Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/The Causes of Physical Degeneracy

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WHETHER the human race is degenerating, and, if so, by what causes, are questions of much speculative interest to scientific thinkers, and of much practical interest to each father and mother in the community. The subject is complicated by many conditions. Physical health and vigor, and mental strength and power, are to a great degree a matter of hereditary transmission, over which the individual has no control. Yet, taking our natures as they are, we can renovate, reinvigorate, and advance them by attentive study of and conformity to the laws upon which health and vigor are based. I propose in the present article briefly to glance at the chief physical agencies—air, exercise, clothing, food, and rest—and at some of the mental and moral influences, by the bad or good employment of which the physical stock is deteriorated or improved.

Air.—Probably the inhabitants of the globe generally were never so thoroughly sheltered as at present. The house keeps off rain, dew, and the moistures from evaporation—certainly very desirable—but it also to a greater or less degree modifies the temperature and the quality of the air that we breathe.

Theoretically, air is admitted to be an agent conducive to life; practically, it is almost utterly disregarded. The necessity of breathing is recognized, and we have various formulated sayings implying that to stop breathing is to stop living. But, practically, the world is trying to see how little air can be actually used—and, with some, this is almost their only economy and next, to see how poor a quality of air can sustain their life.

One-half of the civilized race—i. e., all the women, and some men—so dress themselves that by no possibility can they take a full breath. As the lungs are never fully inflated, their capability of expansion is gradually lessened. The result is, a contraction and diminution in the size of the chest, a want of roundness and fulness, and both men and women are "flat-chested," round-shouldered, and "sunken in." The eye will recognize this, and measurement will add certainty to judgment.

Take the men of New York to-day, and not one in five hundred can make a difference in the dimensions of the chest, from a full inspiration to a complete expiration, of five inches, measured at the nipple. Nor will the majority show an expansive capacity of even three inches. With the women it is still less; probably never since extreme childhood—for romping days end early now—have they been capable of taking a full breath in the daytime, the nearest approach to it being effected, not by the expansion of the chest, but by the action of the abdominal muscles and the downward withdrawal of the diaphragm.

Nor is this stated as a matter of simple curiosity; it has a practical and most important bearing on the subject under consideration. Supposing that the blood is sufficiently aerated without the use of the full capacity of the lungs, say by an increased number of respirations—are not the necessities of Nature thus adequately supplied, and consequently no injury done?

By no means, as every housewife's experience will abundantly illustrate. In the quiet and secluded angles and nooks gather the lint and dust of the whole apartment. In the corners and recesses of a hospital-ward gather the miasm and the pestilence. In the unused portions of machinery do we find the rust and tarnish, and the mildew blasts the quiet and the still parts of all Nature. In the same way, in those portions of the lungs, every minute extremity and division of which is a reticulated network of fibres, and vessels, and tubes, through which, at every expiration and subsequent inspiration, there should be an unceasing ebb and flow, with new elements constantly adding, and effete material perpetually renovating, yet, by reason of mechanical impossibility, there gather the results of this stagnation, the crassness of the blood, and those discordant elements which, had they not been allowed to accumulate in these undusted retreats, would have continued in the circuit of the blood, till they had arrived, in due course, at some of the great glandular strainers and purifying alembics of the system, where they would have been duly eliminated and discharged. These localities are the nuclei of disease, and here are deposited the tubercle and the germs of death.

This is the result of disuse—the farmer's neglected spot, the receptacle of odds and ends, never ploughed nor cared for, where weeds run riot, and whence every light-winged breeze wafts the myriad progeny of evil all over the adjoining fields.

How aggravated is this condition when the air, too, is deteriorated, full of miasm and pestilence! See the air of the swampy, undrained country, laden with agues and typhus, or the city atmosphere, shut in from sun and breeze, respired over and over again by the healthy and the sickly, by animals of every description, full of the dust of every production of the world, with the fumes of every volatile liquid and deleterious gas!

When we contrast this single vital element as it enters into the life of the modern man, compared with its free use by the men of the past, who are reported to have lived to a great age in health and comparative vigor, does there not seem to be almost reason enough for it in this fact alone?

