MoboReader > Literature > Sociology and Modern Social Problems


Sociology and Modern Social Problems By Charles A. Ellwood Characters: 41115

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Since Darwin wrote his Origin of Species all the sciences in any way connected with biology have been profoundly influenced by his theory of evolution. It is important that the student of sociology, therefore, should understand at the outset something of the bearing of Darwin's theory upon social problems.

We may note at the beginning, however, that the word evolution has two distinct, though related, meanings. First, it usually means Darwin's doctrine of descent; secondly, it is used to designate Spencer's theory of universal evolution. Let us note somewhat in detail what evolution means in the first of these senses.

The Darwinian Theory of Descent.-Darwin's theory of descent is the doctrine that all forms of life now existing or that have existed upon the earth have sprung from a few simple primitive types. According to this theory all forms of animals and plants have sprung from a few primitive stocks, though not necessarily one, because even in the beginning there may have existed a distinction at least between the plant and the animal types. So far as the animal world is concerned, then, this theory amounts to the assertion of the kinship of all life. From one or more simple primitive unicellular forms have arisen the great multitude of multicellular forms that now exist. Popularly, Darwin's theory is supposed to be that man sprang from the apes, but this, strictly speaking, is a misconception. Darwin's theory necessitates the belief, not that man sprang from any existing species of ape, but rather that the apes and man have sprung from some common stock. It is equally true, however, that man and many other of the lower animals, according to this theory, have come from a common stock. As was said above, the theory is not a theory of the descent of man from any particular animal type, but rather the theory of the kinship, the genetic relationship, of all animal species.

It is evident that if we assume Darwin's theory of descent in sociology we must look for the beginnings of many peculiarly human things in the animal world below man. Human institutions, according to this theory, could not be supposed to have an independent origin, or human society in any of its forms to be a fact by itself, but rather all human things are connected with the whole world of animal life below man. Thus if we are, according to this theory, to look for the origin of the family, we should have to turn first of all to the habits of animals nearest man. This is only one of the many bearings which Darwin's theory has upon the study of social problems; but it is evident even from this that it revolutionizes sociology. So long as it was possible to look upon human society as a distinct creation, as something isolated, by itself in nature, it was possible to hold to intellectualistic views of the origin of human institutions.

But some one may ask: Why should the sociologist accept Darwin's theory? What proofs does it rest upon? What warrant has a student of sociology for accepting a doctrine of such far-reaching consequences? The reply is, that biologists, generally, during the last fifty years, after a careful study of Darwin's arguments and after a careful examination of all other evidence, have come substantially to agree with him. There is no great biologist now living who does not accept the essentials of the doctrine of descent. Five lines of proof may be offered in support of Darwin's theories, and it may be well for us, as students of sociology, briefly to review these.

(1) The homologies or similarities of structure of different animals. There are very striking similarities of structure between all the higher animals. Between the ape and man, for example, there are over one hundred and fifty such anatomical homologies; that is, in the ape we find bone for bone, and muscle for muscle, corresponding to the structure of the human body. Even an animal so remotely related to man as the cat has many more resemblances to man in anatomical structure than dissimilarities. Now, the meaning of these anatomical homologies, biologists say, is that these animals are genetically related, that is, they had a common ancestry at some remote period in the past.

(2) The presence of vestigial organs in the higher animals supplies another argument for the belief in common descent. In man, for example, there exist over one hundred of these vestigial or rudimentary organs, as the vermiform appendix, the pineal gland, and the like. Many of these vestigal organs, which are now functionless in man, perform functions in lower animals, and this is held to show that at some remote period in the past they also functioned in man's ancestors.

(3) The facts of embryology seem to point to the descent of the higher types of animals from the lower types. The embryo or fetus in its development seems to recapitulate the various stages through which the species has passed. Thus the human embryo at one stage of its development resembles the fish; at another stage, the embryo of a dog; and for a long time it is impossible to distinguish between the human embryo and that of one of the larger apes. These embryological facts, biologists say, indicate genetic relation between the various animal forms which the embryo in its different stages simulates.

