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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders on Social Selection, Heredity, and Tradition May 6, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders (14th January 1886-6th October 1966) was president of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956.  When his The Population Problem: A Study in Human Evolution appeared in 1922, it cemented his reputation.  According to his obituary in Population Studies this book has since been viewed as a seminal contribution to “social biology” due to its formulation of the “optimum number.”  Carr-Saunders defined the optimum number as the greatest number of individuals who could be sustained by a given environment.  For Carr-Saunders, moreover, this optimum number “involves the idea of the standard of living,” where in order to reach and to maintain this standard of living, populations, from primitive to civilized, employ practices to either “reduce fertility” or to “cause elimination,” including abortion, abstinence from sexual intercourse, and infanticide, in greater or lesser proportions (214.)

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

This was not all, however, as the maintenance of the highest standard of living possible required that the  “younger generation must become proficient in the skilled methods which makes this standard possible of attainment, and in particular it is important that young men should not marry unless they are both energetic and skillful.”  In such basic facts “we may see evidence exerted by social conditions and conventions” (224.)

Carr-Saunders has attracted some attention from Hayek scholars due to his influence on Hayek’s notion of cultural evolution.  Erik Angner in Hayek and Natural Law contends, “there is good reason to think that Hayek’s evolutionary thought was significantly inspired by Carr-Saunders and other Oxford zoologists” in particular supplying Hayek’s understanding of the mechanisms of group selection.

Carr-Saunders, through his exhaustive discussion of sexual, familial, and professional norms and mores from prehistorical peoples to present-day industrial populations, outlined an expansive theory of social selection, where customs and traditions defined social role and social status within the group, and  practices conferred upon the entire group greater evolutionary fitness than other groups with dissimilar practices and customs.

In The Population Problem, he concluded, “Now men and groups of men are naturally selected on account of the customs they practice just as they are selected on account of their mental and physical characteristics. Those groups practicing  the most advantageous customs will have an advantage in the constant struggle between adjacent groups over those that practice less advantageous customs” (223.) If natural selection regulated survival in nature, social selection regulated success and goal attainment by individuals and groups in society.   As nature selected for specific physical attributes, society selected for specific practices defined by norms and traditions.  On an even more macro level, more successful cultures competed and overtook less successful ones along similar lines.

Which customs and traditions conferred an advantage was unclear in his work.  In modern evolutionary biology and sociology there is still a white-hot controversy over what social selection “selects.”  In the contemporary sciences, social selection is considered to be either a type of sexual selection or a more general phenomenon governing fitness in communities which includes sexual selection.  For turn of the century theorists, any customs and traditions governing marriage, success, and inheritance conferred an evolutionary advantage upon some and not others.  Robert Merton’s  “Matthew Effect” where benefits accrue to the already successful due to the institutional framework of the reward structure of modern science is another, prominent example of social selection.   Thus, the “units” of social selection, are as variable as the imaginations of social theorists allowed them to be.  This is the case since every feature of society can in some way be reasoned to adjust the fitness of individuals and groups.

Carr-Saunders, like many early twentieth century thinkers,  has been relegated either to concept invention or as as an exemplar of a “failed science,” i.e. “social biology,” out of whose ashes the discipline of demography emerged.  This is correct, though intellectually shortsighted.  Carr-Saunders like many prewar thinkers was concerned not only with the constitution of society and its ills but also in deciphering the distinctiveness of civilization in the light of the workings of nature.  Montesquieu and Buckle, as I have noted many times before, were as concerned with this problem, but used differing evidences. While much has been said about the supposed break between pre and post-war anthropology and sociology, I would contend that the “social biology” of Carr-Saunders has many continuities with the sociobiology of E.O Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon, or with contemporary theories of the “dual inheritance” of cultural and physical traits.  In the writings of all three, heredity acts as a kind of “primer” for cultural growth and the development of traditions.  As with Buckle,  biology and environment is decisive early on; as cultures and traditions advance, biology becomes a reinforcing mechanism of tradition, rather than the primary driver of change.

Wilson and Chagnon (though both sociobiologists), Carr-Saunders and  R. A. Fisher ( though both turn of the century theorists), engaged in the same genre of argument, though weighing evidence differently as well as embracing all differing sorts of political persuasions.  All worked within the same genre of argument since they all described not only the course of social evolution in human history, but also began the inquiry into the mechanisms behind the development of civilizations in human history (to varying degrees of exactness and specificity.)

Mechanisms in this genre of argument included: hybridity, conquest, migrations, “economic determinism”, technological development, social instincts like aggression or the passions of the “herd,” imitation,  solidarity, the differential fertility of socioeconomic classes, social stratification, class conflict, etc. The philosophy of Karl Marx is, at times, not so much a political philosophy but an inquiry into the course of social evolution through class struggle, particularly as man advances into industrial civilization. Social selection was at the root of these mechanisms, being a grand theory about there persistence of social behaviors and the decline of others.

