Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | September 1889



THE recently published work of Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace on "Darwinism" furnishes a timely and weighty answer to those who, following the rash lead of the Duke of Argyll, have lately been maintaining that the doctrine of natural selection is wholly unable to explain the development of species, and that, as a theory, it has had its day. Far from conceding anything to this noisy school, Mr, Wallace is disposed to make even larger claims for the potency of this principle than Darwin himself did, and certainly larger than Mr. Spencer is to-day disposed to allow. He holds that we only have to look closely enough at the facts in order to see the Influence of natural selection every-where, and to convince ourselves that it alone has presided over the whole development of vegetable and animal forms. It is needless to say that Mr. Wallace is a naturalist of the very first rank, and that his reasonings do not lack for facts and illustrations to enforce them. The work he has now given to the world in an exceedingly valuable repertory of information bearing on the questions he discusses, and is written in a style at once popular and exact. In giving it the title "Darwinism," he once more evidences the generosity of nature which led him thirty years ago to waive the claims he might have urged as discoverer of the principle of the variation of species by means of natural selection. He recognizes that Darwin has made that whole field of investigation peculiarly his own; and he is, therefore, very willing that Darwin's name should stand indissolubly and exclusively connected with the great revolution in speculative biology which our generation has witnessed.

The two principal questions which Mr. Wallace's work will bring into prominence are (1) whether the extremely wide claims he puts forth on behalf of natural selection are fully made good; and (2) whether his views in regard to the mode of development of man's higher intellectual and moral nature are well founded. Upon the first point, as we have already hinted, Mr. Wallace comes into direct collision with Mr. Spencer. The latter considers that the doctrine of natural selection can not account for certain cases of variation, and that we must have recourse to the supplementary doctrine of use and disuse. Mr. Wallace takes up the instances cited by Mr. Spencer, and endeavors to show that they may be explained without calling in any other law than that of natural selection. He admits that, as regards those "lower organisms which consist of simple cells and formless masses of protoplasm," the action of the environment is very marked, and that the variations it produces on individual forms may be transmitted by inheritance; but he does not consider that we can argue from cases in which the environment acts thus powerfully on the whole life of the organism, and, of course, necessarily on its reproductive system, so far as it can be said to have a system, to cases where the outward structure alone of well-established types is affected by change of habit. Such modifications he does not think are transmissible by inheritance; spontaneous variation and natural selection alone are adequate, in his opinion, to produce permanent variation. The question is manifestly an obscure one, calling for patient and exhaustive investigation. If changes produced by the environment in the very lowest forms may be transmitted by inheritance, as Wallace admits, then the question is, at what point the line is to be drawn. How far down may we come in the development of type before this principle ceases to act? Again, how can it be positively ascertained that changes of nutrition, or changes in the general balance of function, may not act on the reproductive system so as to produce inheritable variation? Mr. Wallace does well to stand up for the doctrine of natural selection, and to insist that it shall not needlessly be put aside; but the general doctrine of evolution would not suffer if the exceptions to the action of natural selection contended for by Mr. Spencer should ultimately be maintained.

