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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/What Is Social Evolution?


THOUGH to Mr. Mallock the matter will doubtless seem otherwise, to most it will seem that he is not prudent in returning to the question he has raised; since the result must be to show again how unwarranted is the interpretation he has given of my views. Let me dispose of the personal question before passing to the impersonal one.

He says that I, declining to take any notice of those other passages which he has quoted from me, treat his criticism as though it were "founded exclusively on the particular passage which" I deal with, "or at all events to rest on that passage as its principal foundation and justification."[1] It would be a sufficient reply that in a letter to a newspaper numerous extracts are inadmissible; but there is the further reply that I had his own warrant for regarding the passage in question as conclusively showing the truth of his representations. He writes:—

Should any doubt as to the matter still remain in the reader's mind, it will be dispelled by the quotation of one further passage. "A true social aggregate" he says ["as distinct from a mere large family], is a union of like individuals, independent of one another in parentage, and approximately equal in capacities."[2]

I do not see how, having small liberty of quotation, I could do better than take, as summarizing his meaning, this sentence which he gives as dissipating "any doubt." But now let me repeat the paragraph in which I have pointed out how distorted is Mr. Mallock's interpretation of this sentence.

Every reader will assume that this extract is from some passage treating of human societies. He will be wrong, however. It forms part of a section describing Super-Organic Evolution at large ("Principles of Sociology," sec. 3), and treating, more especially, of the social insects; the purpose of the section being to exclude these from consideration. It is implied that the inquiry about to be entered upon concerns societies formed of like units, and not societies formed of units extremely unlike. It is pointed out that among the Termites there are six unlike forms, and among the Sauba ants, besides the two sexually-developed forms, there are three classes of workers—one indoor and two outdoor. The members of such communities—queens, males, soldiers, workers—differ widely in their structures, instincts, and powers. These communities formed of units extremely unequal in their capacities are contrasted with communities formed of units approximately equal in their capacities—the human communities about to be dealt with. When I thus distinguished between groups of individuals having widely different sets of faculties, and groups of individuals having similar sets of faculties (constituting their common human nature), I never imagined that by speaking of these last as having approximately equal capacities, in contrast with the first as having extremely unequal ones, I might be supposed to deny that any considerable differences existed among these last. Mr. Mallock, however, detaching this passage from its context, represents it as a deliberate characterization to be thereafter taken for granted; and, on the strength of it, ascribes to me the absurd belief that there are no marked superiorities and inferiorities among men! or, that if there are, no social results flow from them![3]

Though I thought it well thus to repudiate the absurd belief ascribed to me, I did not think it well to enter upon a discussion of Mr. Mallock's allegations at large. He says I ought to have given to the matter "more than the partial and inconclusive attention he has [I have] bestowed upon it." Apparently he forgets that if a writer on many subjects deals in full with all who challenge his conclusions, he will have time for nothing else; and he forgets that one who, at the close of life, has but a small remnant of energy left, while some things of moment remain to be done, must as a rule leave assailants unanswered or fail in his more important aims. Now, however, that Mr. Mallock has widely diffused his misinterpretations, I feel obliged, much to my regret, to deal with them. He will find that my reply does not consist merely of a repudiation of the absurdity he ascribes to me.


The title of his book is a misnomer. I do not refer to the fact that the word "Aristocracy," though used in a legitimate sense, is used in a sense so unlike that now current as to be misleading: that is patent. Nor do I refer to the fact that the word "Evolution," covering, as it does, all orders of phenomena, is wrongly used when it is applied to that single group of phenomena constituting Social Evolution. But I refer to the fact that his book does not concern Social Evolution at all: it concerns social life, social activity, social prosperity. Its facts bear somewhat the same relation to the facts of Social Evolution as an account of a man's nutrition and physical welfare bears to an account of his bodily structure and functions.

