William McDougall.

Is America safe for democracy? Six lectures given at the Lowell Institute of Boston, under the title Anthropology and history, or The influence of anthropologic constitution on the destinies of nations, online

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Online LibraryWilliam McDougallIs America safe for democracy? Six lectures given at the Lowell Institute of Boston, under the title Anthropology and history, or The influence of anthropologic constitution on the destinies of nations, → online text (page 1 of 12)
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"anthropology AND HISTORY, OR









Copyright, 1921, by

Published June, 1921



As I watch the American nation speeding gaily,
with invincible optimism, down the road to de-
struction, I seem to be contemplating the greatest
tragedy in the history of mankind. Other nations
have declined and passed away; and their places
have been filled, the torch of civilization has been
caught up and carried forward by new nations
emerging from the shadow-lands of barbarism.
But, if the American nation should go down,
whence may we expect a new birth of progress?
Where shall we look for a virile stock fit to take
up the tasks of world-leadership ? It may be that
the yellow millions of the Far East contain the
potency of an indefinite progress and stability.
That is a vague and uncertain possibiUty. What-
ever that potency may be, it behooves us, the
bearers of Western civilization, to take most
anxious thought that we may prevent, if possible,
the decline and decay which have been the fate of
all the civilized nations of Europe and of the Near
and Middle East.

Many excellent books have been published,.


urging the claims of "eugenics," since Francis
Galton first stirred the conscience of Europe and
America on this problem of the preservation of
human quahties. Most of these books have been
written from the purely biological standpoint.
They give excellent accounts of the principles of
natural selection, of heredity, and of the Men-
dehan laws. It has seemed to me that a presen-
tation of the case for eugenics from a more psy-
chological standpoint and on a broad historical
background might usefully supplement these bio-
logical treatises. For, important as are the facts
and principles of physical heredity, the general
reader may have some difficulty in connecting the
processes of cell-division, the chromosomes of the
fruit-fly, or the coat-colors of piebald guinea-pigs
with the spiritual endowment of mankind. I have
therefore brought together in these few lectures
the findings of mental anthropology, which are
now beginning to be garnered on a large scale;
and I have tried to indicate, in as impartial and
scientific a manner as is possible in this still ob-
scure field, their bearing upon the great problems
of national welfare and national decay. The body
of the book is the substance of six lectures given
at the Lowell Institute of Boston in the spring of
this year. I have added in foot-notes some evi-


dential matter which may be neglected by the
cursory reader. And in appendices I have put
forward certain proposals which, if they could be
put into practice, would, I thinly, go far to remedy
the present disastrous state of affairs.

I would especially draw the attention of readers
interested in political, economic, or social science
to the evidence cited in this volume which indicates
very strongly, if it does not finally prove, that the
social stratification which exists in modern indus-
trial communities is positively correlated with a
corresponding stratification of innate moral and
intellectual quality, or, in less technical language,
that the upper social strata, as compared with
the lower, contain a larger proportion of persons
of superior natural endowments. This is a propo-
sition which has been stoutly maintained by most
of the eugenists from Galton onward. But it has
been the greatest weakness of the eugenic propa-
ganda that it is so largely founded upon and as-
sumes the truth of this proposition. For the critics
and scorners of eugenics have vehemently denied
it, or poured ridicule upon it; and no proof of it
was available for their refutation. In a paper read
before the Eugenics Education Society in London
("Psychology in the Service of Eugenics," Eu-
genics Review y January, 1914) I pointed out that


this great gap in the eugenist argument could onh'

be filled by applying the methods of experimental

psychology. Two of my pupils (Mr. C. Burt and

Mr. H. B. English) made the first contribution

by such methods toward the filling of the gap;

and more recently several similar studies with

similar positive results have been made in this

country. They are reported in the following


W. McD.

Harvard College,
April, 1921.



