Edgar Zilsel

History and Biological Evolution



1. Introduction

2. The Historical Animal

3. The Bond of Tradition


Philosophy of Science, 7 (1)

Jan. 1940, 121-128.


1. Introduction

WHAT is the relationship of history to the phylogenetic evolution of man?  Historians, like all specialists, are wont to restrict themselves to their own problems and, therefore, do not deal with this question.  Only some popular books on the history of the world cross the dividing line between social and natural science. They start with the origin of the solar system, describe the development of the crust of the earth and of life, turn to prehistoric civilization and ancient Egypt, and eventually finish with the history of present times.  It is striking that those expositions become more and more detailed the nearer they come to their end.  Near the beginning one page describes ten million years, near the end ten months.

Dividing lines between different sciences have barred scientific progress so often, that it certainly is useful and even necessary to consider history from a naturalist’s point of view.  But if this is done, it must be done correctly.  Since the crust of the earth became solid 1 or 2 x 10 9 years have passed, whereas the whole history of mankind since the period of the first Egyptian and Sumerian kings until present times has lasted about 5000 years.  So “geological” to “historical” time is as 300,000 to 1.  History, therefore, even from the naturalist’s point of view is scarcely one section among other sections of the evolution of life.  To think e.g. that the biological rise of mammals during the tertiary period and the political rise of Germany since 1933 belong to one line of evolution is the same as to consider the transition from winter


to summer a continuation of the dying away of the glacial period.

How would natural scientists view the problem?  When a scientist who is investigating the interdependence of some quantities records the results of his observations in graphic form, he usually gets a curve which is not smooth, but is disturbed by convexities of various sizes.  In analyzing this result he has to separate the trend of the main curve from the convexities and the large convexities from the superimposed smaller ones.  Without carrying through the separation he never will be able to find the natural laws which he is looking for, for differences of orders of magnitude always give a hint that effects are superimposed the causes of which are different.  To illustrate: when one studies the movement of stars, he has to separate their circular movement during a day, their tiny oscillations during a year, and the extremely slow movements by which the shapes of the constellations are changed during a thousand years.  The daily circular movement is based on the daily rotation of the earth, the annual oscillations are caused by the annual revolution of the earth around the sun in connection with the aberration of light and the parallax, and the slow secular shiftings are the peculiar movements of the stars by which they wander through space.  Without the separation of those movements belonging to different orders of magnitude there can be no scientific astronomy, for quite different causes and different natural laws correspond to them.  It would be easy to add more examples, but the given one may be sufficient.


2. The Historical Animal

§ 2. Let us apply this to history.  In the end the historical evolution of mankind is enclosed in the astrophysical evolution of our galaxy.  If, therefore, we start from this evolution we can take out of it the evolution of our solar system and out of this the geological evolution of the earth, each process belonging to a different order of magnitude and, therefore, needing its own method of research.  In the development of the earth the origin and the evolution of life is a partial process which again has its own laws and includes among others the genesis of man.  So we have reached man, but events connected with man can be ob-


served and explored more in detail.  If we observe animals in intervals of about 100,000 years, we can notice their phylogenetic variations.  E.g. we notice the phylogenetic variation of man by comparing the skulls of pithecanthropus, of Heidelberg man and of recent man.  On the other hand distinct variations appear in human behavior within one hundred years. As to mankind, therefore, finer and very remarkable processes are superimposed upon its phylogenetic variations.  Those processes are marked by the fact that they happen, vanish, and change with much greater velocity than biological changes.  They belong to a special order of magnitude, therefore they are subject to special laws and the research on them and their causes requires special methods.  Those very changes, joined together, form the History of Mankind.  Even faster processes, lasting about minutes, occur with human individuals: these are the biological and psychological reactions of men.  And we could even descend to molecular and atomic processes, if we like to take human individuals to pieces and if it is required.

