Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/February 1895/Some Material Forces of the Social Organism


AT the outset of this paper I wish to define one or two terms, and my own position in using them. The expression "the social organism" is generally taken in a merely figurative sense, but to me it has more significance than that. I will employ it with nearly its full literal meaning.

Society, denoting by that the people collectively of any one nation or government, is an organism distinctly endowed with the attributes of a living structure. Its individual units, men and women, are alive; its various political parties, charities, industrial groups, and its government all have an organic character; and, finally, the whole society shows the fundamental attributes of vitality in the specialization of parts, the partial co-ordination of these for a common end, and particularly by the constant phenomena of mutation and change.

The social organism is, then, a vitalized structure, not only in its separate parts but in its entirety. Now, if this is so, then many of the conditions which modify the more familiar forms of life may be expected to, indeed necessarily will, influence and modify the progress of social development and growth.

Foremost and most obvious of these conditions will be the character of the raw material of society—I mean matter, substance, material things. For, just as a brick house differs from a wooden one, even if the general plan is the same, because one is made of mineral matter while the other is vegetable; or, as a porcelain vase will differ from a bronze one of exactly the same shape by all the fundamental properties belonging to clay and metal, so equally must the possibilities of social conditions be fundamentally controlled and limited by the properties of matter.

There is a very different view from the above, illustrated by this quotation from Bishop Berkeley: "Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, namely, that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth—in a word, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world—have not any substance without a mind."

But the question I raise here is not one between the Berkeleian or the anti-Berkeleian philosophy, or between idealism and materialism, because for the practical purposes of this paper it makes no difference in which camp we stand; and while the language will necessarily be somewhat materialistic in terminology, because we are dealing with material things and material forces, the writer does not wish his words to seem to be conditioned by any metaphysical system.

Practically speaking, we are dealing with concrete things—stones, bricks, men and women, society. The materialist says they evolved themselves; the idealist says they were made by an outside agent; but for the purposes of this paper it is all one and the same, because any structure, whether self-created or manufactured by intelligence, is largely conditioned by the substance out of which it is made.

Now, how is society conditioned by that out of which it is made? How do the general properties of matter enter into the natural history of its development? That, I think, is a very interesting and a vitally important question if it could be answered in its entirety, but no one can do this for us yet. All we can do is to pick out a few characteristics so obvious that perhaps they will seem only trite. But granting they are so, still, it sometimes happens that the familiar and the commonplace take on new features when looked at from fresh standpoints.

The first thing, then, to be noted in regard to circumscribing conditions is that the inherent strength of materials puts a limit to the possible size of any structure, whether artificial or natural. As an example, consider a cannon: The actual size of a big gun is not limited by its weight, for much heavier ordnance than any now made could be handled by modern machinery; what stands in the way is the tensile strength of the metal employed. As soon as the pressure of the exploded powder upon a square inch of the internal surface of the gun is greater than the elastic limit of the steel, the metal will give way by stretching. This will enlarge the surface of the chamber, which will thus offer fresh portions for the action of the pressure, and so the operation will go on until rupture takes place. There is thus a certain powder pressure beyond which no thickness of metal, however great, can prevent bursting; this limiting size is already nearly reached in recently built cannon, and nothing but the discovery of some new metal or alloy stronger than steel will enable us to build guns materially larger than those now made.

Another instance is found in bridge work. As the spans grow longer, the proportionate load they can carry grows smaller. It is easy to calculate from the known properties of iron just how long a span must be to barely sustain itself. Nothing longer than this could stand, because, when the weight of the bridge puts a stress on its members greater per square inch than the breaking stress per inch, the bridge must fall, even without any extraneous load. In living creatures the same condition is found. No land animal is as large and heavy as a whale, because the bone and muscle of which they are made would be incapable of supporting so great a weight. In the water, however, it is different; the huge mass is evenly supported by the water in which it almost floats, thus relieving the anatomy of the whole from nearly all stresses due to gravity.

The same cause has operated to make all inhabitants of the air small. No very large bird, say as large as a horse, is known, and not even the extraordinary creations of past geologic ages show us any examples of very large flying creatures. The necessary relations between velocity of wing movement, weight, and size might be found for a flying elephant, but the intrinsic strength of living tissues would prove too weak to sustain so large a mass in the air by muscular exertion. So it is apparent that it is the intrinsic strength of living tissue, and not weight alone, which limits the size of aërial creatures.