(4) The fossil remains of extinct species of animals are found in the earth's crust which are evidently ancestors of existing species. Until the doctrine of descent was accepted there was no way of explaining the presence of these fossil remains of extinct animals in the earth's crust. It was supposed by some that the earth had passed through a series of cataclysms in which all forms of life upon the earth had been many times destroyed and many times re-created. It is now demonstrated, however, that these fossils are related to existing species, and sometimes it is possible to trace back the evolution of existing forms to very primitive forms in this way. For example, it is possible to trace the horse, which is now an animal with a single hoof, walking on a single toe, back to an animal that walked upon four toes and had four hoofs and was not much larger than a fox. It is not so generally known that it is also possible to trace man back through fossil human remains that have been discovered in the earth's crust to the time when he is apparently just emerging from some apelike form. The latest discovery of the fossil remains of man made by Dr. Dubois in Java in 1894 shows a creature with about half the brain capacity of the existing civilized man and with many apelike characteristics. Thus we cannot except even man from the theory of evolution and suppose that he was especially created, as Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's contemporary and colaborer, and others, have supposed.

(5) The last line of argument in favor of the belief that all existing species have descended from a few simple primitive forms is found in the fact of the variation of animals through artificial selection under domestication. For generations breeders have known that by carefully selecting the type of animal or plant which they have desired, it is possible to produce approximately that type. Thus have originated all the breeds or varieties of domestic plants and animals. Now, Darwin conceived that nature also exercises a selection by weeding out those individuals that are not adapted to their environment. In other words, nature, though unconscious, selects in a negative way the stronger and the better adapted. Animals vary in nature as well as under domestication from causes not yet well understood. The variations that were favorable to survival, Darwin argued, would secure the survival, through the passing on of these variations by heredity of the better adapted types of plants and animals. The natural process of weeding out the inferior or least adapted through early death, or through failure to reproduce, Darwin called "natural selection", and likened it in its effect upon organisms to the artificial selection which breeders consciously use to secure types of plants or animals that they desire. The only great addition to Darwin's theories which has been made since he wrote is that of the Dutch botanist, Hugo de Vries, who has shown that the variations which are fruitful for the production of new species are probably great or discontinuous variations, which he terms "mutations," instead of the small fluctuating variations which Darwin thought were probably most important in the production of new species. De Vries' theory in no way affects the doctrine of descent, nor does it take away from the importance of natural selection in fixing the variations. Darwin's theory, therefore, stands in all of its essentials to-day unquestioned by men of science, and it must be assumed by the student of sociology in any attempt to explain social evolution.

Spencer's Theory of Universal Evolution.-A second meaning given to the word evolution is that which Spencer popularized in his First Principles. This is a philosophical theory of the universe which asserts that not only have species of animals come to be what they are through a process of development, but everything whatsoever that exists, from molecules of matter to stars and planets. It is the view that the universe is in a process of development. Evolution in this wider sense includes all existing things whatsoever, while evolution in the sense of Darwin's theory is confined to the organic world. While the theory that all things existing have through a process of orderly change come to be what they are, is a very old one, yet it was undoubtedly Spencer's writings which popularized the theory, and to Spencer we also owe the attempt in his Synthetic Philosophy to trace the working of evolution in all the different realms of phenomena. The belief in universal evolution which Spencer popularized has also come to be generally accepted by scientific and philosophical thinkers. While Spencer's particular theories of evolution may not be accepted, some form of universal evolution is very generally believed in. The thought of evolution now dominates all the sciences,-physical, biological, psychological, and sociological. It is evident that the student of society, if he accepts fully the modern scientific spirit, must also assume evolution in this second or universal sense.

The Different Phases of Universal Evolution.-It may be well, in order to correlate our knowledge of social evolution with knowledge in general, to note the different well-marked phases of universal evolution.

(1) Cosmic Evolution. This is the phase the astronomer and the geologist are particularly interested in. It deals with the evolution of worlds. In this phase we are dealing merely with physical matter, and it is supposed that the active principle which works in this phase of evolution is the attraction of particles of matter for one another. This leads to the condensation of matter into suns and their planets, and the geological evolution of the earth, for example. Laplace's nebular hypothesis is an attempt to give an adequate statement of the cosmic phase of evolution. While this hypothesis has been much criticized of late, in its essentials it seems to stand. We are not, however, as students of society, concerned with this phase of evolution.

