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Estimation Of Progress

( Originally Published 1915 )

Change versus Progress. Inasmuch as civilization is made up of many complex elements, it is difficult to get a standard for the measure of progress. A thousand changes may be taking place in society, whose final results are so difficult to estimate that it is uncertain whether they are progressive or nonprogressive.

Observation and historical retrospect at once convince us that change is not always progress. Just as, according to the accepted doctrine of evolution, there is not only a development of life, but also a regressive action, so in society, there is a working downward as well as upward. And before we may finally determine whether society is progressing, we must consider the aims of society and we must determine the standard by which progress is measured. The question of aims we considered in a previous chapter ; the matter of standards is still to be discussed. What is the correct measure of art, literature, moral action, and political usage? Of course, if our ideals were constant, it would be an easy matter to determine progress by a comparison of the reality with the ideal. But since these are constantly shifting, we are forced to examine the results of social action to see whether, as time passes, society is more or less able to protect and develop man. There are, however, certain unmistakable results of growth which may, at the start, be enumerated.

Closer Integration of Society. As society develops, it becomes more and more closely integrated ; the individual has a more definite, hence closer, relation to the mass. In our own day, for example, people of many different racial types, assembled under one government and one national life, become one in thought and sentiment in a comparatively short space of time. And because of the increased harmony of thought and feeling, this process of integration brings about more rapid and more effective social action. When it comes to social action, indeed, each of the ethnic groups of the world now has a much greater solidity than when men were born under status rather than under law ; for although there are classes even yet, they are based not so much on status as upon ability and occupation, and it is easier for a man to go from one class to another.

Differentiation of Society in Structure and Function. — Since society began to develop from the protoplasmic or homogeneous state represented by the horde, there has been a continuous differentiation into activities and structures ; for society grows, not only by the enlargement and solidification of the mass, but in the separation of the mass into interdependent organs, each of which has a function of its own. In government, for example, there was first a concentration of all powers in one individual ; but gradually there was a differentiation into senates, assemblies, courts of justice, military organizations, and ecclesiastical orders. And this differentiation still goes on ; new ministries, new commissions, and boards, or any other new organs of government are created whenever they are needed. Society gains immensely in power and social effectiveness by this growth, which is one of the signs of progress. Nor is this method of development confined to matters of government ; for, in the economic world, we find each new industry demanding a new group of trained people to carry it on, each new invention demanding a new division of specifically trained labor.

Closer Articulation of Parts. — And not only do the old organs of government become more perfectly developed, but by change and practice, they are made to fit into one another like the parts of finely adjusted machinery. Thus we observe that society grows in efficiency by increasing its number of functions and organs, by perfecting these organs, and by fitting these into a more perfect social mechanism.

Has Each Succeeding Generation Better Life Conditions? — Another method of estimating progress is to observe whether the present generation has better life conditions than the pre-ceding — that is, greater resources, better methods of service, and in a given time, with a given amount of energy, larger results. For, if we are to believe the theory of Weismann that permanent characteristics may be transmitted from generation to generation, and that acquired individual characteristics are not so transmitted, the hope of civilization depends upon bringing each successive group into a better environment and making certain that the social heritage of civilization is, without loss, transmitted by such social machinery as the educational system. That is, there must be an accumulation of energy, materials, and the fruits of civilization ; and if there is to be progress, better methods of using social achievements must be developed. The real service of education is measured by its success in aiding a people to accomplish these objects; the real progress of society is determined by conditions such as these. And judged by this standard the world is certainly ahead of its achievements of a hundred years ago.

The Improvement of Race or Stock. — Through the accumulation of wealth, through invention and scientific discovery, man is protected from disease, his physical welfare is increased, and his life is prolonged for service. But does the racial stock gradually grow better or worse as disease is eliminated and con-trolled? To lower the death rate of a community by even two per cent is immediately to increase its labor power, both by creating a healthier state of society and by prolonging the life of the individual. But may not such conservation of life mean also the perpetuation of those unfit to propagate their kind? Not in the long run ; for the scientific care of the weak should not develop weakness, but strength. Society has, it is true, many evil effects of degeneracy to overcome; but better food, better habits of life, and greater protection from disease ought to develop a better racial stock. Furthermore, with the growth of science and our knowledge of the principles of heredity, we shall take care against the possible weakening of the race through the saving of those who, under harsher conditions, would not live to perpetuate their kind. Thus will human selection, guided by science, come to the support of natural selection, turning the survival of the fittest into the elevation and perpetuation of the best.

The Equalization of Political Opportunities. — The changes in political methods and the development of government have brought about a democratic society in which the individuals all bear the same relation to the whole body politic. It is only natural that, in a government by the people, each individual should have a right not only to participate in choosing legislators to make the laws, and officers to execute them, but even the opportunity to win such political distinction as his merits or ability will permit. Sometimes, it is true, a few, gaining the ascendency by machinations, intrigue, and corruption, may deprive people of their political liberty and their political opportunities ; but these conditions are not lasting. For, although wealth and prestige still play a considerable part in securing political preferment, we find a growing measure of freedom, an equalization of individual opportunity in political life, which show us that society has progressed. And in spite of the fact that the political boss still flourishes in our cities, his power, dependent in these days on the imperfect assimilation of our foreign population, is part of an outgrown political system doomed to pass away. The old class-rule, by means of which a few assumed and maintained a monopoly of government, is giving place to a government in which the majority decides.