The Greeks, like all Eastern nations, lived in the open air. The patriarchs of the Bible lived in tents. Even those of later date, who lived in the small cities of former days, occupied no tightly-glazed, windowed apartments, but slept a great part of the time on the unbedewed roofs of their houses, covered only by the radiance of the gentle moon and the twinkling stars.

In those days the heat came from the vigor of the system, and exercise at some useful employment, while wide-mouthed, gaping chimneys, consuming huge logs of timber, carried away, on their upward draught (with most of the heat indeed), the air wasted by respiration.

Nor was pure air a royal prerogative; for, down to quite recent times, these immense chimneys were the gates to health to our own ancestors, and we ourselves learned somewhat of our early astronomy by gazing at the stars through these huge telescopes, thickly hung around with the flitches of bacon and fat hams quietly absorbing the pyroligneous acids from the consuming logs of oak and walnut burning below.

Contrast those long winter nights in rooms through whose open cracks the wintry blast not unfrequently blew out the candle by whose dim light we groped our shivering way to bed; contrast them with the air we breathe, heated by the unceasing furnace, poisoned by everpresent tobacco-smoke, and at the best loaded with the impurities of a city, and passing on its course from house to house, constantly becoming more and more impure.

Sunlight.—This portion of the subject cannot be honestly left without some allusion to the marked influence which the sun has upon all Nature, both animate and inanimate. Hygienic writers have generally most astonishingly ignored the powerful effects of this luminary, the centre of life and heat, and without which vegetable life would be a nullity. Can we, therefore, doubt its energizing potency upon animal life?

It is not only poets and sentimentalists that have acknowledged the importance of the moon and the stars as hygienic mental and spiritual influences upon man, but grave doctors and learned searchers after truth have been ready to add the weight of their judgment to the superficial imaginings of the common thought. The moon has been deemed almost the arbiter of man's destiny, for every thing was supposed to be attached to the mystery of its quarterings, and its coming or going was (and is) supposed to have a gravity utterly untenable upon any scientific principle; and yet to the great orb of day, of which the moon and stars are but reflections, and to which we are compelled to directly ascribe life and vigor, so little attention has been paid—perhaps from the comparative absence of mystery—that its importance has been, till lately, unrecognized by hygienic writers.

The long-lived generations of the past did better than worship the gsun: they lived in its light, bathed in its warmth, and had their spirits and material substance imbued with its life-giving potency. Instead of sun-penetrated tents, men now live in thick-walled dwellings, through whose stony externals the solar warmth cannot strike to dry up the dank humidity, and the sparse and infrequent rays, that might perchance enter through the narrow windows, are carefully shut out by the voluminous folds of ornamental silks, lest the rich carpets be faded thereby. And the dwellers within live in darkness of vision and intellect, ignorant that they are excluding the royal visitor to whose gracious coming every avenue should be thrown wide open, to admit the king possessing a true "royal touch," potent to the cure of more ills than was ever ascribed to earthly sovereign.

There is a prospect of some return to a renewal of the beneficent influences of the sun, from the sheepish followers of fashion. This fickle goddess has recently started the doctrine that, as a reaction from the tanning effects of a summer's out-of-door exposure, the winter's change adds new brilliancy and transparence to the complexion. Fashionable butterflies now seek for the most complete tanning that the summer's solstice can effect, in order to secure a corresponding reaction, and insensibly gather health and invigoration.

Contrast the myopic and weak-eyed men of the day with the eagle-eyed men of the plain and forest, whose sight needs no screening from the sunlight, by broad visor and head-apparel or dainty parasols. To their unshrinking eyes light has no perils or disagreeableness.

Have we not here another great contrast between the past and the present? Where picturesqueness may have gained from the embowered cottage and the shaded dwelling, has not health suffered. The city, thronged with high residences and warehouses, has shut out the potent rays of the sun, and humanity has grown pallid in its shade, like the inhumed celery-plant or the wide-spreading, spindling sprout of a cellared potato. Here in New York, and in London, Paris, and Berlin, the typhus sick are removed from the hospitals and placed in tents open to air, and purified by the radiance of the health-giving sunbeams. If thus potent for cure, how irresistible for prevention!

