FindArticles > Natural History > Oct, 1997 > Article > Print friendly

A Tale of Two Worksites—social Darwinism as applied to human history

Stephen Jay Gould

Christopher Wren, the leading architect of London's reconstruction after the great fire of 1666, lies buried beneath the floor of his most famous building, Saint Paul's Cathedral. No elaborate sarcophagus adorns the site. Instead, we find only the famous epitaph written by his son and now inscribed in the floor: si monumentum requiris, circumspice—"if you are searching for his monument, look around." A tad grandiose perhaps, but I have never read a finer testimony to the central importance one might even say sacredness—of actual places, rather than replicas, symbols, or other forms of vicarious resemblance.

An odd coincidence of professional life recently turned my thoughts to this most celebrated epitaph when, for the second time, I received an office in a spot loaded with history, a place still redolent with ghosts of past events both central to our common culture and especially meaningful for my own life and choices.

In 1971, 1 spent an academic term as a visiting researcher at Oxford University. I received a cranny of office space on the upper floor of the University Museum. As I set up my books, fossil snails, and microscope, I noticed a metal plaque affixed to the wall, informing me that this reconfigured space of shelves and cubicles had been, originally, the site of the most famous public confrontation in the early history of Darwinism. On this very spot in 1860, just a few months after Darwin published the Origin of Species, T H. Huxley had drawn his rhetorical sword and soundly skewered the slick but superficial champion of creationism Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce.

As with most legends, the official version ranks as mere cardboard before a much more complicated and multifaceted truth. Wilberforce and Huxley did put on a splendid and largely spontaneous show, but no clear victor emerged from the scuffle, and Joseph Hooker, Darwin's other champion, made an even more effective reply to the bishop, since forgotten by history. (See my May 1986 essay, "Knight Takes Bishop?")

I can't claim that the lingering presence of these Victorian giants increased my resolve or improved my work, but I loved the sense of continuity vouchsafed to me by this happy circumstance. I even treasured the etymology—for "circumstance" means "standing around," and there I stood, perhaps in the very spot where Huxley had said, at least according to legend, that he preferred an honest ape to a bishop who would use his privileged position to inject scorn and ridicule into a serious scientific debate.

Last year, I received a part-time appointment as visiting research professor of biology at New York University. I was given an office on the tenth floor of the Brown Building on Washington Place, a nondescript, early-twentieth-century structure now filled with laboratories and other academic spaces. As the dean took me on a casual tour of my new digs, he made a passing remark, intended as little more than tour-guide patter, but producing an electric effect upon his new tenant. Did I know, he asked, that this building had been the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911? My office occupied a corner location on one of the affected floors—in fact, as I later discovered, right near the escape route used by many workers to reach safety on the roof above. The dean also told me that each year on the March 25 anniversary of the fire, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union still holds a ceremony at the site and lays wreaths to memorialize the 146 workers killed in the blaze.

If the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce defines a primary legend of my chosen profession, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occupies an even more central place in my larger view of life. I grew up in a family of jewish immigrant garment workers, and this holocaust (in the literal meaning of a thorough sacrifice by burning) had set their views and helped to define their futures.

The shirtwaist—a collared blouse designed after the model of a man's shirt and worn above a separate skirt—had become the fashionable symbol of more independent women. The Triangle company, New York City's largest manufacturer of shirtwaists, occupied three floors (eighth through tenth) of the Asch Building (later bought by New York University and rechristened as Brown, partly to blot out the infamy of association with the fire). The company employed some 500 workers, nearly all young women who had recently arrived either as Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe or Catholics from Italy. The building, in addition to elevators, had only two small stairways and one absurdly inadequate fire escape. But the owners had violated no codes both because general standards of regulation were then so weak and because the structure was supposedly fireproof—as the framework proved to be (for the building, with my office, still stands), although nonflammable walls and ceilings could not prevent an internal blaze on floors crammed full of garments and cuttings. The Triangle factory was, in fact, a deathtrap—for fire hoses of the day could not pump above the sixth floor, while nets and blankets could not sustain the force of a human body falling from greater heights.

