Social Evolution

Revolutions come in many forms. There are the traditional ones, with mass uprisings,violence and dethroning. In what was perhaps one of the earliest revolutions, nearly three thousand years ago, the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrian empire in a long, bitter war and declared their independence. There are others, well planned and well executed,that silently repaint the landscape.The Russian October Revolution was launched by Lenin, signaled by a blank shot. Hardly another shot was needed to be fired as the Bolsheviks took over all critical power centers in Petrograd. They entered, and almost got lost in the vast Winter Palace, and stumbled upon members of the government who still remained inside. The illiterate revolutionaries compelled the arrested men to write their own arrest papers, and thus was born the Soviet Union. 

Some revolutions however seem doomed to failure. The Irish Rebellion failed to overthrow British rule in Ireland. Others fail to even be recognized. The Tiananmen Square protests may be discussed the world over, but not in the land where it took place.There are yet other attempts, apparent failures, that in retrospect can be seen as the beginning of the end. Spartacus and his 70,000 slaves who attempted to escape during the Roman slave rebellion were annihilated by the powerful Roman army, but their unconquerable spirit left an impact on the Romans, who reduced the number of their slaves, looked elsewhere for laborers, and began to treat the remaining slaves less harshly.

Some are led by one man, others, by countless men and women all over the land. Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution that led to the Arab Spring of 2010 began with a poor vegetable seller who did not live to see even the beginning of the global impact of his suicidal act. Some are carried out in ways so unconventional.  Mahatma Gandhi who ousted the British colonialists from India defied the British monopoly on salt production by making salt, and encouraging Indians along the country’s over 4,000 mile coastline to make their own salt. The Estonian Singing Revolution began with spontaneous chorus singing all night at a music festival, and culminated in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declaring independence from the USSR.

The weapons wielded in the struggles vary widely. The guillotine was a symbol of the French Revolution in the 1790s, with which the people wiped out their aristocracy in an attempt to level society.   Such a contrast was the Carnation Revolution that overthrew dictatorship in Portugal in the 1970s, when people joined the military revolutionaries by sticking carnations in their uniforms and rifle muzzles.  Perhaps the most unexpected, that took even the techno savvy of the world by surprise was the smart phone, which along with Facebook facilitated amass uprising in Egypt.

Whatever may be the form a revolution takes, and whatever the mode and weapon employed, the cause is invariably the same. Since the first revolution in recorded history some five thousand years ago, when the Sumerian king Lugalanda was overthrown because of his corruption and injustice, every revolution has been an expression of people’s aspiration  - for food, for freedom, for security, for happiness. 

A revolution is defined as a complete, radical change. But not all changes go by the name of revolution. They are the silent, slow changes, often unnoticed till afterwards.  They too, are an answer to humanity’s primal longings, the result of unvoiced, collective aspirations. Revolutions can be traced as far back as five millennium ago. But evolution is older than man himself.

Long before man, when the primates ruled the trees, it was the survival of the fittest. The strongest ape got the best fruits on the tree, and consequently, attracted the mate it sought, raised its family and ruled the roost. The weaker ones, denied food and family, could not stand up to the physical might of the leader. So they sought a workaround. Rather than stay in the same tree and compete unsuccessfully over the limited resources, they ventured to look elsewhere for food. Walking on all fours and carrying a load back for the family was slow and clumsy. So the ape slowly straightened up and became a biped. Using two limbs made walking faster, less surface area was exposed to heat and cold, and the hands were freed. Thus, as a result of the aspiration for food, family, happiness and power, man evolved. Beginning from then, man has evolved, physically, socially mentally, culturally and spiritually.

When man decided to stop chasing food and make it come to him, farming and animal rearing began. When he realized the benefits of the community, settlements developed. When he became social, language was born. As interactions became more and more complex, nations, governance, trade and law came into existence. The thirst for knowledge led to inventions, the printing press made the dissemination of knowledge possible. The spirit of adventure led to the age of exploration.  Unknown expanses of land and sea were drawn on the world map, and brought closer and closer together in a world shrinking due to technology that has conquered time and space.  So every invention, every discovery, every change in the history of mankind has been the consequence of human aspiration. Every period - the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, the Information age - reflects our evolving needs.

