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 The Politics of a Biologist (1907)*

By Bertrand Russell

Heredity and Selection in Sociology. By George Chatterton-Hill. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907. Pp. xxx, 571

TO THOSE ENGAGED in the immediate business of politics or philanthropy, it is as disconcerting as it is salutary to be challenged as to the remoter effects of their activities. Of all the effects of social institutions, the effect on the biological quality of the race is probably the most important, and ought, if it could be ascertained, to have the greatest weight in determining what changes we are to advocate. Yet such considerations, owing to their difficulty and remoteness, are not at present among those of which practical men take account. The only use to which Darwinian arguments have hitherto been put is to justify acts of spoliation and rapine against “inferior” races; and this use has discredited such arguments with honest people. But although the Devil can quote Scripture, it does not follow that whoever quotes Scripture is the Devil. And the facts about modern civilized nations are so serious that it has become imperatively necessary to consider them calmly. In bringing the facts to the notice of the public, Mr. Chatterton-Hill has done a very useful work, though his practical recommendations are so little borne out by his facts that it is hard to regard them as anything but the expression of unscientific prejudices.

The biological problem among modern human beings is different in many essential respects from anything to be found among plants or animals, or even among men in former times. These differences are so important that, if they are overlooked, arguments based upon analogy with other parts of organic nature are pretty certain to prove misleading. In former times, success in the economic or military struggle usually meant biological success, i.e. the propagation of numerous descendants. For nations defeated in war were largely exterminated, and individuals defeated in competition often starved, while those who were successful in either respect as a rule had large families. But now-a-days exactly the opposite happens. Our conquest of India, for example, has undoubtedly diminished the Indian death-rate and increased the native population, while it has placed Englishmen in a climate which they find unhealthy and where it is difficult for them to bring up children. Similarly in the economic struggle: the poorest sections of society, throughout Western Europe, have the largest families, and this is only partially outweighed by their greater infant mortality. Thus economic and military success, throughout the modern world, are causes of biological failure, i.e. of leaving fewer descendants than are left by the poor and the vanquished. Consequently courage, intelligence, perseverance, foresight and energy are, biologically speaking, disadvantageous to a race or an individual, and these qualities, if selection continues to operate as at present, will tend to die out of the human race. To avert this consequence – a consequence which appears certain if nothing is done – is plainly a problem of the utmost importance. It may be that its solution will demand some modification of our traditional morality; if so, we must at least consider earnestly whether such modification is possible without real moral deterioration.

Mr. Chatterton-Hill, after a long biological account of heredity and selection among plants and animals, of which the main outcome is that acquired characters are very seldom inherited, proceeds to state the facts on which he bases his pessimistic view of modern civilized societies. In an interesting chapter on suicide, he points out that it is greatly on the increase, and that, on the Continent, it is more prevalent in Protestant than in Catholic countries.1 It increases in good times, and diminishes when times are bad as well as during wars.2 Insanity, which he considers next, is also, by the statistics, increasing enormously,3 owing chiefly, it would seem, to two causes, alcoholism and syphilis. It might be thought that natural selection would in time produce a race which would enjoy immunity from these evils, but this is not the case, since they often do not prevent people from leaving a family of children. The same applies to tuberculosis, in which, though the death-rate for young people has diminished, that for people over thirty-five has increased, owing to the fact that those who would formerly have died young are now kept alive for a number of years. Thus the weak and degenerate are increasingly able to leave children, and the race accordingly deteriorates.