(2) Organic Evolution. This is the phase of evolution with which Darwin dealt and which biology, as a science of evolution of living forms, deals with. The great merit of Darwin's work was that he showed that the active principle in this phase of evolution is natural selection; that is, the extermination of the unadapted through death or through failure to reproduce. Types unsuited to their environment thus die before reproduction. The stronger and better fitted survive, and thus the type is raised. Natural selection may be regarded, then, as essentially the creative force in this phase of evolution.

(3) The Evolution of Mind. This might be included in organic evolution, but all organisms do not apparently have minds. It is evident that among animals those that would stand the best chance of surviving would not be simply those that have the strongest brute strength, but rather those that have the keenest intelligence and that could adapt themselves quickly to their environment, that could see approaching danger and escape it. Natural selection has, therefore, favored in the animal world the survival of those animals with the highest type of intelligence. It cannot be said, however, that natural selection is the only force which has created the mind in all its various expressions.

(4) Social Evolution. By social evolution we mean the evolution of groups, or, in strict accordance with our definition of society, groups of psychically interconnected individuals. Groups are to be found throughout the animal world, and it is in the human species, as we have already seen, that the highest types of association are found. This is not an accident. Association, or living together in groups, has been one of the devices by which animal species have been enabled to survive. It is evident that not only would intelligence help an animal to survive more than brute strength, but that ability to cooperate with one's fellows would also help in the same way. Consequently we find a degree of combination or co?peration almost at the very beginning of life, and it is without doubt through co?peration that man has become the dominant and supreme species upon the planet. Man's social instincts, in other words, have been perhaps even more important for his survival than his intelligence. The man who lies, cheats, and steals, or who indulges in other unsocial conduct sets himself against his group and places his group at a disadvantage as compared with other groups. Now, natural selection is continually operating upon groups as well as upon individuals, and the group which can command the most loyal, most efficient membership, and has the best organization, is, other things being equal, the group which survives. Natural selection is, then, active in social evolution as well as in general organic evolution. But the distinctive principle of social evolution is co?peration. In other words, it is sympathetic feeling, altruism, which has made the higher types of social evolution possible.

While the same factors are at work in the higher phases of evolution which are at work in the lower phases, yet it is evident that the higher phases have new and distinct factors. Sociology, being especially concerned with social evolution, has a new and distinct factor at work which we may call association, co?peration, or combination, and this it is which gives sociology its distinct place in the list of general sciences.

Factors In Organic Evolution.-As has already been said, the factors which are at work in organic evolution generally are also at work in social evolution. We need, therefore, to note these factors carefully and to see how they are at work in human society as well as in the animal world below man. While these factors are not all of the factors which are at work in social evolution, still they are the primitive factors, and are, therefore, of fundamental importance. Let us see what these factors are.

(1) The Multiplication of Organisms in Some Geometric Ratio through Reproduction. It is a law of life that every species must increase so that the number of offspring exceeds the number of parents if the species is to survive. If the offspring only equal in number the parents, some of them will die before maturity is reached or will fail to reproduce, and so the species will gradually become extinct. Every species normally increases, therefore, in some geometric ratio. Now, this tendency to reproduce in some geometric ratio, which characterizes all living organisms, means that any species, if left to itself, would soon reach such numbers as to occupy the whole earth. Darwin showed, for example, that though the elephant is the slowest breeding of all animals, if every elephant lived its normal length of life (one hundred years) and to every pair were born six offspring, then, at the end of seven hundred years there would be nineteen million living elephants descended from a single pair. This illustration shows the enormous possibilities of any species reproducing in geometric ratio, as all species in order to survive must do.

That this tendency to increase in some geometric ratio applies also to man is evident from all of the facts which we know concerning human populations. It is not infrequent for a people to double its numbers every twenty-five years. If this were continued for any length of time, it is evident that a single nation could soon populate the whole earth.

(2) Heredity. Heredity in organic evolution secures a continuity of the species or racial type. By heredity is meant the resemblance between parent and offspring. It is the law that like begets like. Offspring born of a species belong to that species, and usually resemble their parents more closely even than other members of the species.

