Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1)

Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886 to 1966) has been the topic of numerous posts at EWP. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956, initially reading zoology. Carr-Saunders studied bio-metrics under Karl Pearson, was involved in the Eugenics Education Society as its Secretary, and in 1922 published, The Population Problem (PP). PP is among the most dense of texts and does not make for easy reading, particularly for contemporary readers. Nor does it really engender feelings of worthiness among historians of the 20th century social and behavioral sciences as it is (among other things) an account of the social evolution of primitive and civil peoples (or as Simon has pointed out in many other contexts- Carr-Saunders narrates in a text on quantity and quality the historical transition from races and peoples to nations, blending many, many approaches and disciplinary tools.

In this essay, I will do some work, continued in parts II and III, to illustrate the importance of the “Cambridge Mind” to Carr-Saunders’ landmark Population Problem, a work still viewed by historians and social scientists as foundational to the development of modern demographic science and population research.  In Part I, I will spend some time detailing first, how to re-conceptualize the PP as a textual product of a number of overlapping narratives and second, how PP’s arguments about the psychology and physiology of reproduction are best understood as an outgrowth of the “Cambridge Mind.”

Alexander Carr-Saunders’ work has still not be properly analysed, except in the context of British eugenics and concerns over the fertility of the better sort and the menace of the laboring poor.  Recently, there has been an effort to present Carr-Saunders as articulating a kind of scientific population policy in inter-war Britain through the vehicle of positive eugenics, but historiography of this sort typically seeks to either rehabilitate their subjects or to reduce their subject’s output to a social role and social setting. The latter reduces ideas to ideology or prejudice and evaluates the pronouncements of all of its subjects according to two broad metrics: 1. concordance with future Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy 2. discordance with modern sociology and policy planning. Carr-Saunders was working within a number of traditions and approaches and an elucidation of his evidence and arguments will go some ways to further the picture presented by Chris Renwick, Simon Cook and others.

Carr-Saunders’ PP stood at the juncture of a number of additional intellectual currents. First, he was at the end of a deeply speculative tradition in “after Darwin” biology and social theory- examples of which are the deeply diverse and interesting writings of L.T. Hobhouse  as well as many examples of fanciful Darwinist expositions in politics and ethics critiqued by W.R. Sorley  . They also include the dyspeptic musings of W.H. Mallock , which traffics in the (English, French, and American) tropes of intellectual elitism and fear of the laboring poor.  A later example of this is R.A. Fisher’s work on differential fertility. Intellectual historians more or less have Henry Buckle and Walter Bagehot to thank for this, as much as Darwin.  In the United States, this type of work was ably represented by John Fiske as much as by ardent eugenicists.

Generally, although not exclusively, this strain of inquiry focused on mental and social evolution rather than physical evolution and the biological.  The persistence of biological evolution or its relative importance in the age of nations rather than an earlier primordial time was hotly debated before the Second World War.  These debates over the relative importance of biological versus social evolution has interesting resonances in contemporary discussions in sociobiology and in biosocial anthropology.  A good point to start such a discussion would be Robin Fox’s and Carr-Saunder’s supposition that, insofar as biology is concerned, the physical evolution of mankind was set by the Pleistocene (for this discussion see Carr-Saunders’ PP, pg. 118ff.) Both Carr-Saunders and Robin Fox concurred that the biological development of human beings had arrested by a very dim, though identifiable point in the history of man. A key difference between Fox and Carr-Saunders is that the latter considered the fixation of mankind’s biological evolution of importance for the existence of historical races, while the former (Fox) did not consider races to be an important question at all.

In addition to untangling social evolution and biological development, Carr-Saunders also evaluated and understood the problem of the increase of man as a strictly biological problem, as a function of man’s situation within an ecology.  Carr-Saunders was not actively concerned here with the influence of social factors, but considered the increase of man to be an issue of sheer quantity, reducible in many instances (as in the case of Raymond Pearl), to graphical representation.

In the late 1890s, the American inquiry into sheer quantity began with Raymond Pearl  and ended with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). The_Population_BombThis strain of thinking considered man as a species being. This tradition, sometimes known as the “resources and population” school of thinking in demography, had its beginnings in the work of Thomas Malthus and before.  It considered population growth a function of resource availability.

