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The Future of Civilisation (S496: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review of Benjamin Kidd's Social Evolution printed in the 12 April 1894 number of the journal Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S496.htm

    [[p. 549]] This is a very remarkable book; and one which must have a good effect in preparing students of sociology for the inevitable changes which are rapidly coming upon us. It is thoroughly scientific in its methods, inasmuch as it is based upon the theory of evolution; yet it is altogether original in its treatment of the subject, and gives us a theory of social progress which is in many respects very different from that generally accepted by evolutionists. This theory appears on the whole to be a sound one, although the author has fallen into certain errors which will be pointed out. These, however, do not materially affect the general theory.

    In his first chapter, "The Outlook," the author gives a sketch of the progress of opinion during the present century, showing that the old political parties, whose watchwords are almost confined to the completion of the programme of political equality, find that the world is rapidly moving beyond them. As he well puts

    "One of the most striking and significant signs of the times is the spectacle of Demos, with these new battle-cries ringing in his ears, gradually emerging from the long silence of social and political serfdom. Not now does he come with the violence of revolution foredoomed to failure, but with the slow majestic progress which marks a natural evolution. He is no longer unwashed and illiterate, for we have universal education. He is no longer unwashed and illiterate, for we have universal education. He is no longer muzzled and without political power, for we have universal suffrage. With his advent socialism has ceased to be a philanthropic sentiment merely. . . . The advent of Demos is the natural result of a long series of concessions, beginning in England with the passing of the Factory Acts, and the legislation of combination, and leading gradually up to the avowedly socialistic legislation for which the times appear to be ripening."

    A forcible sketch is given of the growing power of capitalism on the one side, and of socialism on the other; and then we come to what forms the keynote of the work, in the declaration that religion is not, as the scientific urge, a mere system of superstition and error, a clog on the wheels of progress, the enemy of science and enlightenment, and, as Grant Allen has described it, a mere "grotesque fungoid growth"; but, on the contrary, that it has been one of the most important agencies in social development, and is closely bound up with that portion of our nature to which all recent social advance is due, and which will inevitably decide the course of our future progress. Of course this has nothing to do with dogmatic religion, but only with those great ethical principles which have always formed part of religious teaching, and whose influence is in great part due to it.

    The conditions of human progress form the subject of the next chapter, and it is laid down that no progress is possible without some form of selection.

    "It may appear strange, but it is strictly true, that if each of us were allowed by the conditions of life to follow his own inclinations, the average of one generation would have no tendency whatever to rise beyond the average of the preceding one."

    But the author goes further than this. He fully accepts Weismann's view of the non-inheritance of acquired characters, and is under the mistaken impression that the theory of panmixia leads to continuous and unlimited degeneration. Many writers have pointed out that this is an error. The amount of the degeneration thus produced would be limited to that of the average of those born during the preceding generations in place of the average of those that had survived. As Prof. Lloyd Morgan puts it, the survival-mean would fall back to the birth-mean. This error is of especial importance because it is used as an argument against the possibility of any form of socialism which removes the individual struggle for existence.

    The chapter which follows bears the startling heading--"There is no Rational Sanction for the Conditions of Progress"; by which is meant that at any moment the great bulk of the people have no interest in preserving the conditions that are essential to it, but rather, in altering them. The author urges that, in our existing societies, where we base on the fabric of political equality the most obvious social and material inequality, the lower classes of our population have no sanction from their reason for maintaining existing conditions. In a question of this kind reason has nothing to do with any existence but the present, which, it insists, it is our duty to ourselves to make the most of.

    "The prevailing conditions of existence can, therefore, have no such sanction for large masses of the people in societies where life is a long onerous rivalry, where in the nature of things it is impossible for all to attain to success, and where the many work and suffer and only the few have leisure and ease. Regard it how we may, the conclusion seems inevitable, that to the great masses of the people, the so-called lower classes, in the advanced civilisations of to-day, the conditions under which they live and work are still without any rational sanction."