The second general relation between substance and structure may be stated thus: "The nature of matter puts a limit to the intensity of action."

This proposition is nearly self-evident, and needs only one or two illustrations. All living structures consist largely of water. In the actively growing portions of vegetables upward of sixty per cent of the weight is water, while in animals more than seventy-five per cent of the weight of the whole body is represented by the same liquid. Physically and chemically speaking, life is chiefly an aqueous phenomenon. Now, as water forms steam of a quite sensible pressure at temperatures a little over 100º F., while it becomes a solid at 32º, we see that this property of water would alone be sufficient to account for the fact that living creatures can not grow and propagate outside of these temperature limits, while if they are somewhat exceeded, even the smallest and most resisting forms of life, the so-called germs, are permanently killed.

Again, the rate of nerve transmission in warm-blooded animals is about one hundred and fifty feet per second. A peripheral sensation takes a sensible time to reach the brain, another interval for the brain to act, and a third for the order to be executed. Herein lies the explanation why we are burned by unintentional contact with fire. All the time during which the message to and from the nerve center is being transmitted, the finger is passively lying in the flame and chemical destruction of tissue is going on, so that by the time the finger gets the order to move it has become badly injured.

If the nerves could take up and transmit a stress with the intensity and velocity of a copper wire carrying electricity; if the brain could act with the promptitude of a Leyden jar, and the muscles move like the snap of a steel trap, no one would ever be burned in those cases where freedom of bodily motion was possible. Thus the slowness of these processes resulting in injury to the body is, from the physicist's standpoint, a defect, but it exists because the nature of the matter out of which the man is built puts an undesirable limit to the intensity of action.

If we leave now the consideration of the static properties of matter, and view it in its dynamic aspect, we encounter a generalization of the widest significance. The most notable thing about the universe is that it is the scene of incessant change. Absolute stability is unknown; no single thing living or nonliving is exactly the same for two consecutive hours. Even those phenomena which stand as types of the permanent, the revolution of the earth and the position of the stars, are now known to be undergoing changes which, though exceedingly slow, are nevertheless constant and ever progressing toward some future condition whose character we know not, but which we are certain will be as fleeting and transitory as the present.

If "all our yesterdays have lit the way to dusty death," then is it not also equally true that all our to-morrows will usher in new and unknown forms of resurrection?—for, I take it, the material universe of stars and planets, the great globe of the earth, the movements of matter and the sequences of life, all tell one impressive story, which is, that to undergo change, endless change, is the sentence pronounced on everything built of matter and having its share of the universal motion around us.

But while there seems no escape from the above conclusion, there is another generalization equally great, which is its supplement; this is, that the changes are not chaotic: everywhere there are method, rule, law; and these laws, as we interpret them, are the unchangeable elements of the universe. The method by which a given result is produced is not exhausted by that result. The rule that all living things must die will still remain unimpaired when the last man shall have sunk into his grave. The law that all things shall change is itself enforced and executed by that change, so that it remains permanent while the forms and agglomerations of matter are fleeting.

Now, the purpose of this paper, to which the above is a peroration rather than an argument, is to show that social changes, like other mutations, are governed by law. The discovery of these laws will constitute the science of sociology, just as in nonliving things the same kind of study is called physics or chemistry. The application of these laws will give us an art of sociology, very much as pure science finally culminates in engineering or medicine.

Religion excepted, the study of sociology as a pure science seems to me to be the highest field for the exercise of our intellectual faculties, for it includes ethics on the one hand and psychology on the other, both together constituting the phenomena of mind, while the visible results are conditioned by the attributes of matter. But to-night I propose to begin on a much lower plane, and to attempt only the suggestion of one or two simple laws which are common to nonliving structures, to living beings, and to an organized society.