We may, of course, also begin the construction the other way round with those processes which are fastest.  We could begin with the reactions of human individuals.  Then the secular variations of these reactions would form history.  And we should get biological evolution, if we comprehend man and the other animals and if we inquire into their variations by one order of magnitude slower.  To history at any rate we have assigned a special province among human occurrences.  The realm of history comprehends human occurrences and their causes which are slower by one degree than the reactions of the individuals an faster by one degree than biological evolution.  Thus we have stated, as it were, a definition of history.

We have to add a few remarks.  First: our “definition” of history is behavioristic as it does not speak of the mental world, but of the reactions of men and their changes, and even more it is only quantitative.  Some philosophers, especially German ones, emphasize that history is entirely different from natural science, that it is a “mental” science, a “Geisteswissenschaft,” and they infer from this that there are no historical laws.  When


the relationship of history to science is discussed, usually the concepts of mental phenomenon and value are introduced by these philosophers and the discussion approaches more or less metaphysics.  We have tried to avoid this and to give its due to the peculiarity of history by a quantitative criterion only and without involving metaphysics.

Secondly we have to realize that in empirical science it is neither usual nor useful to start by giving a definition of the subject that is to be treated.  No physicist would begin the theory of electromagnetism by defining what electricity is: he will rather start by explaining the equations of Maxwell.  Therefore, we shall have to prove that our “definition” of history is not at all scholastic and sterile, but is able to disclose essential points of the historical process.  Since in history, as well as elsewhere, peculiar laws and causes correspond to the peculiar order of magnitude, we shall be able to show that it is the difference between tradition and heredity that corresponds to the different velocities of historical and biological evolutions referred to in our definition.  Obviously phylogenetic evolution goes on much slower than historical evolution, because and only because heredity is a much more powerful brake than tradition is.  Likewise we shall see that on the other hand the difference of velocity between historical changes and the reactions of individuals is closely connected with the fact that historical processes are social events.  Certainly such secular changes of reactions and habits as form the subject of history would not occur among mere hermits; these changes need reciprocal influence between many individuals.  Only in societies is there tradition and therefore evolution with historical velocity.  So our quantitative definition which at first might have seemed to be superficial and sterile discloses the fact that history is a social not an individual process the velocity of which is determined by the resistance of tradition not of heredity.

Thirdly we have to notice that the characteristic velocity of history is a peculiarity of mankind that distinguishes man from animals.  E.g. changes of language can be observed after one or two centuries and, therefore, belong to the historical processes.  Alfred the Great, speaking old Saxon, would not be able to make


himself understood to the man in the street of today’s England, but our dogs certainly bark quite in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon dogs did and no doubt even many men are still alive who entirely resemble the contemporaries of King Alfred as to biological marks and reactions.  The example shows that only man possesses reactions which are plastic enough to change within a century and, therefore, are studied by history and sociology.  This does not depend at all on the fact that man forms societies, but it simply means that only man produces civilization.  Also in societies of bees there is a technique of building as in human societies and there are dances which in some way correspond, as the biologist von Frisch has shown, to human language.  No doubt, also those social reactions have changed and developed, for the bees descend from solitary hymenoptera and even today various species of hymenoptera have reached quite different stages of evolution in their social habits.  But, certainly, those evolutions lasted not centuries but periods of a geological order of magnitude.  We may, therefore, affirm that man is the only historical animal.  Or, what means the same, only man produces civilization.


3. The Bond of Tradition

§ 3. The difference between history and biology is illustrated rather well by the difference between nation and race or, to use a term less ambiguous, variety.  Except for the Chinese there is no nation today which is much older than a thousand years, for nations rise, develop, change, and vanish within a few centuries.  A thousand years ago there were no English but only Celts and Anglo-Saxons and Danes and Nórmans.  These are nations or nationlike groups and are products of history.  Human varieties on the other hand, being products of biological evolution, behave quite differently.  Also the various human “races” must have changed and developed for they most probably descend from the same species of ape.  But within historical periods the physical types of man seem to be quite unchangeable.  We can not discuss however the relationship between nation and physical type in greater detail.  We wish rather to discuss the different laws which are valid in “racial” evolution on the one hand and in national evolution on the other.

