Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/July 1913/Lester F Ward as Sociologist
|LESTER F. WARD AS SOCIOLOGIST|
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN
THE late Lester F. Ward was a many-sided man and his fifty productive years brought forth a great number of contributions to botany, paleobotany, geology, psychology and anthropology. For a long time as paleobotanist of the U. S. Geological Survey he led as it were a double intellectual life, devoting his office hours to fossil plants and his spare time to the sciences relating to man. He had two reading publics, two groups of scientific acquaintances, two sets of correspondence. When traveling about in Europe one day he might hear his own contributions discussed in a university seminar on sociology, while the next day he would be the guest of an Italian count who knew nothing of his sociological writing but loved him as a brother naturalist. Toward the latter part of his life, however, sociology engrossed his energies and it is as sociologist that he will be known to the future.
Thirty years ago when Dr. Ward made his debut with his monumental "Dynamic Sociology," the influence of Spencer was completely dominant save among the handful of socialists. Social evolutionism insisted that the improvement of society must of necessity be slow. No factors could be relied on for the promotion of progress save the blind forces which had brought mankind out of prehistoric savagery. The state, being in origin and spirit coercive, could do nothing to accelerate progress, although by ill-advised intermeddling it could do much to hinder it. Beyond protecting life and property the state should keep its hands off.
Ward was the first who, digging as deep as Spencer and basing himself with equal confidence upon modern science, built up a totally different social philosophy. He rejected the dogma of the superiority of the "natural" and insisted that human progress is a matter of art, is "artificial." There is always an artificial which, from man's point of view, is better than the natural. Instead of "Back to nature!" the cry ought to be "Forward to art!" The social progress we have had has come about by the haphazard contributions of a small number of originative individuals; but the rate of movement can be enormously accelerated provided society intelligently sets about it.The state has been coercive, but it is fit for higher purposes. We are still in the stone age of politics. It is practicable gradually to mould government into an instrument of collective intelligence. War, oppression
exploitation and superstition—the chief obstacles to progress—are rooted in general ignorance and may be removed by the diffusion of knowledge. Universal education is, therefore, the one means government may employ to hasten the advancement of mankind.
His "Psychic Factors of Civilization" published in 1893 laid a deeper foundation for his program of willed social progress by setting forth the role of mind in organic evolution. His daring comparison of "the economy of Nature and the economy of Mind" would, at any time between the sixth century and the seventeenth, have been generally regarded as impious and inspired by the devil. Twenty years ago biological adaptation was still regarded as something to pattern after. Ward showed, however, that improvement by natural selection is frightfully wasteful. Nature's way of getting results is costly and should not be imitated by man. As soon as mind comes into the world a better method of adaptation is discovered. It is, therefore, in order for intelligence to search for shortcuts to happiness. Beyond democracy Ward sees a form of government he calls "sociocracy" in which the control of the social future rather than the adjustment of private property interests will be the chief function.
Ten years later Ward gave out "Pure Sociology," in which he traced the origin of society, the course of social development and the means by which civilization had been built up. This was followed soon by "Applied Sociology," crown of his system and his last word on the problem of accelerating social progress. While insisting equally with the socialists on the lop-sidedness of modern progress and the non-participation of the masses in the fruits of the machine era, he utterly refused to pin his hope for the future to single tax, collectivism or any economic reform whatsoever. In his view no purely economic reform can put an end to exploitation, because it leaves untouched the great inequality of intelligence which alone makes exploitation possible. Education, therefore, is the antidote not only to contemporary exploitation, but to such exploitations as may be called into being by unforeseen future developments.
Ward believed that native talent or genius appears about as frequently in one social class as another, in working-class children as in the children of the well-to-do. The fact that through the centuries most of the great men have sprung from the comfortable classes simply proves the might of opportunity. The bringing of full educational opportunities within reach of all children will enable society for the first time to realize on all its latent assets of human capacity.
Ward lived to see his ideas generally accepted by thoughtful men. No longer is progress identified with the method of natural selection. To-day no one advocates surrender to the blind forces of social development. The laissez faire theory has been abandoned. The functions of government have greatly multiplied, especially on the side of research, education and stimulation. With this about-face Lester F. Ward had something to do. He never reached the people, but he reached the people who reached the people. His program remains yet to be realized, but the leaders are moving in the direction he pointed.