), while man remains still a savage, and even perhaps for some time after he has emerged from the savage condition, the influences which mould his social development are substantially the same with those which govern the development of a species. It is not strange, therefore, that evolution in the human and in the animal kingdom should, during this period, follow a very similar course. But a time arrives in the progress of social development when societies of men become conscious of a corporate existence, and when the improvement of the conditions of this existence becomes for them an object of conscious and deliberate effort. At what particular stage in human history this new social force comes into play, we have no need here to inquire. What I am concerned to point out is that it is a new social force, wholly different in character from any which had hitherto helped to shape human destiny—wholly different, also, from those influences which have guided the unfolding either of the individual animal or of the species. We cannot, by taking thought, add a cubit to our stature. The species, in undergoing the process of improvement, is wholly unconscious of the influences that are determining its career. It is not so with human evolution. Civilized mankind are aware of the changes taking place in their social conditions, and do consciously and deliberately take measures for its improvement.—Fortnightly Review.

  1. A review of "The Study of Sociology," by Herbert Spencer. D. Appleton & Co.