Social Process

Chapter 19: Social Control of the Survival of Types[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

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ALL the hereditary types or strains in a given society may be said to be competing for survival, with the social system as the arbiter of success. That is, a type can hold its own only as its individuals can make themselves at home in the social environment and bring to maturity at least an average number of offspring to continue it.

Thus, as regards merely physical needs, social conditions may involve either ample nutrition and protection or starvation and exposure to destructive climates and diseases. The wide-spread devastation of savage races in recent times is explained in part by the social events which have brought them in contact with European diseases, and intoxicants, and there is an analogous condition in the destructive influences acting upon the very poor in all societies.

This, however, is only the more obvious part of the truth. More subtly the social condition determines how any hereditary type develops and whether it has a sort of life that is favorable to propagation. The whole process of survival is, from one point of view, a matter of social

(210) psychology. Psychological influences direct the development of the instincts, guiding the selection of one sex by the other, and of both by the social group.

The question just how a hereditary type must be related to the social system in order to survive cannot be answered in any simple way. It is not safe to say that the most successful types, in a social sense, have the best chance of survival; such types often tend to sterility. This may take place through the absorption of their energies in social activities at the expense of propagation; also through overfeeding or lack of incentive, leading to moral decay. Nor do the types that fail socially necessarily fail to propagate, since traits like lack of foresight, which diminish success, may increase the number of offspring.

In order that a hereditary type may survive equally with others the individuals belonging to it must bring to maturity at least as many children, in proportion to their number, as those of other types. It is not sufficient that those having children should rear enough of them to replace the parents; they must also compensate for several sources of loss. A considerable proportion of persons, from lack of vitality or other reasons, do not marry, or, being married, have no children, or lose those they have by early death. And, beyond this, there must be enough surplus of children to give the type they represent its share in the general increase of population.

The failure of a part of the individuals of good stock to leave children is not necessarily a fault. in some degree it is an elimination of the weak that is essential to the welfare of the stock, whose vigor is not the same in all. Many of the celibate or sterile are such because they lack normal vitality. I think we can all find in our own

( 211) circle of acquaintance people of excellent descent who are healthy enough, perhaps, but seem to lack that surplus of life which would make us feel that they are born to be fathers or mothers. At any rate, others must do what, for no matter what reason, they fail to do.

Just how many offspring the average family must have to meet these requirements is not easy to calculate precisely, as the number varies with the death-rate, the proportion of celibates and barren marriages, the rate of general increase and other factors. I have consulted several statistical experts, but found none of them willing to make a definite estimate for the United States. I should say, roughly, that a stock cannot hold its own in numbers with an average of less than four children to a fertile marriage, and considering the large general rate of increase in this country, five would probably he nearer the mark. A family of three children or less, where the parents are of good descent and, physically and as regards income, capable of having more, must be reckoned a "race-suicide" family, not doing its share in keeping up the stock.

It was formerly assumed that the impulse to propagation, in human as in animal types, was to be taken for granted, the only question being how far the economic conditions would allow this impulse to become effective. A closer study shows that the control of society begins further back, and can easily modify the development of the instincts themselves in such a way that they cease to impel natural increase. Gratification of the sexual impulses may be separated from reproduction, and it may well come to pass that the classes in which they have the fullest sway are the least prolific. The maternal instinct, though less apt to lapse into sensuality, is not

( 212) much more certain in its operation. It may expend itself on one or two children, or even be directed to other objects.

Modern conditions tend strongly to what is called birth-control, that is, to making the number of children a matter of intention, and not of mere physiology. This is in accord with the general increase of choice, and we may hope that it will work out well in the long run, but it calls for a new conscience and a new intelligence in this connection. The old process did not require that people should know anything about eugenics, or feel the duty of raising a good-sized family; that was left to unconscious forces; but now that they are coming to have no more children than they want, it is evident that, unless those who represent the better strains want the requisite number, such strains must decline. And as birth-control prevails most in the intelligent classes, the possibility of deterioration is manifest. Only eugenic ideals and conduct can save from depletion those stocks which share most fully in the currents of progress.

The fact that intelligence saves on the death-rate and enables the type to be maintained by a smaller number of births is of some moment, but we must not imagine that any saving of this sort will enable families of two or three children to keep up a thriving stock.

There seems to be some disposition to blink the quantitative side of this problem, especially, perhaps, among women, upon whom the hardships and anxieties of rearing children mainly fall. They are apt to be more interested in taking better care of children than in having more of them. And yet, from the standpoint of race welfare, and having regard to the actual state of things in the well-to-do classes, the number is pretty clearly the more urgent matter of the two. If the maternal instinct

(213) expends itself upon solicitude for one or two or even three children, refusing a larger number, it becomes accessory to the decline of the type. It is mere confusion of thought to suppose that, in this matter, quality can make up for lack of quantity.

And, so far as quality is concerned, there is good reason to think that where the parents are not in actual poverty a family of four children or more, large enough to create a vigorous group life, is better for the development of a child than one of two or three.

