Introductory Statement Regarding Human Ecology and Population

Luther Lee Bernard
 University of North Carolina

I wish to trace in the barest outlines the movement in sociology which has led up to the ecological approach to sociological study. Sociology as a science was conceived when Vico hit upon the idea of producing general social principles and laws by studying and generalizing the data of history and literature. But neither Vico nor the important group of philosophers of history who succeeded him really created an inductive science of sociology. They were still under the spell of the metaphysical concept of natural law, which placed the determination of events in the past and in the distant bowels of the universe, or perhaps in the matrix-mind of divinity. It was Comte who played midwife to a theory of inductive sociology, by insisting upon the determination of events by the interaction and interrelation of the events themselves, instead of by factors or forces (natural law) outside of the events. Thus he stated the formula for all inductive science and named it positivism.

The inductive method had already begun to be used in the older sciences, although it had not been labeled and set in opposition to the older methods before Comte's keen penetration of the significance of intellectual history enabled him to draw the strong contrast between the positivistic and metaphysical approaches. The method of Vico, in the hands of the philosophers of history, had failed to make good its promise of providing social laws and principles. Historical data were not adequate to such generalization.[1] Montesquieu had sought to remedy this defect by the intro-

(31) -duction of geographic and climatic factors which he undertook with moderate success to generalize inductively. Buckle combined the methods of anthropogeography and the philosophy of history and elicited a great, if not a permanent, response.

But the death knell of a prioristic social thinking had already been sounded, and, interestingly enough, by the historians. They began to confine their attention to the collection, verification, and storing of facts, largely to the exclusion of their interpretation. All of the other social disciplines followed suit and began to place their main emphasis upon description and the historical method, which was for them a method of fact collection. But they found it difficult as interpreters of contemporary life to avoid some sort of generalization. This was especially true of sociology. It was never possible after the downfall of the philosophy of history to make of sociology a mere collection of historical data. From its dilemma it found two means of partial escape. One of these was generalization by analogy— especially by biological analogy— in which morass it floundered for nearly a generation.

The other escape was more logical and broke less definitely with the abstemious method of history. Sociology turned in the last third of the nineteenth century to ethnology for the materials it sought to use inductively. But this recourse was not satisfactory, partly because the results were not much more dependable than those provided by the philosophy of history, and partly because there was an insistent demand that sociology should provide an explanation of life as it is. Already in the eighties the theological schools began to introduce courses in social problems, and this content was merged early in the nineties with sociology. Along with the content often went the clerical teachers themselves. Their neo-Calvinistic and English-ethical traditions led them rigorously to exclude materialistic factors from their accounts of causes, and even the economic factors they looked upon with suspicion and annoyance. For nearly two decades practically the only mention of physical and economic environment as factors permitted to enter into any serious discussion of social maladjustment came through the scarcely respectable writings of the Italian criminologists.


For the most part sociological theory was almost equally unfriendly to taking cognizance of material environmental factors. Recognition of the physical environment was relegated to geography, and the recognition of economic factors was either dismissed as socialistic or materialistic interpretation or gladly abandoned to economics, which itself shied at too close contact with this field. With the exception of a few men like Sumner, the treatment of social processes was in terms of a neo-Hegelian or ethicohistorical ideology. The philosophers and theologues in our camp were numerous. The rise of the French school of neo-Hegelian psychosociologists in the nineties tended to confirm our own indigenous ideological trend in sociology. Sociology itself came frequently to be defined in terms of psychic interaction among persons, the whole stage on which the action took place being left out of account— at least in theory. Of course, such an unrealistic sociology could not persist and it fell an easy victim, in its search to escape from a vacuum, to the instinct or biological deterministic interpretation, just as more than a generation before an earlier group of social thinkers, forbidden to generalize directly from insufficient data, had narcotized their imaginations with the biological analogy.