In an essay on "Progress: its Law and Cause," published in 1857, containing an outline of the doctrine which I have since elaborated in the ten volumes of Synthetic Philosophy, I commenced by pointing out defects in the current conception of progress.

It takes in not so much the reality of Progress as its accompaniments—not so much the substance as the shadow. That progress in intelligence seen during the growth of the child into the man, or the savage into the philosopher, is commonly regarded as consisting in the greater number of facts known and laws understood: whereas the actual progress consists in those internal modifications of which this increased knowledge is the expression. Social progress is supposed to consist in the produce of a greater quantity and variety of the articles required for satisfying men's wants; in the increasing security of person and property; in widening freedom of action: whereas, rightly understood, social progress consists in those changes of structure in the social organism which have entailed these consequences. The current conception is a teleological one. The phenomena are contemplated solely as bearing on human happiness. Only those changes are held to constitute progress which directly or indirectly tend to heighten human happiness. And they are thought to constitute progress simply because they tend to heighten human happiness. But rightly to understand progress, we must inquire what is the nature of these changes, considered apart from our interests.[4]

"With the view of excluding these anthropocentric interpretations and also because it served better to cover those inorganic changes which the word "progress" suggests but vaguely, I employed the word "evolution." But my hope that, by the use of this word, irrelevant facts and considerations would be set aside, proves ill-grounded. Mr. Mallock now includes under it those things which I endeavored to exclude. He is dominated by the current idea of progress as a process of improvement, in the human sense; and is thus led to join with those social changes which constitute advance in social organization, those social changes which are ancillary to it—not constituting parts of the advance itself, but yielding fit materials and conditions. It is true that he recognizes social science as aiming "to deduce our civilization of to-day from the condition of the primitive savage." It is true that he says social science "primarily sets itself to explain, not how a given set of social conditions affects those who live among them, but how social conditions at one epoch are different from those of another, how each set of conditions is the resultant of those preceding it."[5] But in his conception as thus indicated he masses together not the phenomena of developing social structures and functions only, but all those which accompany them; as is shown by the complaint he approvingly cites that the sociological theory set forth by me does not yield manifest solutions of current social problems:[6] clearly implying the belief that an account of social evolution containing no lessons which he who runs may read is erroneous.

"While Mr. Mallock's statements and arguments thus recognize Social Evolution in a general way, and its continuity with evolution of simpler kinds, they do not recognize that definition of evolution under its various forms, social included, which it has been all along my purpose to illustrate in detail. He refers to evolution as exhibited in the change from a savage to a civilized state; but he does not ask in what the change essentially consists, and, not asking this, does not see what alone is to be included in an account of it. Let us contemplate for a moment the two extremes of the process.

Here is a wandering cluster of men, or rather of families, concerning which, considered as an aggregate, little more can be said than can be said of a transitory crowd: the group considered as a whole is to be described not so much by characters as by the absence of characters. It is so loose as hardly to constitute an aggregate, and it is practically structureless. Turn now to a civilized society. No longer a small wandering group but a vast stationary nation, it presents us with a multitude of parts which, though separate in various degrees, are tied together by their mutual dependence. The cluster of families forming a primitive tribe separates with impunity: now increase of size, now dissension, now need for finding food, causes it from time to time to divide; and the resulting smaller clusters carry on what social life they have just as readily as before. But it is otherwise with a developed society. Not only by its stationariness is this prevented from dividing bodily, but its parts, though distinct, have become so closely connected that they can not live without mutual aid. It is impossible for the agricultural community to carry on its business if it has not the clothing which the manufacturing community furnishes. Without fires neither urban nor rural populations can do their work, any more than can the multitudinous manufacturers who need engines and furnaces; so that these are all dependent on coal-miners. The tasks of the mason and the builder must be left undone unless the quarryman and the carpenter have been active. Throughout all towns and villages retail traders obtain from the Manchester district the calicoes they want, from Leeds their woolens, from Sheffield their cutlery. And so throughout, in general and in detail. That is to say, the whole nation is made coherent by the dependence of its parts on one another—a dependence so great that an extensive strike of coal-miners checks the production of iron, throws many thousands of ship-builders out of work, adds to the outlay for coal in all households, and diminishes railway dividends. Here then is one primary contrast-—the primitive tribe is incoherent, the civilized nation is coherent.

