The Origin of Society

Charles A. Ellwood
University of Missouri


The origin of society in general, that is, of association among animals, and of human society in particular, can no longer be regarded as purely a speculative question. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries social philosophers gave so many and so varied answers to this question, from the supernatural to the contract theory, that it deservedly fell into disrepute. The advances ,of nineteenth-century science have made it evident, however, that the problem of the origin of society is no more insoluble than the problem of the origin of species. This is not saying, of course, that there remain no, unexplained elements in the problem, or that there is general agreement among all sociologists upon this question. Life in general remains a mystery to science, and as long as it does the origin of association as a phase of the life-process must remain also to a certain extent a mystery.

Fundamentally the problem of the origin of society is a biological question.[1] The psychological sociologist, in his discussion of the problem, needs only to point out that the life-process is essentially social from the start; that is, it involves from the first the interaction of individual organisms. This interaction, while in its lowest phases purely physical, gives rise in its higher stages to that psychical interaction which we call association or society.

Life is not, and cannot be, an affair of individual organisms, The processes of both nutrition and reproduction, in all higher forms of life, involve a necessary interdependence among organ-isms of the same species, which, except under unfavorable conditions, gives rise to. group life and psychical interaction. Society

( 395) is no more the result of the coming together of individuals developed in isolation than the multi-ceIlular organism is the result of the coming together of cells so developed. Society, that is, the psychical interaction of individuals, is an expression of the original and continuing unity of the life-process of the associating organisms. Looked at from the standpoint of the whole evolution of life, it is really the result of the breaking-up of the life-process into several relatively independent centers while the process itself remains a unity. The functional interdependence on the psychical side which constitutes a group of organisms a society is a mark at once of their original unity in a common life-process and of the fact that they now constitute a higher, more complex unity. In this view, the social process is strictly a phase of the life-process, even in the biological sense.

The social process, then, grows spontaneously out of the life-process. It grows out of both of the fundamental phases of the life-process-the food-process and the reproductive process, The food-process, or the activities connected with nutrition, seems to act chiefly in a negative way upon the earliest beginnings of association. As a rule, organisms of one species remain together as long as food is abundant, and they scatter only when the conditions of nutrition become unfavorable.

The thing to be explained in the organic world is not the living together of large numbers of one species, but rather the scattering and separation of individuals. As has already been said, separation usually takes place on account of lack of food supply, while where food supply is abundant and sufficiently concentrated the individuals of a species remain together in large numbers. Now, where living forms remain in close proximity to each other they tend to take on functional interrelations both in the food-process and in the reproductive process. The conditions of food supply thus become the physical basis of the inter-relations among organisms, interrelations which later become psychical. When the conditions of food supply become unfavorable, the tendency to scatter, moreover, may be overcome by new adaptations on the part of organisms which give rise to superior ways of co-operating, so that an adequate supply of

( 396) food shall be assured. Or when scattering does take place it may he by bands, and those bands whose members co-operate best in finding a food supply would have the best chance of survival.

The control over the food-process is the matter of supreme concern both to the individual and to the species. Not only is a stable food supply necessary for the survival of the individual, but reproduction can take place only after nutrition has reached a certain height, and it tends to go on only where food supply is abundant. Now, control over the food-process can be more easily established by groups of co-operating individuals than by isolated individuals. Natural selection operates, therefore, from the first in favor of such groups, and toward the elimination of individuals living relatively isolated. It must especially favor those groups in which the interactions between individual units are quick and sure-that is, those groups in which the power of psychic interstimulation and response is fully established, and in which intelligent co-operation and orderly relations between individuals are highly developed. It is not an accident that the most successful and, in general, the higher animals live in groups with well-ordered relations and highly developed means of inter-stimulation and co-operation.

Thus does the collective control over the food-process, established primarily by natural selection, become the positive basis of social organization, so that it is possible even to say, in a rough way, that the social process is a function of the food-process. The goal, indeed, of much conscious social development seems to. be the collective control of the food-process. Whether it is the only goal, or the highest goal, of social development will be considered later. It suffices to point out here that social organization and evolution present themselves, from one point of view, largely as a direct outgrowth of that fundamental phase of the life-process which we have called the food-process.