Montesquieu long ago engaged in this same genre whilst discussing the “mores.”  William Graham Sumner did much the same with the “folkways.”  For all its baroque qualities, Herbert Spencer did the same with his sociology with his account of the development of militant and industrial societies.  Much of the late nineteenth century was concerned with elucidating the vagaries of the philosophy of history.  With the advent of positivism, with the rise of statistics, the task, beginning with Buckle, was to prove the laws of history empirically.  R.A. Fisher undertook this task, so did Pitirim Sorokin.  Much of the social theory of the twentieth century was very much with Buckle’s in spirit, with the added twist of tempering his optimism about the unalloyed progress of human civilization (at least in the West) due to the appearance of increasingly dire problems presented by war, social revolution, and industrialization.

Carr-Saunder’s work on Population was a quite long book in this genre.  He devoted significant attention to two critical concerns of those social theorists who undertook this discussion into the course of civilization: the “origin of tradition” and “the relative importance of tradition and heredity.” This inquiry continues into the present day in the writings of evolutionary psychologists and behavioral geneticists (Richard Lynn’s IQ and the Wealth of Nations being one quite prominent but also deeply problematic example.)

Much like Buckle or Ellsworth Huntington, Carr-Saunders understood well the complex interplay between culture, environment, and the fate of civilizations. For Carr-Saunders, what mattered most, at least in recent human history, was neither race nor environment, but thought and culture.  Human beings were distinguished by “conceptual thought” and tradition was nothing more than “passed on” and “stored up” conceptual thought. From birth to maturity, through communicating with others in the community, every individual passes, he argued, “through a stage of thought corresponding to the primitive stage,” through the “common sense” stage and “even to the higher stages” (shades of G. Stanley Hall.)  “Behind all  institutions…we must seek ideas,” with many “valuable ideas” “stored up in the making and use of tools” (411-412.)

It was clear that animals have some form of tradition (nest-building) where they learn by experience and then that experience influences the behavior of the group, but only in human beings do traditions “govern both the degree and the direction in which various mental processes function” (415.)

Tradition, especially in developed cultures, determined the characteristics of a people. Traditions became an ever evolving philosophical anthropology.  Thus, because of the tools involved and the traditions associated with their efficient and proper use, a hunter-gatherer will think and act differently than a farmer or herdsmen.  Instincts moreover were greatly changed by tradition: “Any instinct indeed is capable of manifesting itself in very different forms according to the outlet which it finds.”   Tradition made the instinct “more complex” (416.)

“Selection of tradition,” he explained, “has results which may be permanent.” This was unlike modifications in the germ-line.  Furthermore the nature of selection changed drastically with the advancement of civilization.  He continued:

In primitive society, where tradition in a race tends to be uniform this selection of tradition chiefly comes into play in the conflict between races.  In more advanced societies where there are considerable differences in tradition between classes….Within civilized races there is no longer a mass of tradition which has to be accepted as a whole; there are different ideas which may be said to compete.  Thus a struggle comes into being between ideas, customs, and institutions in modem communities which leads to change without involving human selection…. (But) The products of conceptual thinking are stored up and handed on in the form of tradition….Not only are adaptations made to it but the methods of storing it are improved….forming, as it does, a very important element in the manifestation of human mental character, men, and more particularly races of men, may be selected in accordance with the degree and quality  of tradition acquired by them (417-418.)

Thus, the transition from “segmented” to “organic” society, which Carr-Sunder’s appropriated from Durkheim’s Division of Labor, was brought about by the work of the social selection of traditions.  Increasing population allowed for a division of labor to develop, as no man had to undertake every task for himself.  Instead, individuals  in more advanced civilizations were able to develop skills as well as to standardize their modes of transmission. Traditions, through a process of trial and error, defined groups more rigorously while leading to greater efficacy and specificity of labor (432-436.)

What then was the balance between heredity and tradition in human history?  William Ripley in the closing chapters of Races of Europe (1899) argued that while race had governed the past evolution of man, technology and culture would govern its future. Race, rather than determining the future of civilization, would begin to work in a dynamic with culture and mores.  This was Buckle’s point but Ripley clothed it in more exact ethnographic data and made it more explicit.  Carr-Saunder’s too believed that that while racial features and differences in temperament were important, culture played an essential role in catalyzing those differences.   Moreover, the struggle between races had given way to the less violent, but no less important, conflict between ideas.

Even in the case of the hybrid, that great mover and shaker of nineteenth century philosophies of history (as Gobineau and Josiah Nott noted, for example) Carr-Saunders remarked “Nevertheless, it is probable that too great an effect has been attributed to the effects of genetic crossing.”

Additionally, what mattered in the present age was not race but the “social ladder.”  Carr-Saunders concluded, “The ladder is not only steep and difficult to climb; it is also narrow and does not permit of many upon it at the same time” (457.)  What lead to the differential fates of peoples in nations was not so much the work of race and instinct, but the actions of governments, such as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  The most momentous changes occur in the conflict between traditions, or in their breakdown, as in the French Revolution.  Thus, “germinal change is never more than a contributory cause of advance, and that traditional change is the whole explanation of some of such periods” (463.)

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