Consciousness and Evolution

The quotation by Professor Cattell in SCIENCE, July 26, of Professor Cope's table (from the Monist July, 1895) shows that he was equally struck by it with myself. Prof. Cope gives in this table certain positions on points of development, in two contrasted columns as he conceives them to be held by the two camps of naturalists divided in regard to inheritance into Preformists and the advocates of Epigenesis. The peculiarity of the Epigenesis column is that it includes certain positions regarding consciousness while the Preformist column has nothing to say about consciousness. Being struck with this I wrote to Professor Cope — the more because the position ascribed to consciousness seemed to be the same in the main, as that which I myself have recently developed from a psychological point of view in my work on Mental Development (MacmiIlan & Co.). I learn from him that the table [1] is not new; but was published in the 'annual volume' of the Brooklyn Ethical Society in 1891; 'and the view which it embodies is given in the chapter on "Consciousness in Evolution;" in his Origin of the Fittest (Appletons, 1887).

Apart from the questions of novelty in Professor Cope's positions — and that Mr. Cattell and I should both have supposed them so can only show that we had before read hastily; I myself never looked into Professor Cope's book until now — I wish to point out that the placing of consciousness, as a factor in the evolution process, exclusively in Epigenesis column, appears quite unjustified. It is not a question, as Mr Cattell seems to intimate in his note referred to in SCIENCE, July 26, of a causal interchange between body and mind. I do not suppose that any naturalist would hold to an injection of energy in any form into the natural processes by consciousness; though, of course, Professor Cope himself can say whether such a construction is true in his case. The psychologists are, as Mr. Cattell remarks, about done with a view like that. The Question at issue when we ask whether consciousness has had a part in the evolutionary process is, I think, as to whether we say that the presence of consciousness — say in the shape of sensations of pleasure and pain — with its nervous or organic correlative processes, has been an essential factor in evolution; and if so, further

(250) whether its importance is because it is through the consciousness aspect of it that the organic aspect gets in its work. Or, to take a higher form of consciousness, does the memory of an object as having given pleasure help an organism to get that object a second time? This may be true, although it is only the physical basis of memory in the brain that has a causal relation to the other organic processes of the animal.

Conceiving of the function of consciousness, therefore, as in any case not a deus ex machina, the question I wish to raise is whether it can have an essential place in the development process as the Preformists construe that process. Professor Cope believes not. His reasons are to appear fully in his proposed book. I believe that the place of consciousness may be the same — and may be the essential place that Mr. Cope gives it in his left-hand column and which I give it in my Mental Development — on the Preformist view. I have argued briefly for this indifference to the particular theory one holds of heredity, in my book (Chap. VII.), reserving for a further occasion certain arguments in detail based upon the theory of the individual's personal relation to his social environment. The main point involved, however, may be briefly indicated now, although, for the details of the social influences appealed to, I must again refer to my book (Chaps. on ' Suggestion' and 'Emotion ').

I have there traced out in some detail what other writers also have lately set in evidence, i.e., that in the child's personal development, his ontogenesis, his life history, he makes a very faithful reproduction of his social conditions. He is, from childhood up, excessively receptive to social suggestion; his entire learning is a process of conforming to social patterns. The essential to this, in his heredity, is excessive instability, cerebral balance and equilibrium, a readiness to overflow into the new channels which his social environment dictates. He has to learn everything for himself, and in order to do this he must begin in a state of great plasticity and mobility. Now, my point, but briefly, is that these social lessons which he learns for himself take the place largely of the heredity of particular paternal acquisitions. The father must have been plastic to learn, and this plasticity is, as far as evidence goes, the nervous condition of acute consciousness; the father then learned, through his consciousness, from his social environment. The child does the same. What he inherits is nervous plasticity and the consciousness. He learns particular acts for himself; and what he learns is, in its main line, what his father learned. So he is just as well off, the child of Preformism, as if he had been the heir of the particular lessons of his father's past. I have called this process 'Social Hered-

(251)-ity,' since the child really inherits the details; but he inherits them from society by this process of social growth, rather than by direct natural inheritance.

