History as a Science. A Study of Social Evolution

I. Introduction

In its widest sense, history may be defined as “a record and interpretation of the phenomena of the Universe or any part thereof.” Thus we may have a history of the stars, of the solar system, of animals, of man as an organism, or of man in society. This last-named phase—man in society—constitutes history in the restricted meaning of the term, and in the sense in which it is most commonly used. It is history in this narrower sense with which we are to deal in this essay. To make a science of history it must be capable of treatment in the same manner as the other phases of the activities of the universe. The evolution of human society must be shown to be governed by certain laws of development, to be ascertained only from the facts of history, and these laws must be shown to be the outcome of demonstrable natural forces.

The history of, or the evolution of, the celestial bodies, or of the earth, called respectively cosmogony and geology (i.e., historical geology) is most decidedly scientific in the strictest sense of the word. In fact it is only by the scientific method that anything like, for instance, a history of the earth could be arrived at. It is usually assumed to be altogether different in the case of history in the restricted sense, meaning the development of human society. Here chance, caprice, and “free will” are supposed to have a play which is unthinkable in any other phase of universal activity. The extreme complexity of the material ; the prevalent belief in the freedom of the will, which is accompanied by the faith in the power of “Great Men” ; the belief in supernatural agencies controlling the actions of men : all these varied factors combine to hide the essential nature of history. Then, again, there is the systematic suppression of many of the important facts of history, and there is that which is necessarily characteristic of all new studies, namely, insufficient data, which is only overcome as the science ages and experience is gained. We see, then, the numerous obstacles in the way of the formation of a more or less exact science of history. It is, therefore, not uncommon to find history regarded as little more than a hopeless jumble of intertwining forces and clashing wills, accident playing a prominent part ; a record of lost causes, dead ideals and movements, which, having no guiding thread will work out its troubled trail until this planet is no longer a human habitation.

One by one, however, these obstacles are being weakened and overthrown. Archeology and ethnology have brought their quota of facts, comparative philology has added further light, and documentary evidence of almost all times and places where writing was possible has been forthcoming. To the best of our ability we will now attempt, as Edward Jenks puta it, “to evolve order out of the chaos of history.”

II. The Materialist Foundations of History

To have history movement is essential. To understand the causes underlying and controlling that movement is to understand history. Considered broadly, the history of human society presents a continuous movement or process of change, showing at different stages distinct social forms and conditions. Looked at in detail, however, it is seen that these changes are the result of the totality of an infinitely large number of simple movements exhibiting a great diversity of character ; these are the movements, the activities, of the individual. The individual activities of the members of society, even of the so-called great men, appear insignificant in comparison with the tremendous changes which, combined, they effect in society. So also do the microscopic foraminifera appear insignificant, yet their accumulated skeletons form the solid ground on which rest teeming cities.

Man’s actions, or at least those which concern us here, are in the main performed consciously, and with a view to accomplishing a desired end. “In the history of society the mere actions are all endowed with consciousness ; they are agents imbued with deliberation or passion, men working towards an appointed end.” 1 The conceptions both of the end to be achieved and the ways and means—the actions—necessary achieve it, are based upon the ideas generated and accumulated in the brain. Therefore the fundamental directing factor behind human actions must be sought in the mental concepts, the ideas of the individual. We must clearly distinguish, however, between the motive for action, with the mental concepts which underlie it, and the concepts determining the means of realising the end desired. We may have totally different actions, based upon distinct ideas, yet having the same objective or motive.

Let us take as an illustration the simple case of satisfying hunger. After remaining a certain time without food man, like other animals, becomes conscious of a craving for food. From experience he knows that in order to obtain a more or less regular supply of food with which to satisfy his hunger it is necessary that certain actions be performed. The sensation of hunger is common to men in all forms of society, but the character of the actions necessary to appease it vary according to circumstances and conditions, and the train of thoughts which determines the action to be taken necessarily varies also. Of course, actually 1he process is much more complex than this, a whole series of actions each having a distinct object in view are usually needed to realise one ultimate aim.

