Social Darwinism



The mores (*) of a social group are believed by the mass of its members to be essential to the social welfare. They are passed on to each generation by tradition, which, thus corresponds to heredity in biological evolution. The sense organs are the agents for the transmission of the mores as the reproductive organs are for the inheritance of bodily structure. Mores being acquired and not (in the main) inherent characters, they have to be learned by the young of the group. “The infant starts with no mores at all—with no more than an animal could have.” The process of transmission may be either through imitation or education. From the point of view of tradition the former is the most effective, but from that of social progress the latter is to be preferred. “In the positive or conscious form of transmission, inculcation or education, the aim is to pass over to the recipient all the good, i.e., successful mores ; while imitation unconsciously transmits all the mores, even those about to be eliminated.” The children of the social group come gradually through artificial education or practical experience to see that the mores of the group are beneficial, or, at least, that it is expedient to adopt them. “Many of them are easily proved to be inexpedient through slight accidental or careless deviation from their prescriptions ; the boy who neglects to observe the example of his elders while hunting is speedily corrected through physical hurt or hunger.”

Religion is a great supporter of tradition in the preservation of the mores, especially in primitive societies. Keller shows how this arises from ancestor worship. The mores “are inculcated by those in the society who possess the chief influence, that is, by the old ; for the elders, the repositories of tradition, those who remember, have ever been the guardians of the mores. Then the aged die and become beings of a superior power ; however, in accordance with the prevailing views of the future life, they are supposed still to cling to the ways which they approved among the living, and still to be ready to lend their power to suppress departures from those ways. But their power is now infinitely greater than it was in life, however redoubtable it might then have been ; hence the supreme sanction, that of ghost fear, is added to the mores, thus securing their persistence and their arbitrary quality.”

Our author further shows how modern industrial life is undermining religion as a social force. Christianity arose from and was adapted to a primitive rural life, and does not conform to the “great industry”—the child and ally of science. “There is much in the life of a great city which religion in its provincial form could not sanction. But the mores go their way without sanction ; and the alienation of the masses from the established forms of religion follows.” Religion cannot be adapted to science. “Any sociologist knows that to talk of a ‘new religion’ is simply playing with words ; that there is no real religion that does not rest upon unreasoning fear of the unknown. Only so does it exercise, for the masses of mankind, any compulsion on conduct. If anyone thinks he can introduce a religion among the masses by the use of statistical tables or microscopical sections together with conclusions based thereon he is not rational enough to be talking about sociological subjects at all.” (Keller is here criticising the aspirations of the Eugenists.)

The social mores, then, become deeply ingrained in human life. “The stronghold of the mores is in the masses,” that is to say, only a very few individuals escape from the hold of tradition and orthodoxy. Although he does not mention it, Keller in reality brings forward evidence which strongly supports the view upheld by Herbert Spencer that society is an organism, bearing a close resemblance in many ways to an animal or plant. The mores may be likened to the tissues of the body, and the groups of mores forming the various social institutions—political, economic, etc.—are analogous to the organs of the body, of control, digestion, and so on. In human evolution the materials upon which selection operates are to an ever-increasing extent social rather than biological. As man advances in culture from his primitive “wild” state, social traits become more important and physical ones increasingly less so. “While societal selection arises out of natural selection, and while, in its early stages amidst unmitigated violence, it is no more than a variation in the process of nature, we have seen that it takes on, as it develops, its own characteristic mode. It becomes specifically distinguishable from natural selection. It selects upon a different set of criteria. This is because it operates as between groups rather than as between individuals, and so favours social superiorities rather than biological ones.”

Let us now go further into the details of social selection and adaptation. Prof. Keller recognises two kinds of social selection, automatic and rational. Automatic selection results from the actual conflict between groups, in which those having mores unfavourable to the waging of the conflict are broken up and their members either exterminated or assimilated into the conquering groups. Wherever struggles between societies have raged fiercely “the path of history is strewn with discarded codes.” In isolation there still persist groups having mores that have been superseded elsewhere ; for example, cannibalism, group-marriage, and stone weapons. “If certain mores physically or numerically weaken a group and impair its organisation, rendering it ever so little inferior to other groups, this fact which may remain long concealed under isolation, is revealed at once when conflict arises.” The conquered peoples who are not killed off have to adopt the mores of the dominant group ; “in the course of time the refractory will have been bent or broken, the less recalcitrant will have adopted, with or without compulsion, the ways of their masters, and the next generation will have grown up to accept the mores popular or prevalent within their societal environment.”

Automatic selection is the primitive form, and tends with higher development and knowledge to give way more and more to rational selection. So long, however, as war between societies resulting in annihilation or incorporation remains, it still continues to be to some extent effective.

