Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/November 1914/Civilization as a Selective Agency

1581034Popular Science Monthly Volume 85 November 1914 — Civilization as a Selective Agency1914Roland Hugins




WRITERS of recent years appear to agree that there has been little or no improvement of civilized man through selection. Since the dawn of history, it is recognized that many selective forces, some favorable, some deleterious, have acted on the human breed; but it is denied that any constant and effective agency which would bring about a marked advance in moral and intellectual quality has been in operation. August Weismann expressed himself on this score clearly, though with scientific reserve. He said:[1]

But as a mere suggestion, without any pretense to exactness, I will state that the people of "antiquity," viz., the ancient civilized nations of the Mediterranean, had already, at the very dawn of their history, attained the highest level of intellectual development. If any further growth has occurred since in European states, it certainly has been so imperceptibly small that it could cause no sensible difference in the susceptibility of the human soul to music. The times which produced such legislators as Moses and Solon, poets like Homer and Sophocles, philosophers and men of science like Aristotle, Plato and Archimedes—times which created the Egyptian temples and pyramids and the statues of the Greek gods, most undoubtedly display the achievements of the human intellect at its best. And an age which produced the gentle and forgiving Christian philosophy shows us that, as regards character and feeling, the human mind had attained the highest development.

This view has come, indeed, to be orthodox. Except among thinkers who still cling to the Lamarckian doctrine, it is generally accepted. It is taken over without reservation in many books on social theory.[2] According to this principle our inheritance is primitive inheritance. The growth of the social heritage, rather than changes in the racial heritage, has wrought civilization for us and bridged the gap between aboriginal Teuton and modern German. Mankind may have progressed, certainly has altered, but for cause we must look to "those contrivances which enable human beings to advance independently of heredity."[3]

Among writers of authority possibly no one has given more emphasis to this conception that Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer with Darwin of natural selection. In his latest book[4] Wallace reiterates the conclusion: that the higher intellectual and moral nature of man has been approximately stationary during the whole period of human history, and that the cause of the phenomenon has been the absence of any selective agency adequate to increase it.

Somewhat earlier than this Wallace asked:[5]

Looking back at the course of our history from the Saxon invasion to the end of the nineteenth century, what single cause can we allege for an advance in intellect and moral nature? What selective agency of "survival value" has ever been at work to preserve the wise and good and to eliminate the bad? And it must have been a very powerful agency, acting in a very systematic manner, even to neutralize the effect of the powerful deteriorating agencies above referred to.

And again:

there is no good evidence of any considerable improvement in man's average intellectual and moral status during the whole period of human history.

At one point in this essay, as a matter of fact, Wallace goes so far as to say, after discussing the ways in which the human breed was brutalized by the withdrawal of the more refined natures to monasteries and nunneries, and the destruction of radicals and students during the witchcraft mania and by the inquisition, that:

we are to-day, in all probability, mentally and morally inferior to our semibarbaric ancestors.

Must we accept this view as final? Are we sure that a denial of selection during historic times, strongly supported as it is, expresses the whole truth? In the first place, it certainly runs counter to the widespread belief that men are to-day inherently more humane, kindlier in character and action, than they were in antiquity. Attention is often called to the growth of altruism, especially during the past century. It is maintained that suffering will not be endured, either among men or animals, as in former times; that cruel punishments have been abolished; that brutal sports, once popular, now only disgust and repel. Further evidence of increasing altruism is offered in the development of social legislation, and in the multiplication of charitable and educational enterprises. And it must be admitted that the twentieth century, with its vast philanthropies, its soft-heartedness, verging so often even to sentimentality, and its insistence on the ideal of service, belongs to a different world from the hard life of the Greek and Latin city states, which seem, sometimes, in their unthinkable indifference to human pain and the rights of the weaker, to be prototypes of nothing modern except the Camorra and the Mafia.

This notion that the human breed is now, in civilized societies, kinder, gentler, more tractable, is not merely a popular idea. One phase of it has been remarked upon by that keen observer, Walter Bagehot.[6]

They both (Aristotle and Plato)—unlike as they are—hold with Zenophon—so unlike both—that man is the "hardest of all animals to govern.". . . We reckon, as the basis of our culture, upon an amount of order, of tacit obedience, of prescriptive governability, which those philosophers hoped to get as a principal result of their culture.

Bagehot, of course, had no difficulty in explaining this increase in social amenability which he believed he observed. He had accepted the idea that acquired characters are inherited; and he thought that our modern orderliness and sympathy would be attained "when the soft minds and strong passions of youthful nations are fixed and guided by hard transmitted instincts." But if we rule out this agency, and adhere to the position of Weismann, now generally acknowledged as correct, we must forego this easy explanation and seek some other reason than the transmission of acquired characters for the world's increasing moral stability.

