Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/September 1874/The Alleged Antagonism Between Growth and Reproduction

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 September 1874  (1874) 
The Alleged Antagonism Between Growth and Reproduction
By Antoinette Brown Blackwell


THE supposed law of inverse relations between growth and reproduction was first announced, I think, by Dr. Carpenter; but adopted independently by Mr. Spencer, whose elaborate, forcible arguments have done much to convince many physiologists that a principle so well established may be accepted without further question. But the underlying facts are so various, complex, and unsolved, it is by no means impossible, or even improbable, that some new element yet to be introduced into the premises may partially modify or even reverse the necessary logical conclusion.

The following are Mr. Spencer's main points, gathered from his "Principles of Biology," and stated in his own condensed language: "Genesis, under every form, is a process of negative or positive disintegration, and is thus essentially opposed to that process of integration which is one element of individual evolution."[1]

"When the excess of assimilative power is diminishing in such a way as to indicate its approaching disappearance, it becomes needful, for the maintenance of the species, that this excess shall be turned to the production of new individuals; since, did growth continue until this excess disappeared through the complete balancing of assimilation and expenditure, the production of new individuals would be either impossible or fatal to the parent."[2]

"We cannot help admitting that the proportion between the aggregative and separative tendencies must in each case determine the relation between the increase in bulk of the individual and the increase of the race in numbers."[3]

Up to this point one may freely admit the antagonistic relations alleged; but, when, in his article on "The Psychology of the Sexes," Mr. Spencer asserts that "a somewhat earlier arrest of individual development in women than in men is necessitated by the reservation of vital force to meet the cost of reproduction," there are so many not yet discounted conditions to be considered that the position cannot be regarded as satisfactorily sustained. There is the "earlier arrest" of physical growth; the "rather smaller growth of the nervo-muscular system;" the much longer nutritive tax demanded for the nourishment of fœtal and infant life; the "somewhat less of general power or massiveness" in feminine mental manifestations; there may be, "beyond this, a perceptible falling short in those two faculties, intellectual and emotional, which are the latest products of human evolution—the power of abstract reasoning, and that most abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice." It does not therefore follow that these results, any or all of them, are deductions made from the "cost of reproduction." Force modified and readjusted is not force subtracted or destroyed.

The smaller nervo-muscular system, and the diminished power or massiveness of mental action, may be supposed to arise as direct results of the larger nutritive cost of maternity. But the earlier arrest of physical growth may or may not be coupled with an earlier arrest of mental development; and one or both of these may offer to us very marked illustrations—not of process prematurely cut short to be handed over to offspring—but of process quickened by other related antecedents, and therefore more rapidly completed. This need not involve loss or transfer of individual force to offspring; but, rather, a modified system of the transfer of substance and force from the environment to the reproductive functions and their products.

If it could be shown that men or women who are the parents of many children have thereby lost something of individual power, we might then be forced to admit that the greater cost related to the reproductive system in women must be at their personal expense, not at the expense of the nutriment which they assimilate and eliminate.

The weaknesses resulting from a too early or an excessive tax of functions belong to a distinct class of considerations. I assume that every balanced constitutional activity, though including loss of nutritive elements, is yet a normal aid to constitutional strength. Every action, physical or psychical, involves either integration or disintegration; every use of faculty belongs to the latter class. There is no more antagonism between growth and reproduction than between growth and thought, growth and muscular activity, growth and breathing. The antagonism is only that of action and reaction, which are but two phases of the same process—opposing phases which exist everywhere, and which must exist, or action itself cease, and death reign universally.

Growth and eating are antagonistic; yet, one must eat to live as assuredly as children must be reared at the expense of nutrition, and of still more elaborated parental force. Nor is it true that one who expends least has the most remaining. Other things being equal, the law seems to be directly reversed. One activity initiates another; the largest individual force maintains those more active adjustments, "simultaneous and successive," between the internal and external, which indicate the most vigorous life. We must look, then, to something more than a direct antagonism, between growth and reproduction, to account for unlikenesses of the sexes in plant or animal. "The minutest organisms multiply asexually in their millions;" but "those which do not multiply asexually at all are a billion or a million times the size of those which thus multiply with the greatest rapidity;" yet these comparative rates of growth and multiplication can offer no key to any of the problems of evolution.

Mr. Spencer reasons that birds, as a class, are less in size than mammals, because they habitually expend more muscular energy in flight; and that lions, having a digestive system not superior to men, yet attain to a larger size and are more prolific, because they have a less active nervous system to sustain. Then, if women normally have equal appropriative powers with men, the surplus nutriment not needed for their smaller physiques may be constitutionally handed over to reproduction. Natural selection has originated an admirably complete system of related provisions to this distinct end. This fact must lead us to the conclusion that the aggregate of feminine force is the full and fair equivalent of all masculine force, physical or psychical.