In this short course of lectures I propose to
direct your attention to a most difficult and ob-
scure question. I have chosen this difficult topic,
not because I have any new or startling conclu-
sions to announce, but because the facts and re-
flections I am to put before you have urgent bear-
ing upon many problems of private conduct and
public policy. The importance of our topic is
very great for all peoples; but for the American
people at the present time it seems to me to over-
shadow and dwarf every other that any man
of science could propose for your consideration.
Why has it this supreme importance at this time
and place? Because you, the American people,
are laying the foundations of the American nation,
a nation which already outstrips every other in
its influence upon, or its capacity of influencing,
the future history of mankind. You may still
have rivals in the fields of art and science and lit-


erature. There are peoples more numerous than
you; and there are states which control greater
areas of the earth's surface and larger masses of
population. But in two respects you stand un-
rivalled. First, in respect of the number of persons
among you who are brought under the higher
influences of that civiHzation which now controls
the world, and which, if human foresight is not
wholly untrustworthy, promises to be the founda-
tion of all future civihzation, no matter how great
the changes it may undergo. Secondly, the Amer-
ican people is unrivalled in respect of the material
resources which it effectively controls as the es-
sential basis of its power and culture in the pres-
ent and of its progress in the future.

The great increase of knowledge which we owe
to the scientific labors of the nineteenth century
has put us, the bearers of the civilization of the
twentieth century, in a position that has no prece-
dent, a position profoundly different from that of
any of the great civiUzations of the past. The
Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Egyptians,
the Babylonians, were surrounded by unknown
possibilities; their vision was confined to a small
area of the earth and to their own immediate past.
To foresee their future or to control it was for
them wholly impossible. How different is our


position ! We have mapped the whole earth; we
know its status and relations among the other
heavenly bodies; we can describe, in a general way,
its past history during many millions of years; we
understand in some degree all the physical ener-
gies, and can in a large measure control them and
bend them to the service of mankind. All the
races of men are known to us. There remains no
great reservoir of humankind which may issue
from some uncharted region to overwhelm and
destroy our civilization. And, most important of
all, we are beginning to understand something of
the nature of man, something of the history of
the development of the species, something of our
bodily frame and mental powers, and of the long
process by which our intellectual and moral cul-
ture has been achieved.

The Great War has given us one new item of
knowledge which completes our assurance that
we, the heirs of Western civilization, hold its des-
tiny in our hands to make or mar. Before the
war it was an open question whether civilized
man, bred largely in towns to sedentary modes of
life, could sustain the hardships and strains of
prolonged warfare; whether in a clash of arms
against some more primitive people we might not
be overborne and swept away for sheer lack of



nerve, of animal courage; whether our town-bred
bespectacled young men, their imaginations quick-
ened by education, and all unused to physical
hardship, pain, and bloodshed, might not shrink
and crumble when brought face to face with the
horrors of war. But in the terrible years we have
lived through we have seen regiments of cockneys
from the London suburbs, and of Lancashire lads
drawn from the mills and factories of the world's
greatest industrial hive, distinguish themselves
by gallantry and by patient courage in the field.
These men have remained resolute and cheerful
under a strain of warfare which, in respect of its
horrors, its intense physical and emotional shocks,
and the long continuance of the strain, has far
surpassed every previous and more primitive
warfare. We know now that civilization and
culture, even in their worst forms, do not neces-
sarily sap the moral energies of men; rather, we
know that trained intelligence and disciplined
will can withstand the extreme horrors of war
far better than the cruder more animal courage
of the primitive hunter and warrior.

Our civilization stands, then, in this position of
immense advantage as compared with all civiliza-
tions of the past. And on the American people
lies the responsibility for its future in a greater


degree than on any other; because it has at its
command, in a higher degree than any other, all
the resources, material and spiritual, from which
our civilization proceeds.

