Remembering Psychologist William McDougall (1878-1938)
WHEN THE Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences ranked the most important psychologists of all time, William McDougall was among those at the top of the list. His credentials were impressive: founder of the British Psychological Society, associate editor of the British Journal of Psychology, author of several widely selling textbooks, inventor of various types of experimental apparatus, contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and so on. During his lifetime few practicing psychologists failed to make reference to McDougall at some point in their work. Then for a quarter of a century his theories were ignored and his influence on psychology was almost nil.
The reasons were largely ideological. McDougall was a major figure in the eugenics movement, writing widely on the need for racial improvement through careful breeding. He was also the first to propose exact mental measurements as a methodology for establishing racial differences. As one historian put it, “He was an unyielding supporter of unpopular causes — freedom of the will, psychic research, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and Nordic superiority . . . . ”
In the 1920s and 30s, when social psychology was introduced into the universities, there were two major schools of psychological thought, the sociological/environmental of E.A. Ross and McDougall’s hereditarian. But time and events were working for the former. As the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate triumphed politically after World War II, McDougall and his ideas fell into disrepute. Today, when psychologist B.F. Skinner is a household name, it is forgotten that McDougall played the central role in beating back the first great assault of behaviorist psychology. Indeed, he did so thorough a job that to this day psychology in Britain is less influenced by Behaviorism than it is in America.
Since the mid- 1960s there has been a quiet revival of interest in both McDougall and his theories. The sheer weight of new scientific evidence and the brilliance of McDougall’s insight are forcing a critical reexamination of what he has to say to contemporary science. Historians of the social sciences like Misiak and Sexton, who have described McDougall as “one of the ablest and most productive minds in the history of psychology,” have noted in particular the relevance of his studies of instinctual behavior to the work of ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. Moreover, McDougall was perhaps the first to note the importance of inheritance and genetics to psychology without surrendering to genetic determinism or physiological mechanism.
Of Scottish ancestry, William McDougall was born June 22, 1871, in Lancashire, England, the son of a chemical manufacturer. He entered Cambridge on a scholarship in 1890, going on to further medical studies at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London. In 1899 he was part of the famous Torres Straits anthropological expedition. The work he did there and in Borneo was so fundamental to an understanding of the minds of non-European peoples that his published results were cited in the literature for decades afterward. Following a period of study and research in Germany, McDougall was appointed Lecturer in Psychology at University College, London, before taking a position at Oxford in 1904. His students during this period included some of the greatest names in 20th-century psychology: Charles Spearman, J.C. Flugel, William Brown and Cyril Burt . It was the last-named, now famous or infamous for his twin studies, who wrote the article on McDougall in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In 1920 McDougall came to Harvard. Seven years later he moved to a more congenial intellctual atmosphere as head of the psychology department at Duke, where he remained until his death in 1938. While at his last post, he sponsored the early ESP research of the late J. B. Rhine and designed some of the basic parapsychology experiments. McDougall’s final years were clouded by the scorn of most of his contemporaries and by recurrent illness, though he remained active to the very end. The magnitude of his contribution and the breadth of his interests were summed up in an obituary in the American Journal of Psychology, “He employed almost all methods of psychological investigation, and he made contributions to almost all of the principal fields of the subject.”
The cornerstone of McDougall’s theory of behavior was purposive striving on the part of the organism. He considered materialism intellectually disreputable and was not afraid to say so. In his autobiography he writes, “The most essential character of life-processes seemed to be their goal-seeking nature.” A discussion of the historical importance of this concept is presented in Margaret Boden’s work Purposive Explanation in Psychology.
