Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/March 1894/Biology and Ethics


IN the case of civilized man natural selection is subject to numerous and extensive limitations. The struggle for existence still goes on vehemently enough; but it is changed in character, and instead of animal rapine we have industrial competition. The brutal and relentless acts of self-assertion that in a savage state secured the survival of the fittest—that is to say, of those best adapted to savage surroundings—have been condemned as unsuitable to a more artificial existence and are punished as crimes, and the conflict is carried on by cunning devices which abolish the weakest slowly and unobtrusively and do not outrage certain moral feelings opposed to violence which have in the meantime grown up. But, more than that, in social progress the struggle for existence becomes in certain directions a surrender not of the feeblest but of the strongest and the best. A recognition of the obligations which man owes to his fellow-men and the promptings of "Love's divine self-abnegation" impose restraints on some of the competitors who, instead of forcing their way to the front, as they are well able to do, stand aside and allow themselves to be beaten by those less fitted to survive. To adapt the illustrations of Malthus, Nature still spreads her feast for twenty guests, while thirty stand by ready to partake of it, but, whereas in primitive times the twenty strongest would have unhesitatingly appropriated the sustenance, in these more virtuous days fifteen of the strongest and five of the weakest secure it, because five of the strongest have chosen to abrogate their natural claims. The census returns clearly show that while the age of marriage in this country steadily rises among the educated and affluent classes, it remains painfully low in agricultural districts and in the poorer quarters of the great towns.

The interference with the struggle for existence which civilization and ethical development involve is familiar to medical men above all others, for their professional career is one sustained endeavor to prevent the extermination of the unfittest and, therefore, to check the operation of natural selection. It is theirs to succor the victims who have been smitten in the fight, and who, but for their aid, would perish; it is theirs to preserve weakly lives which left unprotected would be ruthlessly stamped out; it is theirs to circumvent conquering bacteria and so prevent mortality and swell the millions contending for a bare subsistence; it is theirs, as the chosen ministers of the higher ethics, on the one hand, to counteract the life-destroying checks which operate chiefly on the feeble and incompetent, and, on the other, to inculcate the prudential considerations which are most influential with the finest types of mankind. No doubt the wider scope which modern science has given to medical practice enables those who pursue it to render services to the strong as well as to the weak, and to compensate in some degree for the general lowering of vitality which the maintenance of sickly lives tends to produce. Sanitary improvements and the removal of many of the causes of disease not only keep the infirm alive but insure increased vigor to the constitutions of the robust. But still the result of medical work as a whole at the present time must tend toward the intensification and the thwarting of the struggle for existence and perhaps to some deterioration of the species, for medical work does intermeddle with Nature's rough and ready methods in selecting her breeders. Great numbers of weakly infants who would formerly have perished in their infancy are now reared to a weakly maturity and enabled to propagate their weakliness (for the weakly are often highly prolific), while they take part in the life battle on terms sometimes made unduly favorable to them by the commiseration that their weakliness commands; and this fact ought not to be lost sight of when we are congratulating ourselves on our greatly diminished death-rate. An enormous saving of life has been effected, but mainly in life's earlier decades. The death-rate is actually increasing among males at all ages above thirty-five and among females at all ages above forty-five; and it is not difficult to prove that this increased mortality at post-meridian ages is due partly to the enhanced wear and tear of modern existence and partly to the survival of weakly lives artificially protected and prolonged.

