Social Darwinism. A Yale Professor’s Backing to the Marxian Argument

“SOCIETAL EVOLUTION,” by A. G. Keller, Professor of the Science of Society in Yale University, U.S.A. 338 pp. Macmillan.

In the evolution of the attitude of the master class and their agents toward the Marxian or Socialist conception of society, we can, broadly speaking, distinguish two stages. At its first appearance the work of Marx and his adherents was either ignored and a blissful silence regarding it maintained, or it was ridiculed and misrepresented, even disgusting and lying attacks upon the personality of Marx being resorted to in the frenzied defence which was taken up of the theoretical props of capitalist society.

But as Marxism pursued its conquering march, gaining ever wider acceptance ; as the development of capitalist production more and more showed the fallacious and untenable position of orthodox “sociology,” and especially as the bourgeoisie found the need for a real understanding of “their” social organism ever more-pressing, the work of Marx received a grudging but increasing official recognition. The more thorough and conscientious of the professors of sociology admitted the value of Marx’s work, and declared themselves partially in agreement with his system, although not always with proper acknowledgement of their debt to him, and sometimes with none at all.

They did not become Socialists ; they declared for some of the basic propositions of Socialist theory, but against the full conclusions which Socialists draw from them. They could not do otherwise, for to stand by the exploded and ridiculed maxims of the old “social science” would have been a confession of mental bankruptcy and intellectual prostitution.

The Materialist Conception of History, being the most far-reaching of the Marxian propositions, came in for most of this support ; the less general Class Struggle theory obtained less support, and, of course, the detail theory of value and its co-related surplus-value view of the exploitation of the labourer met with least support of all, usually remaining an anathema.

It is especially significant that it is the United States, where, owing to high industrial development, the contradictions and problems of capitalist society reveal themselves most acutely, and the difficulties of the capitalist class are correspondingly greater, which has been the main home of this new departure in bourgeois-sociology. The names of Professors Lester F. Ward, E. R. A. Seligman, Albion W. Small, and J. T. Shotwell stand out prominently in this connection, and in America has just appeared a translation issued by the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, of ” Criminality and Economic Conditions,” by Prof. W. A.. Bonger, Doctor in Law of Amsterdam University, who stands definitely by the Marxian interpretation of crime.

Professor A. G. Keller, of Yale, is one of the newest recruits to this movement, and the remainder this article will be devoted to his recent instructive work, “Societal Evolution.” The book is of such valuel that a summary of his position will be given with copious quotations, picked, not in the order in which they appear, but as they best serve the continuity of the exposition.

Some of the following ideas are supplied by the present writer. Although not definitely stated in the book, they may be deduced from its main propositions.

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By “Societal Evolution” Keller means the process of the development of human society, i.e., what is usually termed “social evolution.” “Societal” is a term which has found favour among certain American sociologists, but in the following we shall use in its stead the more familiar “social,” except when quoting.

Keller cuts himself adrift from the mystics—now happily becoming extinct—by reminding his readers of the important fact that in all circumstances man remains an animal and, like all other life forms, he is the product and the subject of natural conditions and forces. “What human beings are likely to forget is that they remain in the last analysis the playthings of the irresistible forces of nature. The ground shakes a little and thousands of human beings perish ; a relatively small volume of poisonous gas spills over the rim of a crater upon a town, and the inhabitants are no more ; the brute passions of men break forth and they rage like primitive savages. Underneath the artificialised life of man, so long as he remains in the last analysis an animal—which so far as can be seen will be all his days on earth—flow the ungovernable currents of nature in strength unimpaired.” There can, therefore, be no question of chance or “free-will” in human development organic or social—any more than there can he in any other sphere of nature. As Keller says, “viewing societal life without much perspective or insight, men think either that all ia hopeless disorder, or that anything and everything can be directly altered to suit their ephemeral or local ‘choice.’ But there can be no disorder where there is law, nor yet can there be a capracious or whimsical choice undetermined hy life conditions.”

All forms of life must be adapted to their surroundings or perish. But when we consider the human animal we find that his case is peculiar. Although the most widely up read of animals ; although existing in environments of the greatest variety, man shows, the world over and through vast epochs of time, such an uniformity of bodily structure that practically all human types are classified an being merely varieties of a single species. He endures the maximum of diversity in environment but shows the minimum structural adaptation. On the other hand, we do find the utmostost differences between his social organisations, customs, instruments, in short, his culture, displayed in different, places, and throughout past time.