It is evident that heredity is at work also in human society as well as in the animal world. We do not expect that the children born of parents of one race, for example, will belong to another race. Racial heredity is one of the most significant facts of human society, and even family heredity counts in its influence far more than some have supposed.

(3) Variation. This factor in organic evolution means that no two individuals, even though born of the same parents, are exactly like each other. Neither are they of a type exactly between their two parents, as theoretically they should be, since inheritance is equal from both parents. Every new individual born in the organic world, while it resembles its parents and belongs to its species or race, varies within certain limits. This variation so runs through organic nature that we are told that there are no two leaves on a single tree exactly alike. The result of this variation, the causes of which are not yet well understood, is that some individuals vary in favorable directions, others in unfavorable directions. Some are born strong, some weak; some inferior, some superior.

It is evident that variation characterizes the human species quite as much as other species, and indeed the limits of variation are wider, probably, in the human species than in any other species. Man is the most variable of all animals, and human individuality and personality owe not a little of their distinctiveness to this fact.

(4) The Struggle for Existence. Individuals in all species, as we have seen, are born in larger numbers than is necessary. The result is that a competition is entered into between species and individuals within the species for place and for existence. This competition or struggle results in the dying out of the inferior, that is, of those who are not adapted to their environment. The gradual dying out of the inferior or unadapted through competition results in the survival of the superior or better adapted, and ultimately in the survival of the fittest or those most adapted. Thus the type is raised, and we have evolution through natural selection, that is, through the elimination of the unfit.

Some have thought that this struggle for existence which is so evident in the animal world does not take place in human society. This, however, is a mistake. The struggle for existence in human society is not an unmitigated one, as it seems to be very often in the animal world, but it is nevertheless a struggle which has the same consequences. In the human world the competition, except in the lower classes, is not so much for food, as it is for position and for supremacy. But this struggle for place and power results in human society in the weak and inferior going to the wall, and therefore ultimately in their elimination. In all essential respects, then, the struggle for existence goes on in human society as it does in the animal world. This means that in society, as in the animal world, progress comes primarily through the elimination of unfit individuals. The unfit in human society, as we shall see, are especially those who cannot adapt themselves to their social environment. Progress in society, in a certain sense, waits upon death, as it does in all the rest of the animal world. Death is the means by which the stream of life is purged from its inferior and unfit elements.


Another Factor in Organic Evolution is Co?peration, or altruism, as we have already called it. As Henry Drummond has said, this is the struggle not for one's own life but for the lives of others. Really, however, it is a device which enables a group of individuals to struggle more successfully with the adverse factors in their environment. Something of co?peration,-that is, a group of individuals carrying on a common life,-is found almost at the beginning of life, and, as we rise in the scale of animal creation, the amount of co?peration and of altruistic feelings which accompany it very greatly increases. Perhaps the chief source of this co?peration is to be found in the rearing of offspring. The family group, even in the lower animals, seems to be the chief source of altruism. At any rate, sympathetic or altruistic instincts grow up in all animals, probably chiefly through the necessities of reproduction.

It is only in human social life that co?peration, or altruism, attains its full development. Human society is characterized by the protection it affords to its weaker members, and in human society the natural process of eliminating the inferior often seems reversed. As Huxley has pointed out, human society tries to fit as many as possible to survive, and we may add, not only to survive, but to live well. Altruism and its resulting co?peration have come especially to characterize human social evolution. To some extent this is due, no doubt, to the necessities of group survival; for only that nation, for example, can survive that can maintain the most loyal citizenship, the best institutions, and the largest spirit of self-sacrifice in its members. Human social groups, therefore, try to fit as many individuals as possible for the most efficient membership, and this necessitates caring for the temporarily weak, and also for the permanently incapacitated, in order that the sentiments of social solidarity may be strengthened to their utmost.

It is evident, then, that all the factors at work in organic evolution are at work also in social evolution, though in some part modified and varying in degree. The struggle for existence in human society, for example, has been greatly modified from the condition in the early animal world, while co?peration, or altruism, is much more highly developed. Nevertheless, these factors of organic evolution are at work in social evolution and must be taken into full account by the student of social problems. Social evolution rests upon organic evolution.

