Social Process

Chapter 18: Process, Biological and Social

Charles Horton Cooley

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IN a large view, heredity and environment are not opposing influences, as is commonly imagined, but complementary and co-operating organs of life, each having its appropriate part to play in the great whole. They are like man and woman, in that the question regarding them is not which is greater or more indispensable, but just what are their respective functions, and how do they or should they work together. Those men of science who, lacking comprehensive views, have stated the problem as one of "nature versus nurture" have merely fallen in with the popular misapprehension. It is quite as if they had stated the problem of the family as one of man versus woman.

Heredity gives some men an ambitious spirit, and this is neither more nor less important than the direction their ambition takes, which is a matter of environment; they are different kinds of things and cannot well be weighed against each other. No more was the military talent, let us say, of General Grant more or less important to his fife than the outbreak of the Civil War, which gave it a chance to develop.

We have to do with two processes, or two branches of

(198) a common process, going on side by side, and each contributing in its way to the total movement of organic life. In the case of the biological process or branch the material vehicle of life is the germ-plasm, a special kind of cells set apart for the transmission of hereditary types. In this there is a complex mingling and development of tendencies in accordance with laws of heredity which are as yet obscure. The social phase of the process takes place through the medium of psychical communication, the vehicle being language, in the widest sense of the word, including writing, printing, and every means for the transmission of thought. Through this, social types are propagated somewhat as biological types are believed to be in the germ-plasm. In each of these mediums there is a kind of growth, of selection, of adaptation of types to one another, and of survival of some at the expense of others. It should be our aim to see the two as organs of a common whole and to explain how they are related to each other.

The best way to get this larger view, probably, is to consider the evolution of the matter and note how heredity and environment, as we see them working in man, have developed from lower forms of life. Among animals and plants the actions that enable a living being to cope with its surroundings and thus survive are secured mainly by heredity, and come into the world ready-made, as it were, with little or no need to be fashioned by a supplementary social process. Animal conduct, as broadly contrasted with human, is a system of fixed hereditary responses to fixed stimuli; the instinct is like a hand-organ which will play certain tunes whenever you turn the crank, and will play no others no matter what you do.


If this predetermined reaction meets the needs of life, if the tune is in harmony with events, the life of the organism is furthered. But this can scarcely be unless the conditions of life have been nearly uniform through many generations, so that the instinctive mechanism has had time to become adjusted to them by a series of survivals and eliminations, such as is required for "natural selection." If a newly hatched chick has come to have the instinct to pick up and swallow small objects of a certain appearance, this implies that such objects, for ages past, have on the whole proved to be digestible and supported life; if they ceased to do so the race of chickens, I suppose, would die out.

The distinctive thing in human evolution, on the other hand, is the development of a process which is not fixed but plastic, which adapts itself directly to each particular situation, and is capable of an indefinite number of appropriate and successful modes of action. This happy result involves a change in the hereditary process, as well as the rise of a new process to supplement it. The hereditary tendencies, instead of remaining definite and fixed, have to become vague and plastic in order that they may be moulded into the infinitely various forms of human conduct. The hand-organ has to become a piano, which will yield no tune at all except under the touch of a trained player, but under such a touch is capable of infinite melody.

The player, to carry out the analogy, is the human intelligence trained by working with the social environment. This is the agent through which situations are understood and hereditary tendencies organized to meet them. The instinctive life is no longer a mere mechanism as —comparatively at least-it was before, but a plastic thing with a mind to guide it. And this new, distinctively human

(200) process implies a complex social life, with a system of communication, tradition, and education; because it is through these that intelligence is enabled to develop and to organize its control.

The human process, then, involves a plastic heredity prepared to submit itself to the guidance of environment as interpreted by intelligence. The distinctively human heredity is not an inborn tendency to do definite things, but an inborn aptitude to learn to do whatever things the situation may call for.

Just what is it, then, that we owe to heredity? In general it is capacity, or, more exactly, lines of teachability. We must depend upon the environment to stimulate and define this capacity, to supply teaching along these lines. When we say that a child is a born musician we mean, not that he can play or compose by nature alone, but that if he has the right kind of teaching he can rapidly develop power in this direction. In this sense, and in no other, a man may be a born lawyer, or teacher, or poet, or, if you please, a born counterfeiter or burglar.

Suppose that twin children are born with precisely the same hereditary tendencies, and that one of these is carried off and brought up in a French family, while the other remains with its parents in America: how would they be alike, and how different? Presumably their temperaments, as energetic or sluggish, and their general lines of ability, so far as these found any encouragement, would remain similar. But all definite development would depend upon the environment. The former child would speak French and not English; if he developed ambition the objects of it would be suggested by the life around him, his whole system of ideas would be French, he would

( 201) enter body and soul into the social process of France. And so it would be if he were taken to Germany, or China.

