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Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory
by J. W. Burrow. Cambridge University Press. 45s.

Reviewed by Robert M. Young

Social man came to be seen as subservient to the laws of nature by a very circuitous route, and the hiatus which remains between the biological and social sciences reflects continuing uncertainties about man's place in nature. In the late nineteenth century a facade was erected which made it appear that the theory of evolution provided the necessary conceptual framework for a biological science of man. John Burrow has made a very important analysis of the history of ideas in this period which shows convincingly that evolutionary social theory was not in fact a direct extension of Darwinism to the study of "advanced" and "primitive" societies but that the invocation of evolution was a symptom of "the confrontation of the ideas characteristic of philosophic radicalism with realities and systems of ideas which they were inadequate to comprehend" (99). Evolutionary social theory appeared to provide a new basis for believing in the essential unity of mankind and for retaining the troublesome normative aspects of conjectural history and philosophic radicalism while abandoning choice and artificial sanctions. Evolution forgave the "primitive" his irrational customs and promised Utopia to all, in due course, by the simple expedient of "the temporalization of Natural Laws" (272): "what has been ought (broadly speaking) to have been and what ought to be, will be" (273). In short, by the end of the century evolution was seen as equivalent to progress, and social theory could again be unified with moral and political theory.

The main strength of the book lies in the juxtaposition of traditions in historical scholarship which have hitherto been kept in separate compartments — history of anthropology and history of political thought. Burrow shows in detail how much the development of the former owed to the latter. In particular, he draws on the work of Duncan Forbes on the Scottish Enlightenment, provides an alternative to the views of Elie HalÚvy and Leslie Stephen on philosophical radicalism, and relates these to the work of three evolutionary social theorists: Sir Henry Maine, Herbert Spencer, and E. B. Tylor.

What about Darwin? There are two historical issues here. First, recent developments in the social sciences have led to a reinterpretation of the histories of modern sociology and anthropology. The evolutionary tradition has been repudiated and the organic analogy has largely been abandoned. Since the history of science is the most Whiggish history there is, the social scientists have dutifully set about rewriting their historical textbooks. For example, Tylor's use of the "doctrine of survivals" to account for "primitive" customs as equivalent to evolutionary vestiges — a sort of collection of social vermiform appendixes — is now seen as useless question-begging. His evolutionary language was yet another excuse for identifying the customs of exotic societies as harmful superstitions which Tylor wanted to mark out for destruction (258). More recently still, functionalism itself has come under fire. The second historical issue is Burrow's argument that the social scientists were right to re-interpret their history. In the nineteenth century Darwin was invoked as a magic password for a science of man. Burrow attempts to show that Darwin "was certainly not the father of evolutionary anthropology, but possibly he was its wealthy uncle" (114) and that he was far away when the cradle of evolutionary social theory was being prepared (100).

He makes out a very good case, but there are at least three things wrong with it. First, Burrow has set up the problem as a rather simple dichotomy. He emphasizes the influence of conjectural history, utilitarianism, German historiography, comparative philology, and uniformitarian geology; these are placed in one pan and considerably outweigh Darwin. Of course they do, but the way in which Burrow formulates the problem obscures the fact that these influences were themselves important in the development of evolutionary biology. They were part of a common tradition. For example, Locke and Hartley provided the basic assumptions for the evolutionary theories of Erasmus Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Charles Darwin's debts to Paley, Lyell, and Malthus cannot be divorced from the mainstream of the empiricist tradition in English thought. One suspects that this structural weakness in Burrow's argument is a consequence of a fundamental conceptual muddle which he took over from Talcott Parsons and Lord Annan — the belief in "the positivist tradition," which Annan identifies with Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Hume, and so on and calls "the most consistently powerful intellectual movement in England" over two centuries. I cannot say how much violence this simplistic conception does to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in the nineteenth century it is certainly necessary to distinguish the empiricist tradition from several themes within it: naturalism, associationism, empiricist epistemology, empirical methodology, and the idea of progress. These are all related to, but separable from, the specifically nineteenth-century movement called positivism which is associated (in whole or in part) with the names of Comte, J. S. Mill, G. H. Lewes. Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley. To let "positivism" stand for all these in the interpretive portions of the text hopelessly obscures the issues which Burrow has so intelligently raised. He seems to see this at some points in the text (e.g., pp. 1, 111, 156), but it is littered with ambiguities (and some crudities) which appear to depend on this vague, anachronistic concept. For example, the claim that man is a part of nature and therefore subject to law is called "the authentic voice of mid-Victorian positivism"; Benthamism is called an older version of positivism (129); evolutionary social theory is a subspecies of positivism (102), and Engels' Marxism is a subspecies of that (101). On this reckoning the views of both LaMettrie and Francis Crick on religion should be labelled "the authentic voice of mid twentieth-century molecular biology".

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If these criticisms are fair, it follows that the author's analytic tools are bound to be too blunt to dissect successfully the intellectual allegiances of Maine, Tylor, and Spencer. I found these chapters disappointing, while the case study of The Anthropological Society of London (Ch. 4) was much less marred and provided strong evidence for Burrow's general thesis. On the other hand, the chapter on Spencer's intellectual development revealed the weaknesses very clearly. Laissez-faire economics, the idea of progress, and phrenology provided the basis for the social theory in Social Statics (1851), and this, as Spencer tells us in the second edition, contained the earliest foreshadowing of his general theory of evolution. However, after he wrote his first book, associationism intervened decisively through the influence of Lewes and J. S. Mill and provided the basis for the evolutionary theory which underlay his Principles of Psychology (1855). These themes were integrated and generalized in First Principles (1862) and reapplied to social and moral problems in his later works. To mix quotations from Social Statics and The Principles of Ethics (1879-93) helps to show the unifying themes in Spencer's thought while it obscures the important differences between his pre- and post-evolutionary writings.

In my opinion, Evolution and Society is seriously flawed. Nevertheless, I have read only two books on the development of ideas about man's place in nature which were as consistently absorbing and stimulating: The Great Chain of Being and The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Although Burrow's ability to provide elegant and succinct generalizations sometimes helps to obscure the issues, his style is the best of the three. The issues which he has raised must now be integrated with the history of evolutionary theory in biology and psychology. I understand that Dr Burrow is now at work on another topic in the history of ideas. I have seen this book on several reading lists in Cambridge, and I for one wish that he would carry this research further and that he was here to continue to teach us about evolution and society.

This review appeared in Cambridge Review 10 June 1967, pp 409-11.

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ę Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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