With such views it might seem curious that McDougall devoted much of the last years of his life to an experiment that sought to prove the reality of the inheritance of acquired characters. Lamarckian inheritance has tended to become associated with ultra-environmentalist positions, such as those of the Soviet charlatan, Lysenko. This, however, is a serious historical misconception. Many of those who have been attracted to Lamarckianism have come to it because it appeared to assign a greater role than natural selection to the purposive striving of the organism in influencing its own destiny and that of its descendants. McDougall, in a well-designed but poorly executed series of experiments, attempted to demonstrate that learned behavior in rats could be transmitted to their offspring, even though such evidence would have been a tremendous blow to the mechanistic and behavioral basis of biology and psychology. While he thought he had succeeded, other researchers were unable to reproduce McDougall’s results.
In his day McDougall was a major figure in the eugenics movement, which did nothing for his popularity. He once observed, “Nothing so easily establishes a biologist in popular esteem as a scornful attack on eugenics and eugenists.” His American lectures on the subject provided major controversy and lasting media hostility. Lothrop Stoddard in The Revolt Against Civilization cites McDougall’s views approvingly, particularly those stressing the importance of a natural elite. McDougall’s paper on “Anthropology and History” made a number of points strikingly similar to Stoddard’s: that “the races of mankind are of unlike natural endowments”; that “only the better-endowed races and peoples … are capable of developing or of sustaining civilization of a high level in so far as they continue to produce in each generation men of more than average mental endowments.” Like so many race-conscious scholars of the time, McDougall was a great admirer of the Japanese and saw them as a potential rival to America, largely because of their high degree of racial and cultural homogenity.
McDougall’s talents were not confined strictly to psychology, as evidenced by these sterling remarks about conservatism:
The essential expressions of conservatism are respect for our ancestors, pride in their achievement, and reverence for the traditions which they have handed down; that which it is now fashionable to call “race prejudice” and “national prejudice,” but may more justly be described as preference for, and belief in, the merits of a man’s own tribe, race, or nation, with its peculiar customs and institutions — its ethos, in short. If such preferences, rooted in traditional sentiments, are swept away from a people, its component individuals become cosmopolitans; and a cosmopolitan is a man for whom all such preferences have become mere prejudices, a man in whom the traditional sentiments of his forefathers no longer flourish, a man who floats upon the current of life, the sport of his passions though he may deceive himself with the fiction that he is guided in all things by reason alone.
It is something of a cliche to say that the greatest analyzers of the American scene have been foreigners. McDougall, a profound philosopher of nationalism, walked the path of de Tocqueville with some penetrating critiques of his adopted country and its status as a nation. In Ethics and Some Modern World Problems, he identified two fundamental types of ethical systems, universal and national. The former, of which such major moral and religious codes as Christianity and Buddhism are examples, regulate interpersonal, not intergroup, behavior. Such codes tend to ignore the realities of intertribal relationships. National ethics he defined as an ethical system explicitly confined to an identified group and operating for its general welfare. Such moral systems, he cites Judaism as an example, promote conservatism, stability and racial or group purity. To McDougall, the role of Christianity in destroying the Roman Empire was the substitution of a universal ethic which did not distinguish among peoples for the older national ethic of Republican Rome. In The Group Mind he wrote of the manner in which the racial composition of a nation state interacts with national institutions and mores:
[In a racially homogenous nation] the social environment will have been brought in the main into harmony with the innate qualities of the people, and it will mould the individuals of each generation very strongly, accentuating and confirming those innate tendencies. This for two reasons. First, the social environment will be strongly organized and homogeneous …. Secondly, the institutions and customs have not to fight against the innate tendencies of the people in the formation of the adult minds, but co-operate harmoniously with them.
McDougall held strongly to the concept of a transcendent national will, arguing that there existed in a nation a national mind or character determined by its history, not the opinions of the population at a given instant. His further argument that the collective will must be conscious of itself, that it must have goals and move towards the attainment of them, linked his views on national identity and homogeneity to his purposive psychology.
