The Wonderful Century

by Alfred Russel Wallace (1898)


The present work is not in any sense a history, even on the most limited scale. It may perhaps be termed an appreciation of the Century—of what it has done, and what it has left undone. The attempt has been made to give short, descriptive sketches of those great material and intellectual achievements which especially distinguish the Nineteenth Century from any and all of its predecessors, and to show how fundamental is the change they have effected in our life and civilization. A comparative estimate of the number and importance of these achievements leads to the conclusion that not only is our century superior to any that have gone before it, but that it may be best compared with the whole preceding historical period. It must therefore be held to constitute the beginning of a new era of human progress.

But this is only one side of the shield. Along with these marvellous Successes—perhaps in consequence of them—there have been equally striking Failures, some intellectual, but for the most part moral and social. No impartial appreciation of the century can omit a reference to them; and it is not improbable that, to the historian of the future, they will be considered to be its most striking characteristic. I have therefore given them due prominence. No doubt it will be objected that I have devoted far too much space to them—more than half the volume. But this was inevitable, for the very obvious reason that, whereas the successes are universally admitted and had only to be described, the failures are either ignored or denied, and therefore required to be proved. It was thus necessary to give a tolerably full summary of the evidence in every case in which an allegation of failure has been made.

The Vaccination question has been discussed at the greatest length for several reasons. It is the only surgical operation that, in our country, has ever been universally enforced by law. It has been recently inquired into by a Royal Commission, whose Majority Report is directly opposed to the real teaching of the official and national statistics presented in the detailed reports. The operation is, admittedly, the cause of many deaths, and of a large but unknown amount of permanent injury; the only really trustworthy statistics on a large scale prove it to be wholly without effect as a preventive of small-pox; many hundreds of persons are annually punished for refusing to have their children vaccinated; and it will undoubtedly rank as the greatest and most pernicious failure of the century. I claim, that the evidence set forth in this chapter, with the diagrams which illustrate it, demonstrate this conclusion. It is no longer a question of opinion, but of science; and I have the most complete confidence that the result I have arrived at is a statistical, and therefore a mathematical certainty.

Of even greater importance, though less special to the century, is the perennial problem of wealth and poverty. In dealing with this question I have adduced a body of evidence showing that, accompanying our enormous increase of wealth, there has been a corresponding increase of poverty, of insanity, of suicide, and probably even of crime, together with other indications of moral and physical deterioration. To the facts I have set forth I earnestly call the attention of all those who have at heart the progress of true civilization and the welfare of humanity.

A. R. W.
Parkstone, Dorset.
April 1898.

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