Defense against enemies may be regarded as the negative side of the food-process, since it is largely in the efforts to secure and maintain a food supply that the necessity of defense arises. That such defense can be much better undertaken by groups of individuals than by isolated individuals; and that natural selec-

( 397) -tion, therefore, operates powerfully in this way alone to favor group life, have long been among the commonplaces of sociologists. The conflict of group with group in the struggle for the possession of the material means of subsistence has been one of the most important factors in social evolution, especially in the way of integrating groups. It is not our purpose, however, to discuss the workings of this factor in social evolution further than to. point out that conflict, as a phase of the food-process, has contributed powerfully to the genesis and development of association or group life.

It is not, however, the food-process which has played the chief rôle in the genesis of association among animals. That honor belongs to the reproductive process, using that phrase in a broad way to cover all the activities connected with the birth and rearing of offspring. The birth and care of offspring are essential phases of the life-process, and at the same time are essentially social activities, since in all but the lowest forms of life they involve the co-operation of at least two individuals. Sexual reproduction, necessitating the interaction of two individuals, lays a positive foundation for association. It is, how-ever, the production of immature or "child" farms which need prolonged and tender care on the part of one or both parents which gives rise to that most intimate form of association that we term the family, which produces and reproduces the social life from generation to generation and which becomes the basis, in large measure, of all later social organization. In the relationship of the mother to the child we have the beginnings of that sympathetic social life, of which the family has remained the highest type and which has become the conscious goal of civilized human society. Society in the sympathetic sense, then, had its beginnings in the family, that is, in the relation of the child-form to the mother-form.

The relationship of the child-form to the parent-form becomes more prolonged and increasingly important as organic evolution advances. While in the lower reaches of life the reproductive process is comparatively unimportant in its social results, in the higher animals with the prolongation of the period of

( 398) immaturity and with the increasing necessity of the co-operation of both parents in the care of the young, it becomes supremely significant for the social life. While it is a law that the higher we ascend in the animal scale, the less energy is devoted to mere physical reproduction, it is equally a law that the higher we ascend in the animal scale the more energy is devoted to the care and rearing of the offspring that are born. The social results of the reproductive process become, therefore, increasingly rich, significant, and complex as we ascend in the scale of animal life. It is among the higher animals that the family as a form of association receives its highest development, and hitherto it has been among the most highly civilized peoples that the family as a human institution has been held in highest regard and most safeguarded in custom and in law.

It is not, therefore, too much to say that the social process is a function of the reproductive process quite as much as it is a function of the food-process; that the social order exists to safe-guard the birth and upbringing of each new generation quite as much as to assure an adequate supply of material goods to those already existing. Of course, these two phases of the social process are supplementary and should not be set in opposition to each other. They would not need to be distinguished, were there not some who talk as if the only function of the social life were to secure for all an adequate supply of material goods. Certain it is that all forms of social life, from the ants and bees to man, and in the human world from savage to civilized, have been determined from considerations of reproduction quite as much as from considerations of nutrition. The goal of social development is, therefore, quite as much control over the reproductive process as control over the food-process. The child is not only the center of the family life, but of the whole social system as well. The child's heredity, birth, care, and education are the supreme concern of church and state as well as of the home, and the sooner this is recognized the better.

If the general forces at work in the genesis of association or group life are now clear, it remains only to say a word about the social character of the individual mind; that is, how con-

( 399) -sciousness comes to be the chief connecting link between individuals living in association. As far back as we can go in mental evolution the psychic elements of life are a chief means of binding individuals of the same species together. Instincts, emotions, and sensations of one individual organism often seem made to fit into corresponding mental processes of another organism; and varied means of interstimulation and response are developed. The mind seems to be social in its nature from the start, and to be at once a social product and a social instrument.

