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James M. Baldwin on Society and Social Heredity October 17, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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James Mark Baldwin (January 12, 1861, Columbia, South Carolina – November 8, 1934, Paris)

James M. Baldwin’s Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development: A Study in Social Psychology (1897)  was noteworthy for its Darwinian argumentative framework, its emphasis on the fundamentally social aspects of mankind, society as being constitutive of the individual, and the argument that the laws of social evolution were distinct from biological evolution.

Baldwin’s work was really motivated by a massive issue: the work of Charles Darwin, particularly that of the Descent of Man (1871) provided an exceptionally attractive explanatory framework for the growth (and sometimes) progress of society.  For Baldwin, however, the laws of evolution could not explain the origin and development of either social action or the development or persistence of institutions.

As he noted in Darwin and the Humanities (1909), “various attempts have been made to state the different genetic stages in the concurrent progress of the individual and society.”  However, “In these attempts, it is plain, the general questions of development and evolution arise again on a different plane, and require solution in view of the fact that in their nature the phenomena are not in a strict sense biological, but psychological and social” (39.)  While it was true that human beings were subject to biological laws, “it does not follow that the psychological and social processes illustrate the same laws, nor even that the action of the biological laws may not be in some way modified with the entrance upon the field of the mental and social factors” (40).

While the work of Baldwin and his contemporaries have been critiqued for their reductionism of social life to biology, in fact, much of turn of the century social theory used Darwinian theory instead to argue for the irreducibility and distinctiveness of social phenomenon, in the same manner as Emile Durkheim and his discussion of “social facts.”

Carving out a space for the social was very much a task for late nineteenth century moral philosophy as well.  Such a project depended upon the distinctly social nature of man.  While man shared this with animals, sociability so determined the moral, intellectual, and even physical life of human beings. that his development was in many ways emancipated from nature’s laws.

On the social nature of man, Sir Leslie Stephen observed his Science of Ethics (1882):

The members of a given society are forced to accommodate themselves to certain fixed conditions as much as the iron which is poured into a given mould. There is a causal connection underlying the apparently arbitrary movements of the individual. The social struggle is thrusting down the weaker into the position where want of food is most felt and stealing most tempting; and character is being determined in countless indirect ways by the mutual pressure of the various classes. Men are not only more or less alike, and so far approximate to a certain average, but they are also being constantly educated in a thousand ways by the persistent conditions of the social organism; and thus there are secondary or derivative laws of conduct dependent upon these conditions and producing uniformities not affected by the variation of individual idiosyncrasy (30-31).

The force of society upon the individual as well as the inquiry into the laws of its “organic” growth was an essential problem for science.  An understanding of the irreducibly social nature of individuals and of the collective features of his mental life underscored that as society changed and evolved, the individual mind was nothing less than a series of constant “adjustments between the organism and its environment” where the individual is ever-adjusting to maintain “equilibrium” with social forces (33).

Baldwin, influenced by Stephen, in Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development noted that the social world for the child was “hereditary” insofar as “the child cannot escape it;” “it is inheritance” (69) as the child is “born into a system of social relationships just as he is born into a certain quality of air.”

The individual is molded to the society in which he is born by a process of active selection, mediated by these social relationships. This selection, however, was distinct from the selection wrought by nature since, “in the organic world it is the organic causes themselves which work with the environment to secure a race progressively better as individuals; in the social world it is the social whole which applies social criteria for the eradication of what is harmful.”  He also argued that there was a “conscious selection of the best going on in society, both of individuals and of experiences, thoughts, plans, ideals; these might be called respectively ‘social selection’ (through competition), and ‘imitative selection’ (through the imitative propagation of ideas from person to person)” (83-4).

Quite delicately, Baldwin attempted to thread the needle of the interaction between nature and society, noting that “social influences” and “physiological process,” though “separate spheres of causation,” were in some ways connected, as society provided “checks” “upon unsocial hereditary tendencies in general” which lead to physical and  social death (86-7).

The connection between nature and society was also broached in the discussion of social heredity and its connection to social evolution.  Social heredity, that mass of values, mores, institutions, which regulate the social life of the individual, resists revolutionary change and novelty.  Particular insights are rarely transformed into “generalizations.”  Very often, “too original a thought is a social ‘sport'” (482).  And it was often the case that only one aspect of an individual/s insight became generalized (this generalized aspect becomes a “school.”) (480).  Most of the particularities with a genius insight die with the individual. However, the greatness of the idea was measured by the degree to which it modified the existing structures of society, so that it becomes “the property of the community as such” (484).

Ideas become integrated into the traditions of a people due to their utility for society.  Ideas survived not in their original, individualized formulations, but only as society saw fit to apply them.  Public opinion, or the “organ of imitative selection,”  “sets forms of tradition into which the new idea is to be absorbed.”  Public opinion “brings to  bear the judgement which society cherishes; and which, when reflected into the thinker himself constitutes the measure of his social sanity” (192).  Unlike physical attributes or social traits, which by their very distinctiveness defined the individual, and allowed him to compete better socially with his fellows, ideas were defined by their ability to be appropriated by the masses.

Baldwin’s notion of imitative selection is most successful at distinguishing the causal space and distinctiveness of social tradition and social phenomenon.  Although Baldwin was keen to underscore that social selection “selected” differently from natural selection and rewarded different behaviors, there remained questions as to its distinctiveness from natural selection, as both were described as “competition” and as a “survival of the fittest.”

The transmission of social norms through the process of social heredity and the process of social evolution could not, however, be reduced to any kind of biological process.   Baldwin’s reliance on biological language to describe social heredity, an irreducibly social process, illustrates not only the importance of biological concepts but the relative poverty of sociological vocabulary before the First World War.

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