Since the metamorphoses of matter are endless in number and infinite in succession, let us limit the word "change" to some fixed and definite alteration, such as the burning of an ounce of gunpowder, the falling of the water of Lake Erie over the cliff at Niagara, or the duration of a human life from infancy to old age. In this restricted sense physicists and chemists have recognized two kinds of changes: first, those which tend to go on indefinitely until all the matter present has suffered the alteration in question; second, those which give rise to products which are unfavorable to the original forces at work such changes are self-limited and may cease, therefore, long before all the material has been used. As an example of the first type—that of unlimited change—I may again cite Niagara, for here the falling water sets up no reaction against itself. This is the popular idea of a change, because we seem to be surrounded only by such cases.

The falling snow or rain, the uprooting of trees by a whirlwind, the constant streaming away of light from a lamp or heat from a stove, with the concomitant burning of fuel, all are familiar experiences and they are unlimited in character. But while these and others like them have served to stamp the word "change" with a definite meaning in the mind of the public, it is because they seem the only types to a superficial observation. In reality, however, the other kind, the self-limited changes, are vastly more numerous. Take as an example the freezing of water: the moment ice is formed it acts as a partial nonconductor, or blanket, to keep heat from escaping, and so the rate of freezing is diminished, and here in our climate is wholly stopped when a thickness of two feet of ice is reached. Or, again, consider the case of an elastic body on which a weight is placed. If it is a spring, it will bend, and finally, if the weight is not too great, will reach a position where the latter is just supported. This equilibrium is brought about by the internal stress of resilience of the spring acting against the force of gravity, and thus the change in position of the weight-has called forth a power which is the result of that change, and at the same time limits it in amount.

While this illustration is an elementary one, it is for all that exceedingly important, because it is so common; it covers every case of mechanical stability, whether of a house, a tree, a mountain, or a man walking.

There is another term to be considered in this connection which is used by physicists frequently in a special sense, and that is the word system. An open system is one in which the products of a change do not return into themselves, as, to repeat illustrations already given, a waterfall, a fire, or a whirlwind. A closed system, on the other hand, is one in which these products are retained, or at least the internal changes of shape or stress do not travel away; a pendulum might be spoken of as a closed system, because, while gravity causes it to move down to the lowest portion of its arc, the motion thus acquired carries it beyond this point and up the other side, thus converting actual into potential energy, and this alternate conversion and reconversion will go on forever in the absence of friction. Some machines may also be considered under this head, as a stationary steam engine. The apparatus is indeed receiving steam at one end and dispensing mechanical power at the other, but on the average these balance, leaving the machine as the seat of many complicated stresses playing back and forth against each other. In this respect the engine is a closed system.

Now, it may be laid down as a general proposition that self-limited changes occur only in closed systems. Also that any organized structure, and more especially a living animal, may be considered as a closed system; for, though it is true the animal is dependent on food, and is constantly giving out heat and other forms of energy, still, for any moderate period of time these balance each other, while the organism as a whole is dependent for its integrity upon a constant regulation of its internal states through incessant changes, which, moreover, must be self-regulating in character. Life is but a sequence of these delicately adjusted actions and reactions. Physiology is full of instances of this fact. One illustration may suffice. When a muscle is exercised, a portion of it is oxidized or burned. Some of the products of this oxidation are acids, but the vitality of a muscle is diminished by the presence of an acid. The sense of fatigue is the language by which the nerves inform the brain of this muscular state, and the mandate, Let the organ have repose, is only another way of telling the scavengers of the body to go and take that acid away. Here, then, the law is illustrated; the voluntary change in the muscle, represented by its work, sets up a chemical force which limits and finally stops the change by which it was produced.

One machine, more than any other I know of, represents the play of self-limited forces admirably. It is the alternating dynamo for the production of currents of electricity. It has also many of the attributes of an organic being, and I, almost feel like saying it is alive. If we can not strictly and literally call it so, yet there are such broad features in common that I think we may study it as one of the nearest approximations by mechanism to some of the simplest forms of actually living creatures.

