Balfour Against Progress?

Progress To What?

Balfour’s criticisms are clever, but often wrong.  He says

“A survey of the world … shows us a vast number of savage communities, apparently at a stage of culture not profoundly different from that which prevailed among prehistoric man during geological epochs which, estimated by any historical standard, are immensely remote.”

By his day, only small numbers of hunter-gatherers still lived as humans lived before the invention of agriculture.  This happened in West Asia maybe 12,000 years ago, and spread to the rest of the world.  It lead on to towns and cities, whenever the agriculture was rich enough to support them.

Progress occurred even without cities.  The Polynesians settled islands where no human had been before, reaching their limits at Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand.  The Inuit (Eskimos) used stone-age technology, but used it much more efficiently than previous dwellers in the High Arctic.

He does not acknowledge progress towards democracy.  Nor the gigantic improvements in travel and communication.  Nor the rise of socialism.

On biology, Balfour accepts the standard White-Racist view that humans were split into several different races with different biological potential.  This never had much sound science in it – humans vary, but there are not the clear lines that you’d get if humans had ever had long periods of separate evolution as subspecies.

The notion that “modifications in the physical structure of animals produced during life may be transmitted to their offspring” was, as he said, the view of the majority at the time.  Darwin himself had held it.  He also correctly says that the challenge had come from August Weismann, though the book spells his name with just one ‘n’.  Only later did you get the polarisation into factions called Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism, later and incorrectly simplified to Darwinism and Lamarckism.  Weismann got shoved aside in the standard histories, most unfairly.

Balfour casts doubt on racial explanations for differences within European peoples, though not the notion of a Superior White Race:

“Sometimes from a kind of idleness, sometimes from a kind of pride, sometimes because the ‘principles of heredity’ is now always on our lips, we frequently attribute to differences of blood effects which are really due to differences of surroundings…  empires may rise from barbarism to civilisation and sink again from civilisation into barbarism, within periods so brief that we may take it as certain, whatever be our opinion as to the transmission of acquired faculties, that no hereditary influence has had time to operate. Now, if the differences between the same nation at different times are thus obviously not due to differences in inherited qualities, is it not somewhat rash to drag in hypothetical differences in inherited qualities to account for the often slighter peculiarities of temperament by which communities of different descent may be distinguished? Are we not often attributing to heredity what is properly due to education, and crediting Nature with what really is the work of Man?”

This makes him mildly progressive for his era.  The entire British Empire was built on the notion of a Superior White Race.  The Soviet Union was the first government to reject it and try to treat all races equally.  The Japanese sought a declaration of Racial Equality from the Versailles Conference, and were refused.  They might have settled for something similar to Hitler’s later view of them as the ‘Aryans of the East’.  But most Europeans at the time would have resisted the notion of racial equality with any ‘Yellow Race’.  Only after 1945 did it become one of the guiding principles of the new United Nations.  The challenge of an increasingly powerful Soviet Union and general colonial restlessness forced this change, which happened slowly in practice.  (And sadly, anti-racism among ordinary Russians declined, and racism became much stronger after the Soviet collapse.)

During the Cold War, there were real fears in the West of a mass defection by non-whites to the Leninist caused.  This greatly strengthened the position of timid liberals and genuine anti-racists.  In the end the West overtook the Soviet Union on both anti-racism and women’s rights.  But it is naïve to believed that the same changes would have happened without those nasty Soviets being there as a serious alternative.

Politicians and business people mostly listen most to whoever shouts loudest.  This also applied to tolerance for gays and lesbians from the 1960s, now coming close to social equality.  Tolerating gays was never a Soviet policy, though a soft line was taken in the 1920s.  But the acceptance of women as fellow-humans was followed through and had a strong influence on the West.  It undermined the whole body of Latin-Christian ideology, and it made other changes much easier.

Balfour might have been homosexual or bisexual, and was definitely not conventional.  He would also have been a typical member of the elite in being well aware that some of the elite were gay or lesbian.  And been typical in never mentioning the matter, as far as I know.  Male homosexuality was decriminalised by a quiet ruling-class fix – lesbianism had never been illegal.  But social acceptance needed social radicalism of the sort Balfour disapproved of in his own era.

Balfour also represents a strain of anti-progressive thinking that has since been marginalised:

“The presupposed appetite for scientific knowledge and the demand for industrial invention, have been rare in the history of the world; that advanced civilisations have existed without them.”

The world in the 1890s was vastly more advanced than previous high civilisations.  Rail transport had connected the world as never before, as had telegraphs.  Manufactures had multiplied astonishingly, while far more people than ever before lived in cities.

For my part, I’d sooner speak of improvement than progress.  Saying ‘progress’ implies there is no alternative.  Saying ‘improvement’ forces you to ask if a proposed change is a good idea.  Imagine someone saying the following:

“We will improve our fine old city with a series of vast and dull buildings that could have been built almost anywhere in the world.  It will soon have a skyscape almost identical to other big cities.”

No one would put it like that, obviously.  But you can get away with changes like that by saying ‘progress’ and muddling many separate issues.

