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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Influence of Civilization on Duration of Life

By Charlton Thomas Lewis (1834–1904)

[Born in West Chester, Penn., 1834. Died in Morristown, Penn., 1904. From a Discourse before the American Public Health Association, Boston, October, 1876.]

AN EMINENT school of scientific men are teaching the doctrine of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, as the key to all progress in nature. I wish distinctly to bring out the startling contrast between this law and the laws of progress in vitality which we have found actually at work in human history. The first condition of natural selection is wholesale slaughter. It begins by assuming the principle of Malthus, that life tends to multiply beyond the possibility of preservation; of the infinite mass that come into being, nearly all must perish unfulfilled. Who shall the survivors be? Those, of course, who, by superior vigor or by greater harmony with their environment, are most fit to survive. These alone live to reproduce their kind, and transmit the superiority which has preserved them; and thus, in successive generations, the race accumulates the qualities which promote life. Thus the natural process of advancement is founded on limitless waste; the growth of life is in the soil of boundless death; the better form springs ever from a world of graves. Mr. Huxley tells us that the law of evolution, founded on this conception of natural selection, as explaining the mode in which the organic world around us has arisen, stands on a basis of evidence comparable to that which supports the Newtonian theory of the solar system. Let us admit it, then, to the full extent claimed. Admit that man himself, in the structural differences between him and lower forms, is the product of this law, and that, up to the time when he became distinctly human, as contrasted with his quadrumanous kindred, his development was governed by it. We shall see that his human progress is of an entirely different character. Observe that the forces which we find at work in the physical and mental growth of man are not merely independent of natural selection; they are exclusive of it, and at war with it.

Look at each of the agencies we have enumerated. Of a generation of infants entering the world, natural selection says, Let them meet hardship, severity, disease, which will destroy ail but the most vigorous, and leave these to become the parents of a hardier race. To the infirm of all ages, the diseased, the old, it says, Perish out of my way. You are worthless of yourselves; and, if allowed to multiply, you but perpetuate helplessness and increase misery. Of epidemics it says, Let them rage; they may sweep away strong and weak together, but not without discrimination. They destroy a larger share of the feeble, and leave the average strength of the race and its posterity greater than before. By the standard of natural selection, it would be clear gain that the human race should be exterminated to-day, saving only a handful of the most perfect humanity, to repeople the world after a higher standard.

But the foundation of society introduces the opposite principle. Family affections and social ties have their meaning in the value of the individual life to others; its value to society at large is a central thought of civilization. The preservation of each by the common work and mutual aid of all is the aim of government and law; the basis of families, communities, and nations. Thus the formation of society is the reversal of the blind law of unconscious advancement, and its every step forward weakens the forces on which this natural development depends. Its history is a struggle against the conditions of natural selection, and a steady reduction of its area of influence. Society preserves, for the progenitors of the future, alike the weak and the strong, the diseased and the healthy. If, then, this blind law is the one key to progress, man must degenerate. Pessimists, then, are right in holding that all our charities, public institutions, sanitary improvements, the very order of society itself, are but means of protecting the weak against the sentence of nature, and of perpetuating their weakness. Benevolence is then but folly, mercy a crime, the charities of civilized life a pernicious force, working for the degeneracy of the race.

There is but one reply: Civilization does largely sacrifice one principle of progress—the law of evolution by survivorship; but it introduces another more potent principle. Under natural selection, improvement must needs be fitful, occasional, and immeasurably slow; because the variations upon which it works and among which it chooses, are but casual deviations from an average standard, which it can at most catch and preserve. But civilization possesses the element of individual culture, by which the standard itself is raised from generation to generation. Society educates the child into a higher type of power, endurance, and refinement than that in which he was born; its effects are stored up in muscle, nerve, and brain, and through him transmitted to posterity, and thus accumulate from age to age. Under natural selection, when variations in capacity arise, thousands of them are wasted where one is secured, fixed, and transmitted. But human society economizes much of this waste, fastens upon and improves an immensely larger proportion of the capacities lavishly produced by nature, and thus concentrates, in the brief historical movement, forces which would otherwise spread their operation over countless ages. Thus it is the characteristic of civilization that the hereditary accumulation of intellectual and moral culture gradually supersedes the unconscious and physical law of selection as the agency of progress.

Now history, while it has been a struggle between these two principles of advancement, has also been a test of their comparative power. Natural selection, as its ablest expounders have shown, works with such extreme slowness, under the most favorable circumstances, that the progress of its work has never yet been detected by observation. No instance is known of its having effected any marked and important change in any race of creatures, during the period of history. Vast as is its cumulative force, it is exerted only in the course of ages defying our imagination to span; and to accomplish a small part of its work, it must cleave its path of misery and slaughter through epochs measured only by the formations of geology and the cycles of the stars. But the intellectual and moral forces of culture, which have superseded it in man, have actually, within the brief space of a few thousand years, achieved the world of happiness in which we live. The rocks register the story of a blind evolution, which they tell us is still going on as rapidly as ever, yet so slowly that the eye which watches for a few centuries or millenniums can discern no movement; they cannot explain those laws, by which, within generations too few to make one of their minor epochs, the beast-like companions of the cave-bear and the mammoth—the wandering barbarians of the flint period—have produced the intellects of Shakespeare and Newton, the scientific culture and the free society into which men are now born.

We have seen that, where animal evolution ends and human progress begins, the laws of individual and hereditary culture supersede the law of natural selection. An interesting consequence of this is the fact that it makes a place for the prolongation of the individual life beyond the period of vital and muscular activity. Under the reign of natural selection, there is no position in the universe for the being who has passed the reproductive stage of energy. Hence wild animals, soon after this period, usually die; and, similarly, savage society has no home for old age. But civilization centres wholly in the intellect, whose forces are communicated by other than vital processes—in ideas which move and mould the world through the minds and the posterity of others; and the intellect, under favorable circumstances, not only continues its work, but grows in efficiency and usefulness after time has impaired the physical powers. It is in civilized society alone that the activity of the brain makes old age valuable; and as civilization advances, the economy of preserving a strong and cultivated mind through the longest possible period of activity becomes more and more practicable, and yields a richer reward. Thus it is a strictly scientific truth that the best symbol of progress, the pride of social achievement, the noblest ornament of our race, is the venerable man, who, in a decaying body, preserves the energies of a wise, benevolent, and vigorous mind.