While the developing society has thus become integrated, it has passed from its original uniform state into a multiform state. Among savages there are no unlikenesses of occupations. Every man is hunter and upon occasion warrior; every man builds his own hut, makes his own weapons; every wife digs roots, catches fish, and carries the household goods when a change of locality is needed: what division of labor exists is only between the sexes. We all know that it is quite otherwise with a civilized nation. The changes which have produced the coherence have done this by producing the division of labor: the two going on pari passu. The great parts and the small parts, and the parts within parts, into which a modern society is divisible, are clusters of men made unlike in so far as they discharge the unlike functions required for maintaining the national life. Rural laborers and farmers, manufacturers and their workpeople, wholesale merchants and retailers, etc., etc., constitute differentiated groups, which make a society as a whole extremely various in composition. Not only in its industrial divisions is it various, but also in its governmental divisions, from the components of the legislature down through the numerous kinds and grades of officials, down through the many classes of masters and subordinates, down through the relations of shopkeeper and journeyman, mistress and maid. That is to say, the change which has been taking place is, under one aspect, a change from homogeneity of the parts to heterogeneity of the parts.

A concomitant change has been from a state of vague structure, so far as there is any, to a state of distinct structure. Even the primary differentiation in the lowest human groups is confused and unsettled. The aboriginal chief, merely a superior warrior, is a chief only while war lasts—loses all distinction and power when war ceases; and even when he becomes a settled chief, he is still so little marked off from the rest that he carries on his hut-building, tool-making, fishing, etc., just as the rest do. In such organization as exists nothing is distinguished, everything is confused. Quite otherwise is it in the developed nation. The various occupations, at the same time that they have become multitudinous, have become clearly specialized and sharply limited. Read the London Directory, and while shown how numerous they are, you are shown by the names how distinct they are. This increasing distinctness has been shown from the early stages when all freemen were warriors, through the days when retainers now fought and now tilled their fields, down to the times of standing armies; or again from the recent days when in each rural household, besides the bread-winning occupation, there were carried on spinning, brewing, washing, to the present day when these several supplementary occupations have been deputed to separate classes exclusively devoted to them. It has been shown from the ages when guilds quarreled about the things included in their respective few businesses, down to our age when the many businesses of artisans are fenced round and disputed over if transgressed, as lately by boilermakers and fitters; and is again shown by the ways in which the professions—medical, legal, and other—form themselves into bodies which shut out from practice, if they can, all who do not bear their stamp. And throughout the governmental organization, from its first stage in which the same man played various parts—legislative, executive, judicial, militant, ecclesiastic—to late stages when the powers and functions of the multitudinous classes of officials are clearly prescribed, may be traced this increasing sharpness of division among the component parts of a society. That is to say, there has been a change from the indefinite to the definite. While the social organization has advanced in coherence and heterogeneity, it has also advanced in definiteness.

If, now, Mr. Mallock will turn to First Principles, he will there see that under its chief aspect Evolution is said to be a change from a state of indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a state of definite, coherent heterogeneity. If he reads further on he will find that these several traits of evolution are successively exemplified throughout astronomic changes, geologic changes, the changes displayed by each organism, by the aggregate of all organisms, by the development of the mental powers, by the genesis of societies, and by the various products of social life—language, science, art, etc. If he pursues the inquiry he will see that in the series of treatises (from which astronomy and geology were for brevity's sake omitted) dealing with biology, psychology, and sociology, the purpose has been to elaborate the interpretations sketched out in First Principles; and that I have not been concerned in any of them to do more than delineate those changes of structure and function which, according to the definition, constitute Evolution. He will see that in treating of social evolution I have dealt only with the transformation through which the primitive small social germ has passed into the vast highly developed nation. And perhaps he will then see that those which he regards as all-important factors are but incidentally referred to by me because they are but unimportant factors in this process of transformation. The agencies which he emphasizes, and in one sense rightly emphasizes, are not agencies by which the development of structures and functions has been effected; they are only agencies by which social life has been facilitated and exalted, and aids furnished for further social evolution.


