Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Is Britain on the Down Grade? (S568aa: 1899)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: One of a number of solicited responses published in the July 1899 issue of The Young Man. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with:

IV. By Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace.

     [[p. 223]] Although I quite sympathise with Mr. William Clarke's powerful statement of the indications of moral deterioration that meet us everywhere to-day, yet I do not accept all his premises nor agree with his somewhat pessimistic conclusion. He tells us that he believes in the necessary decline and death of nations as of individuals, apparently on account of the [[p. 224]] somewhat forced analogy between the social and the individual organism. Yet a little further on he points out that the civilisation of our country is almost identical with that of the rest of Europe and of America, and that the indications of deterioration, as of progress, are alike in all. It is therefore not a question of the decay and death of England or of any other nation, but of civilisation itself, that we have to deal with, and to my mind there are no indications whatever of such a catastrophe, nor the least evidence or even indication that it will ever occur.

     The proofs of deterioration dwelt upon by Mr. Clarke are the growth of gambling, the vast extension of the factory system, the enormous increase of millionaires and the money power, and the immoral greed of kings and governments in their struggle for the partition of the uncivilised world. With every word that he says on these subjects I agree, and I have to the best of my ability set forth similar views in a recently published volume, and have further enforced the doctrine of deterioration they imply by a body of unimpeachable facts taken from the successive Reports of the Registrar-General. I have shown that insanity is increasing in a far greater ratio than the population, even after the fullest allowance for those causes of apparent increase by which the Lunacy Commissioners and medical writers attempt to explain away the increase. Suicide, again, has increased at a still greater rate during the last thirty years, and, as this is a form of insanity, it supports the reality of the former increase. Notwithstanding the growth of the temperance movement, it will startle most persons to learn that deaths from alcoholism and delirium tremens have increased nearly seventy per cent. faster than the population in the last thirty years, and that such deaths have increased much faster in women than in men. Another and even more terrible indication of deterioration is the large and steady increase during the same period of premature births and congenital defects in children. As might be expected with such a state of things, our prison population--including those in reformatories--has increased fifty per cent. faster than the population, notwithstanding all the efforts of official apologists to prove the contrary. And, lastly, the deaths in public institutions (workhouses, hospitals, etc.) have steadily increased during the same period, till they now amount, in London, to twenty-seven per cent. of the total deaths. And perhaps the most terrible feature of all is, that in all these cases the rate of increase is itself increasing, so that we are going downhill now much faster than we were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.1

     Now, surely these glaring proofs of physical deterioration afford the strongest confirmation of the reality of that moral degeneration which Mr. Clarke as so forcibly set forth. Yet I wholly disagree from his gloomy outlook. For, along with this moral and its resulting physical deterioration there are undoubted signs of moral advance. True humanity is increasing everywhere, and the conscience of the nation is being stirred as it never was before. The people are everywhere better than their rulers, better than the land and wealth grabbers. And so far from there being no "commanding vision," no generous faith in great causes, I doubt if there has ever been so much of both. The rapid and irresistible spread of socialism in every civilised country, destroying national antagonisms and introducing a true brotherhood of labour throughout the world, is a fact of the highest importance. It permeates every class of society; it absorbs the best intellect of the workers, and is yearly gaining converts from our great national universities, from the liberal professions, and from the Church itself; and it has this advantage over all previous attempts at reform, that it does not deal merely with symptoms or with the machinery of government, but goes down to the very roots of all the evils which afflict our civilisation. And this great cause is upheld and guided by that very "commanding vision" the supposed absence of which Mr. Clarke deplores. It is taught by Carlyle and Ruskin, by William Morris and Lewis Morris, by Edward Bellamy and Robert Blatchford, and by that truest saint and greatest seer now living--Leo Tolstoi.

     Truly, we will not despair of the Republic of Humanity.

Note Appearing in the Original Work

     1. For the figures and authorities for all these statements, see The Wonderful Century, chap. xx.

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