Thursday, March 1, 2018

Grant Allen: A Tribute to His Scientific Work (1919)

At the time of publication, The Proletarian was the paper of the Proletarian University of America. It's editor John Keracher, and its leading supporters Dennis Batt and Oakley C. Johnson were still part of the left-wing of the Michigan State Socialist Party. The Proletarian Party was not to form until the spring of 1920. The author of this article, Adolph Kohn, was an SPGBer who left Britain during World War 1 to avoid being conscripted and was involved in radical circles in and around Detroit. One of the pen-names he took during this period was 'John O'London'.
 From the May 1919 issue of The Proletarian

Many of the ablest thinks of the revolutionary movement are forgotten except by a few. Social science has given us notable pioneers whose work and memory are neglected because they did not serve in a popular cause. Karl Marx set an example in giving due recognition to his fore-runners. In “The Poverty of Philosophy” (1847) he is careful to acknowledge the able work of the early socialist of Ireland—William Thompson—whose “Inquiry into the Principle of Human Happiness” (1827) was a book on surplus value, remarkable for its time. John Gray, author of “The Social System” (1831) and J. F. Bray, who wrote “Labor’s Wrongs and Labor’s Remedy” (1839) were both rescued from oblivion by Marx’s international lectures and studies. How easily gifted workers for socialism are eclipsed in our memory can be gathered from the few who recall the writings and activities of Peter Lavroff and Felix Volkhovsky who did so much for the Russian revolution and died in exile before they saw the Promised Land of their ideals. So too, men like Paul Lafargue and women such as Eleanor Marx Aveling never received one-tenth the attention given to less able if more popular stars in the socialist firmament. And the same is true of natural science. Lamarck the deep and original thinker of evolution who died in abject poverty has been practically forgotten by those who praise Darwin to the skies. Professor William Kingdon Clifford, the brilliant essayist of evolution and rationalism, died when young and his spirited warfare against superstition and ignorance is now hardly known. Half a century ago in the days when Darwinism was fighting for its life, the soldiers of science used no kid gloves and called a spade a spade unlike our respectable and apologetic rationalists and men of science now living. And in sheer abiltiy and quality of effort they are unequalled in this age of cut-throat commerce and break-neck-speed industry. Modern America is the country, par excellence, where instruction is plentiful but ideas scarce. The record of the fine work and unrewarded genius of such a thinker as Grant Allen should be useful to stimulate study and illustrate the truths we teach.

Born in Canada in the memorable year of 1848, Grant Allen came from Celtic stock. His father was an Irish clergyman who later revolted against the compulsory reading of the Anthanasian Creed with its damnation clauses for those who honestly disbelieved. His mother was Scotch of French parentage and thus the Celtic spirit of lively, alert and fluent power combined with scientific knowledge to make Allen the man he was. Life as a boy amongst the flora and fauna of the “Thousand Islands” of Eastern Canada, taught him much of that fine grasp of plant and animal life which blossomed later into the scientific studies which have charmed and helped our generation. Those flower and bird and insect rambles ripened into his “Evolution at Large,” “Flowers and Their Pedigrees,” “The Colors of Flowers,” “In Nature’s Workshop,” “Common Sense Science,” “Science in Arcady,” “Falling in Love,” “Story of Plant Life,” “Colin Clouts Calendar,” “Vignettes from Nature” and many others. These books combine charm and simplicity of language with the latest science such as not even Huxley could excel.

Adverse falls in family affairs cut short his Oxford University life and drove him to private tutorship— the last hope of a university man. Spencer, Darwin, Huxely, Tyndall, and others were making scientific history and Grant Allen saw his life work in the same field. He began to accumulate materials for an investigation into the History of Religion but he had to spend his days in a bitter struggle to provide food and shelter for himself and wife and child. He became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Spanish Town Government College, Jamaica, but British capitalist domination did not arouse the negro to education and Allen’s classes lacked pupils and he was jobless again. So like many others he found that unless you prostituted your education to the service of the few—poverty stares you in the face. As Jack London has so bitterly recorded—you can make more money writing rubbish than scientific books.