Meanwhile the richer classes (which are assumed to be on the whole the better) marry later and have smaller families than formerly, or than is now the case with the poorer classes. Figures are quoted by Mr. Chatterton-Hill as to the birth-rates in the different quarters of various capitals, arranged according to wealth. It appears that the birth-rate in the poorest quarters is in each case about three times as high as in the richest, with a continual gradation between the two. He does not quote figures as to the very remarkable general decline of the birth-rate during the last thirty years or so, nor the facts which show that this decline is mainly due to voluntary limitation of families on the part of the more provident and responsible members of the community. His failure to note the decline in the birth-rate also leads him not to notice, or at least not to mention, a fact which appears among the most civilized nations, and entirely upsets the crude Darwinian argument, namely that they do not, or rather soon will not, tend to increase in numbers at all, so that the cause of the struggle for existence, which prevails throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms, is ceasing to be operative. The new factor introduced by voluntary limitation of families, which is one of the most important, if not the most important, in the whole problem, is unaccountably ignored by Mr. Chatterton-Hill; and this greatly lessens the value of his statement of the question. For at present, roughly speaking, the better members of Western communities limit their families and the worse do not; thus we have a grave source of evil, produced, and presumably removable, by economic causes.

Although, as everyone knows, unwillingness to have a large family is mainly due to economic causes, yet it is not to economic causes that Mr. Chatterton-Hill looks for a remedy. The remedy he recommends is that we should all adopt the Roman Catholic faith. Before considering his reasons for this remedy, we may point out that it is precisely the remedy which will be brought about if nothing is done. For at present the birth-rate among Roman Catholics is much higher than among others, and the difference is increasing. If no steps are taken, the population of Western Europe and America will, in all likelihood, become predominantly Roman Catholic within the present century; for in each generation those who abandon this faith or who have never held it tend to die out. This is a new phenomenon which has not yet had time to produce political effects; but the statistics are so remarkable that we can hardly doubt what the result must be.4 Thus it seems hardly necessary to write a book advocating what will happen of itself if nothing is done.

That men of science should bring to the attention of laymen the facts of science which bear on general questions is of the utmost importance to the intelligent guidance of the State. But when they pass beyond science we must examine their arguments as closely as if they were ordinary politicians; for we shall usually find that their reasoning ceases to be valid when they desert the region of their special knowledge, and that much of what they believe to be deductions from their science is merely the unconscious embodiment of class or personal bias. In the present case, this caution is very necessary; for what profess to be conclusions based on biology turn out, on examination, to be hasty inferences from doubtful metaphysical and ethical assumptions. These assumptions are made lightly, because the author is not sufficiently familiar with philosophy to know the arguments against them. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Mr. Kidd are his chief philosophical authorities, and he makes no attempt to meet the criticisms to which their views may be subjected.

Like Mr. Kidd, he assumes that reason can never prompt to any but selfish actions, though he advances no grounds in favour of this view. He holds, apparently, that no man can be led by reason to desire the welfare of the community, and that, therefore, men must be taught some mythology which shall lead them to act for the good of the community under the mistaken impression that they are pursuing their own good. (This is not definitely stated, but it seems to be his meaning.) Such a mythology he calls a “supra-rational principle.” He does not tell us what motive is to induce those who, like himself apparently, do not accept this mythology, to spend their time in preaching it; for they, presumably, must be purely selfish in their actions. If we infer the nature of his “supra-rational principle” from its operations in modern Europe, we shall I think agree that the things it justifies are things which reason condemns. For example, in Belgium the Church (in the main) supports the Congo atrocities, while the atheistical Socialists attack them. In France, if we judged by the unaided light of reason, we might prefer the atheistic defenders of Dreyfus to the religious forgers and perjurers who secured his condemnation. But Mr. Chatterton-Hill, under the guidance of a “supra-rational principle,” apparently sees deeper on this question.5

Before proceeding to establish the necessity of religion, Mr. Chatterton-Hill examines the claims of Liberalism and Socialism. There is the usual chapter on “the bankruptcy of Liberalism,” without which no book on Sociology is complete. He examines “whether, firstly, Liberalism has kept the promises made in its name by all its most eminent representatives; and whether, secondly, it is theoretically as far above reproach as one might sometimes be tempted to think” (p. 450). These questions, by their form, recall a Conservative party meeting. What programme has ever fulfilled all its promises, or been theoretically above reproach? These are not the questions which have to be answered when a policy is on its trial; but if they were, how would Catholicism fare? Our author, so far as can be discovered, is not himself a Catholic, and therefore does not think Catholicism “theoretically above reproach.” As for its promises, it has promised immortal life in heaven to all the faithful; does Mr. Chatterton-Hill believe it has kept this promise?

