It is impossible for a great idea to become dominant in any department of science without affecting men's thoughts on all other subjects that keenly interest them. This is illustrated in our own time by the ideas of the "struggle for existence" and "the survival of the fittest"; from biology they have been inevitably transferred to sociology and economics. Ernest Haeckel used them, justifiably enough perhaps, to prove the impossibility of realizing the ideal of equality which he attributed to socialists, and at the same ...
It is impossible for a great idea to become dominant in any department of science without affecting men's thoughts on all other subjects that keenly interest them. This is illustrated in our own time by the ideas of the "struggle for existence" and "the survival of the fittest"; from biology they have been inevitably transferred to sociology and economics. Ernest Haeckel used them, justifiably enough perhaps, to prove the impossibility of realizing the ideal of equality which he attributed to socialists, and at the same time to demonstrate, as against Virchow, how harmless Darwinism was to society. Mr. Herbert Spencer and his followers go very much further than this, and regard the two principles as an unassailable basis for a policy of laissez faire, and as a justification for denouncing the very moderate amount of restraint upon the individual that English radicals have of late years been advocating. Fortunately the growth of historical culture has been too great to permit Mr. Spencer's sociology to take much hold upon students of economics. But among the professed students of biology, there is not infrequently found a disposition to pooh-pooh efforts at social reform as unscientific; and "the struggle for existence" has already become a phrase in the mouth of the man of the world. Mr. Ritchie's little essay is a timely criticism of this application of biological conceptions to social problems. He begins by calling our attention to the ambiguity in the term "fittest," and to the fact that the question is much more complex than is often supposed, in that the struggle is not only between individuals, but also between groups in the same nation and between different nations. Then, coming to the demand that natural forces should be allowed free play, he points out the difficulty of distinguishing between "natural" and "artificial" without falling back into unhistorical conception of a state of nature; and he justly observes that the not infrequent confession on the part of evolutionists, that mitigation of primitive struggle has led to a moral advance, concedes the desirability of displacing "natural" by human and conscious selection. There is in truth a struggle of ideas as well as of physical forces, and they have an equal claim to a fair chance. The recognition of this fact leads us to the fundamental difference between social evolution and all other development, namely, the appearance of consciousness. And yet, conscious effort, though we are often obliged to have recourse to it in order to counteract the unrestrained play of "natural" forces, is not necessarily in antagonism to them, and may frequently operate only to accelerate or facilitate their action. Mr. Ritchie strengthens his general argument by specific illustrations, and concludes by showing how desirable it is that conscious effort should take the shape of positive legal institutions, partly because they are necessary to give effect to opinion, partly because of their educative value. The educational influence of institutions is usually overlooked by those evolutionists who magnify the force of heredity. The discussion that is now going on as to whether acquired characteristics are ever transmitted by descent tends, as Mr. Ritchie remarks, to weaken the claim of heredity as the preponderating element in the formation of character. - W. J. Ashley.
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