Social Environment and Moral Progress: Alfred Wallace

Background: Alfred Wallace was co-proposer along with Charles Darwin of natural selection being the primary mechanism driving evolution. In fact Wallace submitted the idea for publication first but graciously shared the credit with Darwin and referred to the mechanism throughout his life as Darwin's discovery. His studies began with collecting fossils and specimens of exotic living creatures in South America and Indonesia, among whose people he lived for many years far beyond the reach of Western civilization. Wallace was notable for his mildness of character combined with a fierce insistance on human dignity. "Social Environment and Moral Progress" was published in 1913.

For me Wallace remains highly relevant. Over a century ago he foresaw opportunities open to us to apply what we know about evolution to today's problems. He foresaw current interest in the idea of states providing every citizen with a basic income. "I have shown that the well-established laws of evolution as they really apply to mankind are all favorable to the advance of true civilization and of morality. Our existing competitive and antagonistic social system alone neutralizes their beneficent operation. That system must therefore be radically changed into one of brotherly co-operation and co-ordination for the equal good of all."

He was strongly opposed to the supposedly evolution-based claims of the eugenecists. He quotes examples:

If it be true that reason must direct the course of human evolution, and if it be also true that selection of the fittest is the only method available for that purpose; then, if we are to have any race-improvement at all, the dreadful law of destruction of the weak and helpless must, with Spartan firmness, be carried out voluntarily and deliberately. Against such a course all that is best in us revolts. [Professor Joseph Le Conte, in The Monist, Vol. I., p. 334.]

The immediate effect upon character [of the compensation to workmen for accident] is to save the careless, thoughtless and incompetent from the results of their faults; this at once reduces largely the weeding and educational effects of the bad qualities. [Janus in Modern Life. By W. M. Flinders Petrie, D.C.L., F.R.S.]

Convinced of the incalculable worth of every human being Wallace  was implacably opposed to committees assuming natural selection's role of deciding whose progeny would be most fit. "I trust that all my readers will oppose any legislation on this subject by a chance body of elected persons who are totally unfitted to deal with far less complex problems than this one, and as to which they are sure to bungle disastrously." Wallace instead recommended the setting up of a universal basic income. This would moderate population growth much more effectively, in several ways. Taking his lead from Darwin's writing on sexual selection rather than on natural selection, he recommended leaving the job of deciding who could reproduce to women who, as he pointed out, in choosing mates already fulfill and always have fulfilled this function. With a basic income women could embrace motherhood only when it suited them. For some women that is likely to be never, giving other women greater choice over who would be the fathers of their offspring.

A basic income, besides helping relieve every citizen of crushing anxiety, would also allow them to aspire to a greater level of fulfillment. More educated parents do not have large families, the most rapid increase occurs in those classes which are engaged in healthy manual labor. "We may therefore feel certain that as the intellectual level of the whole race is raised by general culture and physical health, the law of diminishing fertility will act, and will tend in the remote future to bring about an exact balance between the rate of increase and that of mortality."

"When poverty is abolished and neither economic nor social advantages will be gained by early marriage, there can be no doubt it will be generally deferred to a later age... If we compare women married at twenty with those at twenty-nine, the comparative fertility is as 8 to 5." But this does not represent the whole effect on increase of population. When marriage is delayed, the time between successive generations is correspondingly increased; and yet another effect in the same direction is produced by the fact that the greater the average age of marriage the fewer generations are alive at the same time. It is the combined effect of these three factors that determines the actual increase of the population due to this cause.

Implementing a universal basic income would work towards Wallace's goal of advancing true civilization and morality.

When men and women are, for the first time in the course of civilization, alike free to follow their best impulses; when idleness and vicious or hurtful luxury on the one hand, oppressive labor and the dread of starvation on the other, are alike unknown; when all receive the best and broadest education that the state of civilization and knowledge will admit; when the standard of public opinion is set by the wisest and the best among us, and that standard is systematically inculcated on the young; then we shall find that a system of truly natural selection will come spontaneously into action which will steadily tend to eliminate the lower, the less developed, or in any way defective types of men, and will thus continuously raise the physical, moral, and intellectual standard of the race.

Social Environment and Moral Progress was the last book Wallace wrote. From it we can learn what evolution meant to one of its most thoughtful students. The meanings he found in it contrast nicely with the conservative meanings given it by Herbert Spencer ("Social Darwinsm"). To Wallace the meaning of us having evolved lead to socialism. He became a fierce critic of contemporary society. Through his years of living far from Western civilization both in South America and Indonesia he was familiar with an unusually wide variety of human societies. From his experiences he judged "It is not too much to say that our whole system of society is rotten from top to bottom, and the Social Environment as a whole, in relation to our possibilities and our claims, is the worst that the world has ever seen." He devoted several chapters to the awful conditions prevailing in Britain in his lifetime, then makes an empassioned case for a universal basic income:

I have given in briefest outline a summary of the growth during the nineteenth century of the actual social environment in the midst of which we live. We see a continuous advance of man's power to utilize the forces of Nature, to an extent which surpasses everything he had been able to do during all the preceding centuries of his recorded history.

We also see that the result of this vast economic revolution has been almost wholly evil. We see that this hundredfold increase of wealth, amply sufficient to provide necessaries, comforts, and all beneficial refinement, and luxuries for our whole population, has been distributed with such gross injustice that the actual condition of those who produce all this wealth has become worse and worse, no efficient arrangements having been made that from the overflowing abundance produced all should receive the mere essentials of a healthy and happy existence...