Carr-Saunders knew very well that social factors played an essential role in mankind’s further development, particularly as human beings developed into “historical races” towards the emergence of modern nation states. However, in considering population as a biological problem and man as a biological organism, Carr-Saunders entered into the heady debates before the Second World War on the nature of instinct, the role of intelligence and man’s place in the order of nature.  Carr-Saunders, like many other writers in the period defined, what was biological and instinctual in order to better understand the social.

Like William McDougall and others of the “Cambridge Mind”  (including W.H.R.Rivers in Instinct and the Unconscious, published in 1920), Carr-Saunders does not consider there to be a clear line between instinct and intelligence.  Instinct and intelligence existed in man and in animal, connecting all to the order of nature.  Carr-Saunders is clearly influenced by McDougall (Rivers becomes important later in his account of social evolution) as even the lowest of animals “learn” from experience and display behavior akin to intelligence (PP, pg. 48 ff.) In contrast to Herbert Spencer, who maintained that instinct was simply an unintelligent reflex, Carr-Saunders adopts from McDougall the account of instinct as a kind of mental process where instinct employs a “cognitive” aspect or a knowing of “the object,” “the affective or feeling in regard to an object” as well as the conative, “striving to or from an object.” (47ff.)

Carr-Saunders was also inspired by L.T. Hobhouse (whose Development and Purpose: An Essay towards a Philosophy of Evolution was published in 1913.)  Hobhouse too blurred the line between instinct and intelligence in this work. While among insects, “there are long trains of intricately adjusted actions, which can be conclusively shown to be independent of any intelligent apperception of their ultimate end” there was nonetheless something akin to intelligence in certain steps (Development and Purpose, pg. 59.)

In the case of the social evolution of man, Hobhouse is not particularly keen to embrace fully McDougall (or what he believes McDougall to be arguing.) To this end, he asserts “we still respond to many perceptions and situations with a feeling which popular psychology calls instinctive, but which is really rather of the nature of a reflex consciousness” such as warding off a blow.  It is also a mistake to consider man’s instinctual heritage as consisting in “a number of separate instincts….” or to “found human psychology on a row of separate instincts that may be variously combined.”  Nonetheless, all human beings still posses “the race preserving functions” (a very late 19th, early twentieth century phrase!) instincts which included “the satisfaction of organic needs, sexual attraction and parental love.” There is moreover “an element of heredity which forms the substructure of all of our thought, feeling and action” (Development and Purpose, pg. 59.)

Both men, as well as Carr-Saunders, maintained that any higher social behaviors evolved from brute sentiments at some moment in the evolutionary past.  They maintained (with Rivers) that mankind possessed an instinctual substratum which motivated much of his behavior, particularly in groups, and that higher mental functions and social mores governed or controlled his baser instincts. In all fairness to Hobhouse, where he appears to branch from the “Cambridge Mind” is in positing specific faculties of “will” and “reason.” Both are clearly demarcated from intelligence and both, interestingly are part of the “substructure.” (ibid.) Reason, will, intelligence as well as many drives are all inherited and evolved properties of modern man.

Writing in this environment, for Carr-Saunders what distinguishes man biologically from even highly evolved animals is his ability to connect and to coordinate objects and sense impressions in a far more general way.  He can shape his actions not only in response to immediate stimuli, but with an “ideal end in view.” Depending here upon Hobhouse, Carr-Saunders’ notes that man can control the course of his actions through the use of reason. While reason has its basis in instinct and intelligence and with lower animal nature, this capacity for idealization and abstraction (grounded as it is in higher thought) is distinct from even the cognition of highly evolved vertebrates (pg. 49-50.)

All this has a bearing on reproduction and the population problem in man.  In higher vertebrates, the “sexual instinct” “is….assisted by intelligence” where both work towards the idealized goal where “nearly all ova are fertilized.” In man, reason is applied in order to bring about the reduction of fertility.  In “primitive” races, this means the broad application of abortion and infanticide, where there is a great degree of difference between the powers of reproduction- fecundity- and the “actual degree of reproduction,” fertility (50ff.)  Carr-Saunders’ account of instinct and intelligence was then essential to notion of man as distinct from as well as connected to the order of nature. In Part II, I will discuss the influence of “the Cambridge Mind” and the work of W.H.R. Rivers, McDougall and others on Carr-Saunders’ account of social evolution and the development of social mores.

2 thoughts on “Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s