CHAPTER 3. LAMARCKIANISM IN AMERICAN THOUGHT

 

This chapter traces the influence of Lamarckian evolution on several areas of American thought. Everyone talking about evolution but mostly modifying it to make it compatible with the moralistic system of equality of opportunity racism.

The onslaught of Darwinian evolution was so terrifying to thinkers of the nineteenth century that they quickly grabbed Lamarckian evolution as an alternative. It would not be until the early twentieth century that at least the non-human part of Darwinian evolutionary theory would be accepted by natural scientists. This may seem disappointing to believers in evolution, but the acceptance of Lamarckian evolution did help further weaken the religious, creationist view of life. And the victory of evolution, however modified a theory it was, helped strengthen the disease concept of mental illness and deviancy. This was a beneficial trend, even it did not last for very long (for soon the anti-evolutionary onslaught swamped the disease concept and replaced it with a moralistic social science).

There has been a great deal of liberal political bias against the early supporters of evolutionary theory. Therefore, it is important to stress that the believers in Lamarckian evolution were liberals, despite the branding of them as conservative social Darwinists. After Darwin a scientific revolution occurred in which the evolutionary view replaced the creationist view.

The reaction to Darwinian evolution takes two parts. The first part was the reaction to the idea of evolution as applied to all species except man. Darwin believed in the principle of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. This idea did not gain acceptance until the start of the twentieth century. Although Darwin's theory of evolution was basically sound, there was no understood mechanism for explaining how certain traits could be transferred from one species to another. However, about 1900 the scientific community rediscovered the findings of the priest Gregor Mendel. It was Mendel and the concept of genetics that provided the mechanism explaining how evolution actually took place. After most of the gunfire had long past, the scientific community could clearly adopt the evolutionary ideas of Darwin as applied to non-human species. But this was only after much of the original opportunity for political impact had past. It was now politically safe for scientists to adopt Darwinian ideas because they had few political implications. Once the controversial time had passed, scientists could proceed ahead in relative anonymity.

The second part of Darwin's evolutionary theory, that evolution applied to the human mind, has still not been accepted, at least in the social sciences. Darwin's ideas were absolutely revolutionary. He was more than one hundred years ahead of his time, and is still today ahead of the social sciences. (It is only in the 1970s that the support for his ideas of evolution as applied to man have been fully supported in the scientific literature.)

The thoughts of Darwin were so unpleasant to Americans that both conservatives and liberals were repulsed by them and felt compelled to come up with alternatives. Of course, the more conservative thinkers rejected evolution altogether, maintaining the old catastrophic view of the world. But even the more liberal thinkers could not really adopt Darwinism. The less conservative and the liberal intellectuals grabbed on to Lamarckianism as interpreted by Herbert Spencer. Spencer became the leading theorist of the day because he provided the only really effective alternative to Darwin.

The American reaction to evolution was so different than that in the rest of the West that it came to be referred to as the American school of evolution. However, America, steeped in religious ideology, still came through a relative revolution because just to challenge the supremacy of religious thought was an accomplishment in and of itself. Maybe that is all one could hope for from the America of the time.

Religion and racism were key factors in the reluctance of Americans to fully accept an unmodified Darwinism. Shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, in 1860 Asa Gray, one of America's leading botanists, reviewed the book. Gray became Darwin's "bulldog" in America. But even his response was mediated by racism. Gray winced at the possibility that blacks might be biologically related to whites. He reasoned that man was an exception to evolution and the object of a number of special creations (Clark, 1984:159). Gray only accepted the thesis once he had reconciled his religious beliefs with the theory. The most striking feature of Gray's review is its discussion of the religious issues raised by Darwinism. Gray tried from the outset to reconcile chance with design and mechanism with teleology (Russett, 1976:8).

The Liberal Response

In America anti-Darwinian schools of evolutionism flourished almost from the start of the controversy. The great American opponent of evolution was zoologist Louis Agassiz, a colleague of Gray's at Harvard. This best-known scientist in America described a species as "a thought of the Creator" (quoted in Russett 1976:9). Agassiz believed that a central theme ran through the progressive development of species, pointing toward mankind as the highest form of life. He held that the pattern was God's way of putting man at the head of His creation. (Bowler 1988:57-58).

The central pattern of evolution can be observed repeating itself in miniature in the growth of the human embryo, the parallelism again illustrating the orderliness of creation. Agassiz still believed that the human embryo passes successively through stages in which it is a fish, a reptile, and only finally a mammal (wrong view). He thus laid the foundations of the recapitualation theory, in which the history of a type is thought to be repeated in the growth of the modern embryo. Agassiz pushed the idea of the ascent of a linear hierarchy, while Darwin saw evolution as a process of specialization. But it was the essentially progressionist and teological image that was to bedevil evolutionism through the rest of the century. (Bowler 1988:58)

Gray and Agassiz had a series of debates in the spring of 1860 before a gathering of literary, social, and scientific luminaries. The impression clearly came through that Gray's theism was more traditional than that of Agassiz (Russett, 1976:9-10).