    We now come to the question of the causes of the evolution of society and of modern civilisation, which are found, not in the growth of intellect and of science, but in the continuous action of religious beliefs. The argument by which this conclusion is reached is ingenious, elaborate, and I think quite sound, but is difficult to condense. Societies and civilisations have prevailed in the struggle for existence in proportion as they have been efficiently organised, and this organisation has always rested on some form of religious sanction. The doctrines of caste, of class, of the divine right of kings, of subjection to popes and bishops, have been powerful in welding together tribes and peoples, have checked the supremacy of brute force, and have been the most efficient agency in that subordination of the many to the few which was essential to the production and accumulation of wealth, to the growth of the arts, and to the firm establishment of that national unity which is the most important factor in the growth of civilisation.

    This was its function in the early development of European civilisation, but during the last two or three centuries its influence has been exerted in a different manner, which has had even more important results. As nations became more advanced [[p. 550]] in education and the arts, and a considerable middle class arose whose interests were opposed to those of the warrior caste and to constant war and bloodshed, the ethical side of all religious teaching began to have more influence, and ideas of justice and mercy, and of the inherent rights of man independent of class or caste, obtained for the first time some real effect throughout all ranks of society. Hence arose that gradual amelioration in our punishments, that recognition of human rights in even the lowest classes, that love of equal justice for all men, which has, little by little, permeated all civilised nations; and which has culminated during the present century in the abolition of slavery and of class and religious privileges; in general education, and in the grant of almost universal suffrage. This long process of social evolution is thus briefly summarised by our author:--    

    "Throughout the history of the Western peoples there is one central fact which underlies all the shifting scenes which move across the pages of the historian. The political history of the centuries so far may be summed up in a single sentence: it is the story of the political and social enfranchisement of the masses of the people hitherto universally excluded from participation in the rivalry of existence on terms of equality. This change, it is seen, is being accomplished against the most prolonged and determined resistance at many points and under innumerable forms, of the power-holding classes which obtained under an earlier constitution of society the influence which they have hitherto, to a large extent, although in gradually diminishing measure, continued to enjoy. The point at which the process tends to culminate is a condition of society in which the whole mass of the excluded people will be at last brought into the rivalry of existence on a footing of equality of opportunity."

    He points out the immense significance of this process of development, which is absolutely unique in the history of the race; and that its whole tendency is, not to suspend the rivalry of life, but to raise it to the highest possible degree of efficiency as a cause of progress. This progress towards equalisation of the conditions of life is in no sense due to an intellectual movement. From the point of view of the power-holding classes the conception of the native equality of men is essentially irrational, besides being wholly opposed to what they have always conceived to be their interests. As classes they have always opposed any concessions to the masses as being destructive of society, and had not the softening of character due to ethical teaching and impulse permeated their own organisation, thus taking heart and unanimity out of their opposition, each successive concession would never have been made. The whole movement is therefore due to the all-pervading influence in our civilisation of that ever-growing fund of altruism, that development of humanitarian feelings, that deepening sense of justice, which, in the author's opinion, is "the direct and peculiar product of the religious system on which our civilisation is founded."

    There is one difficulty here with which the author fails to grapple. His fundamental doctrine is that all human progress is due to selection in the struggle for existence, whether that struggle acts most severely upon individuals or upon communities. But it is not shown how the rude struggles of the two thousand years terminating in the sixteenth century could have had any tendency to increase and develop these altruistic and ethical sentiments. During the ages when might was right, when violence, cruelty, and rapine held sway over Europe, how were the mild, the true, the humane and the just so constantly preserved in the struggle, as to steadily increase and ultimately permeate all society as they do now? It is pointed out that neither in Greece nor in Rome, at the period of their greatest intellectual splendour, was there any such development of these altruistic and higher ethical sentiments. The mere teaching of their principles could not have created the sentiments themselves without selection, and selection in this case seems altogether absent. The natural possessors of such sentiments were usually buried in religious houses, and, as a rule, left no descendants. All selection seems rather to have tended to the extermination of the possessors of humane and altruistic sentiments, not to their continuous preservation and increase. Yet nothing is more certain than that they do now prevail to an extent never before known, and if they have not been developed by selection they must have been inherent in the race, developed perhaps at some earlier period, and have lain dormant till a more peaceful and more intellectual epoch called for their manifestation.