Respecting the essential causes of this social transformation, it must suffice to say that it results from certain general traits in human beings, joined with the influences of their varying circumstances.

Every man aims to pass from desire to satisfaction with the least possible hindrance—follows the line of least resistance. Either the shortest path, or the path which presents fewest impediments, is that which he chooses; and the like applies to courses of conduct at large: he does not use great effort to satisfy a want when small effort will do. Given his surroundings and the occupation he chooses, when choice is possible, is that which promises a satisfactory livelihood with the least tax on such powers as he has, bodily and mental—is the easiest to his particular nature, all things considered. What holds of individuals holds of masses of individuals; and hence the inhabitants of a tract offering facilities for a particular occupation fall into that occupation. In § 732 of the Principles of Sociology I have given from various countries illustrations of the ways in which local conditions determine the local industries:—instance among ourselves mining districts where there are coal, ironstone, lead, slate; wheat-growing districts and pastoral districts; fruit and hop districts; districts for weavers, stockingers, workers in iron; places for shipbuilding, importing, fishing, etc.: showing that certain sections of the population become turned into organizations for the production of certain commodities, without reference to the directive agency of any man. So in each case is it with the various classes of merchants, shopkeepers, professional men, etc., who in each of these centers minister to those engaged in its special industries: nobody ordering them to come or to go.

Similarly when we pass from production to distribution. As in India at the present time, where a Juggernaut festival is accompanied by a vast fair; as, according to Curtius and Mommsen, in Greece and Rome, the gatherings of people to make sacrifices to the gods were the occasions for trading; so in Christian times, church festivals and saints' days, drawing assemblages of people for worship, led to active exchange of commodities—the names of the fairs proving their origin. This was not arranged by any one: it arose from the common sense of all who wanted to sell some things and buy others. There has been a like history for the rise of markets, and the transition from weekly to bi-weekly, and finally to daily, markets in respect of important things—corn, money, securities. No superior man, political or other, dictated these developments. When barter gave place to exchange by means of a currency, the like happened. One wanting to dispose of surplus goods, meeting those who had no personal need for such goods, took in exchange certain things in universal demand, which he knew he would be able to pass on in like manner—in early stages articles of food, of warmth, of defense, of ornament; and from such articles arose in each case a currency—here dried fish, there tea-bricks, and in other cases skins, bundles of cotton, here standard bars of rock salt, there standard bars of iron, in one place definite lengths of cloth, and in other fine mats, and in many places ornaments and the materials for ornaments: which last, gold and silver, being relatively portable, passed into wide use. These precious metals were at first in quantities actually weighed; then in quantities of professed weight; and finally in quantities bearing the king's stamp as being the most trustworthy. No great man—political, industrial, or other—invented this system. It has everywhere resulted from men's efforts to satisfy their needs in the easiest ways. So was it with the transition from a currency of intrinsic value to one of representative value. When, instead of a direct payment in coin, there came to be used a memorandum of indebtedness to be presently discharged, which could be transferred to others—when, as in Italy, to save the weighing and testing of miscellaneous coins, there arose the practice of depositing specified quantities with a custodian and having from him negotiable receipts—when, as in England, the merchants, after having been robbed by the king of their valuables, left for security in the Tower, sought safer places, and, depositing them in the vaults of goldsmiths, received in return "goldsmiths' notes," which could pass from hand to hand; there was initiated a paper-currency. Goldsmiths developed into bankers; after central banks there arose provincial banks; promises to pay became to a great extent substitutes for actual payments; and presently grew up the supplementary system of checks, extensively serving in place of coin and notes. Finally, bank-clerks in London, instead of presenting to the respective banks the many and various claims upon them, met and exchanged these claims and settled the balance: whence presently came the clearing house. No superior man arranged all this. Each further stage was prompted by the desire to economize labor. From primitive fairs up to the daily transactions of the money market, distribution and exchange have developed without the dictation of any great man, either of Mr. Carlyle's sort or of Mr. Mallock's sort. It has been so throughout all other arrangements subserving national life, even the governmental. Though here at least it seems that the individual will and power play the largest part, yet it is otherwise. I do not merely refer to the fact that without loyalty in citizens a ruler can have no power; and that so the supremacy of a man intrinsically or conventionally great is an outcome of the average nature; but I refer to the fact that governmental evolution is essentially a result of social necessities. On tracing its earliest stages from savage life upwards, it becomes manifest that even a ministry is not the mere invention of a king. It arises everywhere from that augmentation of business which goes along with increase of territory and authority: entailing the necessity for deputing more and more work. Under its special aspect it seems to be wholly a result of the king's private action, but under its general aspect it is seen to be determined by the conditions of his existence. And it is so with governmental institutions at large. Without tracing these further it will suffice to quote the saying of Macintosh—"Constitutions are not made but grow."