People spoke of London’s “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” as good dog stories, whereas they were written as applications of Spencer and Darwin’s teachings on heredity and the struggle for existence. Grant Allen incorporated truths of science—heredity, ethnology and psychology in his stories but people saw the romance and tragedy and understood nothing more. Like Jack London—Grant Allen had to satisfy popular “taste” and his own pressing needs by writing potboilers such as “Hilda Wade,” “The Typewriter Girl,” “The African Millionaire,” etc. “What’s Bred in the Bone,” “The Great Taboo,” “Rev. John Creedy” were written to embody scientific principles but publishers wanted “light stuff” and the talented man of science bitterly turned his back on the real work of his life for many years. As soon as possible, however, he began to write books which pleased himself and will please many generations to come—if they value knowledge.

In his earlier days he had written many magazine articles such as “The Positive Aspect of Communism,” “Socialism and Natural Inequality,” “The Genesis of Genesis” and many articles on woman’s share in primitive social life, in debate with Lester Ward whose theories of the female being the original sex Allen disagreed with. His study of original materials gave us “Anglo-Saxon Briton”—a history of social institutions and social evolution in early Britain—not a history of kings and heroes but a great advance upon the history-writing methods of his day. Andrew Lang —the prominent writer on mythology—said of Allen’s “genius, the most versatile, beyond comparison of any man of his age. Had he been able to devote himself entirely to physical science, as he desired, it is not for me to conjecture what he might have added to the sum of human knowledge. But”—here the tragedy—“he had to live by his pen—by scientific work he could not live.”

Allen found more money in writing guide-books to Italy and France than by his most brilliant studies in science. He stopped writing a “Philosophy of History” based on the facts of evolution in order to write such novels as “All Shades” to keep from starvation. Long study of physics caused him to plan the original work on “Force and Energy” which he was compelled to issue privately in 1873. Publishers did not care to speculate. The theory of attractive force and repulsive energy foreshadowed many ideas which are commonpalce in our day. Jack London and Grant Allen had in common profound regard for the writing of Herbert Spencer who influenced the views of both these men considerably. Spencer had nothing but high praise for that now scarce book of Allen’s “Physiological Aesthetics,” an original treatise on the origin of the pleasure we derive from natural and artificial products. Allen showed that the foundation of all sensation is in the laws of nervous action and that all aesthetic feeling is finally based on sense delight, tastes, smells, touches, sounds, forms or colors. Dedicated to Herbert Spencer the latter said it was a valuable development of evolutionary thought. Spencer tried to get Allen a position as educator, but in vain. Not more than three hundred copies of the book were sold and Allen lost two hundred and fifty dollars through advancing science. In 1879 he published that remarkable study in psychology—“The Color Sense.” Darwin, Wallace and Spencer esteemed it a valuable investigation into that difficult problem of comparative psychology—The Origin of a Color Sense. After ten years Allen obtained one hundred and fifty dollars from the book and he sarcastically said: “As it took me only eighteen months, and involved little more than five or six thousand references, this result may be regarded as very fair pay for an educated man’s time and labor, and should warrant the reproach of the thoughtless critics for deserting the noble pursuit of science in favor of fiction and the filthy lucre.”

Allen’s journalistic work on the staff of “London” came to a sudden end with the collapse of that paper and he accepted the drudgery of compiling an index for the Indian Gazeteer. This was done to the end that he could later devote hmiself to his late work on the inquiry into the origins of religion, and after twenty years’ patient study, collection and comparison of materials he published the book that took him ten years to write—“The Evolution of the Idea of God” (1897). The title was suggested by Herbert Spencer and the book is one of the greatest proofs of the earthly origins of Gods and belief in “Spirits” ever written. Huxely and Spencer, amongst many others, considered it a masterpiece, though the view Allen took of the origin or religion differed in some respects from his contemporary investigators. Those who are familiar with the great work of Frazer “The Golden Bough”, Tylor’s “Anthropology” and Spencer’s “Sociology” will find easy indications of the foundations of Allen’s views.

