Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Editor's Table



IT would probably be hard to find an expression around which so many false and confused ideas have gathered as we find clustering around the term "the state." In the course of an otherwise excellent article which we read lately in one of our educational contemporaries, we find "the state" described as being "simply society organized." Now, we can only understand by this that, apart from political government, there is no social organization; yet surely nothing could be wider of the truth. The fact is, that true social organization is seen at its best precisely where the state is not—that is to say, in those regions of social activity with which political government does not interfere. Think of our churches, our charities, our clubs and institutes of one kind and another, our commercial system with its constant tendency to higher and more complete organization, the newspaper press, the railway and telegraph systems, our multitudinous social arrangements, and the thousand and one purely voluntary agencies by which human intercourse is facilitated and improved; and at once it becomes obvious how misleading it is to speak of "the state" as being "society organized." It would be nearer the mark, in our opinion, to say that true social organization begins just where state action ends. The essential function of the central power is to preserve the integrity of the community by shielding it from external attack and internal disruption, and so to provide the conditions for social organization. In other words, the state maintains order as the condition of progress; but progress, if it is to be worth anything, must result from the innate powers and affinities of the units composing the social mass.

It should never be forgotten that the state, as such, proceeds by coercion. It does not ask for taxes; it demands and takes them. It does not use moral suasion on recalcitrants, but applies at once the ultima ratio of baton and handcuffs. If the state, for example, makes itself the champion of temperance reform, its language is: Do this, refrain from that, or—go to jail. But social organization, in the true sense, is not a matter of compulsion, and can not proceed from compulsion; it is a matter of growth; it means the sorting out and aggregation of like social elements, and the weaving by the whole body of society of such forms, usages, customs, principles, and institutions as are most in harmony with its character and conditions. What is effected by legislation simply can be overturned by legislation just as easily; but what is accomplished by a spontaneous growth of sentiment is really wrought into the very structure and fiber of society. There exists the gravest doubt to-day whether the state of Maine has gained anything whatever by its legislative prohibition of the liquor-traffic; many, indeed, hold that the cause of temperance itself has suffered through the measures adopted to promote it, and that the whole moral tone of the community has been lowered by the unceasing spectacle of the conflict between the prescriptions of State authority and the claims of individual liberty. Our form of government tends greatly to disguise the truth that social organization is a product of freedom. If a monarch or other autocrat were to enact certain laws that find favor in different parts of this country, there would be an outcry against his tyranny, and he would certainly be suspected of many a sinister motive. But, because these laws express the will of the majority, they pass without challenge; the prior question is not raised whether the case is one in which the majority should seek to impose by force its will on the minority. The question is not asked whether society, if left free to act according to its own laws, would not in due time—which is always better than undue time—accomplish the good that is aimed at, and with better ultimate results than when force is invoked to hasten the reform.

The specific danger of our time is the easy access which mere majorities have to the law-making power, with the consequent passion our several communities have acquired for what may he called the law-making habit—a habit entirely comparable with the drink-habit or the opium-habit. We stimulate or soothe ourselves with laws, as the case may be, instead of striving to bring about the end we desire by free cooperation. We legislate (in the most futile manner) against oleomargarine, we legislate against "bucket-shops," we legislate against railway discriminations, we legislate, or threaten legislation, against "combines" and "trusts"; and, having legislated, we legislate again and again to make up the deficiencies or remove the contradictions of former legislation. Meantime the growth of free opinion and sentiment on the subject matter of all this law-mongering is not aided but retarded. One result of this vicious habit is, that we do not give ourselves time to properly understand the workings of this or that tendency before we rush to legislation in order to forward or hinder it, according to the opinion we have been led to think it hurtful or beneficial. And how easily in many of these matters public opinion is swayed by mere catch-words no judicious student of public affairs can help being aware. As regards the treatment of our bodily ills, we have—at least intelligent people have—got to the point of distrusting the quacks who undertake to drive away every specific ailment by an equally specific nostrum; and we give our confidence rather to those who study the general conditions on which health depends, and who place their own chief reliance on the curative force of Nature. In statecraft, however, we hear nothing, broadly speaking, of general principles, nothing of the tendency of things to right themselves if left alone, nothing of the organic and organizing forces of society, but everything of the dependence of social well being upon specific measures of legislation. Politically, we are yet in the dark ages. It is true we have thrown off the power of the personal tyrant, but we have not entered into the freedom of those who look to Nature for their guidance, and who resent the yoke of all arbitrary laws, no matter by whom enacted. The time will come when the art of government, like the art of healing with which it has many points of analogy, will be put upon a natural basis, and then it will be seen more clearly than now how little government has to do with social organization beyond providing for it the necessary conditions of order and stability.


