The Influence of Darwin on Sociology

Charles A. Ellwood
University of Missouri

It often happens in the history of science that the influence of a great thinker and investigator in one field penetrates to many related fields. It is not often, however, that the influence of such a man comes to dominate in other fields than his own. Yet this is undoubtedly what has happened in the case of Darwin ; and perhaps in no field outside of his own is the dominance of Darwin's influence to be seen more clearly to-day than in sociology. John Fiske said, that Herbert Spencer was the most eminent thinker that England produced in the nineteenth century: but although Spencer was primarily a sociologist, his influence in sociology is waning, while Darwin's influence is growing. When one reflects upon the immense influence which Darwin's work has had on practically all lines of human thought, and especially on the biological, psychological, and social sciences, one is forced to conclude that Fiske's estimate must be revised, and that Darwin must be given the seat of highest honor as the most fructifying thinker which the nineteenth century produced, not only in England, but in the whole world. And the social significance of Darwin's teachings is even yet only beginning to be apprehended.

Not that Darwin had any theory of his own regarding human society. Outside of a couple of chapters in his Descent of Man lie says little specifically regarding the problems of human society ; and it must be admitted that what little he says is not peculiarly valuable or profound, but only suggestive. In spite of the vast range of his mind and of his scientific labors, Darwin, then, was not especially interested in social problems and made no direct contribution to sociology. On the other hand, Spencer was primarily interested in social problems. His first considerable work, Social Statics, was along sociological lines,

( 189) while his whole synthetic philosophy was confessedly developed to support his social and political theories. Even in his famous controversy with Weismann Spencer admitted that social interests were influential in his defending the doctrine of the inheritance of ‘acquired characters.' Thus Spencer's interest in other sciences was subsidiary, while throughout life he remained primarily a sociologist. Nevertheless, as was said above, it has come about that Spencer's influence in sociology is waning, while the influence of Darwin, who was not a sociologist at all and not even greatly interested in social problems, is growing.

The reasons for the decrease of Spencer's influence in sociology and the increase of Darwin's are not far to seek. Spencer sought his principles of social interpretation in the physical sciences, as his work on First Principles clearly shows. He aimed at explaining social phenomena in terms of the redistribution of matter and energy. While he found it impossible to carry out an interpretation of social life in these terms, his conception of evolution, and even of social evolution, remained mechanical to the last. Spencer's social interpretations, then, being fundamentally in terms alien to the social life, were fore-doomed to failure. Again, Spencer's social and political theories were largely based upon the ideas and prejudices of the average middle-class Englishman of his time ; and his knowledge of biology and psychology did not greatly alter his social theories, but rather the latter powerfully influenced his biological and psychological views. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that many of Spencer's social theories were of a temporary character.

Darwin's methods, on the other hand, were totally different. We find in him no appeal to vague principles borrowed from the physical sciences ; but on the contrary he attempts to explain the life-process in terms of its own elements. As is well known Darwin got the key to his natural selection theory of organic development from Malthus, a writer on social and economic problems. Malthus, in his sociologic study of the growth of population, demonstrated that the normal rate of reproduction in man is in some geometric ratio, and consequently, to use Malthus's own metaphor, nature invited more guests to her

( 190) banquet than she laid covers. Hence arose, according to Malthus, a struggle for existence in human society, in which the weaker succumbed to poverty, disease and death, while the stronger survived. Darwin seized upon this idea and generalized it, applying it to all organic nature and deducing therefrom his famous doctrine of the natural elimination of the inferior and the evolution of higher types through the 'natural selection' of the better adapted. It may be suggested that Darwin's principle of natural selection found ready acceptance in sociology because it was a principle which had already been recognized and applied, though in a negative way, in social theory. However, the deeper reason for the strong influence which Darwin's work has had upon sociology is probably the simple fact that his work was upon a part of sociology's foundations. Sociology, as a body of theory regarding the origin and development, structure and function of human society, could not develop until biology had developed. Spencer worked largely at rearing a sociological superstructure for which the necessary biological and psychological foundations had not been laid, while Darwin worked at these foundations. However much Darwin's selection theory of organic evolution may have to be modified by the biologists of the future, there is no doubt that his work established biology upon a secure scientific basis. The inevitable consequence has been that Darwin's work has reacted to enrich immeasurably all the sciences in any way connected with biology.

The greatest effect of Darwin's work on sociology has been of course in connection with the theory which is particularly associated with his name : the selection theory of evolution. While it is one of the moot points in biology just now whether natural selection operating upon minute variations even through immense periods of time is capable of producing new species, there has never been any doubt since Darwin wrote that selection is a powerful modifying influence upon all forms of life through its 'fixing' certain variations. In this sense Darwin demonstrated that selection is the chief creative force in the biological realm. Sociologists have not been slow to see that this idea had vast possibilities when applied to the interpretation

( 191) of the forms and movements of human social life. While none has succeeded in showing that natural selection is the key to social evolution, it has been repeatedly shown that natural selection conditions the social evolution process at every step; that natural selection is the basis, though not the moving force, of human progress. The competition between human groups, especially through war, and the resulting elimination of those of inferior organization or of inefficient membership, has been shown to be in past social history one of the chief causes of the continued advance to higher types of social organization. All the higher types of human coöperation may thus be said to be 'fixed' by natural selection quite in the same sense that the higher types of life are. In many other ways also natural selection has been shown to affect human society, especially, for example, in the way in which the death rate affects different classes or elements in complex human groups. So numerous have been the sociological writers who have applied the idea of natural selection to human society that it seems superfluous to mention any, but Gumplowicz, Novicow, Ratzenhofer, Ward and Kidd may be taken as types, though not all of these men have embodied consistently the Darwinian point of view. In-deed, but few sociologists have had with any exactness Dar-win's point of view, while not a few, the so-called ultra-Darwinists, by grossly exaggerating certain elements in his doctrine, such as struggle, have brought discredit upon his whole theory. Nevertheless, sociologists are more agreed to-day than ever before that natural selection must be given an important place among the factors of social evolution.