Yet our Governments, selected from among the most educated, the most talented, the wealthiest of the country, with absolute power to make what laws and regulations they please, and an overflowing fund of accumulated wealth to draw upon, do nothing, although more people die annually of want than are killed in a great war, and more children than could be slaughtered by many Herods.

Now for some of Wallace's other opinions about human evolution.

The theory of natural selection as expounded by Darwin was so completely successful in explaining the origin of the almost infinitely varied forms of the organic world... that it was naturally supposed to be equally applicable to mankind... But so soon as man appeared upon the earth, even in the earliest periods at which we have any proofs of his existence, or in the lowest state of barbarism in which we are now able to study him, we find him able to use and act upon the forces of Nature, and to modify his environment, both inorganic and organic, in ways which formed a completely new departure in the entire organic world.

[Eg., through mind.] If we recognize the brain as the organ of the mind, and give due weight to the complete distinctness and enormous superiority of the mind of man as compared with that of all other mammals, we may... realize the enormous effect his mind has produced, in modifying and almost neutralizing the action of that great law of natural selection which has held supreme sway in every other portion of the organic world

[Mutual aid is one example of] the enormous effect his mind has produced, in modifying and almost neutralizing the action of that great law of natural selection which has held supreme sway in every other portion of the organic world. The less fit are therefore not eliminated as among all other animals; and we behold, for the first time in the history of the world, the great law of natural selection by the survival only of "the fittest" to some extent neutralized.

But this is only the first and least important of the effects produced by the superior faculties of man. In the whole animal world, as we have seen, every species is preserved in harmony with the slowly changing environment by modifications of its own organs or faculties, thus gradually leading to the production of new species equally adapted to the new environment as its ancestor was before the change occurred.

In the case of man, however, such bodily adaptations were unnecessary, because his greatly superior mind enabled him to meet all such difficulties in a new and different way. As soon as his specially human faculties were developed (and we have as yet no knowledge of him in any earlier condition), he would cease to be influenced by natural selection in his physical form and structure. Looked at as a mere animal he would remain almost stationary, the changes in the surrounding universe ceasing to produce in him that powerful modifying effect which they exercise over all other members of the entire organic world.

We see, then, that with the advent of Man there had come into existence a being in whom that subtle force we term mind became of far more importance than mere bodily structure... Though less capable than most other animals of living on the herbs and the fruits that unaided Nature supplies, this wonderful faculty taught him to govern and direct Nature to his own benefit, and compelled her to produce food for him almost where and when he pleased. From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist him in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in Nature--a revolution which in all previous ages of the earth's history had had no parallel. A being had arisen who was no longer subject to bodily change with changes of the physical universe--a being who was in some degree superior to Nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her, not through any change in his body, but by means of his vast superiority in mind.

How did such creatures originate? Quite early, and abruptly. Above I quoted him as saying, "As soon as his specially human faculties were developed (and we have as yet no knowledge of him in any earlier condition)..." And here from someone with almost unparalelled field exerience: "Affection, sympathy, compassion form as essential a part of human nature as do the higher intellectual and moral faculties; that in the very earliest periods of history and among the very lowest of existing savages they are fully manifested, not merely between the members of the same family, but throughout the whole tribe, and also in most cases to every stranger who is not a known or imagined enemy." For Wallace humans seem to have sprung miraculously into existence with all their mental powers fully formed.

The conclusion reached in the earlier portion of this volume, that the higher intellectual and moral nature of man has been approximately stationary during the whole period of human history, and that the cause of the phenomenon has been the absence of any selective agency adequate to increase it, renders it necessary to give some further explanation as to the probable or possible origin of this higher nature, and also of that admirable human body which also appears to have reached a condition of permanent stability.

What explanation does Wallace come up with? Not a Lamarckian inheriting of acquired characteristics, he argues against that at length. In its place he upholds an old-fashioned theism. "To myself, there seems only one explanation of the very remarkable and almost incredible results just stated. It is, that the Divine nature in us--that portion of our higher nature which raises us above the brutes, and the influx of which makes us men--cannot be lost, cannot even be permanently deteriorated by conditions however adverse, by training however senseless and bad. It ever remains in us, the central and essential portion of our human nature, ready to respond to every favorable opportunity that arises, to grasp and hold firm every fragment of high thought or noble action that has been brought to its notice, to oppose even to the death every falsehood in teaching, every tyranny in action."

What I have here termed the Divine influx, which at some definite epoch in his evolution at once raised man above the rest of the animals, creating as it were a new being with a continuous spiritual existence in a world or worlds where eternal progress was possible for him. To prepare him for this progress with ever-increasing diversity, faculties of enormous range were required, and these needed development in every direction which earthly conditions rendered possible. In order that this extreme diversity of character should be brought about, a great space of time, as measured by successive generations, was necessary, though utterly insignificant as compared with the preceding duration of organic life on the earth, and still more insignificant as compared with the spirit-life to succeed it.

I admire Wallace. Though he insisted natural selection accounted for all other aspects of life, reason drove him to conclude that it failed in respect of human evolution. In his other writings he points out that talents that appeared full-blown with the advent of civilzation, such as logic and mathematics, even singing, even if generated by natural station originally, would have been lost through disuse by the time civilization arose. For what was special about humans he invoked the term "Divine." But he was no creationist, no closet Christian as we think of that today. Instead, applying rationalty to the search for this agent, he began frequenting spiritualism sessions. For this he was roundly mocked, but he persisted, perhaps seeing no more likely source of enlightenment in the London of his time. I applaud that judgment, and that persistence, even if in retrospect it seems misguided. I see no one else having pursued the logic of evolution so remorselessly.