The general arrangement of the apparatus is as follows: A number of magnets, with their ends, or poles, alternately north and south, are arranged around a circle with the magnet legs pointing inward toward the center, but not reaching it. Within the smaller circle thus formed a few loops of copper wire wound on an iron drum revolve, but without touching the magnets or outer frame. So long as the inwardly projecting legs are not magnetized the armature, as the coils of wire are called, revolves freely, and no effort on the part of the engine or other source of power is required to turn it except sufficient to overcome the slight mechanical friction of the shaft. Also, if the magnets are excited and the copper wire of the armature does not have its ends joined so as to form a complete return path, there is no opposition to the rotation. But when both of these conditions are supplied—viz., the magnets, also called the "field," are excited and the armature wire joined to itself—then a mysterious and extraordinary resistance to motion at once occurs. If we are turning the armature by hand, it feels as though we were forcing it through thick jelly. If more force, such as that of a steam engine, is applied, it may take many horse power to revolve the armature rapidly, and yet there is no scraping or contact between the surfaces of the armature and field, nothing giving rise to ordinary mechanical friction, and nothing directly corresponding to the ordinary losses of power in other machines.

This wonderful result has been analyzed into three fundamental conditions, often called causes. They are mysterious, like the original phenomenon; but, then, every appearance in Nature is a mystery to the last analysis. These three are, first, a peculiar force emanating from the ends of the field magnets and extending from pole to pole by curved paths, called "lines of force," going through space, whether filled with substance or entirely empty. They are probably lines of stress in the ether, and we know that any metallic body placed in the path of these lines is submitted to the influence of the lines of force. Whatever this influence is, it does not give rise to anything perceptible to our senses in nonmagnetic matter, like copper or India rubber.

Second. As soon as the wire moves so as cut through these invisible lines of force, a new stress, called electro-motive force, is produced in it, and now the free ends of the copper wire have suddenly acquired the property of attracting each other, but the magnitude of this attraction is exceedingly small. This electromotive force is caused in some way by motion in a magnetic field. So soon as the motion ceases the force is gone. But it is most important to notice that no power need be exerted by the engine to call forth a manifestation of electro-motive force, because there is not as yet any appreciable opposition to the rotation of the armature.

Third. The instant the free ends of the armature wires are joined, the attraction, or potential as it is called, diminishes, a current of electricity rushes through the wire, and the mysterious opposition to rotation at once springs into existence, the belt grows taut on the driving side, the engine takes more steam and labors harder and harder, while a constant stream of mechanical power must be supplied by it to the dynamo to maintain that motion which a minute before went on so easily and freely.

The electrical current passing out from the dynamo is constantly carrying energy away from it. This loss must be incessantly supplied by the steam engine, and this demand is brought about by the opposition to rotation set up within the machine through reaction of the electro-motive force on the material of the conductor and on the magnetic lines. Thus we have here the constant characteristic of a closed system where invariably the product of a reaction opposes the primitive cause of the change.

Thus far the phenomena just quoted exemplify the rule. It would not have been worth while to take so much time to describe the dynamo if nothing more was to be learned from it, but there is. This semi-living machine, whose elements are so simple compared with those of a really living structure, enables us, because of its mechanical simplicity, to go one step further in our analysis and to inquire how the result of the change reacts on the exciting cause. It is known beyond doubt that in a working dynamo the action of the current is twofold. It not only tends to stop the armature, but it actually diminishes the magnetism of the fields, and so lessens the electro-motive force by attacking it at the very place of its origin. Let me repeat: the magnetism and the rotation create the electro-motive force; this latter creates the current; then the current in turn reacts both to oppose the rotation and to cut down its own initial cause; and, further, this reaction on the cause is found always to require an appreciable time.

Here, I think, we have struck a new principle. In electrical matters it has been known only a few years, and has had no applications in other sciences, but I venture to think it is somewhat general, and that illustrations of it may be found elsewhere, one or two of which I will endeavor to submit.

A spiral spring supporting a weight does not manifest this principle, for the cause—that is, the weight—is not lessened by the pressure it produces. The same is true of all static states; but when motion occurs, then this new principle may often be observed. Now, there are no more perfect examples of closed systems which are the seat of constant motion than living beings, because life is a type of never-ceasing co-ordinate changes. Can instances be found in living beings? What we have to look for is a reactionary force, which not only opposes the generating stress by setting up one like it and opposite in direction, but, furthermore, as the change progresses it must tend to reduce the initial impulses which created the change, this being what I have ventured to call the new principle.