The American school of neo-Lamarckism was founded by the paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Alpheus Hyatt in the late 1860s (Bowler, 1988:73). Cope and Hyatt were disciples of Agassiz, who was now the leading figure in American science. In his 1887 book Theology of Evolution: A Lecture Cope stated that Lamarckism vindicated the belief in a divine purpose expressed through the activity of living organisms.

Agassiz, the Swiss-American naturalist, maintained that he would "outlive this mania" of evolution. The professor died in 1873, and in one sense he did outlive Darwinism. After the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man Darwinism became even less acceptable. Darwin had gone too far now that he had denied the soul (Russett, 1976:13-14). Darwinism was just not acceptable in America. Instead, American thinkers accepted some form of Lamarckism.

One reason for the appeal of Lamarckianism was that it had a greater congruence with religion (Russett, 1976:10). More importantly, however, Lamarckianism offered firm scientific support for the efficacy of education in improving humanity. Samuel Butler in his 1879 book Evolution, Old and New argued that Lamarckianism would allow the individual animal to determine its own fate and thus direct the evolution of its species. He saw this as an antidote to the materialism of natural selection (Bowler, 1988:10). The greater agreement of Lamarck with liberal biases explains why men such as sociologist Lester Frank Ward and other scientist-reformers clung to neo-Lamarckianism long after scientific evidence (Russett, 1976:10).

The American reaction in academia was typically optimistic liberalism, not conservatism. Modern day sociologists love to say the academic thinkers in the Age of the Robber Barons were conservatives, but this is not true. The Gilded Age academics are only conservative seen from today's perspective. And they are seen as conservative thinkers because they did not share the anti-biological bias of academics following the impact of reform Lamarckianism (known imprecisely as Reform Darwinism).

Lamarckian Impact on Philosophy

An unmodified evolution was too radical for American thinkers. American liberals felt they had to make religion compatible with evolution. During the post-Civil War period Harvard became the focal point for this transformation of evolution.

The Harvard men wanted to reconcile science with religion. The men who worked on this was Chauncey Wright, C. S. Peirce, William James, John Fiske, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who met in the informal setting of the "Metaphysical Club" (a telling choice of words) (Russett, 1976:47). There were two traditions of thought that these men wanted to rethink in order to come up with a satisfactory alternative. The first was that of the English empiricist tradition, represented most conspicuously by John Stuart Mill. The second was Concord transcendentalism, fortified by later infusions of Hegelian idealism, and strengthened by the idealism of Immanuel Kant). Kant emphasized that mind ordered reality by dynamically structuring what we know. Mind constructed the world of experience from mind alone. The Harvard thinkers adapted the views of Kant to the thinking of the Scottish realists who were in reaction against David Hume. The Scottish realists included Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), and Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856).

John Fiske stayed close to the ideas of Herbert Spencer. However, he made religion the evolutionary fruit of science. Charles Peirce had severe reservations about Darwinism. He did not think evolution proved, and said Darwin's conclusions would barely demand respect but for the fact of the scientist's great volume of minute detail. It was only one force along with Lamarckianism and cataclysm (i.e., evolution though sudden large mutations) (Russett, 1976:64). However, he knew some form of evolutionary philosophy must be accepted.

The agnostic Chauncey Wright held that science was irrelevant to faith (Russett, 1976:48). Wright came up with the concept of self-consciousness, a trait commonly held to be the feature distinguishing the human from the animal mind. In 1870 he wrote an essay "The Evolution of Self-Consciousness" which criticized both realism and idealism. Within an evolutionary context he pondered the development of self-consciousness by comparing and contrasting human and other animals. What differentiated the mental behavior of man was the capacity to use and manipulate signs, understood as both internal images and outward perceptions (Curti, 1980:197-198). Often cited as a telling influence on William James's concept of reasoning and a herald of functional psychology, he went a long ways to explaining the similarities and differences between human behavior and that of other creatures, and toward giving psychology an evolutionary and scientific as opposed to a metaphysical underlying structure (Curti, 1980:198). But Chauncey Wright was too empiricist for James (who called Wright's strict empiricism "nihilism") (Russett, 1976:61).

Lamarckian Impact on Psychology

American liberal social scientists changed evolution into an anemic version of itself. They were just too liberal, and radical enough, to accept the full meaning of evolution. Many authors who examine the impact of evolution on psychology emphasize the creation of a new, scientific psychology. However, it is only scientific when compared with the previous religious and creationist conception of psychology. American psychology was never as fully committed to empiricism as, for instance, British psychology.