The reason for this is now clear. Consciousness is concerned with the mediation of the activities of the life-process, particularly those of the food-process. But the life-process of the individual is only a part of the larger life-process of the group to which he belongs. The procuring of food and the protection against enemies, as we have seen, are activities which can be more successfully carried on by the group than by the individual. But consciousness is concerned with the mediation of these life activities. If they are carried on by groups it is evident that the only way the mind can control them is through some form of psychic interconnection between the individuals of the group. Hence have arisen the various forms of psychical interaction (interstimulation and response) between individuals. These forms of psychical interaction, in man at least, are so perfect that intelligence controls collective action almost as easily as individual action. Thus the social character of mind is an expression of the fact that it has to do with the mediation of a process which is carried on by several co-operating individual units; while society, the psychical interrelations of these individuals, means that there is one common process of living carried on by these co-operating units on the psychic plane, that is, on the plane of interstimulation and response.


The position already implied is that the processes involved in human association are fundamentally the same as in animal association; in other words, that animal society is. the precursor of human society, and that, strictly speaking, human society is

(400) but a form of animal society. Human society is, however, so different from animal society that it is considered by many to be sui generis. But the whole difference between the two., it can readily be shown, is in the forms and definiteness of the psychical interaction between individuals. What especially distinguishes human society from animal groups is the possession of articulate language. It is this which makes possible the communication of definite ideas, giving a far greater degree of definiteness to the whole process of social interaction and making possible among human beings many higher forms of co-operation. Articulate speech, of course, rests in some degree upon the power of forming abstract or general ideas, though it in turn reacts to develop that power. Upon these two great differences between man and the other animals-articulate speech and the power of abstract thought-rest the chief differences between animal and human society ; for the other great distinctive marks of human society, such as the rationality and self-consciousness of its individual members, religion, and government, all go. back to, or are intimately associated with, language and the power of abstract thought.

If what has been said is true, then human society must be regarded as an inheritance from man's prehuman progenitors, and as a form of animal society. Even many of the forms of human association were doubtless fixed in the sub-human stage. This is notably true of man's family life, which in its essential features, as Westermarck and others have shown, must be regarded as an inheritance from man's apelike progenitors. It is also true of such a form of association as leader and follower, for the phenomena of leadership are found among many of the higher animals.

In a word, human society rests upon instincts established by natural selection during the long prehuman stage of man's evolution. These instincts were the basis of all the primitive forms of association among men, and the addition to these of the intellectual elements of language, abstract ideas, self-consciousness, and reason is what gave rise to the peculiar products of human social evolution, human institutions, and civilization.

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The origin of these intellectual elements which have given a peculiar color and form, so to speak, to human association we cannot here discuss except to say that they are themselves largely social products. Language is manifestly a social product, and the fact that man is the only speaking animal is correlated with the fact that he is pre-eminently the social animal. In the same way, the power of abstract thought and of syllogistic reasoning may be shown to depend largely upon language and other traits developed through association. Even self-consciousness itself, the consciousness of the unity and continuity of our mental life, which many make the distinctive mark of human society, is probably an outcome of association. It certainly depends for its development in the child largely upon language and the general give-and-take of the social life. All this, of course, is equivalent to saying that the differences between animal and human society are due to the natural social evolution of the human species ; that the causes of these differences are to be sought in human social life itself, and not outside.

This is not saying, of course, that there may not be instincts peculiar to man as an animal which account in part for the differences between animal and human society. But it is saying that these peculiar human instincts are not what give human society its distinctive character, but rather the intellectual elements; and that these instincts have evolved, and all man's instincts been modified, under the influence of a social life in which intellectual elements were powerful. Thus are harmonized the instinctive and the intellectual elements in human society.

The family life of man, as the primary form of human association, will serve to illustrate these points. Though man's family life in its essentials is undoubtedly an inheritance from his prehuman precursor, yet one is struck at once by the vast differences between the family life of man and that of the higher animals nearest him. There is, for example, in the human species no pairing season, little tendency to natural ornament during the period of courtship, but a strong tendency to artificial adornment, while there seems to be an instinct against incest,

( 402) preventing close inbreeding.[2] These differences may be perhaps set down to a difference in instincts between man and the higher animals. On the other hand, there are many differences which cannot be so explained, such as the fact that the indorsement of society is almost invariably sought among human beings before the establishment of a new family, usually through the forms of a religious marriage ceremony; that there exists a feeling of modesty regarding matters of sex; and that chastity is enforced, on married women at least, among all peoples. While these peculiar traits of human family life may perhaps in part be traced to peculiar human instincts, yet the element of self-consciousness in each of them is so large and so manifest that they may be safely ascribed largely to man's intellectual nature. Thus the human family life illustrates both the instinctive origin of human association and its modification through intellectual elements which have caused it to vary widely from the primitive animal type.