The fire broke out at quitting time. Most workers managed to escape by the elevators, down one staircase (we shall come to the other staircase later), or by running up to the roof. But 146 employees, nearly all young women, were trapped by the flames. About 50 workers met a hideous, if dramatic, end by jumping in terror from the ninth-floor windows as a wall of flame advanced from behind. Firemen and bystanders begged them not to jump, and then tried. to hold improvised nets of sheets and blankets. But the men could not hold the nets against the force of fall, and many bodies plunged right through the flimsy fabrics onto the pavement below, or even right through the "hollow sidewalks" made of opaque glass circles designed to transmit daylight to basements below, still a major (and attractive) feature of my SoHo neighborhood. (These sidewalks carry prominent signs warning heavy delivery trucks not to back in.) Not a single jumper survived, and the memory of these forced leaps to death remains the most searing image of America's prototypical sweatshop tragedy.

All defining events of history develop simplified legends as official versions—primarily, I suppose, because we commandeer such events for shorthand moral instruction, and the complex messiness of actual truth always blurs the clarity of a pithy epigram. Thus, Huxley, representing the righteousness of scientific objectivity, must slay the dragon of ancient and unthinking dogma. The legend of the Triangle fire holds that workers became trapped because management had locked all the exit doors to prevent pilfering, unscheduled breaks, or access to union organizers—leaving only the fire escape as a mode of exit. All five of my guidebooks to New York architecture tell this "official" version. My favorite book, for example, states: Although the budding was equipped with fire exits, the terrified workers discovered to their horror that the ninth-floor doors had been locked by supervisors. A single fire escape was wholly inadequate for the crush of panic-stricken employees."

These official legends may exaggerate for moral punch, but they emerge from a factual basis of greater ambiguity—and this reality, as we shall see in the Triangle case, often provides a deeper and more important lesson. Huxley did argue with Wilberforce after all, even if he secured no decisive victory, and Huxley did represent the side of the angels—the true angels of light and justice. And although many Triangle workers escaped by elevators and one staircase, another staircase (that might have saved nearly everyone else) was almost surely locked.

If Wilberforce and his minions had won, I might be a laborer or a linguist or, God forbid, a lawyer today. But the Triangle fire might have blotted me out entirely. My grandmother arrived in America in 1910. On that fatal March day in 1911, she was a sixteen-year-old seamstress working in a sweatshop—but, thank God, not for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. My grandfather, at the same moment, was cutting cloth in yet another nearby factory.

These two utterly disparate stories—half a century and an ocean apart, and maximally contrasting an industrial tragedy with an academic confrontation—might seem to stand as the most unrelatable of items: the apples and oranges, or chalk and cheese (the British version), of our mottoes. Yet I feel that the two stories share an intimate bond in illustrating the opposite poles of a central issue in the history of evolutionary theory: the application of Darwinian thought to the life and times of our own troubled species. I claim nothing beyond personal meaning—and certainly no rationale for boring anyone else—in the accidental location of my two offices in such sacred spots of history. But the emotion of a personal prod often dislodges a general theme worth sharing.

The application of evolutionary theory to Homo sapiens has always troubled Western culture deeply, not for any reason that might be called scientific (for humans are biological objects and must therefore take their place with all other living creatures on the genealogical tree of life) but only as a consequence of ancient prejudices about human distinctiveness and unbridgeable superiority. Even Darwin tiptoed lightly across this subject when he wrote the Origin of Species in 1859 (although he plunged in later, in 1871, with a book entitled The Descent of Man). The first edition of the Origin says little about Homo sapiens beyond the cryptic promise that "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," (Darwin became a bit bolder in later editions and ventured the emendation, "Much light will be thrown ......)

