Biology and Sociology

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By Francis D. Tandy

The present condition of the laboring classes has drawn into the reform movement many persons, who, while extremely anxious to better social conditions are unable to grasp the problems which confront them with the serious attention and deep study that they demand. Many are seriously hindered by a priori ideas, such as a belief in a merciful God, or by an implicit faith in the inherent goodness of Nature; these people refuse to apply accepted biological laws to human beings; they consider evolution a good sort of thing in its way, but when you mention" the law of the survival of the fittest," they condemn it as cruel and merciless. Well, so it may be; but that does not detract from its truth, and because it is cruel is more a reason why we should study it carefully, rather than ignore it. But these sentimentalists are by no means the only persons who do not pay sufficient attention to other sciences in order to gain a thorough insight into sociology.

Herbert Spencer, in his "Synthetic Philosophy," has shown us that, to understand sociology, it is not only necessary to study economics, but also many, if not all, other sciences. If Spencer found it necessary to study psychology and biology in order to be able to analyze social phenomena, surely it is a little presumptuous of people who lay no claim to extraordinary ability to imagine that they can grapple successfully with the social problem after having read a half a dozen popular handbooks of political economy.

For nearly a year has the question of "use inheritance" been occupying the attention of the leading scientists of the world. Prof. Wiesmann Ball and others claim that the idea of the inheritance of acquired traits (held by Darwin, Spencer, and their followers) is erroneous, and their arguments are now very generally admitted; yet I have watched the reform press closely during that time, and have never even seen this fact mentioned. While so-called labor leaders have been fighting for supremacy—Single-taxers debating the advisability of voting for the Democrats, Socialists discussing the prospects of a millennium in 1892, and Anarchists quibbling over the copyright question-here is a most important biological law being challenged right in front of us, and not a single reform paper has ever mentioned it. It is impossible, in this short article, to review the various arguments produced by the opposing parties; I merely wish to can attention to the effect such a law has upon sociology, then those who wish to investigate the matter can do so by reading the books which have been written on the subject.

If Professor Wiesmann is correct in saying that acquired traits are not inherited, and that evolution depends upon natural selection alone, it becomes of paramount importance that no obstacle be thrown in the way of this potent factor. If a man has a tendency to drink intemperately, it would be better for society that he be permitted to drink himself to death at once (if use inheritance is disproved) than that he should live and beget offspring who will be liable to inherit this same tendency. If, on the other hand, his acquired habit of temperance (acquired by inability to procure liquor) be transmitted, then we may be able to find a plausible excuse for prohibition; and so through all the various social questions; if "use inheritance" be correct, the State Socialist may have a fair basis for his doctrines; but if not, the Individualist can find no stronger argument.

This is by no means the only biological question which bears directly on sociology; there are thousands of others just as important; so I would say to all would-be reformers: Disabuse your minds of all a priori ideas; study everything, and accept nothing without investigation; believe nothing until it is demonstrated; and hold nothing sacred from criticism, recollecting that the negative position should always have the benefit of every doubt. If you follow this advice you are free, if not you are a slave; for slavery is a mental, not a physical, condition.

Denver, Col.

  • Francis D. Tandy, "Biology and Sociology," The Twentieth Century, May 14, 1891, 7.