Some Effects upon Industry.-These factors in organic evolution express themselves more or less in the industrial phase of human society. Thus, the first factor, the multiplication of organisms through reproduction in some geometric ratio, was first studied by Malthus, an economist in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and exclusively with reference to its effect upon economic conditions. Malthus perceived the tendency for human beings to multiply in some geometric ratio where food supply was sufficiently abundant, and argued from this that if better wages, and so a larger food supply, were given the lower classes, they would multiply so much more rapidly that worse poverty would result than before. There is no doubt that in certain classes of human society there is a tendency for population to press against food supply, and it is in these classes that the struggle for existence takes on its most animal-like forms.

Again, the struggle for existence is continually illustrated in the world of human industry. Not only do individuals lose place and power because they are unadapted to their environment, but also economic groups, such as corporations, show the natural competition or struggle for existence sometimes in its most intense form. The result in all cases is the dying out of the least adapted and the survival of the better adapted. Thus, through competition and the survival of the better adapted we secure in industry the evolution of higher types of industrial organization, industrial methods, and the like, just as higher types are secured in the same way in the animal world. Again, in economic matters, as in other social affairs, co?peration continually comes in to modify competition and to lift it to a higher plane. Just as the higher type of societies has been characterized by higher types of co?peration, so it is safe to say that the higher types of industry are characterized by higher types of co?peration. And while, as we shall see later, co?peration can never displace competition in industry any more than elsewhere in life, yet increasing co?peration characterizes the higher types of industry as well as the higher types of society.

A word of caution is perhaps necessary against confusing the economic struggle as it exists in modern society with the natural struggle under primitive conditions. It is evident that in present society the economic struggle has been greatly changed in character from the primitive struggle, and therefore can no longer have the same results. Laws of inheritance, of taxation, and many other artificial economic conditions, have greatly interfered with the natural struggle. The rich and economically successful are therefore by no means to be confused with the biologically fit. On the contrary, many of the economically successful are such simply through artificial advantageous circumstances, and from the standpoint of biology and sociology they are often among the less fit, rather than the more fit, elements of society.

A Brief Survey of Social Evolution from the Biological Standpoint.-In order to sum up and make clear some of the principal applications to social evolution of the biological principles just stated we shall endeavor to state in a brief way some of the salient features of social evolution from the biological standpoint.

From the very beginning there has been no such thing as unmitigated individual struggle among animals. Nowhere in nature does pure individualism exist in the sense that the individual animal struggles alone, except perhaps in a few solitary species which are apparently on the way to extinction. The assumption of such a primitive individual struggle has been at the bottom of many erroneous views of human society. The primary conflict is between species. A secondary conflict, however, is always found between the members of the same species. Usually this conflict within the species is a competition between groups. The human species exactly illustrates these statements. Primitively its great conflict was with other species of animals. The supremacy of man over the rest of the animal world was won only after an age-long conflict between man and his animal rivals. While this conflict went on there was apparently but little struggle within the species itself. The lowest groups of which we have knowledge, while continually struggling against nature, are rarely at war with one another. But after man had won his supremacy and the population of groups came to increase so as to encroach seriously upon food supply, and even on territorial limits of space, then a conflict between human groups, which we call war, broke out and became almost second nature to man. It needs to be emphasized, however, that the most primitive groups are not warlike, but only those that have achieved their supremacy over nature and attained considerable size. In other words, the struggle between groups which we call war was occasioned very largely by numbers and food supply. To this extent at least war primitively arose from economic conditions, and it is remarkable how economic conditions have been instrumental in bringing about all the great wars of recorded human history.

The conflict among human groups, which we call war, has had an immense effect upon human social evolution. Five chief effects must be noted.

(1) Intergroup struggle gave rise to higher forms of social organization, because only those groups could succeed in competition with other groups that were well organized, and especially only those that had competent leadership.