Exercise.—The Greeks made exercise a part of education, and the athlete, if not also a philosopher and a poet, or a tragedian and orator, was at least esteemed as highly by the community. Exercise was a part of every one's life, a business, a pleasure, and a necessity.

Till quite recent days, there were no lazy people, no gentlemen, none inactive. War and its martial exercises, labor and its attendant fatigues of the body, the chase and its toils, housewifery, the fabrication by hand of all the necessities of life—these healthy exercises have been done away with by excessive wealth, the fashion of indolence, and steam appliances. Work being now denounced by fashion, and delegated to servants, the women of the country have no severer toil than playing the piano and dancing, with an occasional saunter in the street on a very fine day. Consequently, the languid blood flows through unstimulated veins, resembling the stagnant, slime-covered waters of an undisturbed canal.

The city man, if very vigorous, priding himself upon his powers, walks down to his business from 8 to 10 a. m., and occasionally back again, in a gentlemanly manner, which means not fast enough to be ungraceful, or to moisten his shirt-collar. During the interval between these periods, he sits or stands at a desk or behind a counter. If there is a box to be opened, a bale of goods to be sent aloft, or put into a cart, he calls the porter. Possibly he takes a half-hour turn with some Indian clubs or dumb-bells, in the house, and, of course, where fresh air is tabooed. If he has means, he gets a trotter in a motionless buggy, and over a level road he walks six miles, and then trots fast two miles in great excitement, using his arms and possibly his lungs with some vigor. This is the exercise of the modern athlete, philosopher, and business-man.

Clothing.—The anti-imaginative character of the nineteenth century sets aside the fanciful ideas of the origin of clothing being due to a sudden outburst of modesty. It undoubtedly originated from the exigencies of climate; it was a shelter from the burning sun and a protection from cold and wet. By degrees, this original design became forgotten, and fashion, driving out both original necessity and created modesty, usurped the control of dress, and, like most conquerors, has endeavored to eradicate every possible trace of its original design. Health and comfort and life are disregarded as much as possible. The young child is so dressed as to expose its dimpled arms and its sweet amplitude of neck, and sent to walk, no matter how chill and blustering the weather, with its plump legs unstockinged and bare.

But the improvement in manufactures and the general adoption of machinery into the making of cloths, and especially the general use of the sewing-machine in the fabrication of garments, have made such a difference in the comparative cost of clothing, that it may be believed that never before was the world so comfortably dressed as at present; and the future has still further assistance for the poor, for even now the great labor of cutting is so far modified by mechanical appliances that by the same operation of a single shears a dozen garments are simultaneously struck out, and the final cost is thus materially diminished.

The tendency of daily dress throughout the world, imperfect as it is, is yet an improvement upon the past, and life is rather prolonged than curtailed by the change. The corset, allowing all the objections—and they are not entirely correct—that may be urged against its use and abuse, is yet far in advance of the steel bars, like animal cages, of former days. So far, then, as clothing is concerned, no physical degeneration can be ascribed to modern changes, but, on the contrary, the slight alteration has been for the better; and, other things being equal, its beneficial effects would be markedly evident.

Food.—If we look at the entire population of the inhabitable globe, in the different centuries, we can, with each succeeding age, note an alimentary improvement. We see now few famines bearing wide-spread destruction in their path. The intercourse of nations, the sympathy of a recognized common humanity, the spirit of trade and commerce, the rapid communication by telegraph, and the power of applied steam, have united to prevent the possibility of a great national famine in the future. The world now feeds the world, and a dearth in one locality is supplied by the affluence of another.

The continual opening of new territories of immense extent, and seemingly inexhaustible richness, and most of all the frequent discovery of new grains, roots, and fruits, and the development and improvement of the old, seem to insure the world for the future against local destitution and suffering of this nature. More than any one thing else, the discovery of the potato has effected this end; while the introduction of Indian corn and the utilization of the animal life that roam over the immense prairies of America, in both a wild and domesticated state, add a large quota to the alimentation of the world, and have raised the physical stamina of humanity.