There remain two possible views to be taken of the fact that the moral complexions of the ancient world and the modern are so different. First, we may accept the orthodox dictum, and maintain that any apparent changes are due to the increased weight, so to speak, of the race's moral heritage—to strengthened social controls and the ascendency of new ethical types; or secondly, we may postulate a change in man's innate moral nature, accompanying and reenforcing the influence of the augmented social heritage. We shall be justified in pursuing the second, and bolder, course only if we can discern some selective agency adequate to effect the change.

It is here suggested that such a selective agency can be discerned as operative, an agency at once powerful, comprehensive and continuous. We may denominate it the elimination of the anti-social—that is, the constant cutting off of those elements in society which do not fit in with the requirements of orderly civilized life. The forms that this process has taken—a number of which we shall examine shortly—have been many and diverse; but the result has been unified and focused.

Settled community life creates an environment of its own, imposing new requirements of "fitness." A heavy survival value comes to attach to tractability, so that non-conformity, in greater or less degree, leads to extinction or failure to beget offspring. The church and the state cut off the anti-social person by capital punishment, imprisonment and banishment; while the anti-social individual eliminates himself by suicide, by choice of a dangerous occupation, by withdrawal to the world's frontiers, by exposing himself to vice and racial poisons. Those who tend to survive and perpetuate themselves, on the other hand, are those whose moral natures make the restraints of sedentary communal life less irksome.

It would not be possible—nor is it necessary to our present purpose—to draw a sharp line between the social and the anti-social. That psychology of individual differences which might enable us to grade men and women into distinct ethical types is still in process of creation. Yet in a broad empirical way it is easy to distinguish the moral qualities favorable to communal life. The complete social person is marked, fundamentally, by industry, self-control, kindliness, perseverance and the ability to subordinate present pleasure to future welfare. Anti-social persons embody the opposite characteristics—shiftlessness, violence, brutality, predatory tendencies, viciousness and impatience at restraint. Of course these qualities, social and anti-social, combine in all sorts of mixtures in all sorts of persons. But the principle is clear. As nature's standards of fitness become progressively more civil the social qualities stand a better and better chance, in contrast with their opposites, of perpetuation.

One reason thinkers have overlooked the existence and operation of this selective factor has been a too great preoccupation with the question of intellectual and moral improvement. This, as we shall note later, has led to wrong inferences from the data. The problem, in fact, is not one of advance, but one of change. Another source of error has been a confinement of attention to group selection, leading to excessive emphasis of the importance of military success, and neglect of internal selective processes in semi-military communities.

It has long been recognized, of course, that before the emergence of civilizations along the Nile and the Euphrates the race had been subjected to discipline for hundreds of thousands of years. Men lived in groups where tribal custom was supreme. The necessity of prolonged care during infancy had sifted out the gentler mothers and fathers. The clans, moreover, waged incessant war among themselves; and fighting strength and pugnacity being equal, the clan most solidly cemented by fellow feeling succeeded in the conflict with less adhesive clans. Social solidarity, crystallized and preserved in the "cake of custom," stood at a survival premium. Therefore at the beginning of civilization selection had already picked out and conserved a certain minimum of tractability.

Was this rôle of selection dropped with the passing of the predatory pastoral stage and the setting up of orderly communal life? Has the capital of cooperative spirit, acquired before the pyramids, sufficed for all subsequent elaborations? Is not the truth rather that, although the mode of eliminating the anti-social elements has altered, the process has been continuous? Men began to be graded into classes, into occupations and castes. Up to that time man's nature had been clan-hewn. Thereafter selection worked on the individuals within the group, sifting them out in their extensive variety.


We may now examine a number of the ways in which this form of socialized selection has worked. Here we shall not try to proceed chronologically, or attempt to strike a quantitative balance between this and other selective forces operating within historic times. Yet by a sketchy enumeration of the factors we may, possibly, suggest how stringent and unrelenting has been the elimination of the anti-social.

In the first place, obviously, the state itself is constantly trying to grind out of society its elements of friction. To-day murderers are executed, and lesser criminals separated from their families and imprisoned; but the penal regulations of the present are charity itself compared with the harsh punishments of the past. For centuries a gallows decorated every cross-roads in Europe, and malefactors, great and petty, were ruthlessly weeded out. Even a hundred years ago in England there were two hundred and twenty-three crimes punishable by death. Throughout the stressful past persons who preferred theft to industry, who scorned constituted authority, who were heedless of the rights and pains of others, were—when caught—swiftly annihilated. Mutilations, shortening life, were so common that the highways were frequently crowded with maimed beggars. Despite tbe chaos of medieval times life was hazardous for the predatory—at least for the predatory poor.