In Great Britain evolution had a much more lasting impact on psychology than in America. The British had a long tradition of empiricism that came to be expressed in British associationism, the culmination of scientific thought within the empirical philosophy. This system tried to account for all mental content and activity in terms of the combination of mental elements such as ideas. David Hartley (1705-1757) is the true founder of the school of associationism for he made association a consistent systematic principle and the very core of his philosophy. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) represents the tradition of seeing psychology in terms of mental chemistry. No doubt the science of chemistry -- which originated at the end of the eighteenth century -- gave impetus to such a conception (Misiak and Sexton, 1966:23).

At first scientific psychology adopted the concept of mental chemistry. At least in its initial phase, psychology was conceived literally as a chemistry of the mind. That is, it treated mind and its states like chemical substances which had to be broken down to their constituents. Alexander Bain (1818-1903) marks the transition from associationist-philosophical psychology to a scientific psychology of the nervous system. The new scientific findings in physiology were having an impact. Sir Charles Bell and Francois Magendie discovered the differences between motor and sensory nerves. Dr. Marshall Hall discovered the independent action of the spinal cord. These findings challenged the view of a fundamental distinction between body and mind. Alexander Bain and others related the new information about the nervous system to the association of ideas and came up with a psychophysics. As early as 1855 Bain had put into a distinctively physiological setting the doctrine of psychophysical parallelism earlier advocated in one form or other by Leibniz, Malebranche, and Hartley. Dr. Henry Maudsley's Physiology and Pathology of the Mind, first published in 1867, also strengthened the claim that nothing could be known about mental action except through the nervous system. In 1860 Dr. Thomas Laycock made a distinctive contribution to the same general view in holding that every state of consciousness coincided with and depended on molecular changes in the encephelon.

The empirical tradition was not as strong in the United States. Like sociology in America early American psychology was successively nurtured in theology, moral philosophy, and mental philosophy. Theologians mainly taught mental philosophy. Most early works were written in the interests of religious orthodoxy. (M&S, 1966:126-8)

They did accept a form of evolution, even if it was Lamarckian. However, James would work to fight Darwin's conception of man as an evolutionary development. Americans were profoundly influenced by Spencer's notions of development and by evolutionary theory. The American founder of the new science of psychology, William James, had a medical degree, and was a professor of physiology before he turned to psychology. James was definitely influenced by evolutionary theory. For many years in his classes he used Spencer's Principles of Psychology.

They did establish a scientific psychology. Nevertheless, under European influence, the Americans shifted from mental philosophy to a more scientific psychology. In doing so they naturally borrowed heavily from physiology. To show how strong physiology was in the new scientific psychology, in his 1884 book Mind James viewed the emotions as stemming essentially from a physiological base. And the first psychology textbook in America was Elements of Physiological Psychology 1887 by G. T. Ladd. In the latter part of the nineteenth century "physiological" denoted not just a part or one aspect, but the whole new psychology. Some psychologists of this period voiced the concern that psychology might lose its identity and become simply a branch of physiology. They argued that there are aspects of psychology which lie beyond the reach and scope of physiology (Misiak and Sexton, 1966:43). Misiak and Sexton (1966:66) argue that in America the biological orientation has always been strong; thus, physiological psychology has flourished in this country. Psychology saw itself as part and continuation of the biological study of the organisms.

Lamarckian Impact on Sociology

Lamarckianism did have an impact of American sociology. It helped free it of its religious foundations. Sociology slowly developed from religious thought. Vidich and Lyman (1985:57) have shown how American sociologists accepted the values of Puritanism, and merely substituted the words of science for the words of religion. While rejecting the religious causation, sociologists continued to believe in the religious-based values.

With the onslaught of evolution Spencer became very influential. In 1855 Spencer published his Social Statics, which proved influential. From 1862 to 1896 he published his System of Synthetic Philosophy that eventually ran to ten volumes. In 1873 he came out with The Study of Sociology. Also in the same year he published the first of seventeen volumes in the series Descriptive Sociology.

To scholars and critics, Herbert Spencer may be the quintessential social Darwinist, but he was never a Darwinist. He had been converted to Lamarckism in 1840 when he read Charles Lyell's attempted refutation of Lamarck.

Under the impact of Darwinism, sociologists began to adapt the views of Lamarck. Almost everyone who began to study sociology between 1870 and 1890 did so under the influence of Herbert Spencer (Szacki, 1979:217). William Graham Sumner was the American counterpart to Herbert Spencer. Although Sumner was not a Lamarckian. He accepted the process of natural selection as applied to nature. Evolution and Spencerism were synonymous terms (not evolutionism and Darwinism, as Fiske pointed out) (Russett, 1976:17).