History and biography offer good scope for analysis, they give a perspective to the study. But literature offers more, for it captures the atmosphere in its entirety, and presents us with a thorough, impartial report of all movements. Take any good book, and you will inevitably learn more than just the plot. The views of the protagonists depict the prevailing norms in society. Their failure and success reveal the social, economic and political conditions around. Their struggles and hopes reflect where things are headed. In other words, the writer paints a miniature of the world in his pages. As we admire the work of art, if we look beyond the plot, characterization, language and imagery, we discern the entire landscape depicting life around with all its essence. One such world created is Barsetshire.

Anthony Trollope was one of the most successful English writers in 19th century England. He was a respected and prolific novelist, and he set a number of his stories in the imaginary county of Barsetshire. One of the Barset chronicles, Doctor Thorne, revolves around a country doctor and his niece. Doctor Thorne, a respectable and successful physician brings up his niece, Mary, the illegitimate child of his brother, to be a good natured, high principled girl. The son of the county squire, Frank Gresham, is in love with Mary. The Greshams are an old, reputed family, but have lately fallen on hard times. Their estate is heavily mortgaged to a worker turned railway contractor who has seen a meteoric rise in his fortunes. This noveau riche man, Sir Roger also happens to be Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side. Frank is under pressure from his mother and titled relatives to court money and property.  They try to match him with the wealthy Miss Dunstable, the heiress to a fortune made in trade by her father. Lady Gresham overlooks the lack of title, and hopes for a rich match for her son Frank. Frank is unable to stand up to his august family at first, and makes a poor attempt at striking gold through marriage, but is quickly brought back to his senses, and to Mary. Sir Roger passes away, leaving all his wealth to his closest relative, Mary. Now it turns out that most of the Gresham property is in Mary’s hands, and a marriage between Frank and Mary not only unites the happy couple but also retrieves the Gresham property. Lady Gresham receives her daughter in law she has till the day before opposed, with the words ‘Dear Mary’, and Trollope concludes the story with a happy ending for the lovers as well as their property. A simple straightforward story, almost moral in its implication reveals the deep undercurrents shaping society.

It was about the same time radical changes were taking place across the channel. The guillotine was decimating the aristocracy in France in a violent attempt to liberate the oppressed classes. The struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity came at the cost of great bloodshed. But as there is always more than one way to solve a problem, English society adopted another approach, peaceful and accommodating, to achieve the same ends. At the end of the story of Dr. Thorne, we find in England a more liberal, equal and homogenized society.

The conservative, class conscious society in rural England that frowned upon even a slight act of impropriety was boldly introduced to Mary, by a man much respected and liked, Dr. Thorne, whose very livelihood depended on his acceptance and patronage by those around. Mary’s background was murky. Her mother, a poor girl was seduced and later abandoned by Dr. Thorne’s brother. The girl’s brother, later to become Sir Roger Scatcherd, was outraged and murdered the culprit and served time in jail. After giving birth to the fatherless child, the young mother left the infant in the care of Dr. Thorne and migrated to a new life in America. This child, who had lost her father before birth and mother soon afterwards, received education, a good upbringing, parental care and love, and most to the point, the acceptance of society. When life outside, and even within the house was ruled by a strict code of conduct, when dress and manners were according to protocol, and society venerated tradition, custom, propriety and values handed down over generations, a girl with a rogue for a father, murderer for an uncle, and a mother who abandoned her at birth, a girl with no title, property or accomplishment, was warmly embraced by all her acquaintances. Instead of becoming an outcaste, Mary was accepted into the highest society in the neighborhood, and became a companion to Squire Gresham’s daughters. The strict moral and social codes that ruled people and society were beginning to be relaxed, and people began to free themselves of old ideas and adopt new ones.