The Equalization of Industrial Opportunities. — The feudal system gave every man a place ; it permitted him to change neither from one place to another nor, as a rule, from one class to another. Now there is no doubt that the class system of Europe, with its opportunities for one class and not for another, was detrimental to the freedom and mobility of labor. These barriers of humanity, however, have been gradually broken down, and each individual has an ever increasing opportunity to choose his own industrial life. And yet it is beginning to be a question whether modern corporate industry, with its strict classification of workers on the basis of an almost microscopic division of labor, has not set a current running in the opposite direction. Up to the present time, the large amount of free lands in America has insured the greatest freedom of choice in occupation ; if an individual was not satisfied with his calling or his salary, he could obtain a farm for the asking and begin a new industrial life. On the other hand, the accumulation of wealth and the organization of industry during recent years would seem, in a measure, to preclude the universal opportunity of individuals to rise. Yet, in another way, the accumulation of wealth and the organization of industry have, by developing the resources of nature, multiplied the opportunities of all members of the industrial group ; for while one individual may be limited by the power of organization or the initiative of wealth, he has, as a matter of fact, a thousand choices of occupation where formerly he had but a few, Inasmuch as the industrial life demands skill and ability of widely different kinds, it provides for the greatest efficiency and happiness of all by giving to each the chance to do that work for which, both by nature and training, he is best fitted. The multiplication and equalization of industrial opportunities is, therefore, a gauge for determining the rate of progress of a nation.

Increased Service of Wealth in Behalf of Humanity. — More and more the surplus wealth of a community is devoted, either by direct gift of the possessor or through enlightened methods of taxation and public expenditure, to the advancement of the people. Through individual management, wealth increases the conveniences of life ; and by the establishment of schools, churches, libraries, gymnasiums, parks, and recreation grounds, all the members of society are given the opportunity for improvement. The telephone, telegraph, means of rapid transportation, and all forms and conveniences of travel, show what wealth can do to advance the interests of mankind. The machinery used in manufactures, mining, and agriculture enables people to accomplish more and to accomplish it more easily than was possible in the days of hand work. Wealth, in fact, if properly distributed, brings increased leisure for mental, moral, and social improvement. And the progress of society is clearly indicated by the service of wealth in the development of better houses, a better grade of clothing, a more adequate food supply, rational means of spending leisure time, and, in fact, all the conveniences and pleasures of life. Those nations which have not accumulated wealth, therefore, have no formal basis of progress ; there is no opportunity for them to advance, because they have nothing with which to work. It is by the accumulation of wealth, and through the well-directed use of it, that political and social progress is made possible. More and more do men who have accumulated large fortunes realize that they are but the trustees of the surplus wealth created by a community ; and more and more is the effort being made to have this wealth bear its proper share in the public expenditures for the common welfare and in the general advancement of humanity.

Progress by Adaptation of the Forces of Nature to Man. — There is no more definite kind of advancement than is shown by the gradual mastery of nature by man. As among animals, so, too, in the lower human societies, the organism lived and developed by adjusting itself to nature; but the development of civilized man is marked by his increasing ability to bend nature to his wishes and make it serve his needs. Indeed, many of the milestones in the progress of humanity are at points where man touches and uses the forces of nature for his own benefit, be it a new food discovered, or a new use of one of the elements of nature, like electricity, steam, or radium. By the application of scientific activity to industrial life, man is able to increase the amount accomplished without increasing his effort; for a growing intelligence and an increasing variety of wants so whet man's ambitions that the tendency is toward more work, rather than less, and work that shows an increase in power. Thus there is a tremendous addition to the product of labor. When steam power is brought into practical use, when electricity begins to be applied to everyday things, when the producer and consumer are brought close together by cheap transportation, and whenever the discovery of a new scientific principle in medicine or chemistry points the way toward the preservation of health and the prolongation of life, society advances with enormous strides. In every instance we have nothing more than the bending of nature to the service of man ; and just to the extent to which man has mastered nature and turned it to his use, a nation may be said to be civilized. Thus is the progress of humanity measured by its utilization of the forces of nature.

Social Direction of Society in the Interests of the Individual. -- Another criterion of progress is the comparative welfare of the individual. Society exists only that it may advance the welfare of all its component members, so far as the welfare of each individual is consistent with that of every other. To secure this general welfare, society sets bounds to the activities of the individuals who trespass upon the rights of the defenseless. For example, it protects women and children against soulless corporations and ruthless men; and at all times, for that matter, it protects the weak against the strong, in the interest of what is, in the long run, the greatest measure of welfare for each.