Allen adopted the essentials of Spencer’s position that religion arose among savages in Ancestor Worship. Answering the question, “By what successive steps did men come to frame for themselves the conception of a deity?” Allen summarizes the evidence of the early beliefs of savages, past or present, and the testimony of historical documents and ancient monuments. How did men come to believe first in many gods —polytheism? How did men come to remove most of their gods until eventually certain races believed in one single, supreme and all-powerful God? And from that how did the advanced races and civilizations conceive of God as a trinity with a human person as one of its three forms—The Origin of Christianity? Allen followed the main conclusion of Spencer but added to it and modified it many ways. He adopted the view that ghost worship was the foundation of belief in gods, and the worship of corpses and not the association of spirits with non-living things was the first form of practiced religion.

The conception of the life of the dead was shown to pass through three stages, corpse worship, ghost worship and shade worship, and were associated with the three stages of mummification, burial and cremation. “In its origin,” says Allen, p. 16, “the concept of a God is nothing more than that of a dead man, regarded as a still surviving ghost or spirit, and endowed with increased or supernatural powers and qualities.” The worship of the sun, moon and the stars is not primitive, but a later derivation. Many writers hold that religion grew out of fear, but Allen shows that does not answer the question, why men revered and worshipped their gods as a beneficient and generous father. Allen demonstrated that religion consists not in ethical theory but in ceremonial practice and custom—prayer, propitiation, praise, offering, etc. “In its simplest surviving savage type, religion consists wholly and solely in certain acts of deference paid by the living to the persons of the dead.”

In England the Rationalist Press Association published a twelve cent edition of this wonderful book, and in a short time one hundred thousand copies were sold to working men—much to the dismay of a historic enemy—the church. Those who want to understand the reasons for socialists taking their stand on the scientific grounds of criticism of religion must read Grant Allen. For two years Allen went from publisher to publisher, but they were afraid to publish until a relatively obscure man did so. After Allen’s death the materials for a second volume were found and published as they stood under the title of “The Hand of God”— a study in the “Worship of Death”. This is a brilliant addition to the earlier work and contains many essays on modern evolution.

The little book on “Charles Darwin” by Grant Allen is one of the best studies ever written, and as Spencer well said, is one of the few books on this subject that is fair to Darwin’s contemporaries and accurate in its views. It shows the credit due to Spencer for his presentation of cosmic evolution and to Darwin for his discovery of the origin of species. It shows also how every great mind depends upon the society of his time for his success.

The barbarous religions and social conventions of his time found a burning critic in Grant Allen. The hypocrisy of “respectable society”—the idiotic and property relations between the sexes gave us articles like the “New Hedonism” and those poems on the woman victims of a rotten system, printed in his charming “Lower Slopes”—the only book of verses Allen issued.
When he felt the hardest part of his sordid struggle with poverty ending Allen embodied his views on the marriage and social question in two novels—written to please himself—not his publishers. After a long struggle he succeeded in getting a publisher and “The Woman Who Did” and “The British Barbarians” upset the respectable world of his time. They picture people trying to avoid the conventional codes of morality and show their treatment by the “upright” hypocrites around them.

They trace the paralysing influence on men and women of established institutions and point a better way to a brighter life. These two books are well worth attention by the seeker after real pictures of social life.

In 1898 he was asked to write an article on the Defense of the Dominion for the Canadian Yearbook, and his reply is a good lesson for the Haeckels and Lankesters of today. Allen wrote:
  “You can know very little of my aims and ideals if you think I would willingly do anything to help on a work whose avowed object is to arouse ‘military enthusiasm’. Military enthusiasm means enthusiasm for killing people. My desire in life has been not to kill, but to help and aid all mankind, irrespective of nationality, creed, language or cult. I hate war, and everything that leads to it, as I hate murder, rapine, or the ill treatment of women. I dislike slavery, however cloaked under the guise of ‘imperialism’. I contribute gladly to works designed to strengthen the bonds of amity between nations ands to render war impossible, but I cannot contribute to one which aims at making peaceful Canadian citizens throw themselves into the devouring whirlpool of militarism.”
After a lifetime of illness, Allen died on October 25th, 1898, at the early age of fifty, with much of his chief projects unfinished. , Down to his last day he was in Shelley’s words 
Singing songs unbidden, till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heedeth not.
Adolph Kohn

This article was signed under Kohn's pen-name of 'John O'London'.

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