The origin of those moral sentiments which, in the case of our race, are modifying the course of natural selection and which have evoked and molded the profession to which we belong is as inscrutable as the invention of natural selection itself, but their development has some light thrown on certain of its stages by biological considerations. In the life history of living organisms we can trace out some rudimentary phases of a new struggle for existence, a struggle between ethical principles and animal propensities, a struggle that has to be fought out in the brain and mind of man, but that is foreshadowed in paltry protoplasmic particles. For very early in organization may ethical rudiments be detected; indeed, the moment we get beyond the solitary cell, a simple organism which merely feeds and grows and liberates superfluous parts of its substance to start new organisms like itself, mutual obligation or what might be called a moral relation is discernible; antagonism is converted into co-operation and conflict gives place to harmony, and the higher we ascend in the scale of being the more far-reaching and complicated does cooperation become. Individualism is gradually subordinated to collectivism, and the struggle for existence becomes mainly the concern of the organism as a whole and is only in a minor degree that of the units of which it is composed. Growth, form, and structure are regulated by an organic process only very slightly modified by external conditions and not at all by the selection of the fittest among the growing, formative, and tissue-making parts. "In each of these complicated structures," says Huxley, in referring to the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit of a bean, "as in their smallest constituents, there is an immanent energy which in harmony with that resident in all the others incessantly works toward the maintenance of the whole and the efficient performance of the part it has to play in the economy of Nature." In a higher animal we have untold millions of cells of widely different constitution and habits, not merely dwelling together in amity but co-operating for the good of the system in which they are incorporated and undergoing harmonious and efficacious metamorphoses as it unfolds. The system is still engaged in the struggle for existence, but its constituents can not in any true sense be said to be so on their own account. Their self-assertion is limited by the organic process, or what would at one time have been called the law of design, the equilibrium and comity of tissues being secured by a self-restraint that is inherent in them, that was inherent in the vital impulse that called them into being, a restraint on the nutrition and reproduction of each to secure the nutrition and reproduction of all, a restraint that when from any cause it is broken down leads to disease, as in the overgrowth of cancer. And, as in the case of the cell, so in that of the animal, the moment we get beyond the solitary animal fighting for its own life, mutual obligation or consensus becomes apparent, for if two animals combine to fight together there must be a tacit understanding that they are to forbear from fighting each other while so engaged. In all associations of animals the association which is useful to them in their struggle for existence is only maintained by some curtailment of the self-assertion that is of the very essence of the struggle. Sheer animalism is to some extent restained, antagonism for certain purposes is merged in co-operation, and individualism is modified in its manifestations by self-denial. In the ant-hill and beehive and among all state-forming insects may be observed an orderly polity involving the co-operation of different classes which exist not for their own advantage but because they are of value to the state and have given it a superiority over differently constituted colonies, and in all packs, herds, and communities of animals there is some subordination of self-will to secure the realization of the universal will in social existence. And the higher we ascend in the scale of gregariousness the more conspicuous does co-operation become, until among the higher races of civilized man we find that it has in some degree transferred the pressure of the struggle for existence from the individual to the body corporate, and that it tends to do so more and more. Social organization is loose and shadowy when compared with that of living beings, and differentiation of structure and function in it are partial and ill-defined, but still it is readily perceived that its development is regulated by a social process which, although it may seem to emerge from environment and the struggle for life, clearly implies as it goes on not only the harmonious coexistence of different classes differently employed and interested in a larger life than their own, that of the system or nation of which they form, a part, but the subjection of individual self-assertion to social growth, in accordance with some social ideal or, shall we say, design. In the social not less than in the organic process we see pause given to the life struggle and the co-operation of diverse parts to a common end. In highly civilized societies certain classes—propertied and pensioned classes—are practically relieved from the struggle for existence by the operation of moral restraints, and it is the avowed aim of state socialism to make that struggle less and less the concern of the individual and more and more that of the state. In the intercourse between nation and nation traces of co-operation may be recognized.

But it is in sexual relations far more than in the organic or social process that the embryonic forms and cotyledons of the moral sentiments that among mankind, when in full leaf and blossom, mask and overshadow and sometimes choke natural selection may be most clearly recognized. Nutrition is everywhere egotistic, but reproduction is invariably altruistic in its character. In its lowest form, where two exhausted cells flow together, reproduction corresponds with what has been designated protoplasmic hunger; but wherever true sexual union takes place we have activities that are other, regarding and whenever genuine maternity is differentiated we have hints of self-sacrifice. Sexual preferences and the selection of mates have obvious reference to the continuance of the species and the welfare of the offspring and imply co-operation, and the fatality that attends the triumph of motherhood represents the immolation of the individual for the collective advantage. Among the insects we have the pairing of mates preceded by courtship and followed by associated industry, as in the aterechus, where the male and female beetle disinterestedly toil together in rolling up receptacles for their unborn offspring, and throughout the whole animal kingdom, from the mesozoa, where the female dies in giving birth to her ova, upward, we have illustrations of the sacrificial nature of the reproductive process. Rooted in physical wants and sensation, the reproductive impulse and parental instincts are gradually reenforced by psychical sympathies and branch into altruistic manifestations. The fierce fight of the stickleback with his rivals and his jealous guardianship of the nest to which he has conducted his bride may be but expressions of blind instinct, and the brooding of the hen on her eggs may be a mere indulgence in an agreeable siesta, but it is impossible to doubt that in the action of the walrus or tiger in desperately defending its young, even when wounded and suffering, and at the expense of its own life, there is an element of disinterested love. Such maternal devotion evinces not reckless self-assertion and the desire to hunt down competitors, but the antithesis of these: self-abandonment and care for others. Between the mother and her offspring there is no struggle for existence, but there are alliance, affection, and co-operation.

