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Posted By Patrick

What’s so natural about evolutionary selection when it happens to humans – and where does intelligence fit in the picture, so far as Victorians (at least some of them) thought? As W. R. Greg (see the previous post!) says of humans, “as with [other animals], inferior varieties and individuals succumb and die out in the eternal and universal ‘struggle for existence;’ only, in the case of man, the inferiority which determines their fate is inferiority not of muscle, of stomach, or of skin, but of brain.” Greg quotes a long passage by Alfred Russel Wallace, an intellectual fellow traveler of Darwin’s, who argues that our capacity to think our way through things means that we do not need to adapt physically because we are adapting mentally. Here’s more Wallace, from “On the Origin of Human Races,” published in the Journal of the Anthropological Society:

“In proportion as … physical characteristics become of less importance, mental and moral qualities will have increasing influence on the well-being of the race. Capacity for acting in concert, for protection and the acquisition of food and shelter; sympathy, which leads all in turn to assist each other; the sense of right, which checks depredations upon our fellows; the decrease of the combative and destructive propensities; self-restraint in present appetites; and that intelligent foresight which prepares for the future, are all qualities that from their earliest appearance must have been for the benefit of each community, and would, therefore, have become the subjects of ‘natural selection.’”

Wallace thought that the human intellect enabled people to survive in all sorts of hostile environments: man adapts to his world “by means of his intellect alone; which enables him with an unchanged body still to keep in harmony with the changing universe” (and presumably ‘woman’ follows her man’s example…). The brain is the still point, the thing that keeps us recognizable as humans, rather than having us transform, as other animals do, into a creature more suited to its physical environment. As Wallace says…

“From the time, therefore, when the social and sympathetic feelings came into active operation, and the intellectual and moral faculties became fairly developed, man would cease to be influenced by ‘natural selection’ in his physical form and structure; as an animal he would remain almost stationary; the changes of the surrounding universe would cease to have upon him that powerful modifying effect which they exercise over other parts of the organic world. But from the moment that his body became stationary, his mind would become subject to those very influences from which his body had escaped; every slight variation in his mental and moral nature which should enable him better to guard against adverse circumstances, and combine for mutual comfort and protection, would be preserved and accumulated; the better and higher specimens of our race would therefore increase and spread, the lower and more brutal would give way and successively die out, and that rapid advancement of mental organisation would occur, which has raised the very lowest races of man so far above the brutes (although differing so little from some of them in physical structure), and, in conjunction with scarcely perceptible modifications of form, has developed the wonderful intellect of the Germanic races.”

So when Greg writes about the relative virtues of Celts and Saxons, he is concerned with how an overly sympathetic culture – not quite a cuddly welfare state, but getting there, he worries – has negated this facet of natural selection. The smart folk, by being so generous, are running counter to nature’s inclination to weed out the weakly, and are enabling lesser brains to survive where they should instead wither in competition with the “wonderful intellect of the Germanic races.”

 
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