We see that while the impulse to activity may be (and usually is) involuntary, the mode of action itself is consciously thought out, and what appears to be the best method decided upon—that which is adopted depending upon the nature and degree of the individual’s experience. Those impulses which impel men to action by giving rise to certain desires are varied and complex. The basis of them all is a desire for happiness, for a feeling of well-being. Three fundamental ones are part of man’s physical nature ; upon two—the instincts of self preservation and of reproduction—his very existence depends. Thirdly, man being a social animal, we have the social instincts. Each of these impulses can be subdivided ; the first into satisfying individual physical necessities, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep, and avoiding danger ; the second into sexual desires and parental affection : the third into the so-called moral virtues, such as the sense of obedience and subordination to the social welfare, love of truth, and altruism in general, and also the liking for the company of one’s fellows and hatred of loneliness. Other impulses more or less inherent in man are admiration and love of the beautiful, simple curiosity, etc.

Having thus briefly dealt with the basic motives of human activity, we will now consider the ideas which determine and control the action taken.

How do man’s ideas arise ? Man, like all other animals, responds to the stimulus of his environment. The means through which he perceives his surroundings lie in the organs of sense—the organs of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. These organs receive impressions which are transmitted along the nerves to the brain, where by a process of comparison with previously received impressions, concepts arise as to the form and attributes of, and the relations between, that which is perceived. These concepts are capable of being more or less completely stored up in the memory, and thus serve as guides to the interpretation of subsequent perceptions. All the complex ideas which inhabit the brain of man are derived from conceptions based upon inheritance and experience. The fact that ideas can be accumulated and inherited, and drawn upon when wanted, and also that they can be passed from one individual to another, largely obscures the fact of their sensory origin.

It is, then, the character of the environment which determines the ideas, and the particular ideas held by an individual depend upon his environment and his means of perceiving it, his past experiences and the experiences of others in cases where their conceptions are transferable to him. That growth, both in quantity and variety, of ideas which is characteristic of the history of humanity, roust have its origin in the factors above outlined.

Let us now see what are the factors which, by changing men’s ideas, and consequently his actions, form determinants in the evolution of society. First we will consider the factor which, being the substratum in which ideas generate, must necessarily be a determinant to the condition of human concepts ; we refer to the brain and its reasoning powers. In so far as man’s faculty of reason has developed, it certainly must be considered a very important cause of progressive evolution. There is, however, every reason to believe that over an immense period of time, extending from far beyond the dawn of civilisation to the present clay, there has been no appreciable change in man’s intellectual capacity, however much his actual knowledge may have-increased. The redskin following the trail commands reasoning faculties every bit as keen as, if not even more so than, the civilised European. 2 Of course, as man gradually diverged from the conditions of his ape-like ancestors, his intelligence would at first be little superior to theirs, but being an important weapon in the struggle for existence, it would be perfected by selection in successive generations. With the acquisition of articulate speech would come a great advance in clearness of thought, facilitating the formation of abstract ideas. 3 While, therefore, the direct development of the brain would have a great influence on the early stages of human evolution, it need hardly be considered in dealing with the causes of social and ideological transformation. Nor need we consider the other biological characters of man, such as racial temperament, for these remain comparatively stationary, and while they may explain certain differences in distinct communities, they are powerless so far as changing their condition is concerned.

Seeing that the organic development of man cannot be held to account for social evolution, and ignoring the theory of supernatural guidance and interference, which at this late date in the science of history is entirely unsupported, and entirely superfluous in any sphere of investigation, it follows that it is to the external influences, the environmental factors, that we must turn in our quest for the main dynamic agent in the evolution of ideas, actions, and human society.


1 Feuerbach (p. 104) by Frederick Engels.

2 Savages and barbarians are capable of a far greater number of intellectual operations than they accomplish in their daily life. During hundreds of years the Europeans have transported from the coast of Africa into the colonies thousands of savage and barbarian Negroes, removed from civilised men by centuries of culture. Nevertheless at the end of a very short time they assimilated the crafts of civilisation. The Guaranys of Paraguay, when the Jesuits undertook their education, were wandering naked in the forests, armed only with a wooden bow and a club, with no knowledge, except how to cultivate maize. Their intelligence was so rudimentary that they could not count beyond twenty, using their fingers and toes. Nevertheless the Jesuits made these savages skilful operatives, capable of difficult works—such as complicated organs, geographical spheres, paintings and decorated sculptures.—”Social and Philosophical Studies,” by Paul Lafargue, pp. 75-76.

3 A complex train of thought can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra. It appears, also, that even an ordinary train of thought almost requires, or is greatly facilitated by some form of language, for the dumb, deaf, and blind girl, Laura Bridgman, was observed to use her fingers whilst dreaming.—”Descent of Man,” Darwin, p. 134.

(To be Continued.)


Leave a Reply