A good heredity is something very different from hereditary goodness, in the sense of good conduct. The latter does not exist, while the former is simply an inheritance of lines of capacity corresponding to the chief lines of human function; a good raw material for social influence to work up, just as sound timber is good for houses, ships, or what-not. And this sort of heredity is a condition of biological survival because it alone makes possible the education of individuals and their organization into those plastic social wholes, with innumerable special functions, upon which the life and power of man is based.

Along with this plastic heredity and inseparable from it we have the social process, which does not antagonize the biological process, or supplant it, but utilizes the change in its character to add a new world of psychical interaction and growth. Like the older process it is continuous through the ages, and builds up vast organic wholes, of which the individual may seem only an insignificant detail. As we have biological types, on the one hand, so, on the other, we now have types of culture and institutions.

Thus the life of humanity comes to be a single vital process having two parallel and interdependent subprocesses, the hereditary and the social. Each of these has a sphere of its own, that of heredity being, in general, the production of physical and mental aptitude, and that of society the creation, by the aid of this aptitude, of it progressing social order.

Each system acts selectively upon the other, determining what will work and what will not. Hereditary types

( 201) must in some way fit into the social conditions or they cannot propagate themselves and must disappear. If a man cannot, by hook or crook, manage to raise a family, that part of the hereditary stream which flows in him is lost, and the type he represents declines. In like manner, if a race, or a national stock, does not succeed in developing such forms of personality and social organization as to enable it to keep a footing and multiply its kind in the actual conditions of life, it must diminish. The social organization sets standards of fitness which the biological process must meet.

It is equally true, on the other hand, that the biological type acts selectively in determining what social ideas and institutions will work, and how. You may give the same lecture to a hundred students, but what each one makes of it will depend, in part, on his natural gifts. Or you may plant the same ideas of free government among the Americans, the Swiss, the French, the people of the Argentine, and the Liberian Negroes; but their growth will be very different, partly, again, because of a difference in hereditary capacity.

If we wish for analogies to illustrate this relation we must look for them among other cases of distinct but complementary organisms living together in interaction and mutual adaptation, such as man and wife in the family, the nervous and alimentary systems in the body, the state and the church in the social system of mediaeval Europe, or the national and State governments in the American commonwealth-organisms which may be regarded either as two or as one, according to the purpose in hand.

There may be a kind of conflict between the biological and the social currents of life, just as there may between almost any two factors in a co-operative whole. Men of

( 203) genius, for example, rarely leave a normal number of descendants; they develop themselves socially at the expense of reproduction, though, if there is anything in Mr. Galton's views, reproduction is, in their case, peculiarly desirable.[1] The same is perhaps true in general of the more intellectual and ambitious types of men: it might be better for the race stock if they put more of their energy into raising families and less into social achievement. At least, this would be the immediate result: in the long run perhaps the social achievement will indirectly contribute to improve the stock.

A rather striking example of opposition is found in the monastic system. There is little doubt that this sprang from profound needs of the human spirit and, at its best, played a great part in the higher life. But if its social working was good its effect upon the race is believed to have been detrimental, since for centuries it selected the most intellectual and aspiring men and prevented their leaving offspring. Just as hereditary stocks may flourish although bad for society, so social movements may prosper that are bad for heredity.

The practical truth of the matter, from a moral standpoint, may largely be contained in the statement that we get capacity from heredity, conduct from society. The critical thing in the latter is the use that is made of hereditary powers, whether they are to work upward or downward, as judged by social standards. While it is true that no amount or kind of education will take the place of initial capacity, it is true also that there. is no source of right development and function except social teaching; the best heredity is powerless in this regard.

The question of crime offers good illustrations. There

( 204) are kinds of crime which depend upon defective heredity, because they involve incapacity to acquire normal social functions. It is easier to discriminate these in theory than in practice, but it is well known that a considerable portion of our criminals are feeble-minded or ill balanced. But if a criminal has normal capacity, as the majority have, we must attribute his degeneracy to the fact that he has come under worse social influences rather than better. And the more ability he has, the more pernicious a criminal he makes. The same division may be made in any line of human function; we can never dispense with capacity, but there is no capacity of which we may not make a bad use.

While the theory of the matter is not difficult, when one approaches it in this way, the applications are obscure, simply because it is hard to get at the facts. That is, we ordinarily cannot tell with any precision what the original hereditary outfit was, and just how it was developed by social influences. Even if we could study every child at birth it would not help us much, because, although the heredity is there, we have no art to know what it is until it works out in life, and it works out only in social development. Practically the two factors are always found in co-operation, and our knowledge that they are separable is largely derived from the lower forms of life where the social process is absent.

