Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Heroic Conflict of Democracy with Scientific Law
By Edwin Lawrence Godkin (18311902)
[Born in Moyne, County Wicklow, Ireland, 1831. Died in Devon, England, 1902. An American View of Popular Government.The Nineteenth Century. 1886.]
I BELIEVE the doctrine of the survival of the fittest has, as a matter of fact, met with even fiercer opposition from the religious well-to-do middle class and from the clergy than from the unfortunate multitude. But it is a doctrine which must needs be unpopularif unpopular means disagreeablewith all but the very successful, that is, with the great majority of the human race. The survival of the fittest has ever been and must ever be an odious sight to the unfit or the less fit, who see that they cannot survive. Sir Henry Maines reproach, that they do not accept it cheerfully, reminds one of Frederick the Greats savage reproof to his flying troops: Hunde, wollte ihr ewig leben? In asking the multitude to take to it kindly, Sir Henry asks something which has always been beyond human powers. There is no doctrine with which the race is more familiar in practice than the doctrine that the strongest must have the best of it, which is really Darwins doctrine expressed in terms of politics. The progress of civilization under all forms of government has consisted simply in making such changes in the environment of the multitude as will increase the number of the fittest. That it has been well to strive for this end: that it has been well to try to make a country like England a place in which twenty-eight millions can dwell in comfort on soil which seventy years ago only supported ten millions in comparative misery, has been for ages the opinion of the wisest and best men under the old monarchies. Possibly they were wrong. Possibly it ought to have been the policy of rulers not only to see that the fittest survived, but that their number was kept down. But is it not asking too much of the multitude to ask them to take a totally new view of the conditions of mans struggle with nature? The great aim of the political art has hitherto been to protect man in some degree from the remorseless working of the laws of the physical universe, to save him from cold, from heat, from savage beasts, from the unwillingness of the earth to yield him her fruits and the sea its fish. All its successes have to some extent increased the number of the fittest. It has filled West Europe with a population which conservative observers like Sir Henry Maine two centuries ago would certainly have declared it incapable of maintaining. Can we possibly expect Democracy to give up the game as soon as it comes into power, and bid the weaklings of the race prepare for extinction? Emigration, which he treats as an acceptance of the Darwinian doctrine, is, of course, in reality simply a transfer of the struggle for survival to another arena. The law of population works everywhere, and with increasing severity, other things being equal, as the population increases. Sending the unfit to New Zealand or Dakota is not a whit more scientific than sending them to till English moors. There is no escape for them anywhere from the battle with the fittest; but any abandonment of the effort to protract their existence and make it more tolerable would mean the stoppage of civilization itself. Democracy may make mistakes in this work, and may attempt more than it can accomplish, but energy in the work and devotion to it is after all what distinguishes a civilized community from a savage one. There is no more reason why the bulk of the race should fold its arms in the presence of the theory of population than in the presence of the great fact of mortality. How many people a given piece of land will maintain and comfort, whether only the number settled on it by historical causes or a larger one, is something which can be only ascertained by intelligent experiment. All causes, too, which settle a man on a farm become historical after a while; but whether it is well for him to remain there is something only to be learned by experience. The theory of population does not necessarily prescribe emigration when people begin to find it hard to get a living off the land on which they were born, or on which they have settled, but it does prescribe better modes of cultivation and smaller families.
I am not prepared to argue that democratic societies will always accept the conclusions of science with meekness and submission. One sees, I admit, in our own time a good deal to warrant the fear that democratic ignorance will fight unpleasant and inconvenient truths with the pertinacity with which monarchical and aristocratic ignorance has always fought them; and that they will have to owe their triumph in the future, as they have owed it in the past, not to any particular distribution of the political sovereignty, but to the intellectual impulse which has carried the race out of the woods and the caves, and given it its great discoverers and inventors.