I will state concisely the thesis which I shall
develop and attempt to prove to you in this course
of lectures. Looking back over the history of
mankind, we see that it consists in the successive
rise and decay of great civilizations borne by dif-
ferent peoples in various parts of the earth. I
need not enumerate these; their names are familiar
to you. The facts have been insisted upon by
many writers; they have been displayed by none
more clearly than by Professor Flinders Petrie
in his "Revolutions of Civilization." They are
summed up in the famihar phrase, "cycles of civ-
ilization.'' They are briefly as follows. We see
again and again a people in some favored area of
the earth's surface slowly build up a great and
complex civiUzation, incorporating essential ele-
ments of culture which it has acquired from some
older civilization, adding to them and moulding
them into hannony with its own genius and spe-
cial needs. For many centuries the slow process
of upbuilding, growth, and enrichment goes on.
Then comes an arrest and, usually after a com-
paratively short period, the whole complex organ-

u ^^



ism decays and plunges more or less rapidly down-
ward from the height it had attained. In some
cases the decay has gone so far that nothing re-
mains of the people and its culture, beyond a few
mounds of earth and broken brick. In others the
people has continued to exist, but stagnant and
inert, contributing nothing further to the prog-
ress of mankind, retaining little or nothing of
what was most admirable in its period of ascent
and greatness.

It is as though each such people, having been
projected upon its upward path by some great
force, maintains its ascending movement until its
momentum is spent, then falls back to earth, a
mere mass of human clay, undistinguished above
others by any power to create, to progress, or in
any way rise above the common level of mankind.
If we seek a phrase which will convey most con-
cisely the nature of this recurring process, the
process which has been denoted by the phrase
"revolutions or cycles of civihzation," we may, I
suggest, best describe it as "the parabola of peo-
ples.'* For the course of the rise and fall of a
people tends to resemble the trajectory of a stone
thrown obliquely upward from the hand, a long
ascending curve, an almost flat summit, and a
steep decline.


Many speculations have been provoked by the
contemplation of this recurring phenomenon.
The first response of the mind is to ask — ^Is this
inevitable, is this parabola the expression of some
inescapable law of nature? Are we also destined
to follow the same curve and, sooner or later, to
plunge downward to stagnation or decay? Or
may we, by taking thought, hope to escape the
common fate of all our predecessors? Can we
estabHsh our course so securely that our descen-
dants may continue to progress, for an indefinitely
long period, in art and science and social organiza-
tion, attaining heights of power, security, and
happiness unimaginable by us?

In order to answer these questions, we must
have some understanding of the causes of the rise
and fall of the curve of civilization. The answers
that have been suggested fall into two main
classes: first, the answer impHed by the economic
interpretation of history; secondly, the anthro-
pological answxr. The former would see the
essential factors in changes of climate, discoveries
of new sources of wealth or of energy, or the open-
ing up of new regions of the earth and the con-
sequent shiftings of trade routes. The anthro-
pological theory regards all such economic factors
as of but subsidiary importance. It points out


that peoples which were destined to climb the
curve have subdued and transformed the physical
world to their needs or, if necessary, have sought
out and conquered for themselves a more propi-
tious habitat. It points to regions such as Meso-
potamia and the Nile valley, where men have
made the desert bloom with all that was needed
as the physical basis of great civilizations. And
it points to other great regions, such as Africa
south of the Sahara, and South and North Amer-
ica, regions which are richest in all that man
needs and which nevertheless produced hardly
more than savagery or barbarism, while Europe
and Asia saw the rise and fall of many civiliza-
tions. It asserts also that in such regions as
Mesopotamia and Egypt there have been no great
changes (save such as man himself has pro-
duced) which could account for the rise or fall of
their peoples. It points to the fact that the
Roman Empire, which for four hundred years
controlled the resources of the fairest regions of
Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia, levying trib-
ute upon all the known world, went down be-
neath the assault of the barbarians from the
North, without any great change of economic
conditions that can be assigned as a cause. Such
instances show that the economic factors are of


secondary importance; they show that the most
favorable area can become the seat of a great
civilization only when it is occupied by a people
more capable than most of profiting by its geo-
graphic advantages; and that these advantages
will not avail to save a people from decay, if and
when it loses its natural superiority.

