Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Idiosyncrasy
|←The Source of Muscular Energy||Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 January 1884 (1884)
By Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen
|Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire→|
EVERY man is, in the true Greek sense of the term, an idiosyncrasy. He is a syncrasis, because he derives all his attributes, physical or mental, from two parents, or four grandparents, or eight great-grandparents, and so forth. But at the same time he is an idio-syncrasis, because that particular mixture is eminently unlikely ever to have occurred before, or ever to occur again, even in his own brothers or sisters. That he is and can be at birth nothing more than such a crasis, that he can not conceivably contain anything more, on the mental side at least, than was contained in his antecedents, is the thesis which this paper sets out to maintain.
Take a thousand red beans and a thousand white beans; shake them all up in a bag together for five minutes, and then pour them out in a square space on a billiard-table just big enough to contain them in a layer one deep. Each time you do so, your product will be the same in general outline and appearance: it will be a quadrangular figure composed of beans, having throughout the same approximate thickness. But it will be a mixture of red beans and white in a certain order; and the chances against the same order occurring twice will be very great indeed. Make the beans ten thousand of each so as to cover the table ten deep, and the chance of getting the same order twice decreases proportionately. Make them a hundred thousand each, and it becomes infinitesimal. You have practically each time not only a synerasis but an idio-syncrasis as well.
Now, a human being is the product of innumerable elements, derived directly from two parents, and indirectly from an infinity of earlier ancestors; elements not of two orders only, but of infinite orders; combined together, apparently, not on the principle of both contributing equally to each part, but of a sort of struggle between the two for the mastery in each part. Here, elements derived from the father's side seem to carry the day; there, again, elements derived from the mother's side gain the victory; and yonder, once more, a compromise has been arrived at between the two, so that the offspring in that particular part is a mean of his paternal and maternal antecedents. Under such circumstances, absolute equality of result in any two cases is almost inconceivable. It would imply absolute equality of conditions between myriads of jarring and adverse elements, such as we never actually find in nature, and such as we can hardly believe possible under any actual concrete circumstances.
The case of twins comes nearer to such exact equality of conditions than any other with which we are acquainted. Here, the varying health and vigor of the two parents, or the difference between their respective functional activities at two given times, are reduced to a minimum; and we get in many instances a very close similarity indeed. Yet even among twins, the offspring of the same father and mother, produced at the same moment of time, there are always at least some differences, mental and physical; while the differences are occasionally very great. A competent observer, who knew the Siamese twins, informed me that differences of disposition were quite marked in their case, where training and after-circumstances could have had little or nothing to do with them, inasmuch as both must have been subjected to all but absolutely identical conditions of life throughout. One was described as taciturn and morose, the other as lively and good-humored. Whether anything of the same sort has been noticed in the pair of negro girls called the Two-headed Nightingale, I do not know, but, to judge from their photographs, there would seem to be some distinct physical diversities in height and feature. We can only account for these diversities in twins generally by supposing that in that intimate intermixture of elements derived from one or other parent, which we have learned from Darwin, Spencer, and Galton, takes place in every impregnation of an ovum, slightly different results have occurred in one case and in the other. To use Darwin's phraseology, some gemmules of the paternal side have here ousted some gemmules of the maternal side, or vice versa; to use Mr. Spencer's (which to my judgment seems preferable), the polarities of one physiological unit have here carried the day over those of another.
But why under such nearly identical conditions should there be such diversity of result? Let us answer the question by another: Why, with a thousand red and a thousand white balls, shaken together with an equal energy by a machine (if you will), and poured out on our billiard-table, should there be a similar diversity? The fact is, you can not get absolute identity of conditions in any two cases. Imagine yourself mixing two fluids together with a spoon, as regularly as you choose; can you possibly make the currents in the two exactly alike twice running? And here in the case of humanity you have not to deal with simple red beans or with simple fluids, but with very complex gemmules or very complex physiological units.
