Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/June 1873/Natural Selection in Politics


By Prof. D. H. WHEELER.

WHATEVER may become of Darwin's theory of natural selection, its worst foes must at last concede it the rare honor of being reckoned the most fertile hypothesis ever proclaimed. It has created a library of books on species, selection, and evolution, and it enters more or less into most attempts at serious writing. It was to be expected that it should turn up in politics; but we were hardly prepared for so brave an entry on that field as it makes in Bagehot's "Physics and Politics."

It is refreshing to know that Darwinism puts a more cheerful aspect upon physics in the social life of man than has been given to it by Draper and Buckle.

To Mr. Bagehot, the principle of natural selection applied to politics suggests the hopeful and beneficent side of law; Dr. Draper's books were preachments upon its awful and relentless aspects.

There is a valuable truth in natural selection applied to politics; for it is conceded that history shows us a struggle of races, and we who survive are ready enough to believe that the strongest survive because they are the best.

The earlier attempts to put physical forces into their place in man's social institutions, claimed a monopoly for them. The Gulf Stream wrote "Paradise Lost" and Newton's "Principia." The new attempt to trace these lines of law seems to promise success by leaving a little for Newton and Milton to do.

Physics work in harmony with morals. Morality is not a base and ragged accident, nor is it a fated product of temperature; it has relations to the weather, but the most important of these is its power to make, through industry and thought, a pleasant summer in an icebound city, and a grateful coolness in the torrid zone.

The moralists are fertile in all forms of social power; that is an old truth, too stubborn to be talked down. Religion has value everywhere, even in making fighters. God-fearing armies are hard to beat; and a man with an honest faith in him is as ugly a customer to face in fight as thirty degrees below zero. I hope nobody supposes that politics are without law. I know nothing so absurd as to believe in God and deny law to history, unless it be to be atheist and deny it. In truth, all of us shiver a little when we remember that God is just, or take account of the consequences that attend our public errors.

But the value of a truth is generally to be measured by its relation to hope. The best conquer, the best live; what an inspiration to courageous effort to be the best nation!

All the moralities, decencies, cultures, worships, lift up, and strengthen, and vitalize a people; and the purer they are, the more they are worth as factors of nationality.

It is worth while to try to be decent, to reform bad habits, and fortify exposed places in our public life; for the best is the longest lived.

This is not very new; a good deal of such preaching was wasted upon the Jews; but, after being sickened upon the doctrine that a fall of temperature produces a given number of suicides, and that morals have no influence in civilization, it is worth the cost of listening to a sermon, to get back again, under a disciple of Darwin, to the old truth, that it is well with the good, and ill with the evil, evermore on the earth.

The hopeful aspect given to change in national life by Darwinian Politics deserves special notice, and seems timely.

We are all afraid to change—born conservatives; and we all want something changed—born radicals; and we do change. All human life varies incessantly; the new generation sees life in new aspects, and rejoices in other colors. The variation comes in constantly; and it is our safety. Our inborn conservatism would kill us off if the variation did not help our inborn radicalism in the else unequal struggle. That which is, like the bird in the hand, is worth two reforms in the bush, for a contest. In short, nations grow, progress, thrive, through the law of variation from inheritance.

"One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea;" the consolation is, that only in pain does progress get birth, and that the things born are, on the whole, like the babies of any year, a little stronger and better than the things which die to give them room. Nor is this so because the moon is not made of green cheese, but because a beneficent law underlies human existence. The exceptions are numerous; so too are the small graves at Rose Hill, and yet there are more men on the earth, on the whole, happier than their ancestors, than there were fifty years ago. We must change; it is our cowardice or indolence that makes change a danger. The law deals generously with virtue and strength.

It is curious to mark how slowly we learn some of these simple lessons. A century ago, we respected, envied, the noble savage. The contemptible creature was semi-divine to first-rate poets and statesmen. They bewailed society, and longed for nakedness in the woods.

The same men knew that one Roman soldier had outmatched fifty semi-barbarians in every struggle, and that noble savages fell into the toils of the meanest civilized men in the slave-trade.

Civilization is strength and happiness. Miss Fragilla may not get all the new bonnets she wants; but that pain is easier borne than the "sound belashing" her ancestor got at her age, two centuries ago. She may not be all we could wish, but no young man of our blood would pass her by for a Choctaw princess.

The function of liberty in politics deeply interests us. Its power to promote healthful change is obvious. It is really liberty, with its discussion, its free thinking, and free speaking, that makes good politics. Cæsarism is a thief, robbing free times of their ideas and social results. It can live just as long as the loot holds out; but, when the stock on hand is exhausted, free men must be set to producing a new crop.—The Northwestern Review.