The Human Family, Inc.


By RAY LYMAN WILBUR, President, Stanford University

Delivered at Commencement of Stanford University, Stanford University, Cal., June 13, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 696-699.

ANY MAN and any woman together, anywhere, may start a family. Every individual born of any family is different from every other individual on earth. Human beings are characterized from other forms of life in that they have a sense of justice, what we call a conscience, and a conscious urge to be free. All of us humans are one kind of an animal, since we can interbreed regardless of color, race, language, religion, or economic status. We have recently had in the blood bank, in plasma infusions and in blood typing, clear-cut and remarkable examples of the close links which all human beings have to other human beings. To me one of the most graphic pictures which has so far come out of this war is that of a blind soldier, apparently an Australian, being led by a naked Islander back to safety.

For untold centuries the continents and the seas which separate them have been vast enough to keep the human family segregated into distinct units, particularly large racial and national units. One of man's greatest difficulties has been that of the distribution of goods and of himself over the earth. Now, distribution can be made with such comparative ease that it has brought about the unity of much of the world from a mechanical and practical side, before we were ready for it, and while man's thinking is still provincial, timid, and selfish. Men and women of every nation and of every race are now considering in one way or another the question of how we can create order in our world family. All sorts of solutions are being suggested, varying from birth control to massacre. We know from past experience that if the food and the comforts are available, and ifdisease is controlled and production is maintained, the population will increase.

In great business operations, where confusion creates losses and where order brings profits, there has been introduced and widely used in some form and for centuries an organization to which we give the name of "Incorporated." This brings together the savings of the past, the brains and energy of the present, cuts out duplication, advances simplification, develops order, and provides records as to just what is being done while building up reserves that can be helpful for the future. Are we reaching a stage in the human family where we can outline those procedures upon which we can stop conflict, promote peace, happiness, and comfort, and do this on a world-wide basis, regardless of prejudices, passions, conflicting ideals and religions, different moral conceptions, and a host of other characteristics that are difficult to blend?

War seems to offer one way for bringing about unity of action. Our mutual dangers give us new conceptions of individual conduct. There is a greater willingness to be unselfish, to work together, to work with the peoples of other nations with whom we might have had very little sympathy before. It has been said that only in the height of a dangerous war do human beings rise to their full physical and mental capacities. But war has in it the greatest peril of all for aggregates of human beings. That peril is over-centralization. Over-centralization of power means that any mistake by an individual may affect the lives of literally millions of people—millions of those born and millions more of those as yet unborn. Throughout the ages there has been this constant struggle, ever recurring, of power centralized around a throne or in a dictator and the effects of the misuse of that power upon peoples. There have always been some who fought for power and some who fought for freedom.


I am convinced that man, in order to be happy or reasonably contented, must have an attachment to the soil, to his neighborhood, or to the products of the soil used in industry. Over and over again I think of the shock of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, of the way in which the products of men were broken up, destroyed, and burned, and of the. feeling I had as I went to care for some of those injured in the earthquake and passed by a tree undisturbed by it all, going right along with the development of its fruit. Its roots were in the soil; it was all in one piece; earthquakes could not disturb it. That tree brought home to me the necessity for man himself to fasten with sound roots into his environment if he is to face successfully the vicissitudes that are inevitable in life.

For human beings there is no possible substitute for good local self-government, with full responsibility accepted by each and every citizen. It is the willingness to compromise; with our neighbor and work in common effort with him that has made it possible to go as far as we have in the development of government. The greatest of all dangers is that of relying on distant decisions rather than upon ourselves.

Man is an organizing animal. We always have a considerable group of blue-printers who insist on laying out our future down to the last clerk in the least important office. There is grave hazard in over-organization. If the Human Family, Incorporated, relies too much on blueprints that relieve communities from immediate responsibilities for order, good social protections, and the development of food supplies then danger is just around the corner. Nations are like families. The various things that have to be done must be divided up. The children must be cared for,stores gathered in for winter, order maintained, and houses built against the storms. As we view the community so will we view the world. Nations are indeed like families, and families are like people. When things go easy, easy becomes the rule. Ease leads readily to indolence, and indolence to such indifference that responsibility for the group is left to others. There are always men seeking political power ready to pick up such opportunities. The present drive for "all-out security" has in it these elements of danger for the human race. It is remarkable that we hear so much about security from this and that when our men have none at all and must give up everything upon a nod from the government. Too much security, based upon the actions of others, means over-domestication. Domestication is a form of preparation for the butcher. The beef animal does not determine when he shall go to market.