Of course inequalities of nature and consequent inequalities of relative position are factors in social changes. Of course, as implied above, any assertion of the approximate equality of human beings, save in the sense that they are beings having sets of faculties common to them all, is absurd; and it is equally absurd to suppose that the unlikenesses which exist are without effects on social life. I have pointed out that in the earliest stages of social evolution, when war is the business of life, the supremacy of a leader or chief, or primitive king, is a fact of cardinal importance; and also that the initiator of ecclesiastical control is necessarily distinguished from others "by knowledge and intellectual capacity." The beginnings of industrial evolution are also ascribed by me to differences of individual capacity; as instance the following quotations from that part of the Principles of Sociology which deals with Industrial Institutions.

The natural selection of occupations has for its primary cause certain original differences between individuals, partly physical, partly psychical. Let us for brevity's sake call this the physio-psychological cause (§ 730).

That among the fully civilized there are in like manner specializations of function caused by natural aptitudes, needs no showing: professions and crafts are often thus determined … occupations of relatively skilled kinds having fallen into the hands of the most intelligent (§ 731).

Speaking generally, the man who, among primitive peoples, becomes ruler, is at once a man of power and a man of sagacity: his sagacity being in large measure the cause of his supremacy. We may therefore infer that as his political rule, though chiefly guided by his own interests, is in part guided by the interests of his people, so his industrial rule, though having for its first end to enrich himself, has for its second end the prosperity of industry at large. It is a fair inference that on the average his greater knowledge expresses itself in orders which seem, and sometimes are, beneficial (§ 770).

In its beginnings slavery commonly implies some kind of inferiority (§ 795).

Considered as a form of industrial regulation, slavery has been natural to early stages of conflicts and consolidations (§ 800).

The rise of slavery exhibits in its primary form the differentiation of the regulative part of a society from the operative part (§ 798).