Troubling issues of this sort often find their unsurprising resolution in a bit of wisdom that has permeated our traditions from such sublime sources as Aristotle's aurea mediocritas (golden mean) to the vernacular sensibility of Goldilocks's decisions to split the difference between two extremes and find a solution "just right" in the middle. Similarly, one can ask either too little or too much of Darwinism in trying to understand "the origin of man and his history." As usual, a proper solution lies in the intermediary position of "a great deal, but not everything." Soapy Sam Wilberforce and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire gain their odd but sensible conjunction as illustrations of the two extremes that must be avoided—for Wilberforce denied evolution altogether and absolutely, while the major social theory that hindered industrial reform (and permitted conditions that led to such disasters as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) followed the most overextended application of biological evolution to patterns of human history—the so-called theory of social Darwinism. By understanding the fallacies of Wilberforce's denial and social Darwinism's uncritical and total embrace, we may find the proper course between.

They didn't call him Soapy Sam for nothing. The orotund Bishop of Oxford saved his finest invective for Darwin's attempt to apply his heresies to human origins. In his review of the Origin of Species (published in the Quarterly Review, England's leading literary journal, in 1860), Wilberforce complained above all: "First, then, he not obscurely declares that he applies his scheme of the action of the principle of natural selection to Man himself, as wen as to the animals around him." Wilberforce then uncorked a passionate argument for a human uniqueness that could only have been divinely ordained:

    Wan derived supremacy over the earth;
    man's power of articulate speech; man's gift
    If reason; man's free-will and
    responsibility; man's fall and man's
    redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal
    Son; the indwelling of the Eternal
    Spirit,—all are equally and utterly
    irreconcilable with the degrading notion of
    the brute origin of him who was created in
    the image of God, and redeemed by the
    Eternal Son.

But the tide of history rolled over the good bishop. When Wilberforce died in 1873 from a head injury after a fall from his horse, Huxley acerbically remarked that, for once, the bishop's brains had come into contact with reality—and the result had been fatal. Darwinism became the reigning intellectual novelty of the late nineteenth century. The potential domain of natural selection, Darwin's chief explanatory principle, seemed nearly endless to his devotees (although not, interestingly, to the master himself, as Darwin remained cautious about extensions beyond the realm of biological evolution). If a "struggle for existence" regulated the evolution of organisms, wouldn't a similar principle also explain the history of just about anything -- from the cosmology of the universe to the languages, economics, technologies, and cultural histories of human groups?

Even the greatest of truths can be overextended by zealous and uncritical acolytes. Natural selection may be one of the most powerful ideas ever developed in science, but only certain kinds of systems can be regulated by such a process, and Darwin's principle cannot therefore explain all natural sequences that develop historically. For example, we may talk about the "evolution" of a star through a predictable series of phases over many billion years from birth to explosion, but natural selection -- a process driven by differential survival and reproductive success of some individuals in a variable population -- cannot be the cause of stellar development. We must look, instead, to the inherent physics and chemistry of light elements in such large masses.

Similarly, although Darwinism surely explains many universal features of human form and behavior, we cannot invoke natural selection as the controlling cause of our cultural changes since the dawn of agriculture -- if only because such a limited time of some ten thousand years provides so little potential for any general biological evolution at all. Moreover, and most importantly, human cultural change operates in a manner that precludes a controlling role for natural selection. To mention the two most obvious differences: first, biological evolution proceeds by continuous division of species into independent lineages that must remain forever separated on the branching tree of life. Human cultural change works by the opposite process of borrowing and amalgamation. One good look at another culture's wheel or alphabet may alter the course of a civilization forever. If we seek any biological analogue for cultural change, I suspect that infection will work much better than evolution.

Secondly, human cultural change runs by the powerful mechanism of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters. Anything useful (or, alas, destructive) that our generation invents can be passed directly to our offspring by direct education. Change in this rapid Lamarckian mode easily overwhelms the much slower process of Darwinian natural selection, which requires a Mendelian form of inheritance based on small-scale, undirected variation that can then be sifted and sorted through a struggle for existence. Genetic variation is Mendelian, so Darwinism rules biological evolution. But cultural variation is largely Lamarckian, and natural selection cannot determine the recent history of our technological societies.

