Science Popularizers in the 19th Century

We are, as I’m sure you’re aware, in the middle of a boom for scientific prestige. Never before have we been so impressed with the scientist as a heroic figure and only once before have we been willing to listen seriously when scientists (like Niel De Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking) pretend that they have insight into ethics, politics or religion.

This is, it seems to me, based on a couple of mistakes. First, we seem to believe these people are capable of accessing “objective” truths – they aren’t. Secondly, we seem to esteem Richard Dawkins’ unspeakably ignorant critiques of religion because we think he has somehow accessed a certain, true and unchanging truth independent of his cultural prejudices – he hasn’t. Third, we seem to believe that the early 21st century is the end of scientific knowledge and that, thus, we can use our perfect knowledge of science to make sweeping and absolute predictions. Fourth, there seems to be a desperate, unspoken desire for a God substitute. That is, people seem to desperately want a universal, unquestionable organizing truth principle. That used to be God, and God can combine “TRUTH” with moral prescriptions and a path towards a meaningful life. However, now we’re reduced to science, which is a bad thing since science is nihilistic, empty of values and amoral.

Anyway, I bring this up because I recently read a 1896 article called “The Biological View of English Foreign Policy” in which a 19th century Dawkins explains why the English must, in accordance with the immutable laws of evolution, exterminate the Germans. (Don’t worry, we won’t have to exterminate the Chinese for many centuries.) See how many of my previously mentioned mistakes pop up here.

The Biological View of English Foreign Policy

P. Charles Michel (Reprinted from The Saturday Review, London, February, 1896)

The record of the past history of life upon the earth has made us familiar with one phase in the drama of evolution. For countless generations a number of species may have been struggling on tolerably equal terms, now one, now the other, securing some little advantage, when, suddenly, a turn in the kaleidoscope of the world gives one of them an advantage of real moment. The lucky species multiplies rapidly; it spreads over the land and the seas, its rivals perishing before it or being driven into the most inhospitable corners; in the technical term the species becomes dominant. At the present epoch the human race is dominant, and its nearest allies, the higher apes, survive only in recesses of tropical forests. The most dramatic period of the phase is now before us. The dominant species has conquered the whole earth; it has broken up into many local varieties, and the local varieties, transcending their own bounds, are pressing upon each other.

The great nations of the earth are local varieties, species in the making. It is not necessary that there should be anatomical distinctions among them; although, indeed, the English, Germans, French, Russians and Americans, Chinese and Japanese, have each their distinct groups of average characters. They are qualities of the brain and mind that separate the human race from the lower animals; and, in the qualities of the brain and mind, in modes of thought, habits and prejudices, aptitudes and sentiments, there are already abundant characters, incipiently specific among the nations in question. Indeed, there is evidence to show that the supreme specific distinction, mutual infertility, is beginning to appear between the more strongly marked types. But interbreeding is more than a physical phenomenon; and no one can dispute the growth of racial instincts that discountenance intermarriage. The nations are gathering themselves together, emphasizing their national characters, and unconsciously making for specific distinctness.

The foreign policies of the nations, so far as they are not the mere expressions of the individual ambitions of rulers, or the jogtrot opportunism of diplomatists, are anticipation of and provision for struggles for existence between the incipient species. Arsenals of war, navies and armies, and the protective and aggressive weapons of the species-corporate, as the antlers of the stag, or the teeth and claws of the tiger, are the weapons of the individual. War itself is the most striking expression of the actual struggle. Here however, it is necessary to distinguish. One kind of war, and that the most familiar in the last two centuries when the opening of new continents made room for the expansion of growing nations, was a mere katabolic activity, the by-play of exuberant vitality. Such were the campaigns of Napoleon, or our own Crimean war; these were games, the winning or losing of which affected only the princes and generals. After a brief fever the nations forgot for what they had fought, and almost before the dead had decayed, the natural equilibrium was restored. A second kind of war occurs when an expanding, changing nation presses on its weaker or stationary neighbor. With this and its swift result the English have become familiar in every part of the world. But the last, and what must be a struggle to the death, comes only when two growing nations find no room for expansion save by compression of the one.

The world is rapidly approaching the epoch of these last wars, of wars which cannot end in peace with honor, of wars whose specter cannot be laid by the pale ghost of arbitration. The facts are patent. Feeble races are being wiped off the earth, and the few great incipient species arm themselves against each other. England as the greatest of these—greatest in geographical distribution, greatest in expansive force, greatest in race-pride—has avoided for centuries the only dangerous kind of war. Now, with the whole earth occupied and the movements of expansion continuing, she will have to fight to the death against successive rivals. With which first? With which second? With which third?