If even in twins we can not expect perfect similarity, still less can we expect it in mere ordinary brothers and sisters. Here, innumerable minor physiological conditions of either parent may affect the result in infinite ways. Not, indeed, that there is any sufficient reason for supposing passing states of health and so forth directly to impress themselves upon the heredity of the offspring; but one can readily understand that, in a process which is essentially a mixture of elements, small varieties of external circumstances may vastly alter the nature of the result. Shake the bag of beans once, and you get one arrangement; shake it once more, and you get another and very different one. To this extent, and to this extent only, as it seems to me, chance in the true sense enters into the composition of an individuality. The possible elements which may go to make up the mental constitution of any person are (as I shall try to show) strictly limited to all those elements, actual or latent, which exist in the two persons of his parents; but the particular mixture of those elements which will come out in him—the number to be selected and the number to be rejected out of all the possible combinations—will depend upon that minute interaction of small physical causes, working unseen, which we properly designate by the convenient name of chance. In this sense, it is not a chance that William Jones, the son of two English parents, is born an Englishman in physique and mental peculiarities, rather than a Chinese or a negro; nor is it a chance that he is born essentially a compound of his ancestors on the Jones side and on the Brown side, but it is a chance that he is born a boy rather than a girl; and it is a chance that he is born himself rather than his brother John or his brother Thomas. If we knew all, we could point out exactly why this result and not any other result occurred just there and then; but, as we do not know all, we fairly say that the result is in so far a chance one. And, even if we knew all, we should still be justified in using the same language, for it marks a real difference in causation. William Jones is an Englishman and a Jones-Brown strictly in virtue of his being the son of Henry Jones and Mary Brown; but so are all his brothers and (mutatis mutandis) his sisters too. He is himself, and not one of his brothers or his sisters, in virtue of certain minute molecular arrangements, occurring between certain elements for the most part essentially identical with the elements which went to make up the other members of his family. To be metaphorical once more, one may say that a Robinson differs from a Jones because he is a mixture of brown peas and white peas; whereas one Jones differs from another in being a particular mixture of red beans and black beans, differently arranged in each case.
Next after the similarity between brothers and sisters or other blood-relations, we may expect to find the similarity between the offspring of the same class in the same community, similarly situated: and this the more so in proportion to the average identity of their several lives. For example, one would naturally expect that our own agricultural laborers, all engaged in much the same sort of work and surrounded by much the same sort of objects, would produce by intermarriage very similar children. Still more would this be the case among very homogeneous savages, such as the Esquimaux or the South American Indians. And where the identity of pursuits is very great on both sides, and in all individuals, as among the Fuegians, the Veddahs, the Andamanese, we should expect to find a great likeness of physique and character between all the offspring.
Conversely, where marriages take place between persons of different races, or very differently situated, we may look for great differences between the offspring, especially when compared with those of marriages between relatively homogeneous persons. Under such circumstances, the children tend more or less, though very irregularly, to present a mean between the two parents. Thus, to take the most obvious instance, the average mulatto is half-way as a rule between the negro and the European, physically at least, though, for various reasons to be considered hereafter, it often happens that he is more than the equal in intelligence of the average white. But even in the same family of mulattoes great differences exist between the children. Some will be darker, others lighter; some will be curlier-headed, others straighter-haired; some will have prognathous faces and depressed noses, others will have more regular features and more prominent noses. So far as my observation goes, too, it does not always happen that the most European physical type has the most European mind: on the contrary, high intelligence often accompanies a very African physique, while English features may be concomitant with a truly negro incapacity for logical reasoning, generalization, or elementary mathematical ideas. It seems as though in each part there was a struggle for supremacy between the two types: and the one type may apparently carry the day in certain external peculiarities, while the other type carries the day in the more intimate arrangements of the nervous system. At the same time, I can not myself doubt that there must be a very intimate connection between every one of the sense-organs and the brain; and I can hardly believe that prognathism and other like physical peculiarities do not imply various correlated nervous facts of great psychological importance. Though, in the resulting compromise between the two diverse heredities, the one seems largely to prevail over the other in certain parts, yet it is difficult to suppose that there is not a minute interrelation between all the parts: and perhaps the significant fact that every mulatto, though darker or lighter, is at least brown, not purely black or purely white, gives us the best key to the true nature of the situation.
So far, I have been tacitly but intentionally taking for granted the very principle which I set out to prove, in order fully to put the reader in possession of the required point of view. The question now arises, Where in this series of events is there room for any fresh element to come in? Can any man ever be anything other than what some of his ancestors have been before him? And, if not, how is progress or mental improvement possible? That men have as a matter of fact risen from a lower to a higher intellectual position is patent. That some races have outstripped other races is equally clear. And that some individual men have surpassed their fellows of the same race and time is also obvious. How are we to account for these facts without admitting that new elements do at sundry times creep in by chance, in the false and unphilosophical sense of the word? How can we get advance unless we admit that exceptional children may be born from time to time with brains of exceptional functional value, wholly uncaused by antecedents in any way?
The answer to this question is really one of the most important in the whole history of mankind. For on the solution of the apparent paradox thus propounded depend two or three most fundamental questions. It is by this means alone that we can account, first, for the existence of great races like the Greeks or the Jews. It is by this means alone that we can account, secondly, for genius in individuals. And it is by this means alone that we can account, thirdly, for the possibility of general progress in the race. It is surprising, therefore, that the question has so little engaged the attention of evolutionary psychologists at the present day.