But it is not natural selection alone which has occupied the attention of sociologists, but rather selection in all of its forms ;and the impulse to the study of the effects of various forms of selection upon human society may be fairly credited to Darwin, since selection, though long known and practically applied, was first given by him its full theoretic significance in evolutionary science. It is especially social selection which has of late been attracting the attention of sociologists ; that is, the effect of social institutions and customs upon the birth and death rates of various classes. Francis Galton, a cousin

(192) of Darwin, led in his Hereditary Genius (1869) in this study of social selection, showing especially the evil effects of religious celibacy upon various European peoples. Darwin in his Descent of Man paid some attention to various forms of social selection, suggesting, among other things, that war produced a ' reversal of selection' (i. e., a breeding from the least fit). This idea has been developed by numerous writers, among the latest of whom is the historian Seeck, who finds in Rome's constant wars, and the resulting elimination of her ablest and strongest men, the chief cause of the decline of Greco-Roman civilization. The selective effects of city life, of economic competition, of standards of living, of marriage customs and laws, of various forms of benevolence, have all received increased attention from students of human society in recent years, though much still remains to be done. Certain it is that in any theory of social evolution in the future the various forms of selection must be given an important place, and especially must mis-selection be emphasized as one of the chief causes of social decadence. It is to be regretted that in a matter of such vital human importance there is still lacking adequate scientific investigation of the working of various selective agencies in human society.

Here must be noted the important practical application of the selection theory which it is proposed to make in bettering social conditions. Francis Galton has spent the latter years of his life in organizing a new division of scientific philanthropy which he calls the science of ' eugenics.' He defines ' eugenics ' as ' the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.' A Eugenics Education Society' has been organized in England, which, together with the British Sociological Society, conducts a vigorous propaganda in behalf of the new science. As yet little similar work has been attempted in the United States. However distant any extensive application of the principle of selection to the improvement of the human breed may seem to be, it is now acknowledged by all scientific students of philanthropy and scientific social workers that there is a biological element in the social problems of crime, pauperism, and other forms of degeneracy which is amenable

( 193) to control only through selection. The theory of evolution by selection, in other words, has brought a great hope into the world that human misery in its worst forms may itself be subject to control. While sociologists will doubtless continue, as they have done in the past, to emphasize the all-importance of education, the nurture of each individual life, they will in the future have to take into account the possibility of improving nature also through the selective control of heredity. It may well be that future ages will look back to Darwin as marking, not merely a new view of organic nature, but a turning point in the history of the race in its control over human nature and over the problems of collective human life.

Sociology owes much to Darwin also in indirect ways, through the influence which his work has had in developing other sciences than biology, especially psychology. Sociology is not merely an extension of biology, as this paper has, perhaps, thus far seemed to imply ; it is even more a psychological interpretation of the social life. Whatever has contributed to the development of psychology, therefore, has contributed to the development of sociology. Now the influence of Darwin upon psychology, which is discussed in detail in another paper in this number, may perhaps be summed up by saying that it tended toward a functional view of the mental life. Darwin's whole view of life was essentially functional. Everything about an organism, barring perhaps its accidental variations, had a meaning with reference to the whole life-process. The color and form of plants and animals, for example, Darwin sought to show, had a survival value for the species to which they belong. This view he carried over to the mental and moral characteristics of man. Hence has arisen the functional psychology of the present, which regards mental life as a part of the whole life-process and interprets it through its function in that process. This view is now practically dominant in psychology, and is rapidly transforming sociology also. The details of this trans-formation, which is now going on, cannot be here discussed, but it is evident that a sociology based upon a functional view of human nature will be a very different sort of affair from a sociology based upon a static view of human nature. And all this is undoubtedly a remote effect of Darwin's work.

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Finally, the great debt of sociology to Darwin, as of all the sciences, is that he finally established the doctrine of evolution upon a secure foundation. That doctrine, in one form or an-other, had long been before the intellectual world, but it had failed of general acceptance until Darwin wrote. In the social sciences, it is true, the conception of social evolution had long been common. The idea of progress in human history, first put forth in modern times by Bodin, had been made the central idea in social philosophy by Condorcet. And Comte had even divided sociology into two parts, one treating of the laws of social progress and the other of the laws of social order. Still the idea of evolution, in its broader aspects, was insecurely held in the social sciences and not generally accepted until Darwin wrote. Darwin's work, then, wrought a revolution in the social sciences as well as in other sciences. His influence established in them the genetic point of view, so that sociology came to throw the emphasis, as it does to-day, upon the study of social changes rather than of social structure, making it a science of social evolution rather than merely a science of social organization.


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