Lester Frank Ward

Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913) was an American paleobotanist, sociologist, and educator. He was the leading American opponent of social Darwinism and of impotent government.

Lester Ward was born in Joliet, III., on June 18, 1841. He received a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University in 1869 and a master's in 1873. From 1865 to 1872 he was with the U.S. Treasury Department and from 1881 through 1888 was assistant and then chief paleontologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He did considerable research in geology and paleobotany but became intensely interested in sociology as an emerging discipline. His published works in sociology were so well received that, without an academic position, he was elected president of the American Sociological Society in 1906 and 1907. In 1906 Ward was made professor of sociology at Brown University. He died in Washington on April 18, 1913.

Ward approached human society from two perspectives. First, as a successful botanist, he analyzed developments in social organization in terms of energy, and combinations and specialization in the use of energy. These themes were first presented in his Dynamic Sociology (1883) and Pure Sociology (1903). But Ward also emphasized the role of feelings, motives, and will in social affairs. This was extensively discussed in Psychic Factors in Civilization (1893).

In all the previously mentioned works, Ward sought to simplify the entire history of mankind as a relatively blind but somewhat progressive evolution of social order through conflict and resolution of conflict, by means of compromise and various degrees of cooperation (the socalled theory of genesis). Though prefigured in the last section of Pure Sociology, Ward's theory of telesis was considerably expanded in his Applied Sociology (1906). This theory asserted that the fruits of previous social achievements made possible man's ability to direct further evolution by rational effort and acquired intelligence.

Consequently, Ward strongly opposed the laissez-faire approach to government and regarded education as the primary mechanism of continued human progress. In short, Ward anticipated the development of modern governmental responsibilities (the welfare state), planning, and the expansion of formal education as a funnel for maximum participation by citizens in public affairs.

Ward epitomized the "engaged" or involved intellectual who values knowledge for its application to the resolution of social problems. He strongly favored cooperation between social welfare and the social sciences—though a divergence between the two was characteristic of the last decades of his life. The movement toward a closer alliance between social science and social practice is a quiet vindication of the visions of a long-neglected social prophet.

Further Reading on Lester Frank Ward

Israel Gerver, Lester Frank Ward (1963), contains selected portions of Ward's writings and a brief biographical sketch. A comprehensive collection of Ward's essays and selected excerpts, along with a well-reasoned interpretation of his thinking, is in Henry S. Commager, Lester Ward and the Welfare State (1967). A full-length biography and interpretation of Ward is Samuel Chugerman, Lester Frank Ward: The American Aristotle (1939).

Additional Biography Sources

Scott, Clifford H., Lester Frank Ward, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.