In the pairing of mates, then, in their copartnership often extending far beyond the breeding season, in the provision made for offspring, in the care and training bestowed on them after birth, and in the establishment of family groups, all reproductive phenomena, we have in the animal series the analogues, minute but distinctive, of the altruistic emotions which in human beings, fostered and transmuted by various agencies, have enabled them as regards certain relationships to struggle out of the dismal swamp of the "struggle for existence." And in the case of human beings it has, I believe, been the formation of distinct family groups that has more than any other reproductive influence been contributory to moral progress. The family is the social unit, the nursery of goodness, the school of character, the germ-plasm of the loftiest virtues, for it is by a diffusion of the feelings that well up within its precincts to the clan, the nation, and the race that we become public-spirited, patriotic, and philanthropic. The savage owes to it his first glimmerings of ethics, and we in this country owe to it the prosperity we enjoy. Its associated life necessitates a curtailment of self-assertion, a discipline of self-will, and is incompatible with irresponsible atomism, but favors the evolution in due sequence of the dispositions that fit for companionship under civilized conditions.

Now we have been told lately that the family is played out and doomed. Mr. Pearson, in his remarkable and able work, has argued that it will ultimately, to a great extent, be merged in the nation. He looks forward to a state of things in which there will be a weakening of the marriage bond, wedlock being, instead of a union for life, a partnership during good behavior or pleasure. and in which children growing up, better educated than father or mother, will know that they have to thank the state for schooling and protection and are little indebted to their parents, who have simply taken advantage of their tender years to confiscate the proceeds of their industry. In these halcyon days there will be a state créche, a state school and state medical institution, supplemented by state meals, and the child when well drilled in the state gymnasium will pass from the state school into a state workshop, and finally on to the state crematorium. The result of all this will be that as marriage becomes legalized concubinage the obligation of family duties will attenuate; as children understand that it is to the state they have been indebted for maintenance the old feelings of gratitude and affection which bound them to their parents will dwindle away; and as parents lose their proprietary and administrative rights over children they will more and more shift the responsibility for them on to the state. The family with all its sacred traditions and precious training will decline, and man—like the cuckoo—will be constantly seeking to foist on others the maintenance of his offspring. Mr. Pearson's prognostications, however, are, I venture to think, of an unnecessarily gloomy description. They are founded on the assumption that society is destined to become more and more secular; they betray ignorance of human nature, for surely the love of children for parents is not founded solely on a sordid calculation of what they owe them; and they involve the error that the volume of feeling must always be the same and that its expansion in one direction, so as to embrace the sphere of state action, implies its contraction in another direction, so as to exclude family ties and claims. But there is no reason to doubt that reverence for the state may grow without supplanting reverence for the family; nay, there is reason to hope that parental and filial affection will become stronger and more tenacious as time goes on. The restrictions placed by the state, as the exponent of enlightened opinion and sentiment, on the autocratic powers which the head of the family at one time possessed the very existence of which provoked antagonism and the arbitrary exercise of which corrupted—may be expected to soften and cement the family relationship and make it more complete and lasting than it has hitherto been. Then it is to be remembered that the period of dependence of offspring on parents steadily increases as evolution advances. The higher the animal the longer the duration of this period of dependence. It is more protracted in civilized than in savage races and now than it has been heretofore. And this protraction of intimate intercourse and reciprocal relations between the members of a family certainly means a deepening of the sense of kinship. We may flatter ourselves with the hope, then, that the tender and, indeed, sacred feelings which have been nurtured in household association will retain their dominion over us, and that the family will survive in unimpaired integrity, the fountain head of altruistic emotions, the palladium of sound morality.

  1. From an address delivered at the opening of the session of the Sheffield School of Medicine at Firth College, Sheffield, on October 2, 1893, and printed in the London Lancet.