There are only two conceivable ways in which any increment of brain-power can ever have arisen in any individual. The one is the Darwinian way, by "spontaneous variation"—that is to say, by variations due to minute physical circumstances affecting the individual in the germ. The other is the Spencerian way, by functional increment—that is to say, by the effect of increased use and constant exposure to varying circumstances during conscious life. I venture to think that the first way, if we look it clearly in the face, will be seen to be practically unthinkable: and that we have therefore no alternative but to accept the second. Deeply as I feel the general importance of Darwin's theory of "spontaneous variation" (using the words in the sense in which he always used them), it seems to me that that theory can not properly be applied to the genesis of a nervous system, or of any part of a nervous system, and that in this case we must rather come back to the genesis worked out by Mr. Herbert Spencer in the part of his "Principles of Psychology" entitled "Physical Synthesis."
For let us for a moment try to imagine a nervous system being produced, or increased in value, by natural selection of spontaneous variations alone, without the aid of functional variations at all. It is easy to see that an animal or a plant may vary indefinitely here or there in color, or in hardness of skin, or in woodiness of tissues, and so forth; and it is easy to see that among these truly "accidental" variations  some may be better adapted to their particular environment than others. But can we imagine, say, an eye to be produced by a series of such individual accidents? I do not say a human eye, but a simple pigment cell, with a nerve given off from it to a ganglion as in the case of the Amphioxus? And if we can imagine this (which I can not), can we imagine a child being born into the world, gifted, I do not say with innumerable faculties never possessed by his ancestors, but with a single nerve-cell or nerve-fiber more than they possessed? Just let us look at what a palpable absurdity this notion implies.
Here is William Jones's head, containing an average human brain, developed on the same pattern as his father's brain (or as his father's in part and his mother's in part): and here in a particular spot in a particular convolution of it, by a combination of mere physical circumstances, has arisen a totally new and hitherto non-existent nerve-cell. Clearly, this is an acquisition to the race, by way of spontaneous variation. But what is the functional use of this new nerve-cell? What physical circumstance decides whether it is to answer to a new movement in the left little finger, or to a single creative element in the composition of a future fugue? Let us grant a little more: let us suppose the surrounding cells are all concerned in the appreciation of color, or in the manipulation of numbers. Will the new cell in the first case answer to a new and hitherto undiscovered color or to a further aesthetic pleasure in an existent color, or to a higher synthesis into which colors enter as elements; or what in the second case will be its mathematical value? Again, what good will it be without a whole network of connecting fibers which will link it to percipient structures in the eye on the one hand, and to all the various higher layers in the stratified hierarchy of color-thought elements or number-dealing elements on the other hand? Granted that one man in a hundred was born with one such new cell in his brain, and (setting aside the question how the cell comes to have any function at all) what are the chances that that cell would be so connected with other cells elsewhere as to make any part of an organized brain? Can we imagine a new cell so imported, connected in rational manners with hundreds of other cells, in any other way than by a miracle? Which is only a different form of saying, can we imagine it at all?
But here, again, is something more than William Jones's head; here is, let us say, a great poet's, or a great philosopher's, or a great mathematician's head; and here are the upholders of spontaneous variation asking us to believe, not that one cell within it thus spontaneously varied in the right direction, but that a vast number of cells and fibers all varied simultaneously and symmetrically, so as to produce a harmonious and working whole, capable of giving us Othello, or the Evolution Theory, or the Differential Calculus. Why, the thing is clearly impossible—impossible, that is to say, as a result of "accidental" physical causes. We might just conceivably imagine one or two fibers made to connect one or two hitherto unconnected nerve-cells, though even here the probability that the nerve-cells so connected were of heterogeneous orders would be far greater than the probability that they were of homogeneous orders; we could much more readily imagine such connections resulting in a potentiality for believing that a lobster's tail was a blue hope of raspberry watches than in a potentiality for believing that water was composed of hydrogen and oxygen, or that propositions in A were not convertible. But we certainly can not imagine a whole network of such fibers to spring up by spontaneous variation in a human brain, and yet to produce an organized result. If spontaneous variation ever works in this way, its product must surely be either an idiot or a raving madman. To believe the opposite is too much like believing in Mr. Crosse's electrical Acari, which were developed de novo, out of inorganic material, in a dirty galvanic battery, and yet possessed all the limbs and organs of degenerate spiders. It is asking us once more to accept a still greater miracle than the first.