But while it is acknowledged that the race down to its lowest strata of humanity is improved and improving, the same statement is not true respecting the higher classes. While the average stamina is greater, theirs is unquestionably deteriorated.

We have already shown the injurious results which wealth brings, in depriving the rich of exercise, by taking away its mainspring, in substituting fashion for necessity; it exerts a far more deleterious influence when it ministers to the appetites.

There is a wealth of wisdom in the remark of Abernethy to the rich dyspeptic, the extent of which he probably never dreamed of himself when he uttered it: "Live on a shilling a day, and earn it"

This sentence, translated into the language of the present, in New York, would be to each individual, "Earn a dollar a day and feed yourself with that alone." This would approximate to living healthily—as did our forefathers—though it is impossible for a man of ordinary means to feed himself healthily in New York, because bread is a prime necessity. The greater part of the flour which comes to the market is but little different from pure starch, so thoroughly is it bolted by the miller, so thorough-bred (no play on the words) is the grain itself. The wheat itself has suffered in its nutritious qualities by the extreme care taken in its cultivation. The canary-bird fancier, in his zeal to raise high-colored birds by interbreeding, obtains his buttercup-yellow, but at the cost of a very scanty plumage. The stock-raiser gets his thoroughbred horse with his thin neck, small head, diminutive ears, greyhound legs, and peculiar barrel, but with them a high nervous organization and uncertain temper, that make the animal impracticable for the ordinary pursuits of life. The same state of things is seen in the wheat of the country, which, having first nearly exhausted the unfertilized soil, finishes by being itself exhausted of the nutritious phosphates and nitrogenous elements so necessary for the bone and nervous tissues of the human frame. This is very important, especially for the young, a great portion of whose alimentation comes from bread. Add to this deprivation of essential elements, the substitution of starchy substances capable of but imperfect assimilation by any stomach, especially that of a young child, and we have an important source of animal imperfection and debility.

We find like cause of degeneration if we look at another leading source of the life of children—milk. Dr. Nathan Allen, in his recent elaborate article ("Physical Degeneration," Journal of Psychological Medicine, October, 1870), says that American women are to a great extent incapable of nursing their children, and that they necessarily resort to the bottle and cow's milk. How bad is this substitute, very few have even surmised. We know there is no exaggeration of the ill results from the use of the so-called swill-milk, which, in greater or less quantities, furnishes the chief supply of all our large cities and towns. The present writer made the initial observations on swill-milk, in New York, and his report to the Academy of Medicine was the basis of the subsequent general interest in the subject. This milk is deleterious, because new principles are introduced into the milk, and the normal ones distorted and rendered almost nugatory.

But, setting this matter aside, let us look at the healthy milk of the whole country, and perhaps of the world. What is it?

When a woman, in the vigor of health, while nursing her own child at the breast, becomes again pregnant, her first knowledge of and attention to this fact frequently arise from the effects of her milk upon her nursing babe. Sometimes the child grows meagre, pallid, is evidently not thriving; occasionally has spasms from apparent indigestion; at others, it is often nauseated, and ejects the curdled milk, with or without accompanying diarrhoea. The child is withdrawn from the breast, proper food is substituted, and a manifest improvement commences immediately.

There is a similar cause for a depraved condition in all the milk of the country. No sooner is the calf taken from the dam—say, when six weeks old—than she is again impregnated. In the ordinary course of Nature, her milk would "dry up" on the occurrence of this event; but she is regularly milked twice a day, and thus it happens that all the milk upon which our children are raised has been first deprived of its essential ingredients to nourish the next year's calf.

If any one questions the effect of this double attempt at nutrition, let him compare the milk in ordinary use with that of a "farrow" cow. The latter is small in quantity, thick, redundant in cream, dark in color, of a very high flavor, so as to render it quite unpalatable. This is the milk destined to strengthen the bones and invigorate the energies of the young offspring. It is such milk as this, undrained of its essential elements, that the child demands from his mother. It asks for bread, and you give it starch. It asks for milk, and you give it—what?