The author finds that “two fundamental ideas underlie Liberal policy – the rights of the individual as individual, and the unrestricted competition between individuals.” Between these two he finds a contradiction. But how long is it since anyone has advocated unrestricted competition? He urges, however, that if this is abandoned we are led to Socialism, thus assuming that there is no middle course between unrestricted competition and no competition. The position of modern Liberalism – that competition is a useful motive power, but requires to be guided and controlled by the law – is never discussed or examined by our author. His method is to ignore all the limitations which sensible men impose upon the application of principles recognized by them as having exceptions; thus he produces a caricature, of which it is easy to show that it is unworkable. This method is too common with political theorists; but whatever else it may be, it is not scientific.

The objections to Socialism are equally inconclusive. We are told that “the ideal of communism is essentially the resultant of an ideal which is still more fundamental – that of the natural goodness of man.” This assertion certainly finds no support in Marx, whose views on human nature were essentially those of Bentham. That some communists have believed in the natural goodness of man is no doubt true; but it should not be inferred that this belief is essential to communism. In Cromwell’s army democracy was advocated on Scriptural grounds which to us seem merely fantastic; but it does not follow that democracy is a mistake. The fact that a man whom you are refuting has expressed an opinion cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of the truth of that opinion; yet no other evidence is offered by Mr. Chatterton-Hill for the opinion that communism requires the natural goodness of man.

His principal objection to Socialism, however, is that it would suppress conflict. I shall try to show that, in the only sense in which conflict is essential to biological progress, Socialism of some sort is a condition for its existence in a beneficent form. But the conflict which is essential is merely one which causes the better parents to leave the larger number of descendants, not one which involves a perpetually renewed massacre of the weaker. Conflict of this latter sort, however, independently of any good effects it may have, is regarded by Mr. Chatterton-Hill as a fine and noble thing, which ought to be kept up for its own sake. He says:

If we suppress conflict, we not only suppress the means by which progress is achieved and by which progress alone can be maintained, but we suppress one of the chief outlets for the expansion of life. We restrict the sphere of a life by restricting the sphere of its expansion. We thus render life poorer; we reduce its vitality, and greatly limit its possibilities of evolution.

But this is an ideal which renders life poorer, which reduces its vitality. Is it not the faith of a pessimist, of one whose belief in the value of life is not sufficiently great to tempt him to realise the possibilities of life? For one who believes in life, who believes that life possesses a value, the great object will be to realise the maximum amount of life possible. (p. 477)

And a few pages later:
Socialism is, therefore, not the social force for which we are seeking; the force, namely, which is best adapted to increasing the actual tendency to widen the sphere of conflict, while at the same time increasing the value of life. By aiming at the restriction of the sphere of conflict, if not at the suppression of all conflict, Socialism reduces the value of life in a corresponding measure. (p. 482)
The “social force for which we are seeking” turns out in the end to be the Catholic faith. And this conclusion, we are expected to believe, is that recommended by biological science. But putting aside for a moment the influence of conflict as a selective agency, with which alone biology has any concern, let us consider the non-biological assumptions essential to the above reasoning.

It is assumed, to begin with, that no activity is so delightful, or so inherently excellent, as that of causing one’s neighbour’s death, whether directly by murder, or indirectly by inflicting starvation and disease. It is assumed, in the second place, that a man who does not desire such activity must be a pessimist, i.e. that whoever thinks life a good must wish to deprive his neighbour of this good. It is assumed, in the third place, that we ought to worship the Author of the Sermon on the Mount, not because He deserves our worship, but because such worship will be a help and an incitement to the business of killing our neighbour, and a prophylactic against our adopting any of the humanitarian fads of that misguided Visionary. The book will doubtless be hailed with acclamation by Christian apologists; I can only hope that they will note the grounds upon which its advocacy of Christianity is based.

