Classic Essays

The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman (Part 8)

As part of our commitment to the celebration of forgotten classics—i.e., great works of the past which have been intentionally flushed down the memory hole by our Orwellian overlords—National Vanguard is proud to present a condensed edition of Lothrop Stoddard’s pioneering treatise The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman, originally published in 1922.

To appreciate the significance of this work, one must understand that in his day Stoddard was a certified member of America’s (now-former) WASP establishment. An old-stock Yankee from Brookline, Massachusetts, Stoddard held a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University and was one of the most prominent intellectuals in the country prior to the Second World War. It is only because of the triumph of Jewish propaganda from that war that racialists like Stoddard have since been relegated to obscurity.

By Lothrop Stoddard

NOW A MOMENT’S reflection must suggest the tremendous practical differences between the theories of environment and heredity. This is no mere academic matter; it involves a radically different outlook on every phase of life, from religion and government to personal conduct. Let us examine the facts of the case.

Down to our own days mankind had generally believed that environment was the chief factor in existence. This was only natural. The true character of the life process was so closely veiled that it could not well be discovered except by the methods of modern science; the workings of heredity were obscure and easily confounded with environmental influences. The workings of environment, on the other hand, were clear as day and forced themselves on the attention of the dullest observer. To the pressing problems of environment, therefore, man devoted himself, seeking in the control of his surroundings both the betterment of the race and the curing of its ills. Only occasionally did a few reflective minds catch a glimpse of the heredity factor in the problem of life. That marvellous breed of men, the ancient Greeks, had such glimpses of the higher truth. With their characteristic insight they discerned clearly the principle of heredity, gave considerable thought to it, and actually evolved a theory of race-betterment by the weeding out of inferior strains and the multiplication of superiors — in other words, the “Eugenics” theory of to-day.

For example, as early as the sixth century B.C. the Greek poet Theognis of Megara wrote: “We look for rams and asses and stallions of good stock, and one be- lieves that good will come from good; yet a good man minds not to wed the evil daughter of an evil sire. . . . Marvel not that the stock of our folk is tarnished, for the good is mingling with the base.” A century later Plato was as much interested in biological selection as the best method for race improvement. He suggested that the state should mate the best with the best and the worst with the worst; the former should be encouraged to breed freely, while the offspring of the unfit should be destroyed. Aristotle likewise held that the state should strongly encourage the increase of superior types.

Of course, these were but the visions of a few seers, which had no practical results. The same is true of those other rare thinkers who, like Shakespeare with his famous lines about “nature” and “nuture,” evidently grasped the hereditarian idea. The mass of mankind continued to hold that environment was the great matter for consideration.

Now a belief in the transcendant importance of environment leads inevitably to certain conclusions of great practical importance. In the first place, if it be true that man is moulded primarily by his environment, it logically follows that he has merely to gain control over his environment in order to change himself almost at will. Therefore, according to the environmentalist, progress depends, not on human nature, but on conditions and institutions. Again, if man is the product of his environment, human differences are merely effects of environmental differences, and can be rapidly modified by environmental changes. Lastly, before the supreme importance of environment, all human differences whether individual or racial sink into insignificance, and all men are potentially “equal.”

Such are the logical deductions from the environmentalist theory. And this theory was certainly attractive. It not only appealed to those wounded feelings of self-preservation and self-esteem among the ill-endowed and the unfortunate which we have previously examined, but it appealed also to many of the most superior minds of the race. What could be more attractive than the thought that humanity’s ills were due, not to inborn shortcomings but to faulty surroundings, and that the most backward and degraded human beings might possibly be raised to the highest levels if only the environment were sufficiently improved? This appeal to altruism was powerfully strengthened by the Christian doctrine of the equality of all souls before God. What wonder, then, that philosophers and scientists combined to elaborate theories about mankind of a wholly environmentalist character?