The circumstances and laws by which species and varieties


arise and change are not yet clear.  The better known are the circumstances and laws under which physical types persevere, the better known is heredity and its laws.  We know that the transmission of physical qualities is based on the fact that the genes of the germ-cells are carried over materially from the parents to the offspring and we know the laws of Mendel according to which “racial” qualities are distributed among the descendants, if the parents belong to different physical types.  All those results of genetics, as generally known, are valid for men too.

But in human societies complicated finer processes are superimposed upon the rough biological events.  Obviously national continuity connecting generations is based not on heredity but on those finer processes.  Let us e.g. suppose all Spanish documents and manifestations of language, literature, architecture, and so on destroyed, but the children by some miracle kept alive, growing up and propagating.  There is no doubt that the children will transmit the physical qualities of their ancestors to their offspring according to Mendel’s laws, but certainly there will be no longer any Spaniards.  We do not say tradition is sufficient to preserve nationality, for nations fill up gaps and increase more or less preponderantly by their own biological descendants.  Physical type and heredity, therefore, are not altogether unimportant for the maintenance of nationality: race-philosophy, if it says this, contains a grain of truth.  But at any rate the bond of tradition is necessary if nations are to persevere, for nations are annihilated, if this bond is cut through.

Tradition differs entirely from heredity and follows different laws.  If you cross red-flowering and white-flowering peas, three quarters of the offspring are red, one quarter is white and so on, according to Mendel’s laws. On the other hand, when a Slovak marries a Hungarian woman, it will depend on much more complicated laws to which nati0n the children and the children’s children will belong.  Unfortunately these laws are so complicated that the scientists have not been able yet to find them.  But when they will have succeeded, then they will have found a law of tradition, a sociological law, a historical law.  For all


historical and sociological processes depend on tradition.  All objects, the changes of which are studied by historians, like e.g. customs, languages, religions, styles of arts, political aims and institutions, are transferred from one generation to the next one not by begetting.  Civilization is a texture of rather complicated human reactions which are not hereditary, but are acquired many years after birth owing to the influence of example and teaching.  Now we can understand why the velocity of history belongs to a different order of magnitude than the velocity of biological evolution.  As we have stated, this difference is based on the fact that the laws of tradition entirely differ from the laws of heredity.

Likewise we can understand now why man is the only historical animal.  Let us remember the difference between reflexes and spontaneous actions.  Reflexes and instincts - for instincts are nothing else than chains of reflexes - respond to external stimulation with rigid and unchangeable reactions.  On the other hand many reactions can be checked, conditioned, and modified by former experiences: they may become plastic and may even adapt themselves to circumstances, if circumstances vary.  In this case we call them spontaneous actions.  Only reflexes and instincts can be inherited, whereas spontaneous actions are influenced by example and teaching and can be transmitted to the next generation by and only by tradition.  Physiologically reflexes and instincts are based upon nervous processes in the spinal cord and the interior parts of the brain, whereas in spontaneous actions always also cortical processes are involved.  As in man the cortex of the brain is more highly developed than in any other animal, in human behavior spontaneous actions play the most important part.

The more the inherited instincts recede into the background, the more it becomes necessary that the animal develop its behavior and acquire its habits after birth.  Therefore human babies and children take much longer time than newborn animals to become able to maintain their lives by themselves.  Two more circumstances contribute to this special position of take.  Firstly, man, like all mammals and many other animals, mans


care of his new-born and half grown offspring.  Secondly, man lives in groups and like all gregarious animals is endowed with instincts of imitation.  He is not only able to, he is also inclined to learn.  Thus human children are always born in communities of grown up people and are cared for and influenced by them through many years.  Therefore reactions and habits of one human generation are always transmitted by example and education to the next one.  Were man like ants to possess only instincts instead of choice, were they like cockchafers to leave their new-born offspring to their fate, were they like moles to live isolated, there would be no tradition, no civilization, and no history.

International Institute of Social Research, New York City.