To show this in a sketchy way, I may take the last three points which Professor Cope makes under the Epigenesis column, the points which involve consciousness, and show how I think they may still be true to the Preformist if he avail himself of the resource offered by 'Social Heredity.'

I do this rather for convenience than with any wish to controvert Professor Cope; and it may well be that his later statements may show that even this amount of reference to him is not justified.

1. (5 of Cope's table). ' Movements of the organism are caused or directed by sensation and other conscious states."

The point at issue here between the advocate of Epigenesis and the Preformist would be whether it is necessary that the child should inherit any of the particular conscious states, or their special nervous dispositions, which the parent learned in his lifetime, in order to secure through them the performance of the same actions by the child. I should say, 110; and for the reason — additional to the usual arguments of the Preformists — that 'Social Heredity' will secure the same result. All we have to have in the child is the high consciousness represented by the tendency to imitate the parent or to absorb social copies, and the general law now recognized by psychologists under the name of Dynamogenesis — i.e., that the thought of a movement tends to discharge motor energy into the channels as near as may be to those necessary for that movement. [2] Given these two elements of endowment in the child, and he can learn anything that his father did, without inheriting any particular acts learned by the parent. And we must in any case give the child this much; for the principle of Dynamogenesis is a fundamental law in all organisms, and the tendency to take in external 'copies' by imitation, etc., is present in all social animals, as a matter of fact.

The only hindrance that I see to the child's learning everything that his life in society requires would be just the thing that the advocates of Epigenesis argue for — the inheritance of acquired characters. For such inheritance would tend so to bind up the child's nervous substance in fixed forms that he would have less or possibly no unstable substance left to learn anything with. So, in fact, it is with the animals in which instinct is largely developed; they have no power to learn any thing new, just because their nervous systems are not in the mobile

(252) condition represented by high consciousness. They have instinct and little else. Now, I think the Preformist can account for instinct also, but that is beside the point; what I wish to say now is that, if Epigenesis were true, we should all be, to the extent to which both parents do the same acts (as, for example, speech) in the condition of the creatures who do only certain things and do them by instinct. I should like to ask of the Neo-Lamarckian: What is it that is peculiar about the strain of heredity of certain creatures that they should be so remarkably endowed with instincts? Must he not say in some form that the nervous substance of these creatures has been 'set' in the creatures' ancestors? But the question of instinct is touched upon under the next point.

2. (6 of Cope's table). "Habitual movements are derived from conscious experience." This may mean movements habitual to the individual or to the species in question. If it refers to the individual it may be true on either doctrine, provided we once get the child started on the movement — the point discussed under the preceding head. If, on the other hand, habitual movements mean race movements, we raise the question of race habits, best typified in instinct. I agree with Mr. Cope that most race habits are due to conscious function in the first place; and making that our supposition, again we ask: Can one who believes it still be a Preformist? I should again say that he could. The problem set to the Preformist would not in this case differ from that which he has to solve in accounting for development generally: it would not be altered by the postulate that consciousness is present in the individual. He can say that consciousness is a variation, and what the individual does by it is 'preformed' in this variation. And then what later generations do through their consciousness is all preformed in the variations which they constitute on the earlier variations. In other words, I do not see that the case is made any harder for the Preformist by our postulate that consciousness with its nervous correlates is a real agent. And I think we may go further and say that the case is easier for him when we take into account the phenomena of Social Heredity. In children, for example, there are variations in their nubility, plasticity, etc; in short, in the ease of operation of Social Heredity as seen in the acquisition of particular functions. Children are notoriously different in their aptitudes for acquiring speech, for example; some learn faster, better, and more. Let us say that this is true in animal communities generally; then these most plastic individuals will be preserved to do the advantageous things for which their variations show them to be the most fit. And the next generation will

(253) show an emphasis of just this direction in its variations. So the fact of Social Heredity — the fact of acute use of consciousness in ontogeny — becomes an element in phylogeny, also, even on the Preformist theory.