One anthropologic theory has been widely ac-
cepted as accounting for the decay of peoples.
Leaving the problem of their ascent untouched, it
asserts that peoples grow old, just as men and
animals do, and that they must as inevitably de-
cline in vigor after a certain age. It cannot be
too strongly insisted that this fatahstic theory is
utterly unfounded, if it is offered as anything
more than a descriptive formula.

Professor Flinders Petrie, who has brought out
so clearly the facts we are considering, and who
points out that the period of the cycle or parabola
has approximated in many instances to one thou-
sand eight hundred years, advances a theory
which claims to explain both the rise and the faU
of the curve. He supposes that every cycle is
initiated by a biological blending of two races;
that this gives to the blended stock a new energy
which carries it up the scale of civilization; that,
after about one thousand eight hundred years,


this effect is exhausted and that, in consequence
of loss of vigor, decHne inevitably sets in.

There may be some truth in this view as re-
gards the initiation of the rise of a civilization.
There is some evidence that the crossing of closely
related stocks does conduce to increase of vigor
and probably also to variability; and that these
effects must be favorable to national progress
seems obvious. Vigor, energy of mind and body,
is certainly an all-important factor, without which
all other natural endowments and advantages will
effect little. And variability of the stock would
seem to be a necessary condition of the produc-
tion of the persons of exceptional endowments
without whom a nation can neither rise in the
scale of civilization nor maintain a great posi-

But as regards the decline of peoples, Petrie's
theory seems to contain less of truth. The old
view that inbreeding necessarily results in de-
generation has been much blown upon of late.
Facts are accumulating which seem to show that
very close inbreeding is compatible with contin-
ued and even increased vigor of the stock.

Now, it is this second part of the problem in
which we are practically interested. We belong
to a stock which has produced a great civiKzation,


one which seems to be still on the ascending part
of its curve. Our concern, our responsibility, is
to maintain if possible that ascending curve, or
at least to postpone as long as possible the onset
of the period of decline, if that, in truth, must
inevitably come. And there are not lacking indi-
cations that our Western civilization may already
have reached its climax, may even now be sliding
down the curve of dechne. For we must not
allow ourselves to be dazzled by the material
achievements of the recent past. In trying to
estimate our position, we must have regard to
moral and intellectual achievements of kinds less
easily appreciated than the aeroplane and the big
gun, the submarine and the poison-gas.

It is true that we have obtained a wonderful
coromand over the physical energies of the world;
but if we have not, individually and collectively
as nations, the wisdom, the patience, the self-
control, to direct these immense energies conform-
ably to high moral ideals, our tampering with
them will but hasten our end, will but plunge us
the more rapidly down the slope of destruction.
There is but too good ground for the fear that
our knowledge has outrun our wisdom, that,
though we have learned to exploit the physical
energies of the world, we have not the wisdom


and morality effectively to direct them for the
good of mankind.

Leaving, then, the obscure problem of the ori-
gins of civilizations and of the causes of the ascent
of peoples, I wish to concentrate your attention
upon the more urgent and practically important
problem of the causes or conditions that bring
about their decline. In respect of this great
problem, my thesis is that the anthropological
theory is the true one, that the great condition of
the decline of any civilization is the inadequacy of
the qualities of the people who are the hearers of it.