But such miracles, it is urged, do take place elsewhere in nature. For example, an almond-tree, let us say, once produced a peach-bearing branch by bud-variation. Hence it has been inferred that the peach is a spontaneous variation on the central almond theme. Yet peaches are in color, fleshiness, sweetness, and perfume, true fruits, adapted to the fruity method of dispersion, by means of attracting birds; whereas the almond is a nut, with the usual nutty peculiarities of green and brown color, dryness, absence of sweet juice, and so forth. In this case, then, it would seem that bud-variation immediately produced a variety adapted to a different environment in ever so many distinct ways. Well, I have introduced this case, just because it illustrates the very impossibility of such a supposition. For it seems pretty clear that if peaches have grown at one act from almonds, then this must really be a case of reversion; the almond must itself be a dried-up form of a still earlier peach; and this will be equally true even if all the existing peaches can be shown to be descended from nut-like almonds. For the almond is a plum by family; and all the other plums have juicy fruits; while one of them, the apricot, closely approaches the almond-peach group in most of its characters. Seeing, then, that the almond must almost certainly be descended from juicy fruit-bearing ancestors, nothing is more natural than that under altered circumstances it should revert, per saltum, to a juicy peach. But to suppose that the peach type was originally developed per saltum from an almond is to suppose that it varied at once in several separate ways, all equally and correlatively adapted to a particular mode of dispersion. It is to suppose that accident could do in a minute what we have every reason to believe can only be done by infinitesimal variations and infinite selection.
But if the naturalist can not imagine the production of a peach de novo out of an almond at a single jump, how can he imagine the production of a new thinking element in a human brain? How can he suppose that the accidental introduction of one more little bit of matter into that vast organized labyrinth—a mighty maze, but not without a very definite and regular plan—can have any kind of intelligible relation to the complicated system of cross-connections and superimposed directive departments which make it up? And if it be objected that the view taken above of the constitution of the brain is wooden and mechanical, I would answer that it is certainly absurdly diagrammatic and inadequate, but that it is so far right in that it insists upon making believers in spontaneous variation try to realize their own unthinkable attitude. As to materialism, surely it is more profoundly materialistic to suppose that mere physical causes, operating on the germ, can determine minute physical and material changes in the brain, which will in turn make the individuality what it is to be, than to suppose that all brains are what they are in virtue of antecedent function. The one creed makes the man depend mainly upon the accidents of molecular physics in a colliding germ-cell and sperm-cell; the other creed makes him depend mainly upon the doings and gains of his ancestors, as modified and altered by himself.
And now let us look at this second creed, in order to see how far it surpasses its rival in comprehensibility, concinnity, and power of explaining all the phenomena. If it be true that all nerve-increment and especially all brain-increment is functionally produced, we can easily understand why each new cell or fiber should stand in its true and due relation to all the rest. It will have been evolved in the course of doing its own work, and it will be necessarily adapted to it because the act of working has brought it into being. There will be no doubt whether the new cell governs the peculiar action of the left little finger in performing that amusing conjuring trick, or is, on the contrary, connected with the perception of orange-red, because the cell was actually differentiated (say out of pre-existing neuroglia, though that is a hypothetical matter of detail) in the very act of performing the trick in question. There will be no doubt whether the new fibers are related to the arithmetical faculty or to the Sanskrit verbs, because they were actually rendered possible as nervous tracks in the act of learning decimal fractions. It is true, we may admit to the utmost the intense complexity of the existing brain, and the vast number of its elements involved in even the simplest muscular adjustment or the simplest visual perception. Nobody feels the necessity for admitting such complexity more fully than myself. One may allow with M. Ribot that every act of thought must be conceived rather as a vast dynamical tremor, affecting a wide plexus of very diverse nerve-elements, than as a single function in a single cell or fiber. One may acknowledge that what one ought really to picture to one's self (at the present stage of human evolution) is not so much the genesis of a new cell for governing the little finger, or of a new fiber for understanding a fact in decimal fractions, as the habituating an immense series of cells and fibers, perhaps in various parts of the brain, to thrill together in unison on the occurrence of a single cue. But let us thus purify and dematerialize our conception as far as we like, we must nevertheless come back at last to the fact that every gain implies a modification in structure, and that this modification in structure, if it is to have any functional meaning and value whatsoever, must be functionally brought about.
