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The Economic Functions of Vice   By: (1846-1929)

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By John McElroy


Published by The National Tnbune

Copyright, 1906

"Are God and Nature then at strife, That Nature lends such evil dreams? So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life."

"And the individual withers, and the world is more and more."


[Transcriber's Note: Numbers in the text enclosed by curly brackets indicate the page numbers in the printed book. DW]


FOR some inscrutable reason which she has as yet given no hint of revealing, Nature is wondrously wasteful in the matter of generation. She creates a thousand where she intends to make use of one.

Imbued with the maternal instinct, the female cod casts millions of eggs upon the waters, expecting them to return after many days as troops of interesting {7} offspring. Instead, half die embryotic gadi are almost immediately devoured by spawn eaters, hundreds of thousands perish in incubation, hundreds of thousands more succumb to the perils attending ichthyic infancy, leaving but a few score to attain to adult usefulness and pass an honored old age with the fragrance of a well spent life in the country grocery.

The oak showers down 10,000 acorns, each capable of producing a tree. Three fourths of them are straightway diverted from their arboreal intent through conversion into food by the provident squirrel and improvident hog. Great numbers rot uselessly upon the {8} ground, and the few hundred that finally succeed in germinating grow up into dense thickets, where at last die strongest smothers out all the rest like an oaken Othello in a harem of quercine Desdemonas.

THIS is the law of all life, animal as well as vegetable. From the humble hyssop on the wall to the towering cedar of Lebanon, from the meek and lowly amoeba which has no more character or individuality than any other pin point of jelly to the lordly tyrant {9} man, the rule is inevitable and invariable.

Life is sown broadcast only to be followed almost immediately by a destruction nearly as swift. Nature creates by the million apparently that she may destroy by the myriads. She gives life one instant only that she may snatch it away the next. The main difference is that the higher we ascend the less lavish is the creation and the less sweeping the destruction.

Thus, while probably but one fish out of a thousand reaches maturity, of 1,000 children born 604 attain adult age; that is, Nature flings aside 999 out of every 1,000 fish as useless for {10} her purposes, and two out of every five human beings.

MANY see in this relentless weeding out and destruction of her inferior products a remarkable illustration of the wisdom of Nature's methods. What would they think of a workman so bungling that two fifths of the products of his handicraft were only fit for destruction?

The "struggle for existence" is a murderous scramble to get rid of this vast surplusage. The "survival of the fittest" is the success of the minority in {11} demonstrating that the majority are superfluous. It is the Kilkenny cat episode multiplied by infinity. It will be remembered that the whole trouble arose from the common belief that two cats were a surplus of one for the Kilkenny environment.

Darwin's theory recognizes in this super fecundity of nature a most potent adjunct for improvement He says, in fact, that the impossibility of providing subsistence for more than a fraction of the multitudinous creation causes a mortal struggle in which the weaker and inferior are exterminated and only the stronger and superior survive. These in turn, have offspring like the leaves {12} of the forest, which in like turn are winnowed out by alien enemies and reciprocal extermination, and thus the process goes on with the sanguinary regularity of the King of Dahomey's administration of the internal economy of his realm... Continue reading book >>

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