The dullification of most of the world’s cities has of course improved the wealth of the rich men (or very occasionally women) who own, control and manage such developments.

To get back to Balfour, he also said:

“But will our general theory of the material Universe again undergo any revolution comparable to that which it has undergone in the last four hundred years?”

This was the majority view among scientists, and of course quite wrong.  Quantum Mechanics and Relativity were about to upset everything.  He was also wrong to say:

“No man will ever see what goes on in a gas, or know by direct vision how ether behaves.”

Gas molecules can now be seen, under special circumstances.  Ether was in 1891 the established and mistaken notion for how electromagnetic waves could travel in the vacuum of space.  The actual processes are increasingly well understood.

I can however make no sense of the following:

“Supposing it to be true, for instance, that the proper motion of the stars cannot in many cases be reasonably attributed to gravitation. Does it not seem almost certain that we are here in presence of a force on which we can never experiment, and whose laws we shall never be able to determine?”

Proper motion’ is where a star changes its position amidst the apparently fixed pattern of stars as seen from Earth.  A result of the actual notions of stars, including our own.  These would have been inherited from the star’s origins, plus later close encounters.

Gravity is the presumed cause and controlling factor of the actual motion of stars, and the proper motion we observe.  But we can only presume it and mostly not test it, apart from stars discovered in the last few decades in orbit around the Black Hole at the core of our galaxy.  What Balfour thought there was cause to worry about is unclear.  And since the topic intrigue me, I have done an appendix on the topic.

Balfour was much clearer when understanding how politics worked:

“These passing doubts, however, as to the future triumphs of Art and Science, be they well or ill founded, need not, it may be said, affect our estimate of the results which in other departments of human activity may be expected to flow from the “efforts of successive generations,” made through the machinery by which alone in its collective capacity the community can make a deliberate attempt at progress — I mean the State.”

All through the 19th century, the Tory had assumed that the state was the proper body to make things happen, or prevent them happening.  They tried to hang onto the Corn Laws, which did protect British agriculture and might have avoided the risk of running out of food that Britain faced in both World Wars.  And the 19th century Tories imposed Factory Legislation, limiting the exploitation of workers.

Things changed in the 1920s, with the traditional Liberal Party declining and being pulled into either the Tories or the newly powerful Labour Party.  The fantasy of a self-regulating economy was held by some Tories.  It became dominant among the Tories with Thatcher’s leadership.  The sort of shrewd right-wing insights that Balfour had are now extinct.

Insight need not mean sympathy:

“It is unnecessary to remind you what immense expectations have been, and are, based upon State action. We are all familiar with that numerous class who see in political changes the main interest of the Past, and their main hopes for the Future; who, if asked what they mean by Progress, will tell you Reform; and if asked what they mean by Reform, will tell you, ‘An alteration of the State Constitution,’ and if asked why they desire an alteration of the State Constitution, will tell you, ‘In order to carry on more rapidly and effectively the work of Progress.’”

He was defending the declining power of the Landed Aristocracy – yet he also has a point.  That’s why I’d prefer to talk of improvement, rather than ‘progress’.  Societies can and do change in the wrong direction.  Racism strengthened across the decades in both the USA and British India.  Economic thinking in the West regressed to 19th century values from the 1980s.

Balfour chooses to ignore the continuing progress to more democratic forms of government that was happening globally.  He does however clearly see the difference between this and multi-party government, which he does not mistake for the Natural Order:

“We are all of us prone to regard a political institution, for instance, a representative chamber, as a machine whose character can be adequately expressed by defining its legal constitution. When we have mastered this, when we know the qualification of its electors, its legislative powers, its relation to other bodies in the State, and so forth, we conceive ourselves to have mastered its theory, and to be qualified to pronounce an opinion on the way it will work in practice…

“No statute, for example, provides or could provide that a popular assembly shall work through a few large and well-disciplined parties, rather than through a number of small and independent groups. Yet its habits in this respect are incomparably more important than anything in its formal constitution…”

“We habitually talk as if a self-governing or free community was one which managed its own affairs. In strictness, no community manages its own affairs, or by any possibility could manage them. It manages but a narrow fringe of its affairs, and that in the main by deputy. It is only the thinnest surface layer of law and custom, belief and sentiment, which can either be successfully subjected to destructive treatment, or become the nucleus of any new growth — a fact which explains the apparent paradox that so many of our most famous advances in political wisdom are nothing more than the formal recognition of our political impotence…

“Some will tell you, oblivious of the most patent facts of history, that persecution is always unsuccessful. Others appear to assume that there is an inherent and inalienable right possessed by every human being to hold and to propagate what opinions he pleases — a doctrine which cannot be held practically in an absolute form, or logically in a limited one…

“Persecution is only an attempt to do that overtly and with violence, which the community is, in self-defence, perpetually doing unconsciously and in silence. In many societies variation of belief is practically impossible. In other societies it is permitted only along certain definite lines. In no society that has ever existed, or could be conceived as existing, are opinions equally free (in the scientific sense of the term, not the legal) to develop themselves indifferently in all directions.”