Besides, when we remember that the permanence of a habit learned by one individual is largely conditioned by the learning of the same habits of others (notably of the opposite sex) in the same environment, we see that an enormous premium must have been put on variations of a social kind — those which brought different individuals into some kind of joint action or co÷peration. Wherever this appeared, not only would habits be maintained, but new variations, having all the force of double hereditary tendency, might also be expected. But consciousness is, of course, the prime variation through which co÷peration is secured. All of which means, if I am right, that the rise of consciousness is of direct help to the Preformist in accounting for race habits — notably those known as gregarious, co÷perative, social.

3. (7 of Cope's table). "The rational mind is developed by experience, through memory and classification." This, too, I accept, provided the term 'classification' has a meaning that psychologists agree to. So the question is again: Can the higher mental functions be evolved from the lower without calling in Epigenesis? I think so. Here it seems to me that the fact of Social Heredity is the main and controlling consideration. It is notorious how meagre the evidence is that a son inherits or has the peculiar mental traits of parents beyond those traits contained in the parents' own heredity. Galton has shown how rare a thing it is for artistic, literary or other marked talent to descend to the second generation. Instead, we find such exhibitions showing themselves in many individuals at about the same time, in the same communities, and under the same social conditions, etc. Groups of artists, musicians, literary men, appear, as it were, as social outbursts. The presuppositions of genius — dark as the subject is — seem to be great power of learning or absorbing, marked gifts or proclivities of a personal kind which are not directly inherited but fall under the head of sports or variations, and then a social environment of high level in the direction of these sports. The details of the individual development, inside of the general proclivity which he has, are determined by his social environment, not by his natural heredity. And I think the phylogenetic origin of the higher mental functions, thought, self-consciousness, etc., must have been similar. I have devoted space to a detailed account of the social factors involved in the evolution of these higher faculties in my book.

I fail to see any great amount of truth in the claims of Mr. Spencer that intellectual progress in the race requires the Epigenesis view. The level of culture in a community seems to be about as fixed a thing as moral qualities are capable of being; much more so than the level of individual endowment. This latter seems to be capricious or variable, while the former moves by a regular movement and with a massive front. It would seem, therefore, that intellectual and moral progress is gradual improvement, through improved relationships on the part of the individuals to one another; a matter of social accommodation, rather than of natural inheritance alone, on the part of individuals. It is only a rare individual whose heredity enables him to break through the lines of social tissue and imprint his personality upon the social movement. And in that case the only explanation of him is that he is a variation, not that he inherited his intellectual or moral power Furthermore, I think the actual growth of the individual in intellectual stature and moral attainment can be traced in the main to certain of the elements of his social milieu, allowing always a balance of variation in the direction in which he finally excels.

So strong does the case seem for the Social Heredity view in this matter of intellectual and moral progress that I may suggest an hypothesis which may not stand in court, but which I find interesting. May not the rise of the social life be justified from the point of view of a second utility in addition to that of its utility in the struggle for existence as ordinarily understood; the second utility, i.e., of giving to each generation the attainments of the past which natural inheritance is inadequate to transmit? Whether we admit Epigenesis or confine ourselves to Preformism, I suppose we have to accept Mr. Galton's law of Regression and Weismann's principle of Panmixia in some shape. Now when social life begins we find the beginning of the artificial selection of the unfit; and so these negative principles begin to work directly in the teeth of progress, as many writers on social themes have recently made clear. This being the case, some other resource is necessary besides natural inheritance. On my hypothesis it is found in the common or social standards of attainment which the individual is fitted to grow up to and to which he is compelled to submit. This secures progress in two ways: First, by making the individual learn what the race has learned, thus preventing social retrogression, in any case; and second, by putting a direct premium on variations which are socially available.

Under this general conception we may bring the biological phenomena of infancy, with all their evolutionary significance: the great

(255) plasticity of the mammal infant as opposed to the highly developed instinctive equipment of other young; the maternal care, instruction and example during the period of helplessness, and the very gradual attainment of the activities of self-maintenance in conditions in which social activities are absolutely essential. All this stock of the development theory is available to confirm this view.

And to finish where we began, all this is through that wonderful engine of development, consciousness. For consciousness is the avenue of all social influences.

J. MARK BALDWIN, Princeton


  1. This table is given in the issue of SCIENCE for July 26, p. 100. The three points from it which are taken up now are cited below.
  2. Both of these requirements are worked out in detail in my book.

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