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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/153

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THE TRANSITION OF INSTITUTIONS.

units, and that (external disturbances apart) the society cannot be substantially and permanently changed, it becomes easy to see that great alterations cannot suddenly be made to much purpose. And when both the party of progress and. the party of resistance perceive that the institutions which at any time exist are more deeply rooted than they supposed—when the one party perceives that these institutions, imperfect as they are, have a temporary fitness, while the other party perceives that the maintenance of them, in so far as it is desirable, is in great measure guaranteed by the human nature they have grown out of—there must come a diminishing violence of attack on one side, and a diminishing perversity of defense on the other. Evidently, so far as a doctrine can influence general conduct (which it can do, however, in but a comparatively small degree), the doctrine of evolution, in its social applications, is calculated to produce a steadying effect, alike on thought and action.

If, as seems likely, some should propose to draw the seemingly awkward corollary that, it matters not what we believe or what we teach, since the process of social evolution will take its own course in spite of us, I reply that, while this corollary is in one sense true, it is in another sense untrue. Doubtless, from all that has been said, it follows that, supposing surrounding conditions continue the same, the evolution of a society cannot be in any essential way diverted from its general course; though it also follows (and here the corollary is at fault) that the thoughts and actions of individuals, being natural factors that arise in the course of the evolution itself, and aid in further advancing it, cannot be dispensed with, but must be severally valued as increments of the aggregate force producing change. But, while the corollary is even here partially misleading, it is, in another direction, far more seriously misleading. For, though the process of social evolution is, in its general character, so far predetermined that its successive stages cannot be antedated, and that hence no teaching or policy can advance it beyond a certain normal rate, which is limited by the rate of organic modification in human beings, yet it is quite possible to perturb, to retard, or to disorder the process. The analogy of individual development again serves us. The unfolding of an organism, after its special type, has its approximately uniform course, taking its tolerably definite time; and no treatment that may be devised will fundamentally change or greatly accelerate these: the best that can be done is to maintain the required favorable conditions. But it is quite easy to adopt a treatment which shall dwarf, or deform, or otherwise injure: the processes of growth and development may be, and very often are, hindered or deranged, though they cannot be artificially bettered. Similarly with the social organism. Though by maintaining favorable conditions there cannot be more good done than that of letting social progress go on unhindered, yet an immensity of mischief may be done in the way of disturbing and distorting and re-