He also notes the problems a radical government would face:

“It is quite possible to conceive an absolute government with a taste for social experiments. It is quite possible, though not so easy, to conceive a popular government in which the strength of custom and tradition shall have been seriously weakened by criticism or other causes, and where the sentiments which usually support … a kind of inverted conservatism, to nourish and give strength to some ideal of what ought to be. Communities so situated are in a condition of unstable equilibrium. They are in danger of far-reaching changes. It is not asserted that the result of such changes must be unsuccessful, only that it is beyond our powers of calculation. The new condition of things would be a political parallel to what breeders and biologists call in natural history a ‘sport.’ Such ‘sports’ do not often survive; still less often do they flourish and multiply. It can only be by a rare and happy accident that either in the social or the physical world they constitute a stable and permanent variety.”

It had been tried already.  The Commonwealth and the French Revolution had tried to create new institutions from scratch, running through several variations and in the end collapsing.  But they also left the world utterly changed.  In the long run, their values became normalised.  The aristocratic values of Balfour perished.

The American Revolution produced a stable government, in part because it was mostly run by the same people who had been running the Thirteen Colonies for the British.  At the time, very little radical happened.  Republicanism was accepted, but the notion of votes for all white men was not firmly established till the 1830s.  Slavery was an issue requiring a Civil War to cure, and racial equality was not formally established until the 1960s.  Still remains uncertain in practice.

The Russian Revolution survived against the odds, and after 1945 the entire world changed in line with what had once been extremist Bolshevik demands.  It might have changed again in the 1960s and regenerated European socialism, but sadly the pointless conservatism of Brezhnev crushed the hopes of the Prague Spring.  In China, the post-Mao reforms were modest, careful, and successful.  Socialist continuity was kept.  Liberal enthusiasts for the ‘end of history’ claimed for years that it was capitalist.  Recently I’ve seen a scattering of articles in mainstream journals admitting that this was nonsense.[1]  But that’s a topic for a future issue of this magazine.

Appendix – False Visions of Stars

“Proper motion was suspected by early astronomers (according to Macrobius, AD 400) but a proof was not provided until 1718 by Edmund Halley, who noticed that Sirius, Arcturus and Aldebaran were over half a degree away from the positions charted by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus roughly 1850 years earlier.

“The term ‘proper motion’ derives from the historical use of ‘proper’ to mean ‘belonging to’ (cf, propre in French and the common English word property).” (Wikipedia Article.)

Stars near to each other in the galaxy often have differences in speed and direction of tens of kilometres per second: occasionally much more.  But given their immense distances from us, it takes time for these to be noticed without using a telescope.

Stars almost all share a common motion around the centre of the galaxy.  In modern times, an anomaly has been found with stars in the outer portion of galaxies rotating much too fast for the amount of matter that the galaxy should contain.  This plus some anomalies in the movement of galaxies within clusters led to a belief in ‘Dark Matter’, though there are alternatives like Modified Newtonian Dynamics.  But that is based on discoveries made long after Balfour’s time.

I asked about Balfour’s remarks on the question forum Quora, and was reminded that in the late 19th century, people still believed a version of Herschel’s model of the galaxy – a flat irregular blob with our solar system close to the centre. But the movements of the stars did not match that:

“Based on this model, one would expect the motions of stars to behave like that of planets, getting progressively slower as one moves away from the Sun. The first spectrographs in the late 19th century did not confirm this, which either meant Newton’s gravity was wrong or that the Sun was not the center of the Universe.”[2]

It was also known that the sun was apparently moving towards the constellation Hercules.  But there was nothing there that would explain this motion.

Then someone took a systematic look at Globular Clusters – vast blobs of hundreds of thousands of stars.  Weirdly, many of them were found in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.  And if you mapped them on the simplifying assumption that they were all about equally bright, you found them centring on a point tens of thousands of light-years from Earth.  This was later confirmed to be the real centre of the galaxy, and it contains a giant Black Hole known as Sagittarius A*.

The stars mapped by Herschel turned out to be a nearby portion of the disk of our galaxy.  Almost all stars have a similar orbit around the core of the galaxy (though the central Black Hole is only a tiny fraction of that mass).  The differences observed in Balfour’s time were random variations in those orbits, caused by interactions with other bodies during the galaxy’s long history, including vast clouds of gas and dust.

The cloud that our own solar system formed from has long since dispersed, and our sun’s original ‘sisters’ are assumed to be far away from us.  Only one candidate has so far been found: an obscure star called HD 162826.  Weirdly, it is a star in the constellation Hercules, the direction in which our sun was originally presumed to be travelling.  (This is in fact the Solar Apex: our solar system’s motion relative to the nearby stars, the Local Standard of Rest.)

The stars currently close to us would not have been close tens of millions of years ago, and will not be tens of millions of years in the future.  Nor do most of them have much in common with each other – the ‘twins’ Castor and Pollux are at different distances, have different ages, and Castor is actually a group of six suns.  Constellations are not real entities:  they are merely the view from Earth of a random line-up of stars.[3]



[3] See for details