Again: for many centuries rebellions have been suppressed with bloody finality. Although quickness to rebel, boldness to defy, do not necessarily mark a man as anti-social, yet meekness and a bending to authority, like forbearance, are bound up temperamentally with a kindly disposition and brotherly love. It must be further remembered that the persecutions of the church in all ages have cut off the recalcitrant along with the liberal. Although there has been loss in originality, there has been gain in pliancy. Some of the martyrs were more anarchists than saints. Finally, under the head of legally enforced conformity stands the fact that practically all the civilized race has passed, at one time or another, under a regime of slavery or serfdom. Captives have often come to form, after a few generations, the bulk of the population of the conquering nation. The slave is seldom free to propagate, or, frequently, to live, against the will of his master; so that the descendants of slaves and serfs are bred from the most docile and most industrious of the first generations. Slavery as an institution has vanished, but its effects on human reproduction have been far reaching; for thus man aided directly in his own domestication.

We next consider those various modes of elimination which may be grouped under the term voluntary withdrawal. Suicide during early life effectually abolishes an anti-social strain. The person who has lost the will to live is one who, speaking in the large, has found the conditions of civilized existence unbearable. Suicide as a selective agency is not negligible. The present annual rate for European countries runs above one hundred per million of living; and every day in the year there is a self-murder in the Prussian schools.

Occupational and geographical withdrawal, furthermore, is more significant than withdrawal from life. The hardy, callous, near-savage type of man has ever been employed to do the rough and dangerous work of civilization. From this obdurate material has, in all stages of industrial development, been drawn the sailors, the miners, the range-riders, the pioneers. The bonds of civilized life moreover, are an irritation to many strong and reckless spirits. Such cut loose; for so long as people live together in a net of social interrelations, some overactive elements will break through to the freer life of adventure. Hazardous occupations and adventurous callings have offered opportunity for segregation and voluntary exile. Who, from the first, have been our explorers, our soldiers of fortune, our gold-seekers? Of what stuff are the lads who, in all times, have "run away to sea" or "gone West"? Surely not those who were succeeding best in their trades, not the young men of peaceful ambitions, not those enamored of family life. In somewhat the same class are those restless or slothful souls who take to "the open road." The number of professional tramps in this country is about two hundred thousand. Their occupation is to avoid work: they are anti-social.

It is plain that those who withdraw socially or geographically from their kind contribute less than their normal share to the blood of prosperity. Combat and danger bring death to a considerable proportion. The rest are outside the pale of regular family life. In trading posts, in mining towns, along the frontiers, males are largely in excess; and they are relatively barren. The influence of this selective factor, coupled with the results of military selection, can hardly be over-emphasized. From the loins of the "stay-at-homes" come succeeding generations. The prophecy has been fulfilled; the meek have inherited the earth.

It may be worth while to notice more particularly the effects of military selection, especially because the peace advocates have recently, in their attempt to make out a strong case against war at this point, quite effectively muddled the subject. Possibly the persistence of the military organization, involving the continuous recruiting of a professional military class, alongside of the waxing industrial organization, is the most conspicuous fact in history. Selectively, the question to be asked is: what sorts of men have perished in war? Who marched away? The one patent answer is: not those who were the most peaceably inclined. The factors are, of course, complex; but military selection has drained, on the whole, neither the best nor the worst of the racial stock, but has been an outlet for the intractable members of society. Wild, ungovernable boys, hoodlums in the making, men with the bloodlust still strong in them—such have joined the army and entered the navy through the centuries. The great mercenary forces, recruited so long throughout Europe, did not deprive civilization of men in whom the social virtues were strongly marked. The professional military class has always absorbed—and utilized to advantage, indeed—the men that in the freedom of a purely commercial régime would have been so much explosive material.

This is not to deny, it is admitted, that war has often resulted in retrogression through unfavorable selection. But the peace advocates reveal the one-sidedness of their argument by a too frequent appeal to examples of revolution and internal rebellion, like the French Revolution and the Civil War in the United States, where members of the superior and ruling classes were lopped off, or where enormous masses of enthusiastic volunteers were enlisted from the citizenship. If war had committed such ravages in the human stock as these pacificists maintain, it might be supposed that there would have been a decline in the fighting force of civilized men. But the very opposite is true. Modern men are braver and steadier, make better soldiers, than did the men of antiquity.[7] The reason is that the same moral qualities which have been selected through the elimination of the anti-social, are, in part, the virtues which make the best armies—such virtues as obedience, the habit of discipline, self-control and steadfastness. And, curiously enough, in the breeding out of the opposite qualities, the predatory disposition, irresponsibility and refractoriness, the unbroken existence of the military organization has played its part.

