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Posted By Patrick

The theory of natural selection made lots of people nervous back in the day for all sorts of different reasons. One was that it looked like humans themselves were no longer being selected naturally, but thanks to social structures were perverting proper selective processes to allow the weak to gain the upper hand. Evolution was being trumped by society! In an article called “On the Failure of Natural Selection in the Case of Man,” published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1868 (less than a decade after The Origin of Species), William Rathbone Greg argued that society seemed to favour the lower classes and the aristocracy, instead of the hard-working middle classes. Here he is:

“It is the middle classes, those who form the energetic, reliable, improving element of the population, those who wish to rise and do not chose to sink, those in a word who are the true strength and wealth and dignity of nations, – it is these who abstain from marriage or postpone it. Thus the imprudent, the desperate – those whose standard is low, those who have no hope, no ambition, no self-denial – on the one side, and the pampered favourites of fortune on the other, take precedence in the race of fatherhood, to the disadvantage or the exclusion of the prudent, the resolute, the striving, and the self-restrained. The very men whom a philosophic statesman, or a guide of some superior race would select as most qualified and deserving to continue the race, are precisely those who do so in the scantiest measure. Those who have no need of exertion, and those who have no opportunities for culture, those whose frames are damaged by indulgence, and those whose frames are weakened by privation, breed ad libitum; while those whose minds and bodies have been hardened, strengthened and purified by temperance and toil, are elbowed quietly aside in the unequal press. Surely, the selection is no longer “natural.” The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman, fed on potatoes, living in a pig-stye, doting on a superstition, multiplies like rabbits or ephemera; – the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts, – and in a dozen generations, five sixths of the population would be Celts, but five sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one sixth of the Saxons that remained. In the eternal “struggle for existence,” it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed, – and prevailed by virtue not of its qualities but because of its faults, by reason not of its stronger vitality but of its weaker reticence and its narrower brain.”

The brains are clearly with the Scots, the Saxons, and the middle classes; and they aren’t with the Irish, the poor and the aristocracy. Intelligence begins to take on a pretty race-and-class-based shape here… so how can you not love this stuff! Of course, as coming from a long line of squalid & unaspiring Irishmen, I find it irresistible. Darwin was into it as well, writing (in The Descent of Man) that he thought Greg had “ably discussed” the topic. Yes, the time was ripe for theories of devolution that forecast the inevitable decline of intelligence, except for the odd outpost of lonely Scots....

1 Comment(s):
Ernie said...
Scantiest? I'm going to have to start using htat word more :)
August 15, 2009 01:33:03
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