The recognition of these effects of individual differences, especially in early stages, may rightly go along with the assertion that all the large traits of social structure are otherwise determined—that all those great components of a society which carry on the various industries, making the life of the whole possible, all those specialized classes which have established and maintained the inter-dependence of the producing structures, by facilitating and regulating the exchange of their products, have arisen from the play of aggregate forces, constituted of men's desires directed by their respective sets of circumstances. Mr. Mallock alleges that the great fact of human inequality—the fact that there is a minority "more gifted and efficient than the majority"—is the fundamental fact from which "the main structural characteristics of all civilized societies spring."[7] That he should assert this in presence of all the evidence which the Principles of Sociology puts before him, is, to use the weakest word, surprising. If his assertion be true, however, the way of demonstrating its truth lies open before him. In volumes II. and III. of the Principles of Sociology, several groups of institutions, presented by every developed society, are dealt with under the heads, Political, Ecclesiastical, Professional, Industrial: seventy-one chapters being included in them. Each chapter treats of some aspect, some division or subdivision, of the phenomena grouped under the general head. Instead of the Industrial Institutions discussed above, suppose that Mr. Mallock takes a group not touched upon—Professional Institutions. The thesis worked out in the part so entitled is that all the professions are differentiated from the priesthood; and the differentiation is tacitly represented as due to the slow operation of those natural causes which lead to specializations of function throughout the whole social aggregate. If Mr. Mallock is right, then of the chapters dealing with the ten professions enumerated, each is wrong by omitting to say anything about the great man, political, industrial, or other, who set up the differentiation or from time to time consciously gave it a more pronounced character—who thought that it would be well that there should be a separate medical class, or a separate teaching class, or a separate artist class, and then carried his thought into effect. Mr. Mallock's course is simply to take each of these chapters and show how, by the recognition of the supplementary factor on which he insists, the conclusions of the chapter are transformed. If he does this he will do more than by merely asserting that my views of social evolution are wrong because the "great fact of human inequality" "is systematically and ostentatiously ignored."

If in his title Mr. Mallock had, instead of "Evolution," written Social Sustentation, the general argument of his book would have been valid. If, further, he had alleged that social sustentation is instrumental to social evolution, and that in the absence of processes facilitating social sustentation social evolution can not take place, no one could have gainsaid his conclusion. And if he had inferred that whoever improves these processes betters the conditions which favor social evolution, his inference would have been true. But this admission may be made without admitting that the men who directly or indirectly further sustentation, or who improve the quality of the social units, are the agents who determine and direct social evolution. An account of their doings in no way constitutes an account of that social transformation from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, in which the evolution of a society essentially consists.

Moreover Mr. Mallock is justified in contending that the great man—discoverer, inventor, teacher, administrator, or other—may equitably receive all the reward which, under the principle of contract, flows to him as the result of his superiority; and that disregard of his claim by the mass of men is alike inequitable and ungrateful. This is the position I have myself taken, as witness the following:—

Even were an invention of no benefit to society unless thrown open to unbought use, there would still be no just ground for disregarding the inventor's claim; any more than for disregarding the claim of one who labors on his farm for his own benefit and not for public benefit. But as it is, society unavoidably gains immensely more than the inventor gains. Before he can receive any advantage from his new process or apparatus, he must confer advantages on his fellow men—must either supply them with a better article at the price usually charged, or the same article at a lower price. If he fails to do this, his invention is a dead letter; if he does it, he makes over to the world at large nearly all the new mine of wealth he has opened. By the side of the profits which came to Watt from his patents, place the profits which his improvements in the steam-engine have since brought to his own nation and to all nations, and it becomes manifest that the inventor's share is infinitesimal compared with the share mankind takes. And yet there are not a few who would appropriate even his infinitesimal share![8]

Had Mr. Mallock recognized the fundamental distinction I have pointed out between social sustentation, life, activity, enlightenment, etc., on the one hand, and the development of social structures on the other, his polemic against socialists and collectivists would have been equally effective, and he would not have entailed upon me an expenditure of time and energy which I can ill spare.—The Nineteenth Century.

  1. Nineteenth Century, p. 316.
  2. Aristocracy and Evolution, pp. 52, 53. The italics are his.
  3. Literature, April 2, 1898.
  4. Westminster Review, April, 1857.
  5. Aristocracy and Evolution, pp. 5, 7.
  6. Ibid., pp. 10, 11.
  7. Nineteenth Century, pp. 314, 315.
  8. Justice, pp. 110, 111.