But the seed of a realistic or environmentalist interpretation of human nature and social processes were never lost during these years of the Babylonish captivity of sociology by the shades of Calvin and Hegel. Thomas, at Chicago, in his wide range of reading and interests, brought his students in contact with McGee and the environmental anthropologists. Sumner worked ahead with his subsistence theory of social origins. And above all, the historians, who in the first half of the nineteenth century, had led the way in the search for facts (which, however, carried the sociologists only as far as uncertain ethnological data), now began at the end of the century to return to nature. Turner and his school are as surely among the forerunners of the new sociology (I mean no offense to them) as are Comte and all the Germans Small lists in his most remarkable Origins of Sociology!

Sociology is today in the process of returning from a number of blind alleys, and it is still a bit dizzy. It is mostly back from its

(33) ideological and instinctivist excursions. But the spirit of Hegel still lives, especially through the social mirages of Durkheim and the cultural determinists. In this last school the surviving influence of Hegel is strongest. A theory of culture which begins in culture and ends in culture, which knows no geography and can bear no environment except that inherited from the past or from some other place— and smothers even this under the term culture— is the latest refuge of the thwarted neo-Hegelian ideologists. The reason for this trend is, I think, easily found. Such a detached concept of culture is but another name for tradition. Thus the culture interpretation now so popular among sociologists is largely a new disguise for the old ideology and the worship of tradition.

Close aid to the "culture in a vacuum school" is the stratigraphic conception of science, which would lay down the subject matters and methodologies of the various sciences in layers, one

 above the other, somewhat after the manner of Comte's famous classification. Advocates of this viewpoint apparently would not allow any of the technique or content of one science to trickle through the cement and tile partitions to another. According to this school of thought a good sociologist should blush to recognize neurons, endocrines, selection (natural or otherwise), climate, or topography and contour.

It is not strange, perhaps, that some of our more recently and less metaphysically trained sociologists should take a staff from the hands of the historians and venture to walk on profane ground. Perhaps it is also not strange that the revolt should have taken an organized form most conspicuously among some of the doctors of just that department where the shade of Hegel has wandered most persistently and where the stratigraphic concept is perhaps strongest. The new emphasis in sociology upon a realistic approach to its data and methodology is decidedly inductive and environmentalist in contrast to ideological.

The term .human ecology is largely accidental and is indicative of (1) the dynamic character of its environmental realism, and (2) of the avenue of its escape from the old vacuum sociology of the ideologists, by analogy with the more dynamic work of the

(34) plant ecologists. The name may or may not last; it may be fortunate or unfortunate. But the realistic approach itself is to the study of the contemporaneous facts and factors which are actually shaping and conditioning human social behavior in an everchanging environment, material and psychic, physical and social. The papers that follow represent a few of the trend along which this new dynamic realism is working out an analysis of the interrelations of man and his environmental controls.[2]

If no papers in the conventional field of population analysis appear on the program of this division this year it is not because no such studies are being made. Perhaps no other phase of sociological research is now so well financed. But most of these studies are strikingly static. They have not caught fully the spirit of the dynamic trend which lays emphasis upon the analysis of adjustment and changes of adjustment occurring along with changes in social equilibration. I shall not attempt to explain why the population studies have so seldom caught the dynamic impulse to study human and group adjustments which is so characteristic of the trend which calls itself human ecology. It may be because those who have planned or approved the studies have not caught the dynamic trend. Or it may be something else. But it is a satisfaction to observe in the new movement toward dynamic realism in sociology a promise of the fulfilment of Vico's conception and of Comte's formula for a science of society which should study actual facts of life inductively and from this study discover the social habits and organizations of men.


  1. See Bernard, "The Development of Methods in Sociology," The Monist, April, 1928.
  2. Other realistic trends in twentieth-century sociology that have shared with human ecology in the task of replacing the nineteenth-century ideologies are the investigations in rural and urban sociology, public opinion, social organization and control, and population. At their best these subjects are not to be separated widely from what we call human ecology, except in so far as they dispense with the physical background as a conditioning factor.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2