Nonetheless, the first blush of high Victorian enthusiasm for Darwinism inspired a rush of attempted extensions to other fields, at least by analogy. Some proved fruitful, including the decision of James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary first volume published in 1884, but under way for twenty years before then), to work strictly by historical principles and treat the changing definitions of words not by current preferences in use (as in a truly normative dictionary) but by the chronology and branching evolution of recorded meanings (making the text more an encyclopedia about the history of words than a true dictionary).

But other extensions were both invalid in theory and (or so most of us would judge by modern moral sensibilities) harmful, if not tragic, in application. As the chief offender in this category, we must cite a highly influential theory that acquired the inappropriate name of social Darwinism. (As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called social Spencerism since Herbert Spencer, chief Victorian pundit of nearly eveything, laid out all the basic postulates nearly a decade before the Origin of Species in his Social Statics of 1851. Darwinism did add the mechanism of natural selection as a harsher version of the struggle for existence that Spencer had long recognized. Moreover, Darwin himself maintained a most ambivalent relationship to this movement that came to bear his name. He took the pride of any creator in useful extensions of his theory -- and he did hope for an evolutionary account of human origins and historical patterns. But he also understood only too well why the mechanism of natural selection applied poorly to the causes of social change in humans.)

Social Darwinism often serves as a blanket term for any genetic or biological claim made about the inevitability (or at least the "naturalness") of social inequalities among classes and sexes or military conquests of one group by another. But this usage is far too broad -- although pseudo-Darwinian arguments were prominently advanced to cover all these sins. Social Darwinism, rather, usually operated as a more specific theory about the nature and origin of social classes in the modern industrial world. The short Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the subject correctly emphasizes this restriction by first citing the broadest range of potential meaning and then properly narrowing the scope of actual usage:

Social Darwinism: the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature.... The theory was used to support laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism. Class stratification was justified on the basis of "natural" inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality. Attempts to reform society through state intervention or other means would, therefore, interfere with natural processes; unrestricted competition and defense of the status quo were in accord with biological selection. The poor were the "unfit" and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success.

Spencer believed that such harshness must be advocated in order to allow the progressive development that all "evolutionary" systems undergo if permitted to follow their natural course in an unimpeded manner. As a central principle of his system, Spencer believed that progress -- defined by him as movement from a simple undifferentiated homogeneity, as in a bacterium or a "primitive" human society without social classes, to complex and structured heterogeneity, as in "advanced" organisms or industrial societies -- did not arise as an inevitable property of matter in motion, but only through interaction between evolving systems and their environments. These interactions must therefore not be obstructed.

The relationship of Spencer's general vision to Darwin's particular theory has often been misconstrued or overemphasized. As stated earlier, Spencer had published the outline (and most of the details) of his system nearly ten years before Darwin presented his evolutionary theory. Spencer certainly did welcome the principle of natural selection as an even more ruthless and efficient mechanism for driving evolution forward. (Ironically, the word "evolution," as a description for the genealogical history of life, entered our language through Spencer's urgings, not from Darwin. Spencer favored the term for its vernacular English meaning of "progress ,in he original Latin sense of evolutio, or "unfolding." At first, Darwin resisted the term -- he originally called his process "descent with modification" -- because his theory included no mechanism or rationale for general progress in the history of life. But Spencer prevailed, largely because no society has ever been more committed to progress as a central notion or goal than Victorian Britain at the height of its colonial and industrial expansion.)

Spencer certainly used Darwin's mechanism of natural selection to buttress his system. In fact, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," now our conventional catch phrase for Darwin's mechanism. Darwin himself paid tribute in a sentence added to later editions of the Origin of Species: "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. . . . But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."

As a mechanism for driving his universal "evolution" (of stars, species, languages, economics, technologies, and nearly anything else) toward progress, Spencer preferred the direct and mechanistic "root, hog, or die" of natural selection (as William Graham Sumner, the leading American social Darwinian, epitomized the process) to the vaguer and largely Lamarckian drive toward organic self-improvement that Spencer had originally favored as a primary cause. (In this porcine image, Summer cited a quintessential American metaphor of self-sufficiency that my dictionary of catch phrases traces to a speech by Davey Crockett in 1843.) In a post-Darwinian edition of his Social Statics, Spencer wrote:

The lapse of a third of a century since these

passages were published, has brought me no

reason for retreating from the position taken

up in them. Contrariwise, it has brought a

vast amount of evidence strengthening that

position. The beneficial results of the

survival of the fittest, prove to be

immeasurably greater t an [I formerly

recognized]. The process of "natural

selection," as Mr. Darwin called it . . . has

shot n to be a chief cause . . . of that

evolution through which all living things,

beginning with the lower and diverging and

re-diverging as they evolved, have reached

their present degrees of organization and

adaptation to their modes of life.