Refusing to admit any other general law than that of natural selection as a key to the development of species, and finding, as he asserts, that law inadequate to explain man's moral and intellectual nature, or rather the extreme differences existing between individuals in respect to moral and intellectual qualities, Mr. Wallace summons to his assistance the theory of a special "spiritual essence of nature, capable of progressive development under favorable conditions." To explain an unknown thing by one still more unknown has never been considered a quite satisfactory logical performance; and we can not help feeling a little surprised that, in a purely scientific treatise, our author should resort to such a method. "On the hypothesis," he says, "of this spiritual nature superadded to the animal nature of man we are able to understand much that is otherwise mysterious or unintelligible in regard to him." The trouble is that "this spiritual nature," as it does not lend itself to definition, is not and can not be an object of knowledge, and therefore can not serve as a scientific hypothesis at all. It may, however, be questioned whether Mr. Wallace is not untrue to his own principles when he says that the differences in moral and intellectual attributes between different individuals are greater than can exist under the rule of natural selection. Who is to set the limits of spontaneous variation in any species, and, above all, in the most complex and highly organized species, man? In the lower tribes individuals departing in a marked manner from the average type are generally doomed to destruction; but in human society it is different. Human society is itself an organism of ever-increasing complexity as we pass from the lower to the higher races; and in the social organism there is room for an infinite variety of tastes, accomplishments, aptitudes, and powers. A man need not be a great mathematical genius or have a surpassing talent for music in order to survive; neither does an extraordinary development in either direction necessarily lead to his extinction. A place can generally be found for every man whose nature is not absolutely anti-social. Thus extreme variations are preserved, and the qualities they imply are kept, as it were, in circulation in the social body, ready to manifest themselves under suitable conditions. The range of variation in men would probably be greater than it is were it not for the fact that the law of natural selection is at work more or less at all times in suppressing both superiorities and inferiorities. It was an old pastime of a certain venerable race to stone their prophets; and one of their wisest men has left on record the caution: "Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself overwise: why shouldst thou destroy thyself?" Nor has the danger of excessive righteousness altogether vanished in our own time, as Mr. Spencer in his essay on "The Morals of Trade" bears impressive witness. But, on the other hand, there are dangers in excessive inferiority. After uttering his caution against over-righteousness the Hebrew moralist goes on to say: "Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldst thou die before thy time?" And to-day, as then, the man who is overmuch wicked or foolish generally meets an early fate. The law of natural selection is, therefore, manifestly at work in controlling the moral and intellectual development of society; and if, in spite of this, there is a much wider variation between human individuals than obtains in the lower orders of animal life, that is just what, considering the extreme complexity of the social organism, we should have expected.



The author of that popular book "Looking Backward" has given a graphic description of present-day civilization, as he understands it, by comparing it to a coach in or on which the wealthy classes ride while the working classes drag it over heavy roads and up steep ascents. It would almost seem as if the author had been more concerned to write what the French call une belle page than to represent things as they really are, otherwise the picture would have been somewhat differently drawn. Nothing is told us of the means whereby seats on the coach are obtained nor of the means by which they are lost. There is no hint that frugality, prudence, self-control, readiness of resource, and social usefulness, are in general the qualities by which men rise to competence, or that it is the lack of these qualities, and often of any disposition to possess them, that consigns some men to the labor of the rope. We do not read that the man who is on the coach has often helped to make better conditions of life for multitudes of his fellow-men, nor is a hint dropped that many of those who get the credit of riding are really themselves laboring hard to help the vehicle forward. There is nothing in the whole description that answers to the case of those intelligent, efficient, and self-respecting workers who, without reaping wealth, obtain a large measure of comfort and ample means of self-improvement. We get no hint of social vices that do more to make the lot of their victims difficult, if not hopeless, than anything in the constitution of society. Mr. Bellamy might, had he chosen, have introduced these points. They are so obvious that he could not have overlooked them, and we must therefore conclude that he omitted them on literary grounds. The way to be tiresome, said Voltaire, is to say everything; and Mr. Bellamy did not want to be tiresome, so he simply gave us a picture of a coach crowded with idlers and dragged by the industrious under the lash of hunger. Well, Mr. Bellamy has produced the effects he aimed at. His coach has been very widely talked about and considerably admired; so perhaps now he might take into consideration those who are not so impatient of details as to prefer a misleading comparison, dashed off with a few bold strokes, to a more correct one carefully elaborated. We know he could make another coach for us if he tried, and we should very, much like him to try.

Far be it from us to say that society as we see it to-day has reached the acme of perfection; there is much in it we are deeply persuaded that is faulty and that might be improved. We want greater economy in production and—no one need hesitate to say—greater equality in distribution. We want a greater sense of social responsibility on the part of the holders of wealth, and we want especially a diminution of the senseless passion for display. These things we believe are now on the way, though it might be hard to discern the signs of the one last mentioned. Society is becoming every day more closely knit in the bonds of a common sympathy; the self-respect of the average man is daily increasing and public opinion is becoming at once more rational and more humane. What we have chiefly to contend with to-day is not the idleness or extravagance of a few, but a general lack of knowledge as to the best methods of social co-operation. Where Mr. Bellamy errs, in our opinion, is in making the wealthy portion of society a simple burden upon the poor. Such is not the case. On the contrary, it is the men of wealth who have done more than any other class to direct labor into useful channels and generally to vivify and fertilize the industry of the world. If Mr. Bellamy could amend his story of the coach so as to bring this undoubted fact into prominence, he would dg more justice to the century in which he lives, and take a little of the sting from the diatribes of his Dr. Barton.