    Though not a socialist, Mr. Kidd goes so far that, by the upholders of the present system, he will be thought hardly less dangerous an innovator. The whole drift and burthen of his work is, that we are inevitably moving towards a system of society in which, not only will all men be politically equal, but all will exist under conditions of equal social opportunities. Again and again he recurs to this point. He speaks of "the movement which is tending to ultimately bring all the people into the rivalry of life on conditions of equality." He recognises that this means that the position of the lower classes will be raised "at the expense of the wealthier classes," and that this is "a conditio sine quâ non of any measure that carries us a step forward in our social development." And again, in his concluding chapter, he thus speaks of this inevitable social movement:--

    "The practical consequence is of great significance. It is, that the development in which the excluded masses of the people are being brought into the competition of life on a footing of equality of opportunity is proceeding, and will apparently continue to proceed in Great Britain, not by the violent stages of revolution, but as a gradual and orderly process of social change. The power-holding classes are in retreat before the people; but the retreat on the one side is orderly and unbroken, while the advance on the other is the steady, unhastening, onward movement of a party conscious of the strength and rectitude of its cause, and in no doubt as to the final issue."

    Although thus clear as to the nature and final result of the movement now in progress towards securing for all men "equality of opportunity in the rivalry of life," Mr. Kidd nowhere explains what that term really means, and how complete is the revolution that it implies. It is clear, in the first place, that there can be no equality of opportunity so long as a limited class remains in possession of the land on and by which all must live, and the whole inherent value of which is the creation of society. The resumption of the land of the country by the community is therefore the first essential to "equality of opportunity." Again, hereditary wealth is equally [[p. 551]] opposed to the principle, since it gives to a class the power to live permanently at the expense of the workers. In like manner, those whose parents can give their children a better education, and supply them with the means of a good start in life, have greater opportunities than have the children of the poor. Equality of opportunity demands, therefore, in the first place the same means of education for all, and, afterwards, a sufficient endowment to give every young person an equally good start in life. It will thus be seen that the principle of "equality of opportunity in the rivalry of life" goes very far indeed, and it will be judged by many to involve as drastic, and as much to be dreaded, a change as socialism itself. It differs from socialism, however, inasmuch as it will leave rivalry and competition, not only unchecked but even increased in intensity, and in order to avoid the corresponding increase of some of the evils which result from our comparatively limited competition, society will probably, pari passu with this development, so organise itself that every community will form a congeries of co-operative societies by which all will benefit, thus bringing about a form of voluntary municipal socialism.

    This great principle of "equality of opportunities," to which Mr. Kidd's inquiry has led him, has been already fully set forth and advocated by a school of Belgian economists, and is worked out in detail by Agathon de Potter in his "Économie Sociale," published at Brussels in 1874. A similar principle obtains in the scheme of Dr. Hertzka, as explained in his interesting work, "Freeland," and now in course of experimental realisation.

    Many other points of interest are discussed by Mr. Kidd, and will well repay careful study. Among these is his examination of the general belief as to the great intellectual inferiority of most savages, on which question he arrives at conclusions opposed to the views of most anthropologists. The chapter headed "Human Evolution is not primarily Intellectual" is full of original and interesting views, though mingled with details that are of doubtful accuracy. Sufficient, however, has been said to show that we have here the work of a very able thinker who deals with the fundamental problems of civilisation and progress in a far more hopeful manner than does another recent author, also of great ability--Mr. Pearson. The two following extracts from the concluding paragraph of Mr. Kidd's volume will serve to exhibit the general result of his inquiry:--    

    "The movement which is uplifting the people--necessarily to a large extent at the expense of those above them--is but the final result of a long process of organic development. All anticipations and forebodings as to the future of the incoming democracy, founded upon comparisons with the past, are unreliable or worthless. For the world has never before witnessed a democracy of the kind that is now slowly assuming supreme power among the Western peoples." . . .

     "There are many who speak of the new ruler of nations as if he were the same idle Demos whose ears the dishonest courtiers have tickled from time immemorial. It is not so. Even those who attempt to lead him do not rightly apprehend the nature of his strength. They do not perceive that his arrival is the crowning result of an ethical movement in which qualities and attributes which we have all been taught to regard as the very highest of which human nature is capable, find the highest expression they have ever reached in the history of the race."

    Every true reformer, every earnest student of society, every believer in human progress, will cordially welcome such conclusions, founded as they are upon a careful study of history, enlightened by a thorough appreciation of the theory of evolution and the principle of natural selection.

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