But putting aside the question of Darwin's particular influence, the more important, underlying point remains firm: the theory of social Darwinism rests upon a set of analogies between the causes of change and stability in biological and social systems -- and on a supposedly direct applicability of the biological principles to the social realm. In the Social Statics, Spencer rests his case upon two elaborate, analogies to biological systems.

1. The struggle for existence as purification in biology and society. Darwin recognized the "struggle for existence" as metaphorical shorthand for any strategy that provides increased reproductive success, whether by outright battle, cooperation, or just simple prowess in copulation under the old principle of "early and often." But many contemporaries, including Spencer, read "survival of the fittest" only as overt struggle to the death -- what Huxley dismissed as the "gladiatorial" school, or the incarnation of Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Spencer presented this stark, limited view of nature in Social Statics:

Pervading all Nature we may see at work a

stern discipline which is a little cruel that it

may be very kind. That state Of universal

warfare maintained throughout the lower

creation, to the great perplexity of many

worthy people, is at bottom the most

merciful provision which the circumstances

admit of. . . . Note that carnivorous

enemies, not only remove from herbivorous

herds individuals past their prime, but also

weed out the sickly, the malformed, and the

least fleet or powerful. By the aid of which

purifying process . . . all vitiation of the

race through the multiplication of its inferior

samples is prevented; and the maintenance

Of a constitution completely adapted to

surrounding conditions, and therefore most

productive of happiness, is ensured.

Spencer then compounds this error by applying the same argument to human social history without ever questioning the validity of such analogical transfer. Railing against all governmental programs for social amelioration -- Spencer opposed state-supported education, postal services, regulation of housing conditions, and even public construction of sanitary systems -- Spencer castigated such efforts as born of good intentions but doomed to dire consequences by enhancing the survival of social dregs who should be allowed to perish for the good of all. (Spencer insisted, however, that he did not oppose private charity, although largely for the good effect of such giving upon the moral development of donors. Does any of this remind you of arguments now advanced as reformatory and spanking-new by our "modern" ultraconservatives? Shall we not profit by Santayana's famous dictum that those ignorant of history must be condemned to repeat it?) In his chapter on poor laws (which he, of course, opposed) in the Social Statics, Spencer wrote:

We must call those spurious philanthropists

who, to prevent present misery, would

entail greater misery on future generations.

That rigorous necessity which, when

allowed to operate, becomes so sharp a spur

to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the

random, these paupers' friends would

repeal, because of the wailings it here and

there produces. Blind to the fact that under

the natural order of things society is

constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile,

slow, vacillating, faithless members, these

unthinking, though well-meaning, men

advocate an interference which not only

stops the purifying process, but even

increases the vitiation -- absolutely

encouraging the multiplication of the

reckless and incompetent by offering them

an unfailing provision . . . . Thus, ill their

eagerness to prevent the salutary sufferings

that surround us, these sigh-wise and

groan-foolish people bequeath to posterity a

continually i creasing curse.

2. The stable body and the stable society. In the universal "evolution" of an systems to progress, organization becomes ever more complex by division of labor among the increasing number of differentiating parts. All parts must "know their place" and play their appointed role lest the entire system collapse. A primitive hydra can regrow any lost part, but nature gives a man only one head and one chance. Spencer recognized the basic inconsistency in validating social stability by analogy to the integrated needs of a single organic body, for he recognized the contrary rationales of the two systems: the parts of a body serve the totality, but the social totality (the state) supposedly exists only to serve the parts (individual people). But Spencer could never be fazed by logical or empirical difficulties when pursuing such a lovely generality. (Huxley was speaking of Spencer's penchant for building grandiose systems when he made his famous remark that Spencer's idea of tragedy was "a beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact.") So Spencer pushed right through the numerous absurdities of such a comparison and even professed that he could find a virtue in the differences. In his famous 1860 article The Social Organism, Spencer described the comparison between a human body and a human society: "Such, then, are the points of analogy and the points of difference. May we not say that the points of difference serve but to bring into clearer light the points of analogy."