Over and over in the history of the world we have seen those who thought they had security fail to secure it. One needs only to think of what has recently happened to the great castles and homes in England and in our own country in such places as Bar Harbor, Newport, and parts of California, to realize that those who thought that they were secure have been disillusioned. Any nation that is not alert, whose citizens have gone to sleep on the job, is sure to be turned over from either the inside or the outside. It is just a part of how human beings act and how they probably will always act. They may take political methods instead of the sword, but the results will be the same. There is always danger from the use of any distant power, whether it is from the capital of a state, or a nation, or from those at the head of other nations. We must remember that only those who live life in a special area and environment can handle the local problems of that area, and that there is always great risk in turning over anything concerning that area to the outside. Every time something is turned over to the outside, no matter how necessary it may seem to be, a new strap or two is added to the harness that eventually may lead to control. Free men do not like the idea of having a harness on them, or even one hanging up in the barn; but free men who will not accept responsibility are sure, sooner or later, to feel the pressure of the harness over their shoulders.

I think that the greatest illusion facing the Human Family, Incorporated, today is the belief that lasting security can be achieved and that, if such security were achieved, man would still be worth preserving in a biological world. For we must remember, always, that basically this is a biological world, where life is uneven, where an unused muscle becomes flabby, where strength is maintained only through struggle, where the have-nots are always ready to pounce upon those who have—like the Sioux Indians did in the heavy winter when the saving tribe was attacked by those without food. In this biological world with the family as a unit, struggle, industry, and labor are the building forces that must be ever present. Idleness leads to easy destruction of the individual and of the nation. There is no way by which the rules of the biological world can be avoided. We get a good football team by training men in competition, not by promising places on the team beforehand. We can stage a fair contest with good teaching and good physical care, but it must be a contest. Football teams made up of those who hold their places through inheritance, political pull, or the aid of pressure groups would become the easy prey of teams put together in a fundamental way.


I trust that I have made it clear that this world of ours is not ready yet for a world government. We have not as yet a thoroughly good government established in eventhe most enlightened nations. We do face, though, the greatest necessity for developing understanding and agreements so that the affairs of the human family can proceed on an orderly basis and we can be relieved from the curse of war. Prejudices are deep in human nature. There is the prejudice against persons who differ in color, religion, political thought, and economic outlook. To get justice for them in any one nation is difficult, and it would, of course, be much more difficult with all the nations and peoples involved in a "world government." Here in our own United States we have not yet learned how to treat minorities properly, particularly if they are of a different color. At the moment one of our most urgent problems is how to be fair to minorities in our midst and in other parts of the world.

Government has become more and more complicated in other nations as well as in our own. Our social and political institutions are all based on ideas. We have sought through government to make so many decisions and have through legislation and court decisions complicated the carrying out of these decisions so that the common expression is that justice is too difficult and too expensive to obtain. Is there anything that can be done about this over-organization of government, the growth of bureaucracies, the use of the taxing power to turn over to one-tenth or one-eighth of our population the power that controls to a large extent what most of us do?

It would be practically impossible for anyone to work out in detail all of the procedures that are necessary, for instance, to keep a population such as we have in New York City in reasonable order. While much of what one sees at a crowded subway terminal is reminiscent of the Chicago stockyards he is nevertheless conscious of the development of a give-and-take attitude on the part of practically all of the citizens. Men in line stand in line; if anyone at the end should try to come up front and get in ahead of turn it would start trouble at once. Procedures such as that have grown up the way Topsy did, not by the use of blueprints. Justice can be very complicated, or it can be simple. In the early days of California men of all types, speaking different languages, came together under the common impulse to mine gold. They built up certain community understandings and, even before the development of legal procedures, managed to get on reasonably well. Several of those who lived through this period have said that it was all very simple. It revolved around two things: first, keep your word, whether you gave it written or oral, drunk or sober, and, second, fight your partner and your neighbors until a common decision bad been reached, then fight with everybody else who opposed that decision.