To those who do not regard conflict as a good in itself, it is natural to ask whether no means other than conflict exist for effecting that selection which is essential to racial progress. Biology cannot tell us whether conflict is a good in itself or not, but it can (within limits) tell us whether the type of man whom we think good will be selected or eliminated by such and such institutions. And it is plain that our present institutions, both where they encourage competition and where they mitigate it, tend to eliminate the best elements of society, leaving the future to the thriftless, the ignorant and the superstitious. The economic struggle, as we saw, at present has this tendency; hence a mitigation of this struggle, such as Socialism contemplates, will do something to mitigate the evil. But this alone is insufficient. Economic motives at present induce, or soon will induce, all but the poorest or the most reckless to have small families. Small families, so long as they do not involve an actual diminution of numbers, are in themselves not an evil but a good. The evil at present is, first, that it is the best people who have small families, secondly, that in some desirable classes – for instance, the middle-classes of France and the United States – the births are apparently insufficient to prevent the stock from dying out. The struggle for existence, which has hitherto been Nature’s method, was rendered necessary by excessive reproduction, and more or less beneficent by the fact that, on the whole, those who conquered in the struggle were usually preferable on other grounds. But as a method of progress it was objectionable, first, because it was intolerably cruel; secondly, because its selection of the best was by no means infallible. The tapeworm and the microbe are as much a product of natural selection as Shakespeare and Newton. But now-a-days, the excessive reproduction which necessitated the struggle for existence is ceasing among civilized men, and the road is therefore open for more humane methods of selection. The birth-rate is now the main factor in selection, and the birth-rate is controlled by economic motives. These motives at present lead to a selection of the unfittest (in a non-biological sense); but the only thing needed is an economic organization of society which shall reverse their operation. As a comparatively practicable measure, everything ought to be done to diminish the expense of bringing up children for the more desirable parents. Free education up to any grade, provided the parents reach a certain standard, would do something; free feeding of school-children, provided it were given to all, and not only to the destitute, would also do something. But more than this is necessary if the present inverse selection is to be arrested. It is necessary that desirable parents should be wholly relieved of the expense of bringing up their children, not only by providing such things as education free, but by a direct payment from the State to the parents. At the same time those who are considered undesirable as parents ought to be in every way encouraged to limit their families as the desirable parents do at present, and no financial help ought to be given to them by the State in bringing up their children. That all this can be done at once, it would be absurd to suppose; but some such plan should be borne in mind, and measures should be judged according as they tend towards this goal or away from it.

The above suggestions may seem to many fantastic and undesirable. But are they not far less undesirable than the suggestions of Mr. Chatterton-Hill? His plan is that we should all join in advocating the Roman Catholic religion, which, as everyone knows, few educated men are able to believe; and that the object of our advocacy should be to produce such an excess of population that the nations may be compelled to exterminate each other, in the hopes that the remnant, though sunk in superstition and destitute of those intellectual acquirements which the past five centuries have brought us, may at least be physically strong, exuberant, and full of the lust of battle. Something, it is plain, must be done; but if this were the best possible, race-extinction would have to be seriously considered as an alternative. It is, however, not the best possible. But if the best is to be done, social reformers must not be misled by biologists into regarding science as their enemy, but must learn to take account of science, however repulsive may be the garb in which it is presented to them. And men of science, too, one may hope, will learn in time to be more scientific, and will cease to use a scaffolding of biology merely to build a shelter for their prejudices.


*  Bertrand Russell, “The Politics of a Biologist,” The Albany Review, n.s. 2 (Oct 1907), 89-98

1 This conclusion does not apply to England or Scotland

2 So on pp. 212-13  The exact opposite is stated on p. 233

3 How far this apparent increase may be due to the fact that insanity is now more generally recognized as such and brought to the notice of the authorities, is not discussed; but obviously some deduction ought to be made on this account

4 Mr. Sidney Webb’s very interesting articles in the Times, October 11 and 16, 1906, on “Physical Degeneracy or Race Suicide”  These articles practically demonstrate that the decline in the birth-rate is mainly due to voluntary limitation of families, and that this cause is inoperative among Roman Catholics

5 I infer this from his remarks on General Andre and M. Picquart on p. 412