In the lack of the natural maternal nutriment, as alleged by Nathan Allen and other eminent writers on this and kindred topics, does not the general use of this deteriorated cows' milk for so many years, as a substitute or as a supplement to supply this general deficiency, point to one among the many causes of physical deterioration?

If any evidence is wanted to show the imperfect nutrition of the better classes, it may be found in the frequency of dyspepsia, scrofulous diseases, and deaths from diseases of exhaustion and debility, as contrasted with the general vigor, capacity for prolonged exertion, digestion of immense dinners, excessive drinking, and general deaths from inflammations, plethora, apoplexies, congestions, gout, and the like, which were the main causes of the death of our forefathers.

If it is also noticeable that the mean of life is now shorter than formerly—as we think it is—then it is deducible that, among other causes, imperfect nutrition holds a prominent place.

Now, when we compare the diet of the past with the present, we find to-day evidences of a delicate and finical appetite, and an enfeebled digestion. The name of "the roast-beef of old England" lives almost but in name; for the degenerate Britons and allies seek for the kickshaws, spiced entremets, and flavorous nothings, of still more degenerate nationalities. The vigorous appetites are wanting, and, possibly, the debile gastric juice, arising from a lack of physical exertion and an excess of mental stimulus, may be the active cause of the general physical deterioration so markedly present throughout the civilized world.

There are certain enthusiasts who ascribe all the ills of flesh to certain special causes of comparative trivial importance, but their crude theories are based upon such imperfect data as necessarily to render their deductions of little value. The most cadaverous-looking of them all are the ultra-Grahamites, whose appearance alone is generally sufficient to contradict the assertions that human decadence is due to an animal diet.

The ultra-temperance partisans have a far stronger argument for the entire disuse of all stimulating beverages, upon moral rather than upon physical grounds; as it is undoubtedly the fact that the character of the diseases of the world has been more modified by the disuse of liquors, etc., than from any one other cause; and to this is ascribed the substitution of the present diseases of inanition for the former inflammatory and congestive affections resulting from over-stimulation.

Still a third class ascribe the deterioration of the race to the increasing use of narcotics, and mainly of opium and tobacco. Every instance of present disease and the use of either of these drugs, in large or small quantities, are considered to be cause and effect.

Unquestionably the excessive use of all these powerful nervines and narcotics has a deleterious effect upon the animal economy, but the extravagant accusations of these ultraists prevent the truth from being acknowledged, and perhaps any consideration of the subject from being entertained. One writer's assertion may be mentioned in illustration of this remark. He says that one using tobacco freely is so permeated by its deleterious properties, that the ordinary mosquitoes, flies, and household vermin, flee from his presence, a statement so at variance with generally-recognized facts, that the entire theory of the perhaps otherwise correct writer is discredited thereby.

Unquestionably, the excessive use of tobacco and spirits—as some sensualists constantly continue under their influence—must have a marked effect upon the nervous energies, thereby interfering with the powers of assimilation and reproduction. It may be, as alleged, that this loss of vigor is entailed upon succeeding generations, and that to these influences may be in truth ascribed some considerable portion of the physical decadence which so characterizes the present epoch.

Rest.—Perhaps it may be true that all Nature requires rest. This is remarkably evident in most, if not all, forms of vegetable and animal life. Plants have their alternate periods of growth and apparent rest. Animals have their periods of activity and repose. The muscle cannot keep up its continued contraction; and the body, wearied by persistent toil or action, however light or pleasing, sooner or later demands rest, and the entire muscular system gives itself up to repose, with the exception of the continuous breathing and the persistent beating of the heart. So far as we can judge, the action of the brain must also have its period of quiescence, with complete abnegation of its wondrous voluntary and involuntary activities.

The laboring-man, fatigued by the wearisome hod, takes his nooning in any sequestered spot; but his inactive brain requires not sleep to refresh it, for no task has been imposed upon it, and he needs but to rest his limbs in the pleasant shade. A too prolonged exertion is followed by muscular irregularities, cramps, exhaustion, and rheumatic incapacities, effects disagreeable enough, but generally of temporary duration, and with little or no permanent effect on the general constitution or on succeeding generations.