There is no possibility of getting this world on any such simple basis—its peoples are too scattered and too various, and too many complications have grown up over the years in trade and association and now in the wastes and hates of war. There are, though, certain unifying forces. There is one force, that of science, that is or can be universal in its applications. Fundamentally science, to be applied, needs co-operation—the close bringing together of economic and political units and the telescoping of distances so that science can be made available to all who seek its benefits. The use of science in world economy and in world relationships is comparatively new. The war has spread what science can do over the whole earth with astonishing rapidity. The Red Cross can use science, aviation can use science, to bring the world closer together rather than for destruction. Science debased to develop instruments of destruction has reached the point where it must be controlled and understood or it can be so destructive as to make the world an exploded shell.


Man is characterized by having what we call intelligence, and we add to that something that is called soul. In the use of the brain in this field of intelligence lies the hope of the whole human race. The functioning brain is controlled by the emotions. We can speak of these emotions as coming from the suprarenal glands or the hypothysis, etc. Whatever the physiology is, it is in the control of the mind and in the ordering of the emotions that man reaches his highest point as a civilized being. Conscience and what we call our moral nature must inevitably play the largest part in human decisions if the Human Family, Incorporated, is to make good on this little earth of ours. Each man is different from every other man. Each man, though, has in mm to some degree the sense of justice. It is the essential dignity of the human being that is the background of his position among living things. Governments that do not recognize this dignity of the individual are oppressive; their leaders are tyrants. Governments that compel men to join organizations in order to have a job are sowing seeds of future civil war.

It is the recognition of the human unit as a separate person with rights, privileges, and responsibilities that is the basis of what we have developed here in this republic of ours. We perhaps might call it "democracy" but "democracy" seems to have such a variety of meanings that it may not be quite the term to use. Our form of government is of but little significance unless we accept our responsibilities as citizens. The more that we turn over to others to decide the less freedom there is for us. Lessened responsibilities and the willingness to "let George do it" create the hook upon the gallows where our liberties are sure to hang. Whatever we do as individuals or think as individuals is reflected in the community and on to the state, nation, and the world.

It is because of the wide variety of these communities and of human experiences in all parts of the earth that the difficulty of bringing order to the Human Family, Incorporated, is so great. Patience and the willingness of the educator to take time to let people gain knowledge must be essential. Too much hurry means too little respect for the opinions and views of others, and will lay the basis for future combat and difficulty. Our problem is one of learning to live with our neighbors. Neighbors in the early communities of this and other pioneer nations joined together in house-raising, harvesting, fighting enemies, and so on. The neighbor was more than an acquaintance; he was a helper. Now in our cities and many communities there are few common meeting places. We can meet our neighbors at the school, at the ballot box, and at times in the church; but the neighbor is attached to the community in such a way that we may see him, we may know that he is there, yet we do not work with him. War has brought us together; but without the sense of the neighbor and the neighborhood we can make little progress toward better understanding, and can do but little to help science and its achievements bring the world closer and closer together and increase the number of neighbors that we all have.

Man is the most peculiar of all of the animals because he creates symbols. As Stephen Vincent Benet has put it, in his poem John Brown's Body,

"We do not fight for the real but for the shadows we make.
A flag is a piece of cloth and a word is a sound,
But we make them something neither cloth, nor a sound,
Totems of love and hate, black sorcery-stones.
So with these cities."

is these symbols, these creations of the mind, some of the people's ordinary ambitions, it is the desire to make your life count, make it worth while, that gives us hope. To live may be of but little significance. The prolongation of life that has come through the discoveries of medical science may not be of great advantage to the human race unless the prolongation of life leads to more service. Just to live longer, doing nothing, is not worth while. If those who have had experience and who have reached the period when life by various processes can be made easier for them, will devote some of their time to securing good government, to taking over some of the responsibilities that are not always possible to those in the midst of their productive period, the human family can profit immensely.

There must be more understanding and better organization of the possessions of the Human Family, Incorporated. This organization must begin and continue at the roots. No matter how vast and complicated the superstructure, no

matter how idealistic those who built it, down it goes when the storms come unless it is soundly based in the realities of individual and social living. As we look forward out of this present strife let us remember that we are now making the plans for those longed-for days of peace. Postwar planning is planning too late. Man's imagination makes him great but it can also make him too visionary. We must not attempt too much too fast. We will have to build on man's innate and necessary selfishness as much as on his idealism. My plea is for patience and toleration and for seeking the right directions to go rather than laying out an organized Cook's tour over routes now in limbo.

This may sound pessimistic to you, but it is not. I have unbounded faith in the future of man but only if he remains a rational, intelligent, moral being willing to co-operate with all of his fellow men on a basis that respects and protects human rights, individual initiative, and human dignity.