The problem is biological, and two considerations drawn from our knowledge of the conflicts between species must be weighed for an answer. First, it is plain that conflict is most imminent and most deadly between species that are most similar. Creatures of the forest have no quarrel with those that haunt the sea-shores until they have tried issue with all other forest-creatures. Insect eaters will not struggle for fruits until they have beaten off all other insect-eaters. Secondly, and equally obviously, the struggle is most imminent between species that are expanding most rapidly. Casual encounters may occur wherever creatures with offensive weapons come together; vital struggles only where the growth of one species forces it against another.

China and Japan are not our enemies on either ground. For many generations they may be left to account for each other, in the immemorial Asiatic fashion, by mutual blood-letting. Their habits of life and their climatic aptitudes make them the last rivals of western nations. In the distant future, when they have monopolized the low-lying tropics, the ultimate -survivor of other nations may have to meet them. But such a distant turn of the kaleidoscope of fate is beyond prevision. Nor can Russia be regarded as an immediate rival of England. It is a huge, amorphous protoplasmic mass, ready, indeed, to engulf any intruding foreign body, but not informed with the high organization necessary for movements of external aggression. In a creeping, ameboid fashion, now protruding, now withdrawing arms, it is bound to grow down to the southern seaports its internal fertility demands. These necessary conditions attained, Russia will spend centuries in the slow process of domestic integration; and wars of aggression, save as ephemeral caprices, are not to be feared from it.

France, despite our historic antagonism for her, is no rival of England in the biological sense. She is not a nation that is growing and striving to expand beyond her boundaries. Her wars have been the dreams of rulers, not the movements of peoples. Her colonies have not struck roots of their own, but have remained in organic connection with the mother-country, draining their vital sap from her. In commerce, in art, in letters, in the daily business of life, the French and the English people have been complements of each other, not rivals. France and England are bound together by a thousand endearing diversities of character, they are commensal mates; allies, not enemies.

In a discussion like the present, the smaller nations, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Greece, and the Balkan States are negligible quantities. They are domesticated species, living, by the grace of their neighbors, under artificial conditions. Austria, indeed, is not even a domesticated species; it is one of Mr. Carl Hagenbeck’s “happy families”; an assortment of incongruous breeds, imperfectly trained to live together in a harmony that requires the utmost vigilance of the keepers. When the throes of species-war begin, the park-railings surrounding the artificial varieties will be thrown down, and the escaped creatures will join their natural allies.

Of European nations, Germany is most alike to England. In racial characters, in religious and scientific thought, in sentiments and aptitudes, the Germans, by their resemblances to the English, are marked out as our natural rivals. In all parts of the earth, in every pursuit, in commerce, in manufacturing, in exploiting other races, the English and the Germans jostle each other. Germany is a growing nation; expanding far beyond her territorial limits, she is bound to secure new foothold or to perish in the attempt. It is true, she has not yet succeeded in making colonies of her own. But that failure is the mere accidental result of her political system. Her own revolution is imminent, and Germany, as a democratic power, would colonize for herself with the same aptitude she has shown for infiltrating our own colonies. Were every German to be wiped out tomorrow, there is no English trade, no English pursuit that would not immediately expand. Were every Englishman to be wiped out to-morrow, the Germans would gain in proportion. Here is the first great racial struggle of the future. Here are two growing nations pressing against each other, man to man all over the world. One or the other has to go; one or the other will go.

There remains the Anglo-Saxon race itself. If this break up into species, it is plain enough that conflict is inevitable as soon as the separate species have grown beyond their territorial limits. The territorial isolation of Canada, Australia and South Africa offers opportunity for the production of new sub-species. With the small facility for intercommunication, and with the narrow political views of last century, there is little doubt but that these offshoots from the mother-stock would have come into conflict with England. The circulation of population that is now possible, and the modern views of imperial federation, alike tend to preserve the unity of the race, in spite of the distinctive physical characters which already have made their appearance. With America, on the other hand, union has become impossible. The American type is now so distinct, and the American sentiment of nationality is so acute, that all hope of union is gone. The resemblances and identities that remain serve only to make the ultimate struggle more certain. America would be our enemy before Germany, but for the accident that America is not yet a nation expanding beyond her own territory. Each recurring census shows that the time is approaching when America will have to expand or cease. The new regulations against the immigration of destitute aliens are one symptom that America, grown beyond the receptive phase, is reaching the aggressive phase. The Monroe doctrine is the most obvious provision against the expansion that soon must come; but the Monroe doctrine is a useless phase of diplomacy. Before long the nation itself, by its inevitable natural growth, will be enforcing a Monroe doctrine that is not a phase but a fact. The rumors of war with England must be realized and will be realized when the population of the States has transcended the limits of the States.

The biological view of foreign policy is plain. First, federate our colonies and prevent geographical isolation turning the Anglo-Saxon race against itself. Second, be ready to fight Germany, as Germania est delenda; third, be ready to fight America when the time comes. Lastly, engage in no wasting wars against peoples from whom we have nothing to fear.


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