Let us once more consider the case of muscular fatigue in the light of this idea. The initial cause of muscular contraction is the nervous stimulus sent to the organ. As soon as the muscle contracts, the motion within it generates free acid. This acid, which is therefore of the nature of a reactionary product, reduces the irritability of the fibrillæ, but, in addition, it reduces the power of a nerve to transmit and to generate nerve force, so that not only is the mandate traveling along the nerve resisted by the greater sluggishness of the muscle, but also the nerve force itself, which is the material form taken by the will, is attacked and lessened in the very place of its origin.

Is this not closely analogous to the cutting down of the electromotive force of the dynamo by the current which that same force creates?

Another example, dealing with the chemical rather than the mechanical force of the body, is found in digestion. Hunger is a sensation which is probably the collective cry sent up from all parts of the organism; but the stomach and certain nerves seem to be its principal seat. The irritability of a hungry man is a well-known phenomenon. The exacerbation of many nervous symptoms due to exhaustion is familiar to physicians. Hunger, then, is an active, not a passive, state, and denotes that certain changes of a positive kind are going on which tend to proceed to the ultimate destruction of the animal if not checked. When food enters the stomach and commences to be digested that organ works harder, but the production of this labor taxes the forces of the body by calling blood away from other organs; in addition to this, the nutriment given to the nerves stops the wasteful action going on in them. So here, as in the previous cases, the reaction set up cuts down the initial cause, and hunger vanishes.

Many other instances might be drawn from physiology, but, leaving them on one side, I desire to make a few suggestions concerning that larger aggregate of life—the social state.

The warlike temperament of man has been one of his most prominent characteristics from the earliest times. To live to fight has been the chief aim of most primitive peoples, and has been a leading occupation of all civilized ones. Armies have grown in size, weapons have multiplied in number and destructiveness, battles have grown more and more deadly in action, while also becoming more merciful in their accompaniments; but still it is everywhere apparent that, in spite of these aids to carnage, the military spirit is on the decline. May we not look for the cause of this in the enormously increased cost of warfare and its interference with the pursuit of prosperity and wealth? When the internal losses to a people become greater than those they can gain through conquest and annexation, they will be very loath to enter into a great conflict. I am very far from saying that many other causes, such as ethics and a growing spirit of mercy, may not have contributed to this pacification of the nations, but is it not true that the cost of war is the chief preventive of war? If so, does it not illustrate the rule that the reactions set up by the vast technical improvement of methods of destruction have reacted on the primitive cause of the destruction—viz., the human will—and have lessened the cause by modifying the heart and brain of man?

It is not a difficult task to point out analogies more or less vague. It is generally a safe exercise to move about in the region of diffused generalization. It is prudent to keep one's balloon in the clouds so long as the country below is full of sharp and jagged rocks; but, then, one must come down some time, and anchor the craft to some tangible thing.

Now, I must bring this paper to an end, and relate it, if possible, to some present fact, and the* fact I want to tie to is the existing socialistic movement. That is rugged enough to gore anybody, and so I will approach cautiously with two o r three suggestions.

A closed system, possessed of incessant internal motion and alive, is conditioned by many things, but three only of these have been touched on in this paper: First, by its size; second, by possible intensities of action; and, third, by the reactionary forces set up by changes now going on. That the size of a community tends to disrupt it no one will deny. That the intensity of effort of the whole community is dependent on the average vigor and intelligence of its members is also a truism; while the operation of the third law seems to me to lead to these conclusions: 1. The dynamic value of any social movement depends more on its past history than the immediate present. Any forecasts which ignore the past, and predict future states only by observing the momentary conditions of to-day, will be surely in error. Indeed, I would go further, and say that a visible movement is already but the autumn crop of something sown long before. 2. Any movement of a portion of the community thereby sets up a counter force, whose tendency is to lessen or abolish the initial desire which started the movement. Socialism, as the craving of the human mind, has appeared through all history, but it has hitherto been a desire mainly, not a force. Now it has become a power, and resulted in a movement throughout the civilized world; it will grow like the current in the dynamo, but, like it too, as the leveling downward of social inequalities goes on, it will raise up such a repulsion against a dead uniformity, and especially against the loss of those things which make life most worth living—art, music, architecture, education, and religion—that crass communism and anarchy will be extinguished by that which they are now evolving, and the doctrine of personal freedom will once more arise to work in a new but greatly modified field.

  1. Delivered before the Cleveland Council of Sociology, June 25, 1894.