In The American Nation McDougall addressed the question of the impact of massive immigration on America. His views are certainly as relevant today as they were over a half-century ago. “It has become increasingly clear that … there is somewhere a limit to the number of immigrants of alien stocks and traditions that America can absorb without grave danger to her institutions, her ideals, and perhaps her racial quality and national identity.” While “severe restriction [of immigrants] seems to be the settled policy of the nation,” McDougall, writing in 1925, predicted that “doubtless, we shall see in the near future some determined and well-organized efforts to reverse this policy.” He suggested that the phenomenal growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early and middle 1920s was caused by its appeal “to the desire of so many Americans to resist the innovations involved in the hyphenation process.” He further predicted, perhaps less accurately, that members of the old American stock would resist the pluralistic approach to nation building. They would insist that their “forefathers have by their energy and enterprise, their sufferings and their self-sacrifice, prepared for their descendants a splendid heritage,” which they would not gladly surrender. For McDougall these descendants of the pioneers constituted America’s most precious heritage. “Races that have lived for many generations in the shade of the date palm and banana tree do not produce such men.”
However important immigration might be, McDougall emphasized that the great demographic problem of America was the Negro:
There remains in the American people one great section of the population, namely the Negroes and the men of partly Negro descent, whose innate qualities, mental and physical, are so different from those of the rest of the population, that it seems to be incapable of absorption into the nation. This section remains within the nation as a foreign body which it can neither absorb nor extrude and which is a perpetual disturber and menace to the national life.
McDougall suggested geographical segregation as the solution. Unfortunately, in the time of the Abolitionist movement, “there was no science of anthropology to reveal that in the most intimate structure of his tissues, of his blood and bone and brains, the Negro was distinct and different.” It was his considered opinion that Darwin had made it possible to understand that the wide gulf between European and Negro mentality was the direct result of an evolutionary process that had begun long before the appearance of civilization.
Social problems, to McDougall, were consequently reduced to fundamental demographics. Though very much a man of his times, many of McDougall’s arguments seem startlingly modern, essentially because we are only now painfully rediscovering and rethinking the ideas and concepts that liberals and minority racists have deliberately sought to expunge from Western thought.
As a eugenist, McDougall was particularly disturbed by differential birthrates in various segments of the American population. He noted, for instance, the dysgenic effects of female emancipation which induced the most talented women to have careers in business and the professions and withdraw from child-bearing instead of passing on their genetic gifts. Moreover, higher birthrates among more recent immigrant groups were leading to the replacement of the older stock by newcomers. Negro proliferation did not merely represent an increase in the American population, but rather a substitution of “many millions of black and colored folk … for a like number of white Americans who would have been born if the Negroes had never been brought into the country.”
McDougall argued that a society hostile to eugenics encouraged a higher birthrate for the less capable members of society instead of preventing them from coming into existence. The cost of this blind altruism falls on people of higher intelligence, who are consequently forced to restrict the size of their own families. To McDougall it was a matter of the best not breeding while the worst multiply like Drosophila. Pursuing the subject, McDougall suggested that in any land brought under Western control or influence, the more Western or the more adaptable elements of the native population also fell into this deleterious pattern, causing a disproportionate decrease of their numbers. In other words, modern Westerners not only breed down, but influence non-Westerners to do the same.
To those who proposed to solve the world’s ills by massive interbreeding, McDougall had a fiery response, which makes even more sense today:
But the racial qualities of the leading peoples of the world are too precious to be squandered in the process of improving in some uncertain degree the quality of the overwhelming mass of humanity of inferior stocks; the process would probably result in the total destruction of all that humanity has striven and suffered for in its nobler efforts.
William McDougall should be remembered as one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. As a psychologist who did much to build the infrastructure of his profession, he was among the very few to avoid the Charybdis of metaphysics and mysticism without being wrecked upon the Scylla of reductionism and mechanism. As a political and social commentator, he was both timely and prescient. His ideas belong to the great legacy of Western science, the legacy out of which we have been cheated and which must be recovered if we are to recover.
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Source: Instauration magazine, August 1980