Spencer's article then lists the supposed points of valid comparison, including such far-fetched analogies as the historical origin of a middle class to the development in complex animals of the mesoderm, or third body layer, between the original ectoderm and endoderm; the likening of the ectoderm itself to the upper classes, for sensory organs that direct an animal arise in the ectoderm, while organs of production for such activities as digesting food emerge from the endoderm, or lower layer; the comparison of blood and money; the parallel courses of nerve and blood vessels in higher animals with the side-by-side construction of railways and telegraph wires; and, finally, in a comparison that even Spencer regarded as forced, the likening of a primitive, all-powerful monarchy with a simple brain, and an advanced parliamentary system with a complex brain composed of several lobes. Spencer wrote: "Strange as this assertion will be thought, our Houses of Parliament discharge in the social economy, functions that are in sundry respects comparable to those discharged by the cerebral masses in a vertebrate animal."

The analogies were surely forced, but the social intent could not have been clearer: a stable society requires that an roles be filled and well executed -- and government must not interfere with a natural process of sorting out and allocation of appropriate rewards. A humble worker must toil and may remain forever poor, but the industrious poor, as an organ of the social body, must always be with us:

Let the factory hands be put on short time,

and immediately the colonial produce

markets of London and Liverpool are

depressed. The shopkeeper is busy or

otherwise, according to the amount of the

wheat crop. And a potato-blight may ruin

dealers consols. ... This union of many

men into one community -- this increasing

mutual dependence of units which were

originally independent -- this gradual

segregation of citizens into separate bodies

with reciprocally-subservient functions -- this

formation of a whole consisting of unlike

parts -- this growth of an organism, of

which one portion cannot be injured

without the rest feeling it -- may all be

generalized under the law of individuation.

Social Darwinism grew into a major movement, with political, academic, and journalistic advocates for a wide array of particular causes. But as historian Richard Hofstadter stated in the most famous book ever written on this subject -- social Danwinism in America Thought, first published in 1944, in press ever since, and still full of insight despite some inevitable archaicisms -- the primary impact of this doctrine lay in its buttressing of conservative political philosophies, particularly through the central, and highly effective, argument against state support of social services and governmental regulation of industry and housing:

One might, like William Graham

Sumner, take a pessimistic view of the

import of Darwinism, and conclude that

Darwinism could serve only to cause men

to face up to the inherent hardship of the

battle of life; or one might, like Herbert

Spencer, promise that, whatever the

immediate hardships for a large portion of

mankind, evolution meant progress and

thus assured that the whole process of life

was tending toward some very remote but

altogether glorious consummation. But in

either case the conclusions to which

Dawinism was at first put were

conservative conclusions. They suggested

that all attempts to reform social processes

were efforts to remedy the irremediable, that

they interfered with the wisdom of nature,

that they could lead only to degeneration.

The industrial magnates of America's Gilded Age ("robber barons" in a terminology favored by many people) loved the argument against regulation, evidently for self-serving reasons, however much they mixed their lines about nature's cruel inevitability with expressions of standard Christian piety. John D. Rockefeller stated in a Sunday school address:

The growth of a large business is merely a

survival of the fittest . ... The American

Beauty rose can be produced in the

splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to

its beholder only by sacrificing the early

buds which grow up around it. This is not

an evil tendency in business. It is merely

the working-out of a law of nature and a

law of God.