That such functional modifications are forever taking place in all of us is a matter of common observation, as evidenced by psychological facts. We are always seeing something which adds to our total stock of memories; we are always learning and doing something new. The vast majority of these experiences are similar in kind to those already passed through by our ancestors; they add nothing to the inheritance of the race. To use a familiar phrase in a slightly new and narrower sense, they do not help to build up " forms of thought "; though they leave physical traces on the individual, they do not so far affect the underlying organization of the brain as to make the development of after-brains somewhat different from previous ones. But there are certain functional activities which do tend so to alter the development of after-brains; certain novel or sustained activities which apparently result in the production of new correlated brain-elements or brain-connections, hereditarily transmissible as increased potentialities of similar activity in the offspring. If this is not so, then there is no meaning at all in the facts collected by Mr. Galton, or, indeed, for the matter of that, in the common facts of human experience as to hereditary transmission of faculties for acquired pursuits of any sort. If the children of acrobats make the best tumblers, if the descendants of musical families make the best singers and composers, if a great thinker or a great painter is usually produced by the convergence of two lines of thinkers or artists, then the general truth of this principle is abundantly clear.
Supposing such small functionally-produced modifications to be always taking place, it will be obvious that they must take place most in the most differentiated societies, and least in the least differentiated. A race of hunting savages will perform a certain number of routine acts, which will be for the most part the same for all members of the tribe, and will remain pretty much the same from generation to generation. In the particular direction of hunting and fishing, the cleverness at last attained will be very remarkable; but in most other directions there will be little excellence and still less variety. On the other hand, in a tribe which is also made a trading and navigating one by the accident of a maritime position, a new set of activities will be specially cultivated, and will give rise to new functional modifications in a different direction. Suppose some of the tribe, in this latter case, to be mainly inland cultivators and hunters, while others of the tribe are mainly seaboard traders or pirates, then each of these sections will tend to develop certain special hereditary brain-modifications of its own. But if a man of the inland section marries a woman of the maritime section, or vice versa, then the offspring will tend to reproduce more or less the structural peculiarities of both parents. And here comes in an important corollary. For though, under such circumstances, the children may none of them fully reproduce all the brain-gains of their father's line, nor all the brain-gains of their mother's line, they will yet on the average reproduce a fair share of the former and a fair share of the latter. Accordingly, they will usually turn out, on the whole, persons of higher general brain-power than either ancestral series; they will partially unite the strong points of both.
It seems to me that this principle is one of very great importance. From it we can deduce the conclusion that in any complex society many children represent directly a convergence of two unlike lines of descent, and indirectly a convergence of innumerable unlike lines, with corresponding gain to the species. Two parents, possessing distinct points of advantage of their own, produce children, some of whom resemble rather the one, and some the other; but many of whom will at least tend to resemble both in their stronger points. Of course, one must allow much for the idiosyncrasis as well as for the crasis. This child may fall below both its parents in most things; that child may reproduce the weakest elements of both; yonder other child may attain the average or may surpass them in everything. But, on the whole, the principle of convergence seems to imply that in a fairly complex society there will always be an average of mental improvement from generation to generation, due to the constant intercrossing of brains specially improved in particular directions. This improvement will, it need hardly be said, be increased and favored by natural selection; but it will itself form the basis of favorable variations without which natural selection can do nothing. It seems to me easy to understand how survival of the fittest may result in progress, starting from such functionally-produced gains: but impossible to understand how it could result in progress if it had to start from mere accidental structural increments due to spontaneous variation alone.
Thus it becomes clear why certain countries have by mere geographical position necessarily produced certain high types of human intelligence, while in certain other countries the race has never progressed beyond a very low level. There are places like Central Africa, where the physical conditions do not tend to produce any great diversity of occupation; and here the general average of intelligence does not tend to rise high. On the other hand, there are places, like Greece, Italy, the West European peninsulas and islands, where the physical conditions tend to differentiate the population into many groups, agricultural, mercantile, sea-faring, military, naval, and professional; and here the general average of intelligence tends to rise very high indeed. Of course, one must allow much influence to the time-element; for every such increase in differentiation involves yet further increases in the sequel, and brings the social organism, or parts of it, into contact with new environments. The Ægæan is not now of the same importance in this respect as during the days when coasting voyages from island to island were the utmost possible stretch of navigation: the science acquired there has widened the sphere of navigation itself, first to the entire Mediterranean, then to the open Atlantic, finally to all the oceans of the whole earth. But in principle it has always seemed to me (as against the really accidental view advocated by Mr. Bagehot) that the "philosophy of history," the general stream of human development, could be traced throughout to perfectly definite physical causes of this sort. Mr. Bagehot, basing himself on the pure Darwinian theory of spontaneous variations, believed that the differences between races of men were due to mere minute physical sports in their nervous constitution: it appears to me rather that they are due to the action of a definite environment, thus effecting a differentiation of circumstances, and in many cases calling into constant functional activity the highest existing faculties of the various social units in the most diverse ways. We may not thus (though vide post) be able to account for the particular character and genius of a Pericles, an Aristotle, a Hannibal, a Cæsar, a Newton, or a Goethe; but we can thus at least account for the general average of intelligence which made Greece, or Carthage, or Rome, or England, or Germany, capable of producing such an individual, as a slight variation on the common type, due to the convergence of separately rich and varied lines of descent. The real illuminating point is this—that such men do arise from time to time among the most intelligent nations, and that they do not arise among the Australian black-fellows, the Digger Indians, or the Andaman-Islanders.
