The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII Evolutionary Thought in a Utilitarian Society

I must deem any man very shallow in his observation of the facts of life and utterly lacking in the biological sense, who fails to discern in competition the force to which it is mainly due that mankind has risen from stage to stage, in intellectual, moral, and physical power.

-- FRANCIS A. WALKER, 1890

The impact of science and above all of the new biology of Darwin and his disciples profoundly altered ideas of mind and society in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. It would be too much to say that the basic conceptions of life were transformed by the influence of natural science; the vast intellectual shifts were at first of course merely suggested by pioneer scholars, European and American, and only gradually penetrated the world of learning. But thanks to the agencies for popularizing knowledge, the new ideas had begun, by the opening of the First World War, to make some impression even on the minds of the plain people.

In spite of traditional supernaturalism the American environment provided congenial soil for the growth of the scientific and evolutionary point of view. On the whole the United States lacked the rigidly fixed system of ancient traditions and institutions which in older societies directed thinking toward the past rather than toward a future which men might themselves shape. American life, largely mobile because of the frontier experience, the shift of population to urban centers, and the incoming of throngs of immigrants, suggested that there was little indeed which was fixed and final. The rapidly growing technological character of the culture, like the traditional frontier experience, further suggested that ordinary affairs and every-

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