A certain record tells us that when the Philistine army was drawn up in front of that of Israel, a champion of great size, arrayed in portentous armor and carrying a sword and spear of enormous proportions, came forth from the Philistine ranks and challenged the Hebrews to send a man to fight with him. We read also that when David, the son of Jesse, stepped forth to the encounter, armed with a few pebbles, the huge Philistine "cursed him by his gods." Now, somehow or other, the Lord of Argyll and the Isles, who has lately stood forth, from another "Philistine" camp, to challenge the hosts of science, and, if not to curse, to indulge at least in some good Homeric loidoria, reminds us powerfully of that Goliath of Gath who had so vast a contempt for David and his pebbles, but whose strutting and boasting one of those pebbles brought to a sudden end. The duke is not a man of huge physical stature—quite the reverse people say who have seen him; but he is armed in a panoply of multifarious knowledge, he is practiced in the use of controversial weapons, and he has the truculent tone befitting one who constitutes himself the champion of reactionary ideas, and who hopes to make bluster do to a large extent the work of argument. After assailing Prof. Huxley, and with him nearly the whole body of modern men of science, in the geological field at least, on the absurd ground that they had conspired to smother a certain new theory of the origin of coral-reefs, simply because it differed from the one promulgated by Darwin, he turns his attention to Mr. Herbert Spencer, whom he represents as having made, in his "Factors of Organic Evolution," a "great confession" as to the inadequacy of the Darwinian view of the origin of species, and whom he further charges with a persistent effort to degrade philosophy to the lowest possible level. Upon both points the Philistine champion is simply as unjust to Mr. Spencer as it is possible for him to be, and this we propose to briefly show. We invite our readers, however, to turn to the pages of "The Popular Science Monthly" for verification of what we have here to say; for at different times we have published all the more important parts of the controversies now in question, including the Duke of Argyll's article, "A Great Confession," in our number for May, and Mr. Spencer's "Counter Criticism" in that for June.

To make "a great confession" must mean—if it means anything—to acknowledge some serious error on one's own part. To assert the deficiencies of another man's theories is not to make a great confession or any confession. Now, Mr. Spencer's work on "The Factors of Organic Evolution," far from being a confession of error on his own part, was an attempt to fix attention upon a view of his own which he holds now, as he has done for many years, to be of much importance as a complement to the Darwinian doctrine of the origin of species. If some one who had strongly asserted the all-sufficiency of the principle of natural selection, independently of the action of the principle contended for by Mr. Spencer, that, namely, of the inheritance of functionally produced modifications of structure, had come round to Mr. Spencer's view and published a treatise similar in scope and object to his on "The Factors of Organic Evolution," that might have been called a confession. Whether it would have been a "great" one or not would have depended on the writer's rank in the world of thought and the extent to which his previous views had affected scientific opinion generally. In Mr. Spencer's case there was no "confession" at all: on the contrary, there was the reaffirmation of a special view of his own, and a re-enforcement of it by additional arguments.

Had our Scotch Goliath admitted the force of Mr. Spencer's arguments, in so far as they tend to show the insufficiency of the principle of natural selection, pure and simple, to account for the origin of species, it might have been possible to explain his calling Mr. Spencer's recent work "a great confession" by assuming that, in his polemical haste and fury, he saw nothing in "The Factors of Organic Evolution" save a criticism—and a powerful one—on the doctrine of natural selection by the most distinguished of contemporary evolutionists. But, far from this being the case, the champion will not admit that there is any force in Mr. Spencer's arguments, but likens them to "some bit of Bumbledom setting up for Home Rule, some parochial vestry claiming independence of a universal empire." Where, then, does he find the "great confession"? How can arguments to which all force is denied be twisted into a "confession" damaging to any scientific doctrine whatsoever?