And now, how far can we account on these principles for the existence of the individual genius? Well, here we must begin by clearing the ground of a great initial fallacy. Genius, as a rule, has made quite too much of itself. Having had the field all to itself, it has never been tired of drawing a hard and fast line between itself and mere talent. Nevertheless, from the psychological point of view, nothing is plainer than the fact that genius differs from mere talent only by the very slightest excess of natural gifts in a special direction. True, that small amount of superiority makes all the difference in our judgment of the finished work: we say, this is a great poem, while that is a pretty trifle; this is a grand scientific generalization, while that is a painstaking piece of laboratory analysis; this is a magnificent work of art, while that is a very creditable little bit of landscape-painting. But, in the brain and hands of the performer, what infinitely minute structural modifications must underlie these seemingly vast differences of effect! And even in ourselves, the critics, how minute are the shades of feeling which make us give the palm to the one work and withhold it from the other! How many people are really competent to judge in any way of the differences between this poem and that, between this oratorio and that, between this picture and that? And what is this but to say that the differences are in themselves extremely small and almost elusive?
Now, in a country like Italy, say, where for many ages many men have continually painted pictures of the nymphs and the satyrs, or of the Madonna and of St. Sebastian; where little chapels have studded the land, from age to age, with votive tablets to Venus Genitrix or to Our Lady of the Sea; where countless generations of workmen have decorated the walls of Pompeii or covered the vulgarest ceilings of Florence and Genoa with hasty frescoes—in such a country there is developed among all the people a general high average of artistic execution, utterly impossible in a country like Scotland, where there has hardly ever been any indigenous spontaneous art at all to speak of. And when an Italian man of an artistic family, having inherited from his ancestors certain relatively high artistic endowments, marries an Italian woman of another artistic family, similarly but perhaps somewhat differently endowed, there is at least a possibility, not to say a probability, that their children, or some or one of them, will develop great artistic power. True, we can not follow the minute working of the crasis: we can not say why Paolo is an artist of the highest type, while Luigi is merely a fair colorist, and Gianbattista is a respectable copyist of the old masters. But at least we can say that all three are painters after a fashion, in virtue of their common artistic descent; and that Paolo is a great painter because he unites in himself, more than either of the others, the respective merits of the two ancestral lines. After all, we common mortals, if we practiced all our lifetime, could not turn out as good a sketch as Gianbattista's first water-color.
In the same way, in a Greece where every god had his temple, every temple its statue, every house its shrine, and every shrine its little deities—in a Greece where marble was what brick is in London, and where artistic stone-cutters were as common as carpenters here—we can understand why a Phidias was a possible product, and why a Phidias-admiring public was a foregone conclusion. So, too, we can understand why among ourselves so many artists should come from the only real native schools of decorative handicraft—the workshops of Birmingham, Manchester, and London. We can see why musical talent should arise most in Germany and Italy, or among the Jews, or in our own case among the Welsh and in the cathedral towns. We can see why a Watt is not born in the Tyrol; why a Stephenson does not come from Dolgelly; why America produces more Edisons, and Bells, and Morses, and Fultons than she produces Schillers, or Mozarts, or Michael Angelos. The convergences which go to produce a great mechanician are more frequent in countries where mechanics are much practiced than they are in the Western Hebrides or in the British West Indies. The Quakers do not turn out many great generals, and the kings of Dahomey are not likely to beget distinguished philanthropists.
Of course, there are some hard cases to understand—hard for the most part, I believe, because we do not know enough about the various convergent lines which have gone to produce the particular phenomenon. Here and there, a great man seems to spring suddenly and unexpectedly from the dead level of absolute mediocrity. But then, we do not know how much mediocrity in different lines may have gone to make up his complex individuality; and we do not know how much of what seems mediocrity may really have been fairly high talent. So many men are never discovered. Let me take a few slight examples from our own time, which may help to illustrate the slightness of the chances that make all the difference in our superficial judgments; and, if I take them from very recent cases, I think the readers of "Mind" will not misunderstand my object; for it is almost impossible to recover the facts from remoter periods.