Interestingly, Spencer and Sumner argued for a softened version of evolution by emphasizing that there was an evolution of altruism. These ideas were influential on others. Thinkers like anarchist Peter Kropotkin and Scottish naturalist and preacher Henry Drummond used Spencer's argument to demonstrate "the law of Mutual Aid" and the "struggle for the Life of Others." They believed that this naturally evolved altruism made human progress possible (Kaye, 1986:35).

Like the later Spencer, Sumner emphasized cooperation as an alternative to the emphasis on the survival of the fittest. Sumner transformed the struggle of nature into men cooperating in societies to work to counter the natural meanness of nature. Therefore, society is a matter of cooperation and not one of war of all against all. (Kaye, 1986:31-33).

Sumner was a liberal, not a conservative. He did not justify the actions of the robber barons. Rather, he, like later-day structural-functionalists, emphasized competition of men within a social hierarchy made necessary by the division of labor.

Now some sociologists will argue that this is a white-wash of what these men really thought. However, the argument is not that these men were not racists and moralists, but rather that they were relatively liberal for their times, just as sociologists always are. To conclude that these liberal thinkers were really conservative thinkers because their ideas came to be used by conservatives is to blame the liberals of that time for not being liberal in our more present-day understanding of that term. In short, it is not intellectually fair. However, modern-day sociologists are not interested in being fair, because they want to totally demolish the importance of the works of these early sociologists that were influenced by the discipline of biology. As Pierre L. van den Berghe (1991:274) notes that while the early social-science evolutionists may have been no better than the biology of their day, at least "they had the intelligence not to set themselves up against biology."

Latter-day sociologists have rejected evolution as applied to man and have branded biology as a conservative science. However, Darwinian biology is actually to the left of American sociology. And if we dismiss the anti-biology prejudice of the American sociologists for a moment we can actually see Spencer as an early pioneer in biological and social thought. Spencer wanted to create a united view of the world in which all the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities became welded together. We need to value Spencer for his interest in biology, not for his politics. It is not his interest in biology per se that was mistaken, but rather his politics. If we can set aside his now objectionable political views, he certainly has to be regarded as one of the pioneers of biological thought as applied to the social sciences in America.

Lamarckian Impact on Criminology

Biology had perhaps its greatest impact in the field of criminology. It is now fashionable to poke fun and even laugh at the crude attempts by these early scholars to try to measure criminals physiologically. However, it was what they were measuring, and not the fact that they were measuring, that was the mistake.

Evolution strengthened the positivist school of criminology. In 1870 Cesare Lombroso, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pavia, thought that criminals might be biologically different from non-criminals. He later measured the skulls of 383 dead prisoners, and with the assistance of students, five thousand nine hundred five living ones. In 1876 he published his Criminal Man and found himself famous virtually overnight, becoming the acknowledged leader of the positivist school of criminology.

Positivism threw down the gauntlet to classical criminal law which believed that man acted on the basis of sufficient will power to repress criminal impulses. To the Italian School, free will was simply a myth -- a vestige of the theological and metaphysical stages through which the science of criminology had passed on its way to the third and positive stage of knowledge.

In 1877 Richard Louis Dugdale published The "Jukes": A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. It had a hopeful message but the public concentrated on the negative and biological aspects. Even Sir Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, cited the Juke study.

Social Lamarckianism in American Life

The Civil War cleared the way for the triumph of industrialism in the United States. Early capitalism was not regulated and monopolies began to dominate whole spheres of American industrial life. This vast concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men meant not only the corruption of economic life in America, but corruption of political life as well. The age came to referred to as the age of the robber barons. The defenders of these powerful men justified their unequal share of the wealth in terms of Spencer's survival of the fittest. Businessmen saw themselves as the fittest of those to survive in the fight for survival. Even though Spencer was not a Darwinian, but rather a Lamarckian, evolution has forever remained a tainted subject in the American social sciences.

We have seen how Darwin's main ideas were anathema to people of the nineteenth century. What then do we make of Richard Hofstadter's (1944, 1955) thesis of social Darwinism. Hofstadter presented Spencer's interpretation of laissez-faire individualism as the vehicle that transmitted an essentially Darwinian view of society from Britain to America.

However, we know this is false because America was the home of laissez-faire philosophy even before Benjamin Franklin codified the philosophy as Americanism in the eighteenth century in his Poor Richard's Almanack series. America took up Herbert Spencer not because of any obvious brilliance of his ideas, but because these ideas fit with what America already believed. And, secondly, Hofstadter, like most American intellectuals, had an anti-biological bias. He may have known history, but he did not know his science. It was Lamarckianism and not Darwinism that had triumphed. The insistence on using Darwinism in the term social Darwinism is still a reflection of the anti-evolutionary and anti-biology stance of American social scientists who want to paint Darwinian evolution as politically unacceptable.

 

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