Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
"The Spectator" on the Degeneracy Theory
(1869): S150 and S152
Remarks Made on the Degeneracy Theory at the British
Association for the Advancement of Science Meetings,
23 August 1869 (S150: 1869)
[[p. 420]] [Mr. Wallace] regretted that the Duke of Argyll was not present to reply for himself to Sir John Lubbock's admirable paper. In his Grace's absence he said he would take some points in his favour that might be made. No doubt, as a general principle, the evidence pointed to a decided and tolerably steady advance of mankind in all those arts of life, the grand sum of which determined civilisation. At the same time, there were a great many matters in which there seemed to be some objection to this view. There were one or two cases that seemed to show a degradation or loss of civilisation. The ancient remains found in America showed the existence of a race at a time not very long past which were decidedly superior to any native aborigines now in North America, inasmuch as they worked copper mines, which none of the present races did. There were also elaborate temples and works of art to attest a wide-spread civilisation once existing on that continent, and now lost. Then, again, there was a sort of special pleading in the argument of Sir John Lubbock's, that if the native Australians were the degraded descendants of a race half-civilised, the European settlers ought also to become degraded. But the European settlers were not cut off from their race, which altered the case considerably, and rendered the argument fallacious. Suppose that a European colony were entirely isolated from their race, then, he thought, there was almost a moral certainty that in the course of centuries they would suffer a considerable amount of degradation, and [[p. 421]] hardly be recognised as the descendants of a civilised people. Therefore, he believed that the lowest races of mankind owed their low condition not to their retaining the type of the original state of man, but because they had suffered degradation from a more civilised race. In a discussion on civilisation it was almost impossible to keep morals out of the question altogether. The people who were advanced in intellect and arts, but low in morality, could hardly be considered civilised. Therefore, although he believed the two things were, to a great extent, distinct, he was inclined in this question to place more weight on morals than on intellect, while Sir. J. Lubbock would put more weight on intellect than on morals. It was indisputable, in regard to arts, that man was improving, but he would hardly say so much with regard to morals. We could trace backward to pre-historic races the diminution of the arts of life till we arrived at a period when the arts enabled man to do no more than fashion flints into weapons and tools. But as to morals, we did not find such decided diminution as we looked backward. He had met with savage tribes destitute of the arts of life and low in intellect, but possessed of a wonderfully delicate sense of right and wrong in morals. How did they get that sense? He had met some savages who would refuse to do an action which they thought would infringe on the rights of others, and had refused to answer questions lest they should tell a lie. He was speaking of the Dyaks of Borneo. How was that moral feeling to be accounted for? If they represented the original state of man, how came the moral sense to have grown, and the other faculties not to have grown? There was some evidence of a moral or religious sentiment existing even in pre-historic man; he alluded to the discovery in the Cave of Aurignac of preparations made for the food of the dead of the pre-historic race laid in the cavern. This showed the appreciation of a future state--a feeling which showed man to be above the brute. He agreed in the similarity drawn between children and savages. But was not the moral sense of children and their affection higher than their intellect? But morals were hardly a scientific question; but he still thought that on its determination depended the true state of early man. They ought not to conclude that because man had advanced in the arts of life therefore he had advanced in morals. He did not say it was proved that man had not advanced in morals; but all the arguments that went to prove that ancient man was not civilised intellectually utterly failed to prove that the moral nature of man was only modified, not improved, under civilisation. Therefore, the argument of derivation from the lower form of life did not in the slightest degree touch the unknown region of his moral nature.
[[p. 1072]] Sir,--In your issue of August 28th you do me the honour to notice some remarks which I offered on Sir John Lubbock's paper at the recent meeting of the British Association; but, owing to the imperfect manner in which the proceedings were reported, you have entirely misunderstood what I really said. I beg, therefore, that you will allow me to state what are the opinions I hold on this point, and which I then endeavoured to express.
You represent me as saying:--"Suppose that a European colony were entirely isolated from their race, then I believe that there is almost a moral certainty that in the course of centuries they would suffer a considerable amount of degradation, and hardly be recognized as the descendants of a civilized people;" and you then go on to argue (and, I think, very justly) that under such circumstances progress is, at least, as probable as degeneration. But the supposition which I made was a different one. It was the isolation of a very small European community in a country very ill-adapted for civilization and progress,--a country, like Australia, with no indigenous animals capable of domestication, and without cereals, or roots, or fruits adapted for cultivation,--a country without native iron, and with such an unpropitious climate as to necessitate frequent migrations and a perpetual struggle to support life. Under such conditions I maintained that degradation to comparative savagery would be inevitable, just as under analogous circumstances would be the reversion of cultivated plants or domestic animals to a state approaching that of their wild allies. I argued, therefore, for degradation under extremely unfavourable conditions, not as the result of mere isolation; and as, during the long period that man has existed upon the earth, such unfavourable conditions must frequently have occurred, it appears to me more philosophical to admit that some of the lower races may owe their present state of barbarism to a partial degradation, than to maintain that they necessarily represent an original low condition, above which they can at no time have arisen.
Again, you quote me as having found among savages "a most delicate sense of right and wrong," and as deducing from this fact [[p. 1073]] a theory--"that they are degenerate persons, who have retained amidst their degeneracy a primeval idea of morals." Allow me to say that I neither expressed nor do I hold any such theory. My object was simply to show that, treating the question as a scientific one, to be determined solely by facts, and not by feelings, there is really no such clear evidence of progress in morals as there is of progress in intellect. Children, modern savages, and prehistoric man alike exhibit deficiency of intellectual power, but we do not find an equally constant deficiency in moral feeling. Intellect, no doubt, reacts upon morals by determining the more remote effects of our actions, and by logically extending the sphere of our sympathies; but a moral sense certainly exists in savages, which, within a limited sphere of action, seems as powerful an incentive to regulate conduct as it is among the most civilized races. Morality is an essential part of man's nature, which can only be fully developed by that true civilization towards which we have as yet hardly taken the first steps. The great mass of the people in civilized countries derive benefit from modern science and its marvellous practical applications, just in the same way as do the savages who receive the products of Manchester looms and Birmingham workshops. Owing to their geographical position, the former derive rather more benefit, but as to knowing and understanding anything of this wonderful "science," the creator of the civilization which surrounds them, they are as absolutely ignorant as the Malay or the negro. Exposed as they are to the enormously increased temptations to vice with which civilization surrounds them, how can we wonder if their moral nature often remains as imperfect and undeveloped as it does in savages?