One of the dramatic changes in the national psyche was the reduced importance accorded to birth. Earlier, if a man’s lineage could be traced back over a dozen generations, if an ancestor had been knighted by a former monarch, if his family estate was a few centuries old, and of course if its value an impressive amount, then the man was respected. He gained entry into the highest circles in the country, his acquaintance was sought eagerly. He wielded considerable influence, his word carried more weight than his fellow countrymen not born into such privilege. High society, politics, church – all were open to him if he cared. Such men and women were prize catches in the marriage market. Often, beauty, youth, even values and reputation were overlooked in an effort to marry an heir or heiress. Birth was everything.

Such a society slowly started rearranging itself along different lines. Roger Scatcherd began humbly as a stone mason. When fury overtook him at the thought of the wrong done his sister, he landed in jail for murder. His situation could not have been much worse as he stepped out of jail after many years. His willingness to work hard was all he had, but that stood him well. He became a contractor, first for odd jobs, and gradually worked his way up to become a railway contractor. There had been a task of the railways urgently required, that involved extraordinary physical and mental resources. Scatcherd had been the man for it. He had done the job, and as recognition for the work, knighted by the queen. In earlier times when society was predominantly agricultural, when the tenant farmers worked on the land and paid rent to the nobleman, the gentleman could generously lend his fine manners and breeding to pleasurable past times such as hunting or entertaining friends. But with industrialization came different needs, needs that could not be met by finery or stateliness. Needs that could only be met by the assets that the likes of Roger Scatcherd possessed – diligence, physical strength, fortitude, willingness to soil one’s hands and clothes with sweat and grime. The successful completion of the railway work brought Scatcherd what birth had denied him – title, fame, wealth and a new kind of respect. It was new because it had not existed earlier. Respect had been reserved for title and rank that came with birth. Hard work was looked down upon, the need to work hard was pitied. A life of idleness or one spent in the pursuit of pleasure was a situation that won respect. Society did an almost about turn and hard work won respect, and came close to eclipsing birth. Scatcherd, now Sir Roger, contested in the elections, and nearly became a member of parliament.

Nearly, because Sir Roger’s crude manners still grated on people’s sensitivities, but if one polished one’s outside, one could even outshine the natural-born aristocrats. Miss Dunstablewas made very much of by everyone. She was sociable and witty. She seemed to have access to infinite wealth. Her invitations were gratefully accepted, she was perseveringly courted by men of noble families. Her stay in a friend’s country estate added charm to her hosts and their estate. Everyone tried to please her, bachelors tried to woo her, ladies treasured her friendship, and Frank Gresham was sent off to her, supposedly to win her heart, but more importantly to secure her dowry to save the Gresham property. Lady Gresham who set great store by birth and rank was willing to forego the ephemeral pleasure that nobility gave to the more real pleasure that money provided. In earlier times, class barriers were strong and high. They were guarded jealously from any contamination from below. New money could not hope to buy its way into the nobleman’s world. For it still carried with it a faint odor of trade that made those above turn up their noses. A few still did so, secretly, for Miss Dunstable’s fortune had been made in selling medicinal oil. But increasingly, wealth had washed away all the slime of the oil, and just as success gave Sir Roger a new kind of respectability, enormous money hewed a shortcut into the nobleman’s world for the Miss Dunstables of the time. Money became the new currency.