Another prominent factor in socialized selection comes under the head of vice and racial poisons. No argument is required to prove that persons who indulge in sexual excesses, in drunkenness, in drug habits, in debauchery of any kind, are anti-social, lacking the moral stamina which would make them, say, self-supporting individuals contributing their share to the social income. Our point is that vice, in the degree of indulgence, is also eliminative. Sexual excesses, for example, sap energy, weaken resistance to disease, and predispose to early death. The more licentious a man or woman, the greater are his or her chances of contracting a venereal disease. Gonorrhea and syphilis, where they do not kill, tend to sterilize. Consequently those who can not, through lack of self-control or excessive lust, conform to social and ethical standards of purity, cripple themselves in reproductive power. Prostitutes, a big population in every country, every age, bear few, if any, children.

Alcohol and the other narcotics produce much the same results. On the question as to what extent drunkenness is due to flabby moral fiber, there has been dispute. Archdall Reid declares[8] that alcohol taken to excess is an "agent of elimination at once selective and very stringent. It weeds out great numbers of individuals of a particular type—those most susceptible to its charm." This authority thinks moral resistance to alcoholic temptation of small consequence; men, he says, "indulge in it in proportion to their desires." On this point there is naturally much dissent, but there is no need that we enter the controversy. Certain men are swamped by alcohol and other-men left. In so far as the moral factor determines the incidence of this selective force, we have elimination of the anti-social.

Finally we may note one more agency which works for the increase of social tractability. The various factors we have mentioned so far have been mainly phases of lethal selection; now we turn for a moment to sexual and reproductive selection. In every generation there are persons who are debarred or abstain from wedlock. Among the men who enter matrimony a certain proportion desert their wives or are divorced. There is, further, a wide-spread practise, rapidly growing in our day, of placing voluntary restraints on child-bearing.

Now persons who do not mate with the opposite sex, or mated, refuse to have children, are sometimes those whose social sympathies are feeble. The domestic virtues are the social virtues par excellence. We could never breed a race of misogamists, nor are we in any danger of populating the earth with a race of women militant against men. Along with many other results we perhaps have here some elimination of the anti-social. But we do not care to stress this point. The motives which lead to voluntary childlessness are numerous and mixed, and the final influence on the racial inheritance seems most disastrous, since it substantially results in a continuous sterilization of the better stocks. All things considered, this is the gravest difficulty that the eugenists have to face.


The foregoing hasty summary of the more important factors which have conferred survival value on altruism and tractability has, it is hoped, given some appearance of solidity to the contention that there has been a steady elimination of the anti-social throughout historic times. It is not argued that we have here an explanation of all the moral differences between the civilizations of antiquity and of the present. The increments of knowledge, the growth of cohesive social and political institutions and the betterment of economic conditions, have all played a part in knitting the moral fabric of the world of to-day. Nevertheless, the centuries spent in purging the primitive from the race have contributed to the result. Undoubtedly, too, this agency will continue to operate in the future, although with what modifications it is hard to predict.

Patently it is impossible to weigh statistically the effect of the many criss-cross forces which have molded nations, or to reconstruct with accuracy the historical process. Both the men who perished and the men who survived are now gone beyond recall. It might be suggested that we could make a "control test" by analyzing the mental characters of contemporary savages, who are often said to be close replicas of our own barbarian ancestors. We might, provided we had the psychological method at hand, make enough mental tests to define a type barbarian. In similar wise we might be able to define a civilized type. Then by comparing the two we could determine what were the inherent moral differences between them. But there are unsurmountable difficulties in this procedure. We have not the psychological method as yet to work with, and after the work had been accomplished we could not be sure that the savages whose natures had been charted were in truth identical with the ancients from whom civilized men are sprung. We should, moreover, become entangled in the questions of racial differences—why, for example, some savage peoples, like the Papuans, the Aleuts and the Dyaks, are so amiable, while other savages, such as the North American Indians and the Gonds, are bloodthirsty; or why the ancient Egyptians were apparently less cruel than the ancient Assyrians. In our discussion of selective agencies attention has been directed chiefly to the development of the Aryan peoples.