All the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth century (who still influence our ideas and institutions to a far greater degree than we may imagine) were convinced believers in “natural equality.” Locke and Hume, for example, taught that at birth “the human mind is a blank sheet, and the brain a structureless mass, lacking inherent organization or tendencies to develop in this way or that; a mere mass of undefined potentialities which, through experience, association, and habit — through education, in short — could be moulded and developed to an unlimited extent and in any manner or direction [1].” The doctrine of natural equality was brilliantly formulated by Rousseau, and was explicitly stated both in the American Declaration of Independence and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The doctrine, in its most uncompromising form, held its ground until well past the middle of the nineteenth century. At that period so notable a thinker as John Stuart Mill could declare roundly: “Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”

Mill’s utterance may be considered an expression of pure environmentalism. At the moment when he spoke, however, the doctrine had already been considerably modified. In fact, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the progress of science had begun to lift the veil which obscured the mystery of heredity, and scientists were commencing to give close attention to such matters. At first the phenomena of inheritance were not believed to effect the basic importance of environment. This idea was clearly stated early in the nineteenth century by the French naturalist Lamarck. Lamarck asserted that the forms and functions of living beings arose and developed through use, and that such changes were directly transmitted from generation to generation. In other words, Lamarck formulated the theory of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” which was destined to dominate biological thinking down to a generation ago. This theory, which is usually termed “Lamarckism,” was merely a modification of the old environmentalist philosophy. It admitted the factor of heredity, but it considered heredity dependent upon environmental influences.

It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous practical consequences of Lamarkism, not merely upon the nineteenth century but also upon our times. The primal importance of heredity may to-day be accepted by most scientists and by an increasing number of forward-looking persons everywhere, but it has as yet neither deeply penetrated the popular consciousness nor sensibly modified our institutions. The march of new ideas is slow at best, and however much we may be changing our thinking, we are still living and acting under the environmentalist theories of the past. Our political, educational, and social systems remain alike rooted in Lamarckism and proceed on the basic premise that environment rather than heredity is the chief factor in human existence.

The emotional grip of Lamarckism is very strong. It is an optimistic creed, appealing to both the hopes and sympathies. To Lamarckism was due in large measure the cheery self-confidence of the nineteenth century, with its assurance of automatic and illimitable progress. Indeed, in some respects, Lamarckism increased rather than diminished the traditional faith in environment. Before Lamarck, men had believed that the new-born individual was a blank sheet on which society could write. Now came Lamarck, asserting that much of this writing could be passed on by inheritance to succeeding generations with cumulative effect. Considering the powerful agencies which society had at its disposal — government, the church, the home, the school, philanthropy, etc. — it was easy to believe that a wiser and intenser application of these social agencies offered a sure and speedy road to the millennium.

Accordingly, “the comfortable and optimistic doctrine was preached that we had only to improve one generation by more healthy surroundings, or by better education, and, by the mere action of heredity, the next generation would begin on a higher level of natural endowments than its predecessor. And so, from generation to generation, on this theory, we could hope continually to raise the inborn character of a race in an unlimited progress of cumulative improvement [2].”

On this common environmentalist basis all the political and social philosophies of the nineteenth century arose.

They might differ widely and wrangle bitterly over which environmental factor was of prime importance. Political thinkers asserted that progress depended on constitutions; “naturalists” like Buckle claimed that peoples were moulded by their physical environments like so much soft clay; while Socialists proclaimed that man’s regeneration lay in a new system of economics. Nevertheless, they were all united by a common belief in the supreme importance of environment, and they all either ignored heredity or deemed it a minor factor.

We need to stress this point, because we must remember that it is precisely these doctrines which still sway the thought and action of most persons — even the educated. “Whether they know it or not, most people who have not made a particular study of the question still tacitly assume that the acquirements of one generation form part of the inborn heritage of the next, and the present social and educational systems are founded in large part on this false foundation [3]”…


1. W. McDougall, Is America Safe for Democracy? (Lowell Institute Lectures), pg. 21 (New York, 1921).

2. W.C.D. and C.D. Whetham, Heredity and Society, pg. 4 (London 1912)

3. Popenoe and Johnson, Applied Eugenics, pg. 33 (New York, 1920).

 * * *

Source: Dissident Millennial

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