Rational selection consists of the deliberate encouragement or establishment by the society (considered as a whole and without, for the moment, taking account of class or sectional interests) of practices regarded as beneficial or necessary to harmonious existence, and often involves the lapsing or casting aside of old mores (not prophets) which are seen to be useless or harmful. The growth of this rational selection depends, it is evident, upon man’s increasing perception of his needs and growing knowledge of social and natural forces. “Knowledge about the laws of nature and societal life is that which enables us to adapt ourselves more successfully to these laws and so to avoid the pain and dissatisfaction that comes from the attempt to live out of conformity with the ine­vitable. This is the only sort of theory upon which a belief in rational selection could be based.”

For the majority of men immediate needs and consequences far transcend in importance those which are ultimate or distant. If conscious selection of the mores is to be made, it must be (at least primarily) exercised where the results can be at once seen and the benefits immediately felt. The connections of the mores remote from actual living, such as those of religion and philosophy, with the welfare of people are not as a rule easily distinguished. “The nearer the mores come to the struggle for existence, tho more nearly they concern self-maintenance, the more vivid is the demonstration of their expediency or inexpediency.” Broadly speaking, we may say that the several groups of mores rest as it were in tiers one upon the other, in succession as they recede further from the actual workings of the process of living ; the mores in each layer depend for their form upon those in the layer beneath, and mould the form of those above.

The technical mores, e.g., the instruments of labour, form the basis of the economic mores—the general process of social production. This determines the presence or absence of class divisions, and this the organisation of control in the society—administrative or political—together with the intellectual activities manifest. “The ultimate activity of society is to preserve (feed, clothe, shelter, and protect) itself, and so the mores and institutions that contribute to this end are in a very real sense fundamental. It is upon these forms as a basis that the rest of the societal structure is erected ; and the form of the superstructure cannot vary except in detail from the type conditioned by the character of the foundation.” Kelier declares that if this be Marxian “economic determinism” it is possible to make the most of it. The above quotation would involve the consideration of military organisation as basic, but it is easily shown (see for example Engels’ Anti-Duehring) to be moulded by the technical development and economic conditions. Keller’s statement may be compared to the well-known one by Marx: “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.”

The method of rational selection, then, is to adapt the means and methods of production to the requirements of the struggle for existence, or more comfortable existence, the secondary social forms being brought into correspondence with them. Prof. Keller gives many examples to show the dependence of the social superstructure upon the conditions of self-maintenance ; and those acquainted with the materialist conception of history will call to mind many more.

“The hunting tribe becomes pastoral in its type of self-maintenance : and with this change go alterations in secondary societal forms, so that at length there is presented a set of mores typical all along the line, which are referred to as the distinguishing characters of the pastoral status. A pastoral tribe becomes agricultural and attendant sedentary, and presently the inevitable characteristics in secondary societal forms appear.” “. . an advance to an agricultural economy seems prerequisite for the development of private property in land and also slavery ; the emergence of the typical patriarchal family goes with the pastoral stage.” “Forms of diversion and of worship reflect the major occupation of the people, as e.g., the buffalo dance or the snake dance of the Western Indians.” “. . a noted specialist on Homer (Dr. Leaf, “Troy, a Study in Homeric Geography”) refers the Trojan War to trade rivalries and contends that the catalogue of the ships has a trade route basis.”

“The undeveloped race has had little difficulty in appreciating and taking over the maintenance mores, the arts and crafts ; here there is verification, things are seen to ‘work’ and then the transmission of these has made inevitable the transfer of the rest.” “In general the transmission of the mores which took its course from Chaldea and Egypt through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Genoese, Venetians and others forms a grand illustration of the point at issue. None of these peoples had any mission to uplift Western Europe, they were after gain through trade. They operated exclusively in the economic field, introducing first the products, then the processes of the superior arts of the East. . . . With the result of modifying at length the whole societal structure of the West; by gradually transmitting to it, as it developed, a superstructure capable of supporting them, the mores of an advanced civilisation.” “Commercial activities . . . aim distinctly at the creation and supply of material wants ; this they do by suggestion through some form of advertising. They have enlisted imitation where missions, for example, have attempted inculcation ; they have worked ‘with the grain,’ so to speak, where agencies of inculcation have gone against it. They have impinged immediately upon the maintenance mores, where other agencies have attempted to begin with the secondary societal forms.” Compare with the words of the “Communist Manifesto” : “The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it (the capitalist class) batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarian’s intensly obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.” Keller devotes the whole of his chapters VIII. and IX. to illustrating the principle of social adaptation to the conditions of living among the Eskimos and frontier settlers respectively.

(*) By error this term was given in the last issue as “moves”.

(To be Continued.)

R. W. H.

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