Science and Patriotism
The Speaker, February 2, 1901
National Life From The Standpoint Of Science. By Karl Pearson, F.R.S. London: Adam and Charles Black
Professor Pearson, in his view of national life, is a well-meaning and vigorous upholder of the great principle of the survival of the nastiest. His remarks on the danger of allowing a physically "bad stock" to multiply, though not very precisely expressed, seem certainly to tend towards the idea of conducting the lives and loves of mankind on strict cattle-breeding principles. To our own simple minds it appears rather to depend on whether we wish to produce the same tone of thought and degree of culture in men and in cattle. The virtues which we demand from cows are at present few and simple, and, therefore, we pursue a certain physical regime: if ever we should particularly wish to see cows writing poetry, cows building hotels, and cows speaking in Parliament, we should probably adopt another regime. A random example of the unsuitability of a biological test of so intellectual a matter as civilisation springs at once to the mind. There was born early in this century a man who scarcely had a day's complete health in his life, a perfect example of the "unfit" creature whom some sages would strangle in pure compassion. That man was Charles Darwin, on whose discovery the sages base their action. Their principle would never have been heard of if it had not been the custom to violate it. If this is not a reductio ad absurdum, we do not know what is.
But the error of Professor Pearson's philosophy lies deeper. In one sense, indeed, the fight is always to the strong; but strength is exhibited by sticking like a limpet to our own claims, selfish or unselfish, not by trying to alter our claims in order to curry favour with nature. The mammoth would not have been more efficient in the primal competition, but less, if he had suddenly put his head on one side and reflected whether mammoths were on the down grade. The varieties of biology have been produced by animals asserting with blind bravery their ideals of self or family, not by their following the cosmic fashion-plates. The Elk did not go about saying, "Horns are very much worn now," or "All the best people have a divided hoof;" he simply perfected his own weapons for his own defence. The first element in conquering nature is to be natural, and it is not natural to us to become a race of placid scientific murderers. We have, as a race, developed our own set of ideas, one of which is that to a mind of large range the weak are often as valuable as the strong. A sparrow-hawk would not hesitate to eat a thrush, for the simple reason that a sparrow-hawk (having no ear for music) is ignorant of its vocal power, and the only possible use to which he can put a thrush is to eat it. But there is no more biological reason for a poet eating a thrush than there is for his eating Paderewski.
It is the same with Professor Pearson's view of international politics, in which, of course, he approves of crushing and driving out weaker or more barbarous nations. The real objection to the great biological morality of kicking a man when he is down is not merely that it is cruel or insolent, but that it is timid. It is doing something which we none of us like doing or respect ourselves for doing, merely because our hearts are alive with a bestial fear of Nature. Generations of human cattle-breeding will not give a grain of courage to a people who have no moral independence, whose knees knock under them at the sight of a stronger race. We shall be foolish indeed if we think that Nature will be deceived- that, because we have a lion on our crest, she will not know that the heart is a hunted hare. That is the damning and destructive weakness of the modern struggle of nations. The great Empires advance resplendently with their banners and their engines of war, all coming forward at a sublime gallop, to take possession of the world. But, though it seems as if nothing could withstand such an onset of human valour, it is only a moment after that we realise the truth that this magnificent rush of nations is not a charge at all, but a rout; and through the sound of all the trumpets we can hear roaring in the rear the great devil who is to catch the hindmost.
We warmly sympathise with Professor Pearson in saying that patriotic feeling is "not a thing to be ashamed of;" but we cannot agree with him that it is a protest especially required just now. The trouble at present is not that people think patriotism a thing to be ashamed of, but that they have developed a certain brand of patriotism which is a thing to be ashamed of. But when Professor Pearson says that his attitude is not repellent or immoral, because he desires to see peace and amity between fellow citizens, he falls into one of the oldest errors of rationalism, the notion that the soul is in watertight compartments. He says that we are to oppress and exterminate smaller peoples, but to cultivate the greatest generosity and sympathy towards our countrymen. He might as well say that a father should cut the throat of every other child born to him, but cultivate the greatest generosity and sympathy towards the rest. The common sense of the thing is that if a father were really bullied by any philosophy into pursuing such a course, so sickening would be the humiliation of the process, so dark the conflict between an unbearable shame and a debasing fear, that he could only keep on the right side of a lunatic asylum by hardening himself against every genial sentiment. So it is with the national conscience. If ever we do arrive at such an emotional condition that we hear with perfect indifference or frigid pleasure of a race of brave barbarians dying with pitiful heroism around their rude ensigns, we may be practically certain that a freezing process has set in and that we shall end by hearing with equal coolness of brave Englishmen dying around the Union Jack.
It is true that in old times men could kill their enemies without moral collapse; but that was because they had no intellectual comprehension of what they did. As long as men really believed Frenchmen to be devils it is obvious that they could wipe French blood from their hands like so much mire. But now that they know that Frenchmen are nothing of the sort, that which was once natural becomes unnatural. It was perfectly natural for the mediaeval Catholics to harry the Albigenses as the detestable deceivers of mankind, but surely it would be ludicrous to infer that if English Churchmen were suddenly to commence burning and torturing the Wesleyan Methodists, they would suffer no ethical degeneration from so doing. If they did it at all, it would not be from faith, but from fear, from the oppressive philosophy of Professor Pearson. This ethical terrorism is an atmosphere in which health and strength are impossible. We ourselves believe in a sentimental basis of moral action for one very simple reason, that it is the basis most favourable to sanity and fulness of life. A man who is continent, for example, from a contemplation of the Virgin Mary, is in a vastly better condition of moral hygiene than a man who is continent from reading Ibsen's Ghosts, for the very obvious reason that the first man's attention is turned to beauty, strength, and the obvious good, and the second man's attention to deformity, impotence, and diseased perversity. Here, as is generally the case, sentiment is found to be vastly more practical than "practicality." The Terrorist, whether he be the realist teaching us chastity by terror, or the sociological professor, teaching us virility by terror, or the common bomb-throwing anarchist teaching us humanity and benevolence by terror, is the same man in spirit everywhere. He will never succeed, because he begins by drawing out the backbone like a linch-pin.
And just as what produces health in a man is enthusiasm for something healthy, so what produces courage in a nation is enthusiasm for something honourable. Napoleon uttered the fundamental principle of Professor Pearson's school of thought when he said that God was on the side of the big battalions. But the reason why Napoleon fell even before so ordinary a man as Wellington is simply that by inevitable reason the man of principle tends to outlast the man of destiny. Wellington was the type of national strength because he held fast by something beyond the reach of circumstance, even if it were nothing more than a somewhat poker-backed conception of a gentleman. Men in the old times could often be cruel to their enemies without moral collapse, because their minds being limited, their desires were cruel. But nothing except moral collapse can come of actions being cruel when desires are humane. Here, then, is the weakness in practice of Professor Pearson's theory of national life. It is in the people of principle that the bull-dog quality is bred, not in the people who are always, consciously or unconsciously, watching to see which way the cosmic cat jumps. There is a shrewd secular truth hidden under a theological language in the old saying that man's extremity is God's opportunity. For it is only on those in the struggle for existence who hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn. A man who loves his country for her power will always be as weak an adorer as a man who loves a woman for her money. A great appearance of national or imperial strength may be founded on this fair-weather philosophy, but the crown of ultimate triumph and the real respect of Nature will always be reserved for the man for whom the fight is never finished, who disregards the omens and disdains the stars.