The maternal constitution elaborates nutriment, from which it is itself to receive no direct benefit. But, do we forget the inexorable conditions which compel the human father to expend equivalent muscular or mental force to feed, not himself, but his dependents? Whenever man does not interfere, monogamy seems to be the general order of Nature with all higher organisms. Where the cost of obtaining food is great, the parents sustain commensurate burdens in rearing their young ; and, with these claims, I think it will be found that monogamy is the primal condition of reproduction. The warlike duty of defense is also borne chiefly by males, and must often be an immense tax on the energies.

Among the beings of a lower type, plant and animal, all the more recent observations indicate that Nature herself systematically favors the females––the mothers of the destined races. Nature's sturdiest buds and her best-fed butterflies belong to this sex; her female spiders are large enough to eat up a score of her little males; some of her mother-fishes might parody the nursery-song, "I have a little husband no bigger than my thumb." Natural selection, whether the working out of intelligent design or otherwise, would make this result inevitable. We might expect that the neuter bee could be nourished into the queen-mother. If required to judge a priori, we should decide, if there is no predetermination of sex, that the best-fed embryos would most readily become female ; since the one special fact in the feminine organism is the innate tendency to manufacture, and, within certain limits, to store up reserved force for the future needs of offspring.

In women, if there is a greater arrest of individual growth than in men, the difference begins in the fœtal life; their comparative weight and size at birth are the same as at maturity; and, if the former finish their growth earlier, it must be because relatively they grow more rapidly. The feminine circulation and respiration are both quicker; and so are the female mental processes. When the whole subject has been quantitatively investigated with sufficient exactness, I believe it will be found that, what man has gained in "massiveness," woman has gained in rapidity of action; and that all their powers of body and mind, mathematically computed, are, and will continue to be, real and true equivalents. The premises are already sufficiently known to compel me to this conclusion.

One point more. Physical and psychical growth in man are not arrested simultaneously. After the body has ceased to grow, the brain-system still enlarging and compacting its highly-mobile structure, mental power increases long after the more rigid, merely mechanical forces have reached their maximum. The same law applies, at least, in equal degrees to woman. If there is any proof that feminine psychical powers normally reach an earlier cessation of growth than the masculine, then, so far as I can learn, no scientist has yet collated the facts and put them before the world in evidence. On the contrary, so far is the earlier physical maturity of woman from necessitating a corresponding earlier psychical maturity, that, in the light of physiological relations, we may deduce the exactly opposite hypothesis.

In woman, maximum mental power should be reached at a considerably later period than in man, because the greater cost of reproduction, though related chiefly to the physical economy, is indirectly psychical; tending to diminish intellectual action also, and to retard its evolution. The cost of all reproductive provisions fully met, and the child-bearing age at an end, the special constitutional tendency to accumulate reserve force will not be immediately destroyed. Functions, active hitherto in the interest of posterity, go on now to accumulate in the interest of the individual. Still further, the naturally less overtaxed intellectual faculties of woman now have this advantage also over those of man—an advantage at least as great as the previous disadvantage.

When the vast weight of past social conditions is considered, that women thus far have failed to acquire large powers of abstract thinking and feeling, affords no reason for supposing that there is a corresponding constitutional lack of ability in this direction. They attain an earlier growth, but, that they reach the highest point even of physical vigor earlier than men, we have no evidence. Many facts indicate otherwise. Men and women live to equal ages, retain their vigor to equal ages—those using the greater force more slowly, those the lesser force more rapidly—thus with uneven steps keeping even pace in physical progress; the greater mobility of all womanly functions being less readily stiffened into inactivity. This principle, applied to the nervous system, should prolong the period of greatest mental activity, and hold the balance which measures the working value of the sexes with even justice.

Is it true that average women to-day are less versed than average men in abstract thinking, feeling, or acting? Not in New England! Not in any locality where they have equal education. They have not become savants! But circumstances have not yet impelled them to become such. In these days, philosophers grow by steady accretions, like every thing else. No full-armed Minerva can be expected to spring by simple heredity from a paternal Jupiter; but the laws of mental inheritance are too little known to enable us to decide that the daughters of the nineteenth century are less gifted than the sons. When women are convinced that the antagonisms between growth and reproduction, though embracing all personalities, must yet leave them all intact, every thing else may be left to adjust itself, with no solicitude for the ultimate results.

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  1. Vol. i., p. 216.
  2. P. 237.
  3. Vol ii., p. 426.