(2) Government, as we understand the word, was very largely an outcome of the necessities of this intergroup struggle, or war. As we have already seen, the groups that were best organized, that had the most competent leadership, would stand the best chance of surviving. Consequently the war leader or chief soon came, through habit, to be looked upon as the head of the group in all matters. Moreover, the exigencies and stresses of war frequently necessitated giving the war chief supreme authority in times of danger, and from this, without doubt, arose despotism in all of its forms. The most primitive tribes are republican or democratic in their form of government, but it has been found that despotic forms of government rapidly take the place of the primitive democratic type, where a people are continually at war with other peoples.

(3) A third result of war in primitive times was the creation of social classes. After a certain stage was reached groups tried not so much to exterminate one another as to conquer and absorb one another. This was, of course, after agriculture had been developed and slave labor had reached a considerable value. Under such circumstances a conquered group would be incorporated by the conquerors as a slave or subject class. Later, this enslaved class may have become partially free as compared with some more recently subjugated or enslaved classes, and several classes in this way could emerge in a group through war or conquest. Moreover, the presence of these alien and subject elements in a group necessitated a stronger and more centralized government to keep them in control, and this was again one way in which war favored a development of despotic governments. Later, of course, economic conditions gave rise to classes, and to certain struggles between the classes composing a people.

(4) Not only was social and political organization and the evolution of classes favored by intergroup struggle, but also the evolution of morality. The group that could be most efficiently organized would be, other things being equal, the group which had the most loyal and most self-sacrificing membership. The group that lacked a group spirit, that is, strong sentiments of solidarity and harmonious relations between its members, would be the group that would be apt to lose in conflict with other groups, and so its type would tend to be eliminated. Consequently in all human groups we find recognition of certain standards of conduct which are binding as between members of the same group. For example, while a savage might incur no odium through killing a member of another group, he was almost always certain to incur either death or exile through killing a member of his own group. Hence arose a group code of ethics founded very largely upon the conceptions of kinship or blood relationship, which bound all members of a primitive group to one another.

(5) A final consequence of war among human groups has been the absorption of weaker groups and the growth of larger and larger political groups, until in modern times a few great nations dominate the population of the whole world. That this was not the primitive condition, we know from human history and from other facts which indicate the disappearance of a vast number of human groups in the past. The earth is a burial ground of tribes and natrons as well as of individuals. In the competition between human groups, only a few that have had efficient organization and government, loyal membership and high standards of conduct within the group, have survived. The number of peoples that have perished in the past is impossible to estimate. But we can get some inkling of the number by the fact that philologists estimate that for every living language there are twenty dead languages. When we remember that a language not infrequently stands for several groups with related cultures, we can guess the immense number of human societies that have perished in the past in this intergroup competition.

Even though war passes away entirely, nations can never escape this competition with one another. While the competition may not be upon the low and brutal plane of war, it will certainly go on upon the higher plane of commerce and industry, and will probably be on this higher plane quite as decisive in the life of peoples in future as war was in the past.

While the primary struggle within the human species has been in the historic period between nations and races, this is not saying, of course, that struggle and competition have not gone on within these larger groups. On the contrary, as has already been implied, a continual struggle has gone on between classes, first perhaps of racial origin, and later of economic origin. Also there is within the nation a struggle between parties and sects, and sometimes between "sections" and communities. Usually, however, the struggle within the nation is a peaceful one and does not come to bloodshed.

Again, within each of these minor groups that we have mentioned struggle and competition in some modified form goes on between its members. Thus within a party or class there is apt to be a struggle or competition between factions. There is, indeed, no human group that is free from struggle or competition between its members, unless it be the family. The family seems to be so constituted that normally there is no competition between its members,-at least, there is good ground tor believing that competition between the members of a family is to be considered exceptional, or even abnormal.

From what has been said it is evident that competition and co?peration are twin principles in the evolution of social groups. While competition characterizes in the main the relation between groups, especially independent political groups, and while co?peration characterizes in the main the relation of the members of a given group to one another, still competition and co?peration are correlatives in practically every phase of the social life. Some degree of competition, for example, has to be maintained by every group between its members if it is going to maintain high standards of efficiency or of loyalty. If there were no competition with respect to the matters that concern the inner life of groups, it is evident that the groups would soon lose efficiency in leadership and in membership and would sooner or later be eliminated. Consequently society, from certain points of view, presents itself to the student at the present time as a vast competition, while from other standpoints it presents itself as a vast co?peration.