Carlyle, in spite of his spleen, was no bad judge of intelligence; and Carlyle thought Erasmus Darwin, the younger, an abler man than his brother Charles, the author of "The Origin of Species." Probably nobody else would agree with Carlyle; people seldom do; but at any rate it is clear that Erasmus Darwin must have been a man very high above the average in intellect, doubtless inheriting the same general tendencies which are inherent in the whole of that distinguished family. Yet, if it had not been for his brother, probably the world at large would never have heard of him. Again, supposing he had had no brother, but had married and had children, all of whom achieved celebrity, we might have inquired in vain whence these children came by their ability. Once more, take Charles Darwin himself. He was nearly if not quite fifty before he published "The Origin of Species." It was a mere chance that with his feeble health he lived on to complete that great work. Suppose he had died at forty, how would he have been remembered? Chiefly as the author of a clever book of scientific travels, and of a monograph on the fossil acorn-barnacles. In a world of such mere accidents as these, who shall say that an apparently negative instance proves anything?
Take another and somewhat different case—the Tennyson family. Here we have three brothers, all with more or less poetical temperament, and all marked by much the same minute peculiarities in cast of thought and turn of expression. Only two, however, I believe, have published or at least have acknowledged their verses; and of these two alone—Alfred Tennyson and Charles Tennyson Turner—has one a right to speak publicly. When the "Poems by Two Brothers" appeared, who could have said which of the two was destined to turn out a great poet? And in the after-event, who can say what little difference of circumstances may have made the one into a clergyman and the other into a professional versifier? If Charles Turner had cultivated his muse as assiduously as the laureate, would he have produced equal results? What little twist set the one, with Tennysonian love of form carried to the length of a passion, upon the writing of exquisite sonnets alone, while it set the other upon "In Memoriam," and "Maud," and "The Princess," and the "Morte d'Arthur"? What little extra encouragement on the part of a reviewer may have impelled the more successful poet to fresh efforts; what professional distractions or religious scruples may have held back the less illustrious parson? And yet, who can read Charles Tennyson Turner's sonnets without feeling that though the idiosyncrasis is not exactly the same, the crasis itself is at bottom identical? Compare the sonnets with the work of any one among the imitators—the men who "all can raise the flower now, for all have got the seed," and what a difference! The imitator is all servile copy ism in form, with no real underlying identity of matter; the brother is only half a Tennyson in mere externals, but is still own brother in the most intimate turns of thought and feeling.
After such cases as these, do we need any explanation of the sudden apparition of a Carlyle, a Burns, a Shakespeare, a Dickens, from out the ranks of the people themselves? To me it seems not. Are there not pithiness and sternness and ability enough in the Lowland peasantry to account for the occasional production, out of thousands of casts at the dice, of such a convergence as that which gave us the old man at Ecclefechan who "had sic names for things and bodies," and his two able sons, of whom the more strangely compounded was Thomas Carlyle? Is there not in another type of Scotch peasant enough of pathos and literary power and bonhomie to account for an occasional convergence which will give us either the old popular-songwriters, or Burns himself, or on a slightly lower level such a woman as Janet Hamilton? Again, the case of Dickens looks at first sight somewhat more difficult; but then one may remember that, as far as general mental power went, Dickens was nowhere. He was a pure artist in a special and very restricted line; he possessed a peculiar faculty for describing queer and original people in a queer and original way. Doubtless this faculty was in him so fully developed that it rose to the rank of genius in its own line; but the line was by no means an exalted one. In such a case, who can say what quaint little combinations of ordinary elements went to make up the power that amused and delighted us so much? Are there not thousands of people in our midst who possess just the same faculty in a less degree—people who, without depth or brilliancy in other respects, can raise a laugh, by their clever caricatures of the habits and conversation of their friends? Throw in the merest side-twist of comical exaggeration and a grain of plot-forming capacity into such a raconteur, and you get the framework for the genius of Dickens. Of genius of that sort, indeed, more than of any other, one may fairly say that it differs only by a hair's breadth from humorous mediocrity. It is otherwise, I believe, with really deep philosophical or scientific power. Grasp, insight, luminousness, breadth; the capacity for dealing with the abstract ideas of mathematics, of logic, of metaphysics; the power of seeing or formulating great generalizations—these things, if I read the lives of thinkers aright, come only from a convergence of able and powerful stocks. It takes three generations, they say, to make a gentleman; surely it takes many generations of trained intelligence on both sides to make a philosopher.