This inadequacy may be one of two kinds; or
it may be, perhaps generally has been, of both
kinds. Inadequacy of the one kind may result
from the increase of complexity of the environ-
ment which accompanies the rise of civilization,
which is, in fact, an inevitable and necessary
feature of it. Without change of the essential
quahties of a people, those qualities may become
relatively inadequate to the support of its civiHza-
tion; just because advancing civiHzation makes,
with every step of progress, greater demands
upon its bearers. Let me illustrate by reference
to three great features which, in various degrees,
appear in all civilizations. First, increasing con-
trol of natural resources gives men leisure and


opportunity to seek relaxation and amusement.
Now leisure and amusement are most dangerous
things, as some of us know. Few men are capa-
ble of using leisure and of choosing their amuse-
ments entirely wisely, and some men are quite
incapable of doing so. Well, civilization in-
evitably lays upon great masses of men this re-
sponsibihty. How do they respond to it? We
know how in the great age of Rome the circus,
the combat of gladiators and of wild beasts, and
the chariot races, became the passionate delight
of the multitude. We know how many forms of
luxury, wines, perfumes, foods, baths, slaves, with
resulting habits of indulgence, were introduced
from all parts of the world. Under such com- ^
plexities of environment many men who, under
simpler conditions, would have Hved solid, useful,
and happy lives, became enervated, their inter-
ests and leisure increasmgly absorbed in these
useless if not actually harmful amusements.

Secondly, the increase of complexity of per-
sonal relations tends also to demand ever higher
quaUties from the persons concerned. Consider
the relations of employer and workman. In the
days of slavery, whether in Greece or Rome or
Virginia, how simple were the quaHties required
for the satisfactory working of the institution.


the relation ! The owner of an estate worked by
slaves had only to be an intelligent and kind-
hearted man in order to be surrounded by happy
faithful workers, a benevolent autocrat in the
midst of grateful and devoted followers. And
in the intermediate stage of small farming and
small industry, where the employer is in close
personal contact with all his men, a small dose of
kindliness and good sense goes a long way to the
maintenance of satisfactory relations. But to-
day, in our industrial world, what great demands
are made on the qualities of the employer ! How
patient, how understanding, how far-sighted, how
humane he must be, if he is to avoid bitter strife
with his work-people 1

Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the in-
creased intercourse between peoples, which is a
leading feature and condition of progressing civ-
iKzation, inevitably weakens, when it does not
altogether destroy, the influence of the customs
and moral traditions by which our lives are
guided. Instead of being moulded insensibly to
conform to the customs and traditions which have
sufficed to bring our forefathers safely through
the perils of Hfe, to guide them in the simpler
environment of the past, we are confronted by
ever more numerous possibilities of choice be-


tween rival customs and traditions and new be-
liefs and theories. We are called upon to choose
wisely, to steer our course warily, among untried
but perhaps attractive novelties, new rehgions,
new social theories, new ethical precepts. And
the result of all this is inevitable; it is the price
that must be paid for progress; not only do the
customs and traditions to which each man ad-
heres exert a less powerful sway over his conduct,
but also the harmony of the society in which and
by which he lives is weakened and disordered.

In these ways, and in many others, every ad-
vance of civihzation makes greater demands upon
the quahties of its bearers; and it is, I thmk, ob-
vious that in these respects our present civihza-
tion has surpassed all its predecessors, surpassed
them m the opportunities for leisure and amuse-
ment, m the complexity of personal relations, in
the variety of customs, traditions, behefs, theories
of conduct, with which we are brought m con-
tact, all demanding on our part the exercise of a
wisdom, a self-control, and a degree of devotion
to a moral ideal, such as no previous civilization
has required.

We are making great efforts to meet these de-
mands, we are multiplying and improving our
educational institutions; and, in this country es-


pecially, the rising generation seems to be respond-
ing, by making full use of the advantages provided
for it. But there remains to be answered the all-
important question — Is it possible, by improved
and extended education, adequately to prepare
the rising generations for the immense responsi-
bilities they must bear? Are their innate qualities
such as will enable them to rise to the level re-
quired by the increasing complexity and difficulty

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Online LibraryWilliam McDougallIs America safe for democracy? Six lectures given at the Lowell Institute of Boston, under the title Anthropology and history, or The influence of anthropologic constitution on the destinies of nations, → online text (page 1 of 12)