As every old value was giving way to the new, so it was with parental and filial authority. The arranged marriage, an idea disappearing in some places and extinct in the rest, was prevalent. The parents, and very often even the uncles, aunts and grandparents settled marriages in much the same way business transactions are arranged. The match was weighed according to a number of values. One was the value of the property and settlements made on the person. A title of marquis or earl tipped the balance most decidedly, compared to which virtues such as characters and accomplishment were but minor issues to be considered or ignored as per convenience. Affection and love were often absent. A marriage was a good one if it was good in the material sense. Lady Gresham had married Squire Gresham and made a good match, but she couldn’t compare herself with the superior match her sister had made, by marrying a duke. In her ambitions for her son, she insisted on his marrying a lady of good fortune, even if the lady was older than he was, and owed her fortune to oil trade. Miss Dunstable too was nudged by many in the ‘right’ direction, towards Frank. But in what was a breakaway from tradition, Frank and Miss Dunstable looked upon the match as silly scheming. They laughed over the family’s interference and indulged their older relatives for a while. But all along, Frank was true to his love for Mary Thorne, and even confessed it to Miss Dunstable. Attachment determining marriage was a change. Ruleswere rewritten, practices that bound people stronger than fetters gave way, traditional authority was defeated, when Frank refused to sacrifice his ideals to the choice of the collective. The individual in every man and woman stirred to life.

The herd mentality had been an overpowering force. Food, fashion, recreation, learning were all decided by the collective. If broad brimmed hats were the fashion in Paris, it was copied in London, and later, made its way to Barsetshire. If fox hunting was taken up by an aristocrat, others followed him. Every girl looked to marry young and marry well simply because every other girl wanted to. In this way, one’ role had been scripted by society. Young man chose to enter the church or army, become a sailor or study law because others respected the profession. The individual was lost in the collective, as even his values were directed by what others valued.

But it slowly dawned on men and women that they had needlessly shackled their spirit. If they chose, they could be free, free to be happy, to choose the life they desired. Just as Frank chose. When his thoughts and feelings were unsettled, he did as he was bid, swayed one way now, another way next. But when he decided he would follow his heart, he would not choose the mercenary path his mother showed, give up all material comforts if it came to that and marry Mary, Frank became an individual. He began a trend that shocked at first, admired later, and eventually emulated universally.

This birth of individuality we see in Frank Gresham’s simple decision to marry Mary Thorne is an indication of the upheaval that was taking place in society. Most people had bowed to a collective mind, obscured by ignorance, superstition and tradition. But with the awakening of individuality in every man and woman, something in the inscrutable darkness stirred. The industrial revolution changed the face of England. New lands were found, new settlements founded. Monarchy gave way to democracy, science dispelled ignorance, medicine conquered disease, inventions made life easier. The world developed more rapidly than it had in the previous millennia. And it all began with a change, in man’s mind. When Doctor Thorne boldly introduced Mary to the world as his niece, when Roger Scatcherd worked hard and earned success and knighthood, when Miss Dunstable boldly pushed open the gates to the aristocrat’s world undeterred by low birth and background, when Frank Gresham and Mary broke free of the invisible yet strong fetters of society and chose to be true to each other, and to themselves.

The study of a movement, be it from a story or a page in history, shows everything in perspective. The cause, the symptom and the effect are there for all to see. Neither the characters in the story, nor, to a large extent, those studied by the historian knew the part they were playing. Frank loved Mary one minute, bowed to his mother’s wishes the next, confided in Miss Dunstable later, and came back to Mary finally.  He did not know that he was liberating the individual in man when he refused to bow to filial pressure. But we, with the advantage of our perspective, can see the larger picture. We can see that some young aristocrats chose to give up their leisurely life in the country estate and chose to sail the high seas because the spirit of adventure beckoned all. The peasants rose up in revolt against their feudal masters because the air was smitten with the desire for freedom and equality. Dictators were overthrown and freedom movements spread as if by contagion, for the world resonated with the vibration of independence.

Any such change, studied, gives us an insight into the evolution of humanity. Hindsight has its own uses, but foresight is more beneficial. Society has evolved over the centuries, but the evolution has been mostly unconscious. But as with many an accidental discovery that is later emulated intentionally, what if we choose to evolve consciously. What if we decide today that we will not wait for a vague idea or a nascent urge to slowly build up intensity over generations or millennia and then express itself globally to become a movement. If we were to take up a real idea, one that serves humanity and makes the world a better place for all, and transform ourselves, if we consciously evolve, we can abridge time. We can achieve in a few decades what humanity has taken in all time, we can speed up progress.