Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/May 1906/Individual Adaptation to Environment




IN a preceding article[1] the author has attempted to show that man, as a result of the development of medical science and education, is approaching his limit in evolution, both physically and mentally. The burden of the argument here was to show that, as a result of the incorporation into his environment of his cumulating knowledge, man's social and economical conditions are continually changing, but that with his increased intelligence he has greater power of adapting himself to the new conditions of life which are inevitably the result. And as soon as man acquired those intellectual and moral qualities which distinguish him from the lower animals, he began to invent weapons, tools and various stratagems to procure food and to defend himself, and was but little liable to bodily modification through nattural selection. When he migrated into colder climates he used clothes, built shelter, made fires. He also aided his fellows and anticipated his future. Selection seized upon intelligence and man was enabled to keep an unchanged body in harmony with a changing environment. Progress implies a continued increase of control over nature, through the gradual acquisition of knowledge of her laws. One of the great fields of acquisition of human intelligence is along the line of human diseases, and the means of combating them. Medical science advanced until at present, through surgery and inoculation, she succeeds to a considerable degree in keeping the race adjusted to its ever changing environment without sacrificing many of her individuals, and, consequently, without bringing about any marked change in the type of the human body. Education, too, succeeds in maintaining the intellectually unfit by adapting them to the environment so that they are enabled to make a living and to bring up a family, thus precluding a rise in the average of intelligence in the race. Man is enabled to advance independently of heredity, and natural selection is cheated out of her work. Man can select everything in his world except his own body and mind. He is born with a body and mind which were developed by natural selection and are naturally adapted to the environment that existed when selection ceased. So adaptation to the environment in which he is called upon to live (civilization) must be accomplished through artificial means. Physical adaptation, as was shown, must be by means of surgery and inoculation, and mental adaptation by means of education. It is the purpose of this article to consider the processes and significance of this mental adaptation of the individual to his civilized environment.

Civilization implies that each generation is working at a higher environing intellectual, moral and spiritual level, and with better tools, which their predecessors from generation to generation have devised and handed down to the subsequent one with usury. The essential thing in progress is that evolution has been transferred from the organism to the environment and that it is the accumulated social structure which persists. Civilization, therefore, is better characterized as a product than as the continual rise of average intellectual capacity. This product is the mold in which mediocrity is cast, and implies, merely, that the level of acquisition is becoming higher rather than the level of intelligence. The mediocre, and even the mentally poor, as well as the apt, are by means of education adapted to their environment and are thus enabled to survive and to bring up a family. Here, too, natural selection is barred from functioning, and for this reason man's mental evolution tends to a limit. One feature, inevitable in education, and which distinguishes social evolution from merely organic evolution, is the predominant part played by the fittest in raising the level of the less fit.

It is not, however, the motive here to discourage education, nor even to lament the fact that natural selection is thereby barred from further developing human intellectual capacity, but to consider progress as superorganic development of the environment, and education as the means of adjusting man to it. It is the method which most efficiently brings man into vital relationship with his intellectual inheritance, and which enables him thereby most effectively to realize himself, that is the interest here.

In order that the child may be enabled to come into the full and most effective relationship with his cumulative intellectual environment, three things must be fully understood, appreciated and taken cognizance of by the teacher in the training of that child. First, he must consider the material out of which the child is constituted, the clay, so to speak, out of which he expects to mold and build the adult. Secondly, he must know the order of appearance and unfolding of the child's various tendencies and powers, when instincts, interests and capacities appear, and how these can be made to function, if desirable, and become a permanent characteristic of the adult. Or, if undesirable, he must know how to keep those tendencies from functioning, in order to eliminate them and leave the individual as an adult free from their taint. Thirdly, the teacher must know what sort of individual will best succeed as a member of society. This is an innovation; it is but a few years since teachers began to plan the adult the child is to be. But in order to plan an individual who shall be in harmony with his environment when he becomes an adult, the teacher must have an intimate knowledge and insight into the cumulative nature of the environment and the dynamic changes which society in all of its functionings and attitudes continually undergoes.

The first two of these essential qualifications of the teacher were first pointed out in a vital way by Rousseau, but he had no conception of the gravity of the third. Rousseau believed that the various tendencies and instincts as they appeared in the child were cues to what the normal individual should be, and should be seized upon in the educational process and made by habituation a permanent characteristic of the adult. Rousseau's ideas of 'returning to nature' were exemplified in his theory of teaching, and the result of such teaching was portrayed in Emile. This character is in the true sense savage. Not having fallen heir to his spiritual inheritance, he is a babe in his comprehension of the world. With never a passion curbed, he has no power of self-denial, and is blown about by every whim and caprice. Rousseau would observe the child in order that he may not overlook any of these tendencies as they appear. We have an entirely different motive in child observation. These instincts and tendencies are not to us indices of what the adult should be, but we study them and note their order of appearance in order that we may be enabled to exercise greater economy and efficiency in the teaching process. Our ideal is to exercise no faculty nor attempt its development until it naturally begins to function in the child's development. If such instinct or tendency is not a desirable characteristic of the adult the educator plans, then he needs to be most careful to inhibit its exercise. Most instincts are transient, and if given no chance to be exercised, and, consequently, to be developed into habits, they will die out, and it is as if they never existed. Instincts afford a wide range of possibilities for the educator to select from in developing the individual whose foundations for manhood he is laying.