At the same time, it must be remembered that a convergence even of two mediocre strains may produce comparatively high results, provided the endowments of the two strains be complementary or supplementary to one another. To this cause may perhaps be attributed the general high level of intelligence displayed by half-breeds—even halfbreeds with a lower race. I have already alluded to the intellectual superiority of mulattoes, a large proportion of whom appear to me (and to some other observers) considerably above the average of either Europeans or negroes. And this is not surprising when we recollect that the negro brain, though relatively inferior, must almost necessarily be highly cultivated in some particular directions, where the European brain is comparatively deficient. If, then, a mulatto child inherits in fair degrees the quick perceptive faculties and intuitions of his mother, and the higher reasoning faculties and forethought of his father, he is likely on the average to be better equipped in inherited potentialities than either. Similarly, one may take it for granted that each great European nationality has some strong points not equally shared by the others; and it is a trite observation that inter-marriages between members of such nationalities tend to produce an unusually high level of general intelligence. In Ireland, the mixed French families, sprung from intermarriages with refugees, have long been noticed in this respect; at Norwich and throughout the eastern counties, the mixed descendants of the Huguenots (such as the Martineaus and others) have been equally distinguished. Perhaps one might even point out an exceptional amount of intellectual power in the more mixed Celtic and Teutonic regions of Britain—the borderlands of the two races—notably at Aberdeen and in Devonshire. But the most remarkable and least dubious instance is that of the mixed offspring of Jews and Christians. Here we start with a pure race of unusual intellectual vigor and power, the Jews long thrown by circumstances into an environment which has brought out many of their faculties in a very high degree. They are the oldest civilized race now remaining on the earth; they are artistic, musical, literary, exceptionally philosophic, and hereditarily cultivated. Even by marriage among themselves they naturally produce a very large proportion of remarkable men. But when they marry out with Christian women—in other words, with women of the European race—the special Aryan traits seem to blend with the Semitic in a very notable and powerful mixture. I have not space to give illustrations, but the list that can be compiled of distinguished persons of half-Jewish blood is something simply extraordinary, especially when one remembers the comparatively small sum-total of such intermarriages. Indeed, the difficulty would probably be to find a single person of mixed Jewish race who was not at least above the average in intellect and in plasticity of thought.
Finally, it seems to me that unless we accept the view here contended for, that all increments of brain-power are functionally produced, the whole history of human development ought to present the appearance of a continuous chaos. Granted this principle, we can understand why a Phidias appeared in Greece, a Raffaelle in Italy, a Watt in Britain; without it, we can not understand why they should not all have appeared in Iceland or in New Guinea just as well. If mere physical circumstances affecting germs and sperm-cells can
produce miraculous and really uncaused new developments of structure and function—can make a genius spring from nobodies, and a philosopher grow at one leap out of two common strains, of the earth, earthy—then we can see no reason why there should not be great families, great epochs, great outbursts in any one place as well as another. But if all increments are functionally acquired, then we can understand why this environment produces races of sculptors, that environment races of poets, yonder environment races of traders, or thinkers, or soldiers, or mechanicians. The first hypothesis is one that throws no light at all upon any of the facts; the second hypothesis is one that explains them all with transparent lucidity.—Mind.
- It is a great pity that to this day one is always obliged to employ this useful term with a caution in the way of quotation-marks, in order to avoid a supposed philosophical scholar's-mate from sixth-form critics. "Accidental" in biology means, of course, "produced by causes lying outside the previous vital history of the race"; in a word, "individual." Among such accidental variations survival of the fittest preserves a few. But it is annoying that one can never use so transparent a phrase without being informed magisterially by a lofty reviewer that the word accidental is unphilosophical, and that nothing ever happens in nature without a cause.
- Darwin has somewhere noted that half-breeds with lower races appear to be on the whole often morally inferior to either parent race; and he has suggested that this inferiority may be due to reversion to an earlier and still more savage type of humanity. Without expressing any opinion on the question of fact (a delicate one to decide), I fancy another explanation fits more simply: namely, that as morals are a comparatively recent and unstable acquisition even in the best and highest, they do not crop up in the half-breed; and the union of relatively high European intelligence with relatively low savage ethics may easily produce what seems at least to be a very brutal and diabolical nature. Surely there can be nothing worse in any savage than such abnormal products of our own civilization as Peace the murderer, or as the man Thomasson who attempted to blow up an Atlantic steamer by a piece of dynamite clock-work for the sake of obtaining the insurance.