It follows from this that competition and co?peration are both equally important in the life of society. It has been a favorite idea that competition among human beings should be done away with, and that co?peration should be substituted to take its place entirely. It is evident, however, that this idea is impossible of realization. If a social group were to check all competition between its members, it would stop thereby the process of natural selection or of the elimination of the unfit, and, as a consequence, would soon cease to progress. If some scheme of artificial selection were substituted to take the place of natural selection, it is evident that competition would still have to be retained to determine who were the fittest. A society that would give positions of trust and responsibility to individuals without imposing some competitive test upon them would be like a ship built partially of good and partially of rotten wood,-it would soon go to pieces.

This leads us to emphasize the continued necessity of selection in society. No doubt natural selection is often a brutal and wasteful means of eliminating the weak in human societies, and no doubt human reason might devise superior means of bringing about the selection of individuals which society must maintain. To some extent it has done this through systems of education and the like, which are, in the main, selective processes for picking out the most competent individuals to perform certain social functions. But the natural competition, or struggle between individuals, has not been done away with, especially in economic matters, and it is evidently impossible to do away with it until some vast scheme of artificial selection can take its place. Such a scheme is so far in the future that it is hardly worth talking about. The best that society can apparently do at the present time is to regulate the natural competition between individuals, and this it is doing increasingly.

What people rightfully object to is, not competition, but unregulated or unfair competition. In the interest of solidarity, that is, in the interest of the life of the group as a whole, all forms of competition in human society should be so regulated that the rules governing the competition may be known and the competition itself public. It is evident that in politics and in business we are very far from this ideal as yet, although society is unquestionably moving toward it.

A word in conclusion about the nature of moral codes and standards from the social point of view. It is evident that moral codes from the social point of view are simply formulations of standards of conduct which groups find it convenient or necessary to impose upon their members. Even morality, in an idealistic sense, seems from a sociological standpoint to be those forms of conduct which conduce to social harmony, to social efficiency, and so to the survival of the group. Groups, however, as we have already pointed out, cannot do as they please. They are always hard-pressed in competition by other groups and have to meet the standards of efficiency which nature imposes. Morality, therefore, is not anything arbitrarily designed by the group, but is a standard of conduct which necessities of social survival require. In other words, the right, from the point of view of natural science, is that which ultimately conduces to survival, not of the individual, but of the group or of the species. This is looking at morality, of course, from the sociological point of view, and in no way denies the religious and metaphysical view of morality, which may be equally valid from a different standpoint.

Finally, we need to note that natural selection does not necessitate in any mechanical sense certain conduct on the part of individuals or groups. Rather, natural selection marks the limits of variation which nature permits, and within those limits of variation there is a large amount of freedom of choice, both to individuals and to groups. Human societies, therefore, may be conceivably free to take one of several paths of development at any particular point. But in the long run they must conform to the ultimate conditions of survival; and this probably means that the goal of their evolution is largely fixed for them. Human groups are free only in the sense that they may go either backward or forward on the path which the conditions of survival mark out for them. They are free to progress or to perish. But social evolution in any case, in the sense of social change either toward higher or toward lower social adaptation, is a necessity that cannot be escaped. Sociology and all social science is, therefore, a study not of what human groups would like to do, but of what they must do in order to survive, that is, how they can control their environment by utilizing the laws which govern universal evolution.

From this brief and most elementary consideration of the bearings of evolutionary theory upon social problems it is evident that evolution, in the sense of what we know about the development of life and society in the past, must be the guidepost of the sociologist. Human social evolution, we repeat, rests upon and is conditioned by biological evolution at every point. There is, therefore, scarcely any sanity in sociology without the biological point of view.


For brief reading:

FAIRBANKS, Introduction to Sociology, Chaps. XIV.-XV.

JORDAN, Foot-Notes to Evolution, Chaps. I.-III.

ELY, Evolution of Industrial Society. Part II, Chaps. I.-III.

For more extended reading:

DARWIN, Descent of Man.

FISKE, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy.

WALLACE, Darwinism.

On the religious aspects of evolution:

DRUMMOND, Ascent of Man.

FISKE, The Destiny of Man.

FISKE, Through Nature to God.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top