When an instinct was allowed to die by not being given provocation to function, that which it would have secured for the individual is to a considerable extent beyond the possibility of acquisition later. For example, when the play instinct appears and the child is not allowed to play, or the play propensities are not called into activity, which is sometimes the case where there is but one child in a family, and where the parents are old and the child is tied, so to speak, to the mother's apron strings, that child, no matter what may be his social advantages later, will never be able to acquire that social poise which the other adults possess as a result of the exercise of play tendencies when they normally appeared. On the other hand, when that cruelty instinct, which almost invariably appears at a certain age in every child, is put into a favorable environment, so that it functions and is fastened as a permanent characteristic upon the individual, no matter under how wholesome moral influences he may be thrown in later life, there is there a tendency to cruelty which can hardly be eradicated. It is likely because this instinct is allowed to function in so many children that there are so many cruelties exercised and murders committed in adult life.

Those instincts and tendencies of the child in its various stages of development are not indications of what the ideal individual ought to be, but are, on the other hand, a portrayal of the history of the race. They appear in the order in which they functioned virtually, and were, therefore, seized upon by natural selection in the order in which their possessors were rendered superior to their fellows as a result of their functioning.

As a result of conditions which are inevitable in a civilized community, such as prevail where there is sympathy and conscience, the intellectually and morally, as well as physically, fit raise the level of the less fit and unfit, so that they all are enabled to have offspring and to have their descendents maintained, natural selection ceases to function and physical, mental and moral evolution in the race consequently ceases. All the instincts, or at least many of them, continue to appear, just as the physical disharmonies continue to appear; and as surgery must get rid of these disharmonies (such as the appendix) in each individual, so must education rid the individual (and each individual) of these tendencies which throw him out of harmony with the present mental and moral environment.

Now the third essential qualification of the teacher, that of understanding the dynamic nature of society and progress, is indispensable. In planning and deciding what sort of a man I want my boy to be, if he is to be completely adjusted to his environment, and consequently to get the most out of life, I must in all respects be able to see into the future and to anticipate the conditions when he is to be an adult. I must, in other words, understand the nature of the change which conditions undergo in the meantime. To illustrate, suppose I am living at a time when typesetting is a good vocation. A typesetter has shorter hours and better remuneration than any other artisan. I plan to make my boy a typesetter. He, as a result of my careful training, develops into an efficient typesetter. He obtains a place and good wages. He marries and by the time he has a good-sized family depending upon him, some one comes along and invents a typesetting machine. He loses his position. He is obliged to serve as an unskilled laborer, probably for the remainder of his life. He is to a considerable degree thrown out of harmony with his environment, and his attitude toward the world is not very wholesome, because of his mal-adjustment to it. He feels that the world is growing worse because it is now hard for him to make a living. Man tends to realize himself only in so far as the conditions remain the same during the period of his application as they were during his period of preparation and adjustment.

The same tends to hold true in the intellectual world, and it seems that Osler's point of view is not without substantial support. The world as a whole continually moves forward in its general notions about things. The individual tends to lag. The professional man, even the scholar, in his point of view, in his way of looking at things, tends to become fixed. The lamentable consequence is that, like the typesetter, his services to society ultimately become less and less useful and vital, and he likewise loses his position, and is supplanted by one who has the vital point of view. It is a daily occurrence that a teacher's, a minister's a professional man's, even sometimes a college professor's, services are no more wanted.

The question comes, can the scholar keep abreast with the times? The most strenuous effort will almost invariably fall short of its attempt. Our ideas integrate into a system. An apperceptional something functions in all intellectual life. The ideas in our minds are the standards by which we receive new truths and ideas. We crystallize into our notions about things; in other words, we form habits of thought as well as of action, and thus become fixed in our theories and attitudes. Considering, therefore, the fact that every subsequent impression upon the mind of a person is viewed in the light of what is already in the mind and fixed, it is not difficult to see why it is almost impossible for that mind to accept an entirely new point of view, no matter how reasonable that point of view may seem to one whose ideas as standards are in consonance with the new view-point.

Ofttimes it happens, however, that scholars are far ahead of their times. They are dreamers or prophets. They anticipate a more or less distant future, and their thoughts and standards all integrate into a system consistent with their point of view. There are only a few whom they can interest in their lofty conceptions. The man most popular in his time is he who gives expression to what the world gropes after, who lives what they feel, who makes their felt wants real. But the environment, intellectually as well as physically, is cumulative, and soon society will have outgrown him. He becomes obsolete. He has given them the means of stepping beyond him to a higher interest. They are now shouting to another hero who is helping them still another step higher in realization. The world keeps on shouting, but continually to new individuals.

Individuals ofttimes in their popularity pass downward in the ranks of society. A man gives expression to something only the elect can comprehend and appreciate; soon classes attain to it and then the mass. Darwin and Spencer, here, are good illustrations. Such individuals may give expressions to things which are universal and consequently are vital for all time; or merely to conditions, the expression of which is the beginning of their fulfillment.

In conclusion, there are elements in character and habituation which are universal just as there are universals in expression. But as a result of the ever-changing conditions to which man is subjected both economically and ideally, he may be in complete harmony here and now with his environment, and as time passes, because of the nature of habituation and ideation, he is less and less able to keep in complete consonance with the spirit of the times. If, however, one understands the nature of the changes which society undergoes he can adapt himself to those consistent changes and thus avoid becoming soured. It is only as the principles of evolution are consciously seized upon and applied to personal life in society that individual adaptation will be facilitated and adjustment automatized.

  1. 'Limits of Evolution in the Human Race,' University of Colorado Studies, Vol. II., No. IV., June, 1905.