And Andrew Carnegie, who had been sorely distressed by the apparent failure of Christian values, found his solution in Herbert Spencer, then sought out the English philosopher for friendship and substantial favors. Carnegie wrote about his discovery of Spencer's work: "I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. `All is well since all grows better' became my motto, and true source of comfort." Carnegie's philanthropy, primarily to libraries and universities, ranks as one of the great charitable acts of American history, but we should not forget his ruthlessness and resistance to reforms for his own workers (particularly his violent breakup of the Homestead strike of 1892) in building his empire of steel -- a harshness that he defended with the usual Spencerian line that any state regulation would derail an inexorable natural process eventually leading to progress for all. In his most famous essay (entitled "Wealth," published in the North American Review, of 1889), Carnegie stated:

While the law may be sometimes hard for

the individual, it is best for the race,

because it insures the survival of the fittest

in every department. We accept and

welcome, therefore, as conditions to which

we must accommodate ourselves, great

inequality of environment, tile

concentration of wealth, business, industrial

and commercial, in the hands of a few, and

the law of competition between these, as

being not only beneficial, but essential for

the future progress of the race.

I don't want to advocate a foolishly grandiose view about the social and political influence of academic arguments -- and I also wish to avoid the common fallacy of inferring a causal connection from a correlation. Of course I do not believe that the claims of social Darwinism directly caused the ills of unrestrained industrial capitalism and suppression of workers' rights. I know that most of these Spencerian lines acted as mere window dressing for social forces well in place and largely unmovable by any merely academic argument.

On the other hand, academic arguments are not entirely impotent either -- for why else would those in charge invoke such claims so forcefully? The general thrust of social change unfolded in its own complex manner without much impact from purely intellectual rationales, but many particular issues -- especially the actual rates and styles for changes that would have eventually occurred in any case -- could be substantially affected by academic discourse. It really did matter to millions of people when a given reform suffered years of legislative delay, and then became vitiated in legal battles and compromises. The social Darwinian argument of the superrich and the highly conservative did stem, weaken, and slow the tides of amelioration, particularly for workers' rights.

Most historians would agree that the single most effective argument of social Darwinism lay in Spencer's own centerpiece -- the argument against state-enforced standards for industry, education, medicine, housing, public sanitation, and so on. Few Americans, even the robber barons, would go so far, but Spencerian dogma did become a powerful bludgeon against regulation of industry to insure better working conditions for laborers. On this particular point -- the central recommendation of Spencer's system from the beginning -- we may argue for a substantial effect of academic doctrine upon the actual path of history.

Armed with this perspective, we may return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the deaths of 146 young workers, and the palpable influence of a doctrine that applied too much of the wrong version of evolution to human history. The battle for increased safety of workplaces and healthier environments for workers had been waged with intensity for several decades. The trade union movement put substantial priority upon these issues, but management often reacted with intransigence or even violence, citing their Spencerian rationale for the perpetuation of apparent cruelty. Government regulation of industry had become a major struggle of American political life -- and the cause of benevolent state oversight had advanced from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the numerous and crusading reforms of Theodore Roosevelt's recent presidency (1901-09). When the Triangle fire broke out in 1911, regulations for health and safety of workers were so weak, and so unenforceable by tiny and underpaid staffs, that the company's managers -- cynically and technically "up to code" in their firetrap building -- could pretty much impose whatever the weak and nascent labor union movement couldn't prevent.

If the standard legend were true -- and the Triangle workers died because all the doors had been locked by cruel owners -- then the story might convey no moral beyond the personal guilt of management. But the loss of 146 lives occurred for much more complicated reasons, all united by the pathetic weakness of legal regulations for health and safety of workers. And I do not doubt that the central thrust of social Darwinism -- the argument against regulation as forestalling a necessary and natural process -- had major impact in slowing the passage of basic regulations that almost everyone today, even our archconservatives, regard as beneficial and humane. I accept that these regulations would eventually have been instituted even if Spencer had never been born -- but it made a world of difference to the Triangle workers that forces of pure laissez-faire, buttressed by their Spencerian centerpiece, managed to delay some implementations until the 1920s, rather than acceding to the just demands of unions and social reformers in 1910.