Here must be noticed the influence of the prolongation of human infancy upon human social life. This purely biological fact, whose importance John Fiske was the first to call attention to, has had a profound influence on both the instinctive and intellectual elements in human association, and especially on human family life. We have already noted how the prolongation of the period of immaturity of offspring affects social evolution in general, cementing the union between the parents and giving opportunity for the development of the sympathetic instincts and emotions within the family group. It is no doubt largely due to prolonged human infancy, therefore, that we have regularly in human society a permanent union between the parents lasting throughout life; permanent sympathetic relations between all members of a family group, giving rise to the sentiment ,of blood kinship; and a high development of sympathetic feeling and altruism in human society generally. It is, however, often over-

( 403) looked that the prolonged period of immaturity in man, besides cementing the human family group and generating altruism in an instinctive way, gives opportunity for the intellectual elements in human association to assert their influence. It is prolonged immaturity which makes education possible, and gives opportunity for social tradition to mold each individual in conformity with the habits ,of his social group. Language could hardly be transmitted, and could not be developed and perfected without prolonged immaturity. And so with every other spiritual possession of humanity. Abstract thought, religion, government, and moral ideals could hardly effectively mold individual conduct or influence the social organization, were it not for the period of relatively prolonged plastic immaturity through which every individual passes. Upon this biological circumstance depend, there-fore, many of the striking features of human social life, especially the influence of intellectual elements, that is, plasticity and ultimately the capacity for social progress itself.

Other peculiar features of human social life, which by some are held to be so. peculiar as to make human society in a class by itself and not comparable with animal groups, may now be quickly disposed of. It is said that man transforms the environment while the environment transforms the animal.[3] While the contrast in such absolute terms is not justifiable, yet it must be admitted that man's growing mastery over physical nature is one of the most striking facts of human social life. But it is evident that it is but an outgrowth of man's power of abstract thought together with that vast co-operation which human science and art imply. It is a secondary, then, rather than a primary difference between human and animal social life. Again, the existence of a conscious social morality in human groups has been claimed to be an irreducible difference between them and animal groups. But even Aristotle perceived that this was due to the fact that human groups possess language and so social tradition, and, we may add, the power of abstract thought to form ideals, Organized government is a distinctive feature of human societies, although not all possess it. But organized government undoubt-

( 404) -edly rests upon the same foundations as social morality, with perhaps an even larger rational and deliberative element. Finally, religion is a distinctive feature of all human groups whatsoever, but it is probably a product of the interaction of man's self-consciousness and reason with his instinctive life.

To sum up: We may conclude, then, that the social development which we find in humanity is in principle the same as the social development which we find in the animals below man; that the origin of human society is in the instincts established by natural selection long before the human stage was reached, though the development of human society has been largely modified by intellectual elements. Though these intellectual elements are important, human society is not in any sense an intellectual construction due to the perception of the utilities of association. It is not a contract, as was once thought, which can be made over to suit the pleasure of the parties thereto; neither is it a machine of the gods which man cannot modify. Human society is modifiable in the same sense and in the same degree in which human nature is modifiable. While social organization, customs, and institutions rest fundamentally upon instincts which have grown out of the necessities of the life-process, these instincts and the habits which grow out of them are modifiable by intellectual elements, especially in the young. Education is the only sure means, and T believe, the only safe means, of social reorganization.


  1. For the general point of view in the first half of this paper the writer is especially indebted to Professor George H. Mead of the University of Chicago.
  2. In spite of the recent criticism of Westermarck's theory that there is a special instinct in man preventing incest it would seem that his theory must be accepted in a modified form ; for the criticism comes to this, that there is an instinctive tendency in human beings to be attracted sexually only toward relatively strange and unfamiliar persons.
  3. Ward, Pure Sociology, p. 16.

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