Man, through his higher developed brain and resultant powers of reasoning—by which he is distinguished from his nearest relatives, the anthropoids—is enabled, to a far greater extent than other animals, to understand the situations and problems which confront him. In the various artificial creations of his, such as tools, habitations, clothing, and organisations, we see his ideas—which he forms to overcome the problems of adaptation which he is faced with—take on a material shape. “The fact is,” says Keller, “that whatever structural modification there is has been made in the brain, and that the rapidity and success of brain adaptation has rendered bodily adaptation unnecessary, thus freeing man from the inevitable process as seen among plants and animals, and as in them productive of structural characters which are utilised successfully by botanists and zoologists in their classifications.”

The brain of man, then, is “a sort of specialised adapting organ which relieves the rest of the body from the necessity of structural adaptation.” We cannot see man’s ideas nor the changes in his brain, except in the comparison of the actual brains of low-developed and high-developed races, but we can observe and classify the results of his adaptation as revealed in what is summed up as his “culture.” “The complicated machine is the materialisation of the brain-action of its inventor ; it is not mere wood and iron. Every weapon, every article of clothing, or other invention (standing as a substitute for structural modification) is in a very literal sense an idea materialised or made real ; so are all systems and economies in society—in a word, all human institutions.”

Keller exposes a common illusion when he says : “We get the idea that man does not adapt to environment, but adapts the environment to himself and his needs. But we attain no power over nature until we learn natural laws, to conform and adapt ourselves to them. And then we come to be as dependent upon our adaptations as a bear upon his coat of fur or a woodpecker upon his sharp beak.”

The author proceeds to examine the process of social evolution in detail. His great effort is to show that “the Darwinian factors of variation selection, transmission, and adaptation are active in the life of society as in that of organisms.” He takes it for granted that his readers are already acquainted with the theory of Darwin and Wallace known as Natural Selection, but here it will be as well if this is briefly outlined.

In his masterpiece, “The Origin of Species,” Darwin brings a mass of evidence to prove that despite the fact that all life forms reproduce the essential structural features of the parents from which they spring, this does not follow exactly as to details, and that variations both bodily and mental occur among all offspring, both from the parents and among themselves. Then he demonstrates that, in the perpetual struggle to live which necessarily takes place owing to the immense number of individuals born in comparison to the conditions available for their support, those which possess the most helpful variations survive the struggle, great numbers with less useful variations being killed off. The favourable variations are inherited in the offspring, from amongst which in their turn the favourably varied are sifted or selected out. Thus the accumulation of variations in different directions over vast periods of time, result in forms of life; often very different from those from which they are descended.

In this way is explained, first, the great diversity of types of life, both in time and in space, and secondly, the close adaptation or conformity to surroundings of living creatures which has excited the admiration of nature students of all ages, and has long favoured the idea of a presiding genius of the universe.

In applying the theory of selection to society he starts with “variation.” The practices, customs, and appliances which in their totality form the framework of society he calls the “folkways” when they are incipient and the “moves” when they become established ; but this distinction is indefinite and, as he himself admits, cannot always be consistently maintained. These, as we have seen, are realised ideas. But men have a great many ideas. Hosts of inventions have been discarded ; many experiments have been made, found useless and abandoned. “The collections in the Patent Office form a museum of variations in the purely mechanical field, the courts and newspapers offer numerous cases in the realm of marriage and the family, the records of administrative bodies of importance or significance provide examples of variation in the political moves, and the history of sects and creeds teem with instances of the same process in the matter of religious system and ritual.” Those practices which are found to serve their purpose spread, and are adopted, becoming habitual among those in the society who have the same need, that is to all or to a section according to the circumstances. Thus are formed the various codes or systems of moves which characterise social groups. “The case of societal variation reduces ultimately, then, to the mental reaction of individuals. These, unconsciously, and later to some extent consciously throw out a series of tentatives under the stimulus of need. Certain of these tentatives cancel out at once and otherwise disappear, while others are concurred in and become characteristic of a group. They are then the folkways of that group, and when they become the object of group approval and so become the embodiment of its prosperity—policy, they become its moves ; . . . they are now social phenomena as distinguished from individual phenomena.”

(To be Continued.)


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