One of the two Triangle stairways was apparently locked on that fateful day -- although lawyers of company owners won acquittal for their clients on this issue, largely by using legal legerdemain to confuse, intimidate, and draw inconsistencies from young witnesses with a poor command of English. Two years earlier, an important strike had begun at the Triangle company and had spread to shirtwaist manufacturers throughout the city. The union won in most factories but not, ironically, at Triangle -- where management held out and compelled the return of workers without anything gained. Tensions remained high at Triangle in 1911, and management had become particularly suspicious, even paranoid, about thefts. Therefore, when the fire erupted at quitting time (and against weakly enforced laws for maintaining multiple active exits), managers had locked one of the doors to force an the women to exit by the Greene Street stairwell, where a supervisor could inspect every handbag to guard against thefts of shirtwaists.

But the bosses were breaking a weak and unenforceable law in this instance. All other causes of death can be traced to managerial compliance with absurdly inadequate standards, largely kept so weak by active political resistance to legal regulation of worksites, buttressed by the argument of social Darwinism. Fire hoses could not pump above the sixth floor, but no law prevented the massing of workers into crowded floors above. No statute required fire drills or other forms of training for fire safety. In other cases, weak regulations were risibly inadequate, easy to flout, and basically unenforced in any case. For example, by law, each worker required 250 cubic feet of air space -- a good rule to prevent crowding. But companies had managed to circumvent the intent of this law, and maintain their traditional (and dangerous) density of workers, by moving into large loft buildings with high ceilings and substantial irrelevant space that could be included in the 250 cubic foot minimum.

When the Asch Building was completed in 1900, an inspector for the Building Department informed the architect that a third staircase should be provided. But the architect sought and received a variance, arguing that the single fire escape effectively served as the missing staircase required by law for structures with more than 10,000 square feet per floor. Moreover, the single fire escape -- which buckled and fell during the fire, as a result of poor maintenance and too great a weight of workers trying to escape -- led only to a glass skylight in a closed courtyard. The building inspector had also complained about this arrangement, and the architect had promised to make the necessary alterations. But no changes were ever made, and the falling fire escape plunged right through the skylight, greatly increasing the death toll.

Two final quotations highlight the case for inadequate legal protection as a primary cause of the unconscionable death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (Leon Stein's excellent book, The Triangle Fire, [J. B. Lippincott Company, 1962] served as my chief source for information about this event).

Rose Safran, a survivor of the fire and supporter of the 1909 strike, said, "If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the street. But the bosses defeated us and we didn't get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead."

A budding inspector who had actually written to the Triangle management just a few months before, asking for an appointment to discuss the initiation of fire drills, commented after the blaze: "There are only two or three factories in the city where fire drills are in use. In some of them where I have installed the system myself, the owners have discontinued it. The neglect of factory owners in the matter of safety of their employees is absolutely criminal. One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: `Let 'em burn. They're a lot of cattle, anyway.'"

The Triangle fire galvanized the reform movement as never before. An empowered force, now irresistible, of labor organizers, social reformers, and liberal legislators pressed for stronger regulation under the theme of "never again." Hundreds of laws were passed as a direct result of this belated agitation. But nothing could wash the blood of 146 workers from a sidewalk of New York.

This tale of two worksites -- of a desk where Huxley debated Wilberforce, and an office on a floor that burned during the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire -- has no end, for the story illustrates a theme of human intellectual life that must always be with us, however imbued with an obvious and uncontroversial solution. Extremes tend to be untenable, even dangerous, places on complex and subtle continua. For the application of Darwinian theory to human history, Wilberforce's "none" marks an error of equal magnitude with the "all" of an extreme social Darwinism. In a larger sense, the evolution of a species like Homo sapiens should fill us with notions of glory for our odd mental uniqueness, and of deep humility for our status as a tiny and accidental twig on such a sturdy and luxuriantly branching tree of life. Glory and humility! Since we can't abandon either feeling for a unitary stance in the middle, we had best make sure that both attitudes always walk together, hand in hand, and secure in the wisdom of Ruth's promise to Naomi: "Where thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge."

COPYRIGHT 1997 Natural History Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group