One test of a logical nature is available. If we grant the validity of socialized selection we find an immediate explanation of the paradox which has puzzled former commentators on the dissimilarities of the classic and modern cultures. We can now understand why it is that there has been an enormous increase of kindliness, of steadiness, of "prescriptive governability," despite the fact that early civilizations were quite as prolific of eminent men of the highest intellectual and moral caliber.

As we said earlier, confusion has been wrought by looking for moral improvement where there has been only moral change. A growth in human meekness may very naturally have been accompanied by a decline in a certain splendid turbulent virility possessed by our ancestors. When this selective instrument made men more sympathetic, it may also have made them less daring. David Starr Jordan remarks:[9]

If France, through wine, has grown temperate, she has grown tame. "New Mirabeaus," Carlyle tells us, "one hears not of; the wild kindred has gone out with this, its greatest."

To get altruism we have sacrificed the higher, intenser type of energy; and the cowboy, the soldier and the haughty aristocrat typify the passing virtues of the race. There is a great deal of pregnant meaning in the assertion of William James that the world is evolving into a middle-class paradise.[10]

An irremediable flatness is coming over the world. Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church socials and teachers' conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro. . . . The higher heroisms and the rare old flavors are passing out of life.

Along with this probable decline in energy and intensity, it must be remembered that the elimination of the anti-social has never conferred survival value on originality, on intellectual independence, on pathbreaking initiative, or on genius. In fact the very agencies which conserved sociability were the ones which cut down inventive capacity. No force has been at work to increase the racial store of eloquence, poetic imagination, of musical and mathematical ability; so that, while there has been a progressive selection of the fundamental moral qualities, there has perhaps at the same time been a deterioration in the esthetic endowment.

It is plain, then, why individuals of the noblest intellectual and moral qualities appeared as often in early civilizations as among the millions we spawn to-day—why, as James Bryce phrases it,[11] those rare combinations of gifts which produce poetry and philosophy of the first order "are revealed no more frequently in a great European nation now than they were in a Semitic tribe or a tiny Greek city twenty-five or thirty centuries ago." Nothing which the human mind exhibits at present has been added by nature since the dawn of history. The esthetic and intellectual powers were then in as full, if not fuller, bloom, as now, being, as Weismann points out, by-products of the human mind, which had been "so highly developed in all directions."[12] The average man in those times was, we may safely assume, more brutal and flightier than the average man of to-day, but he probably possessed a larger store of native ability, more of sheer mental energy.[13] Selection, through the elimination of the anti-social, has whittled us down, so to speak, to fit our civil environment, cutting away our intellectual strength and our moral weakness with the same strokes.

This is the reason that it is unsafe to argue from the exceptional man to the average man. The exceptional man, in the nature of the case, exhibits a combination of the higher ethical and intellectual traits. In him the native harshness of the race is disguised. Alfred Russel Wallace, because of the clarity of his reasoning, betrays the precise manner in which one falls into the mistake of supposing great men to be a racial barometer. He declares:[14]

Tolstoy can hardly be ranked as higher than Buddha, or Ruskin than Confucius, and as we can not suppose the amount of variation of human faculty about a mean to be very different now from what it was in that remote era, we must conclude that equality in the highest implies equality in the mean, and that human nature on the whole has not advanced during the last three thousand years.

Wallace did not realize that in some particulars the highest may seemingly, at the distance of thirty centuries, belie the mean.

Selection has had an almost infinite variety of human material to work on—all sorts of combinations between intellectual powers and moral excellencies. What selection has apparently done, through those agencies we have denominated the elimination of the anti-social, is to knock apart the two sets of endowments, and to recombine them in ways which give us, speaking broadly, a general average of greater moral stability linked with lesser innate talent. Civilization, in bending human nature to its wheel, has softened it and at the same time crushed out some of its virgin vigor.

  1. "Thoughts Upon the Musical Sense in Animals and Man."
  2. For example, see Simon N. Patten, "The New Basis of Civilization" p. 169.
  3. G. Ritchie, "Darwinism and Politics," p. 101.
  4. "Social Environment and Moral Progress," p. 102.
  5. "Evolution and Character," Fortnightly Review, Vol. 89, 1908, pp. 1-24.
  6. "Physics and Politics," p. 25.
  7. "Physics and Politics," p. 47.
  8. "The Principles of Heredity," p. 195.
  9. "The Human Harvest," p. 69.
  10. "Talks to Students on Some of Life's Ideals."
  11. "American Commonwealth," Vol. 11, p. 768.
  12. Lecture on "Heredity."
  13. This is This is quite in accord with Galton's calculation that the average ability of the Athenian race was nearly two of the mental grades higher than that of present-day Englishmen. "Hereditary Genius," p. 330.
  14. Essay on "Evolution and Character."