It is often possible, however, to reach useful conclusions from indirect evidence. If, for example, hereditary stocks which are not remarkable for crime and vice in one environment rapidly become so in another, we may believe that the environment is the factor most in need of correction. This is the case with the immigrant population in

( 205) our badly governed cities. On the other hand, if we find that individuals of a certain stock generally turn out ill, no matter in what conditions they may be placed, the argument for bad heredity is strong. This applies to many studies of degenerate lines, for which Dugdale's work on The Jukes set the example.

Where the matter is in doubt, as it must be in most cases, our line of action would seem to be somewhat as follows: If we are trying to better the conduct of living men and women, whose heredity, for better or worse, is already determined, we must proceed on the theory that environment is to blame, and try to better that. But if we are dealing with conditions that affect propagation, we should lean the other way. I mean that, if we find people living in a degeneracy which cannot clearly be ascribed to anything exceptional in the environment, we ought to hold the stock suspect, and prevent its propagation if we can. The cause that we have power over is always the one to emphasize.

The popular discussions of this matter proceed, for the most part, from a misapprehension of its nature. Heredity and environment are usually conceived as rival claimants to the control of life, and argument consists in urging the importance of one or the other, very much as boys' debating societies sometimes discuss the question whether Washington or Lincoln was the greater man.

The views of even scientific men on this point have been for the most part crude and one-sided, owing chiefly to the fact that they have approached it from the standpoint of a specialty and without sound general conceptions. Biologists are apt to regard the stream of heredity as the great thing, and the social process as quite a secondary

( 205) matter, important mainly as the means of a eugenic propaganda.[2] Sociologists, on the other hand, naturally exalt the process with which they are familiar, and seldom admit that the other is of equal moment. Both sides often seem to share the popular view that heredity and environment, society and the germ-plasm, are in some way opposites, so that whatever is granted to the one must be taken from the other.

Most of the writers on eugenics have been biologists or physicians who have never acquired that point of view which sees in society a psychological organism with a life process of its own. They have thought of human heredity as a tendency to definite modes of conduct, and of environment as something that may aid or hinder, not remembering, what they might have learned even from Darwin, that heredity takes on a distinctively human character only by renouncing, as it were, the function of predetermined adaptation and becoming plastic to the environment. In this state of mind they are capable of expressions like the following, from reputable authors: " Our experience is that nature dominates nurture, and that inheritance is more vital than environment." " Education is to the man what manure is to the pea."

Writers of this school are apt to think they have proved their case when they have shown that environment cannot overcome heredity; but this is as if one should argue that because a wife retains a personality of her own she must have conquered her husband. No doubt, what we get in the germ-cell is ours for life, and environment can only control, or perhaps suppress, its development. But

( 207) it is equally true that heredity cannot overcome environment. If a man grows up in England no heredity will enable him to speak Chinese; and in general he must build up his life out of the arts, customs, and ideas supplied him by society.

Equally extravagant statements may be found on the other side; to the effect, for example, that heredity has nothing to do with crime. Socialists are apt to scoff at heredity because they wish to fix attention upon capitalism and other economic factors. Evidently what is needed is a larger view on both parts.

I might say that this topic affords a kind of pons asinorum for one phase of sociology, a test problem to determine whether an applicant is capable of thinking clearly in this field. If so, then no one has crossed the bridge who is capable of asserting, as a general proposition, that heredity is more important or more powerful than environment, or vice versa.

Such views are examples of the particularism that is so rife in social discussion, and is the opposite of the organic conception, the latter recognizing that the phenomena form an interdependent whole, every part of which is a cause of all the other parts. The particularist follows the line of causation from one point and in one direction from that point; the organic thinker sees the necessity of following it from many points and in all directions.

The lack of a good nomenclature is a serious bar to clear thinking upon these matters. How can we differentiate the biological and social processes when nearly all the words in general use may mean either? Although "heredity" is coming to be understood chiefly in a biological sense, there is a far older usage in the sense of social heirship, which is established in law, and not likely to be

( 208) abandoned. And the noun "inheritance," the verb "to inherit," the adjectives "hereditary" and "inheritable" are used indiscriminately and smother the distinction. It would seem that the biologists, as the later comers, may fairly be called upon to give us new terms for the process they are bringing to light.


  1. See his Hereditary Genius.
  2. The very statement of the problem as one of "heredity and environment" implies a biological point of view, because the biological factor, heredity, is made central while the social is merely a surrounding condition or "environment.

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