It seems that what we mainly need in this connection is some resuscitation, in a changed form, of the old ideal of the family line. We have, from this point of view, gone too far in differentiating the individual from his kin, having almost ceased to identify ourselves with our ancestors or descendants, and to find self-expression in the size and importance of the family group. People hardly comprehend any longer- the sentiment, quite general until within a century or two, that a man's position and repute were one with that of a continuing stock whose traits were imputed to him as a matter of course. We no longer introduce ourselves, as in Homer, by naming our descent, or rely upon our posterity for credit. We cannot lose the sense of race without impairing the fact of race.

I know that precisely this sense has been one of the main obstacles to democracy, equality of opportunity, and the whole modern movement, so that public opinion has come to identify it with reaction. Nor do I think that the danger from it is altogether past. Nevertheless, progress is to be had not by abandoning old ideals altogether, but by their control and adaptation; and the race sentiment still has essential functions. Where it flourishes success and fecundity tend to go together:

(214) the stocks that gain social power and resource express these, in part, by leaving a numerous offspring. And in so far as the successful stocks are the better stocks, this means race-improvement.

If we assume, notwithstanding the foregoing, that marriage is, on the whole, a step toward propagation, we arrive at the question of selection in marriage. Any type of man or woman that is to hold its own in heredity must be qualified to secure the co-operation of the other sex in this relation.

The choice of the sexes in marriage is in great part an expression of the values prevalent in the social group at large. It is impracticable to separate the individual judgment from that of society. This is evidently true where, as is so widely the case, marriages are based on wealth, social position, or success in any of the forms admired by the group. The valuation of a suitor, in the mind of a girl's family, and even in the mind of the girl herself, is largely a function of his valuation by other people, and the same is true for the woman, whose reputation, wealth, and capacity as a housewife are important factors in her desirability. Even in the matter of sexual attraction there is a large conventional element. We know how women are dazzled by prestige and position on the part of men, while "style" and the like are almost equally effective in their own case. The sexual emotions function in connection with the mind as a whole, and that is moulded by the general mind of the group. It is certain, however, that although sexual value is largely an institutional value there is also a factor of immediate human nature in it. I mean that there are, on both sides, vague but powerful elements of sex attraction that spring

( 215) from instinct and are little subject to convention. It is hard to say just what these are, but we all feel them in the other sex, and no one doubts that they come from an immemorial evolution.

The tendency of the modern movement toward individuality and personal choice has been to give freer play to preference in the man and woman who are to marry, increasing the influence of the human-nature values and rendering marriage, on the whole, more intimate and congenial. This ought to make for the propagation of manly types of men and womanly types of women, types strongly vital and sexual after their several kinds. It really seems to work in this way, though the vagaries of personal choice may often be inscrutable.

It is still true, however, that the outcome must depend much upon the state of the public mind. If marriage is generally felt to be a social institution, with grave public functions, so that everything connected with it is judged by its bearing on the welfare of the next generation, if heredity is regarded and the need of economic support given due weight, without excluding those intuitions which the young may be trusted not to neglect, then the better types ought to be chosen. But if marriage is hasty and frivolous, if the prevalent opinion regards it as a mere matter of personal gratification, if a child is looked upon as a nuisance or a pet, then the biological outlook, as well as the social, is bad. Which of these descriptions more nearly applies to our society I leave the reader to judge; it is certain that we need to do all we can to make the former true.

As to the effect of a larger participation by women in forming our ideas regarding marriage selection, the num-

( 216) -ber of children and the like, all depends upon their developing, as a class, an organized wisdom in these matters. Already they have more power in this sphere than they ever had before, and the hope of their making a good use of it lies in their ideals and organization. If the results of their enlargement are, so far, not altogether reassuring, if there is much that seems anarchical and reckless of race welfare in feminist tendencies, this may be because we are in a transition state. Women have acquired power while still somewhat unprepared to use it, and what they need is probably more responsibility along with the training requisite to meet it. It is not clear that there is any more extravagance in their movement than in those for which men are responsible.

The hopeful theory is that women, as the bearers of maternal instinct and functions, are the natural curators of the welfare of the race, and that, if they are trained and trusted, they will prove adequate to this function. We must at least admit that it is hard to see any other way out. They have already so much freedom that it is hardly possible to deny them more, in this direction where they have so strong a claim upon it. Eugenics cannot now be forced upon them; if they do not bring it in, or take a leading part in the work, no other agency can.

Another encouraging reflection is that there is no reason to believe that women will, in the long run, reject any real wisdom that the male mind may be able to contribute.

I am inclined to believe that much of the frivolity that seems to prevail in marriage selection may be ascribed to a disorganization of standards, such as we see in other phases of life. A confused time naturally lacks settled habits of choice that reflect the underlying social

( 217) requirements. Where mores are unformed, caprice flourishes. In a society or class that has long been face to face with rather severe conditions of life, such, for example, as the peasantry of all old countries, we find customs and habits of thought that are suited to survival in the face of such conditions. The personal traits that the situation demands have come to be required in marriage—strength, energy, and steadfastness in men, and maternal and domestic capacity in women. These traits become typical of the class, and traits that conflict with them are weeded out. But with us unsettled conditions and laxity of standards have given course to mere impulse or meaningless currents of fashion. There is such a thing as biological discipline, in which we are perhaps as lacking as in social.


  1. Professor E. A. Ross, in his Foundations of Sociology, has a good summary of the earlier literature of social selection, and a bibliography. See pp. 327 ff.

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