The only "confession" Mr. Spencer makes is one which he would have made at any time during the last twenty years, and that is to the effect that his phrase, "the survival of the fittest," is susceptible of being understood in a wrong sense, if not to the same extent, at least in the same general way, as Mr. Darwin's phrase, "natural selection." This confession, however, his Grace of Argyll does not gloat over. It is at this point that he accuses Mr. Spencer of trying to rob philosophy of all dignifying elements. Mr. Spencer feels that to use language asserting or implying conscious purpose or direction when there is no evidence of anything of the kind beyond the vaguest analogy, is undesirable, and, if needlessly done, wrong. His Grace holds, on the contrary, that any suggestion of design which we discover in Nature should be treasured up and made the most of for purposes of edification. "There are," he says, "as it were, a thousand retinæ (in our brains), each set to receive its own special impressions from the external world. They are all needed, but they are not all of equal dignity. Some catch the lesser and others catch the higher lights of Nature; some reflect mere numerical order or mechanical arrangement, while others are occupied with the causes and the reasons or purposes of these." This is all very nice, but a cautious person will remember that when we ascend to "causes and purposes and reasons" we do so by virtue of a faculty totally different from mere perception—a faculty of the highest possible value when its operations can be checked and its conclusions verified, but of very doubtful value when it expatiates in regions where check and verification are impossible. A hypothetical retina or facet in the brain might conceivably reflect facts or phenomena of an external order; but how another similar mirror in that organ could "reflect" a subjective explanation of the same facts we fail to understand. We fear there is no retina or facet in our brain that can help us in this particular difficulty. The theory of design in Nature, the duke tells us, is "a higher intellectual perception." From our point of view it is not a perception of any kind; it is a synthetical judgment, as fully liable to error as any other synthetical judgment, and one that labors under the special disability of being incapable of verification.

The fact is, that it is not Mr. Spencer who degrades philosophy; it is those who seek to impose their own petty conceptions upon a universe that must ever transcend human thought. Mr. Spencer does not pretend to be able to think the thoughts of God. Men have pretended and claimed to do this in past times—to know the why and wherefore of the Divine actions both in Nature and in human history. But Mr. Spencer has advanced far enough to see that to represent the ultimate power in Nature as having acted thus and thus because, to our apprehension, such a mode of action might plausibly explain the facts, is at once foolish and irreverent. The Duke of Argyll professes to know that a certain uncouth animal living in Madagascar was fitted by the Deity with ears, teeth, a probe-like finger, and a peculiar claw, all for the purpose of enabling it to feed on the larvae concealed in certain trees. Mr. Spencer only professes to know that an animal of this form does live on larvae, but he does not say that he has discovered in the construction and habits of the creature a revelation of Divine purpose. He refrains from such a judgment, both from a sense of the inadequacy of human faculties for discovering purposes higher than human, and because he knows by actual experience that an appearance of order and purpose is often the necessary result of purely mechanical causes. Witness, as Mr. Spencer says, the arrangement of the pebbles on Chesil beach. Mr. Spencer is as ready as any one to recognize purpose where purpose can, without undue presumption, be traced, but he does not see how this can be done outside the sphere of human action. The very conception of purpose he finds too small, and, so to speak, too provisional, too relative to our evanescent thought, to apply to the interpretation of Nature as a whole. The Duke of Argyll, by the extremely harsh and overweening tone of his several recent articles, has judged himself. If he could only be made aware of it, "a great confession" is due from him—a confession of the injustice done by him to the men of science in connection with their reception of Mr. Murray's theory of coral reefs, and the further and special injustice done to Mr. Spencer in representing his latest contribution to the theory of evolution in an altogether false light.