To secure this aim, society must continually readjust its machinery to meet new conditions and to offset and cure new maladjustments brought about by calculating and antisocial men. The whole process is a conscious direction of social development by those who have at heart the welfare of society at large. The activities of those, therefore, who look upon the social machinery as a means whereby to further their own selfish interests must be controlled by society as a whole. The completeness with which this artificial adjustment is made is the final test of social progress. Civilized society is a highly artificial affair ; so delicate are its relationships that the machinery easily gets out of order. Thus it is the duty of the social engineer to find satisfactory methods for keeping the machinery going — a task none too easy ; for, since precedents are few or lacking entirely, much of this effort must necessarily be in the nature of an experiment. The real statesman, therefore, as well as the sociologist, can never lose sight of this social purpose; and all suggestions for social reform are made with reference to their probable usefulness in securing this adjustment.

But all of these social, inventions are for the sole purpose of developing social personality ; for the individual is the unit for which society exists. Society must never lose sight of the fact that all its machinery exists to help men to become happy and fruitful personalities. We may define this ideal social personality as one characterized by high vitality, a well-developed mentality, a generously endowed moral nature, and a social nature capable, on the one hand, of '" cheerful and efficient participation in the normal comradeship and cooperation of society," and, on the other, of " sympathetic and positively helpful " altruism.' Or, to put the matter in terms of the psychology of social development, the purpose of society is to aid in the development of those institutions and ideals which will allow the individual to " particularize," to use Baldwin's term, on the basis of his social experiences, and thus produce innovations which society may " generalize " and make available for the whole group.

Judged by this test, is society progressing? There can be no doubt that, in democratic societies, at least, the individual has now more freedom of self-expression, and society more rapid and complete command of the contributions of the individual, than ever before. The give-and-take between individuals, the influence, on the one hand, of genius upon the less highly endowed portion of society, and the psychical and social interactions which make up what we call the social mind, would naturally bring about these results. And with the growth of free institutions, the coming of a more perfect education, the gradual discontinuance of war, a growth of international conciliation of disputes between nations, and the regulation of class conflicts, the individual will be more than ever at liberty to give rein to his genius, and society more able than ever before to direct all its powerful agencies towards a more perfect socialization of the individual.

It is, of course, true that, in a highly dynamic state, society may sometimes seem to show retrogression rather than progress. It must not be forgotten, however, that, in the midst of rapidly changing conditions, it is not always possible to measure the degree of success attending any particular piece of social legislation or any specific device intended to lessen maladjustment. He who walks a steamer's deck must not judge his progress by his relation to the sea gull flying in the air, but by some landmark, by the stars, by the complicated system of navigation in use by the navigator. After all, and in spite of war, poverty, and crime, in spite of the ruthless oppression of the weak by the strong, does not society, in the most civilized countries to-day, more truly answer to the test of progress than ever before? One has but to project himself back into Roman or Grecian society, in the days of their highest development and compare the lot of the ordinary man of those days with his chances in ours, to grasp the real significance of our present state of society.


BALDWIN. Social and Ethical Interpretations, 1913, Chap. XIV.

BLACKMAR, F. W. The Story of Human Progress.

ELLWOOD, C. A. The Social Problem, Chap. I.

ELY, R. T. Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society, Chapter, "Race Improvement."

GIDDINGS, F. H. Principles of Sociology, pp. 356—360 Descriptive and Historical Sociology, pp. 541—545; Inductive Sociology, pp. 249—278.

KELLER, A. G. Societal Evolution, p. 22.

KIDD, BENJ. F. Western Civilization.

MACKENZIE, J. S. An Introduction to Social Philosophy, pp. 297 sq.

MALLOCK, W. H. Aristocracy and Evolution, p. 351.

SCHAEFFLE, AUGUST. Bau und Leben des social en Kφrpers, Vol. IV, pp. 152—442

WARD, LESTER F. Psychic Factors in Civilization, Chap. 34.


1. Show that evolution of society does not necessarily mean progress.

2. After reading the foregoing chapter and the assignments in Giddings, make a list of the things which would serve as a test of progress.

3. Analyze some small community or group of people with which you are quite familiar; compare its achievements now with those of, say, ten years ago. On the basis of this comparison, decide whether it is a progressive or a retrogressive community.

4. Show that, while material betterment may mean progress for the community, it does not necessarily signify progress.

5. Outline a situation in which increase of culture might mean retrogression rather than progress.

6. Why may increase of such parts of the social structure as boards and commissions signify social progress? Under what circumstances would such increase mean the opposite?

7. If acquired characteristics are not inherited, explain how there can be better physical types of men and women. Show what is meant by "our social heritage." How are the social achievements transmitted from one generation to the next?

8. What evidence can you give that political opportunity is as great to-day as it was a generation ago or even greater?

9. Is there any evidence that there is greater educational opportunity to-day than there was a generation ago?

10. Is there any evidence that there is greater social application of wealth today than there was fifty years ago?

11. What bearing have antitrust laws, railroad regulation, and regulation of corporations, upon the social use of wealth and upon industrial opportunity for the people?

12. Compare the statement in the text, p. 419, that progress is measured by the mastery of man over nature, with Keller's statement on p. 22 of his Societal Evolution.

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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