Lester Frank Ward, 1841-1913, had such a powerful intellect and such wide-ranging knowledge that some contemporaries referred to him as “the American Aristotle.” The legendary Brown University professor was born on the Illinois frontier, lived a nomadic life as a youth, and received only fragments of formal schooling, though he read voraciously.
Ward fought in the Civil War receiving a severe wound at Chancellorsville. After the conflict, he settled in Washington D.C. and held a series of federal jobs. Simultaneously he attended evening classes at George Washington University, and earned three academic degrees in scientific subjects by 1872. This knowledge was added to his self-taught proficiency in Greek, Latin, and German–languages with very different derivative roots. In later life he gained reading knowledge in Russian, Hebrew, and Japanese. By 1875, Ward was contributing to scientific journals in the fields of botany and geology. In 1881, he secured a position with the U.S. Geological Survey as chief of the Division of Fossil Plants.
While working in the fields of physical science, Ward developed an interest in social science and the emerging field of sociology. In 1883 he published Dynamic Sociology, a work which challenged the prevailing theory of Social Darwinism which applied the deterministic theory of evolution to the growth and change of human societies and institutions. Popular Darwinian sociologists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that survival of the fittest in nature was paralleled in humans by their socio-economic competition, and that government involvement in such an inevitable process was futile. Ward challenged this laissez-faire philosophy. He demonstrated the basic disparity between nature’s unconscious biological evolution (“genesis”) and man’s deliberate, conscious, evolution (“telesis”). In his view, man’s capacity for telic progress–a planned, purposeful improvement requiring the development and application of intelligence–could best be achieved by education to ensure the psychic control of evolution. According to Ward, education, which he categorized as “a quality of the environment,” is the chief means of telic progress, therefore government must make education as widely available as possible.
Ward followed Dynamic Sociology with an array of treatises–The Psychic Factors of Civilization (1893), Outlines of Sociology (1898), Pure Sociology (1903), and Applied Sociology (1906)–all of which advanced his theory that human intelligence, cultivated by government-sponsored education, could and should be used to plan and shape society for the betterment of all. His challenge to Social Darwinism became known as Reform Darwinism. His belief in the role of government in changing the environment and promoting reform led historian Henry Steele Commager to describe Ward as the progenitor and “philosophical architect” of the modern welfare state.
Lester Ward became a professor at Brown University in 1906, the same year that he assumed the presidency of the American Sociology Society. He remained at Brown until his death on April 18, 1913. His “mental autobiography,” Glimpses of the Cosmos (6 volumes, 1913-18), was published posthumously.
According to one biographer “the telic notion applied to social progress is one of the great contributions made by Ward” to social science. Man’s ability consciously to alter the natural and social environment–the criterion of progress in current evolutionary biology–is the essence of Ward’s telesis. Ward’s views on social progress, women’s rights, and universal education have been vindicated both by time and experience.