Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/December 1883/Genius and Heredity

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By M. E. CARO,


IT has been shown by the researches of Galton, Ribot, and others, that a law of heredity exists, and is applicable to our psychological qualities. Without attempting to deny the operation of this law, it is our intention here, believing that its scope has been considerably magnified, to endeavor to determine its limits in particular directions. With this object, we shall confine our inquiry to two points: Is it according to a good philosophical method to explain by heredity alone all the most complex, most delicate, and most considerable phenomena of human life, when we can, with at least as much probability, bring in other causes which, though they have been much neglected, are very perceptible and even more directly observable? And is it true, as is assumed, that all the exceptions to the law of heredity, even in the intellectual and moral order, are only apparent? We shall speak first of those curious facts concerning intellectual heredity, some of which, and those the most extraordinary ones, can not be accounted for by any assignable cause. Other facts in the category can equally well, perhaps better than by heredity, be explained by reference to the medium, to education, to habit, to the moral and intellectual atmosphere in which the child lives, to the force of the influences to which it is subject, and to the examples that are set before it. We acknowledge that the medium can not afford an explanation of genius and can not create superior faculties; but it furnishes the opportunity for their manifestation, and reveals them where they exist. How many noble and high minds have been extinguished by unfavorable circumstances and tile mediums! What an important part, on the other hand, may have been played in the expansion of superior minds in certain favored families, by the influence of examples of the most delicate methods of investigation in questions of the natural sciences, by habituation to rigorous methods in the exact sciences! Who could in such cases separate what, in the working of such different influences, is attributable to education and what to heredity?

We must first leave out of the consideration genius, properly so called, which can not be included in any determinate category. At this point we meet the error which has vitiated Mr. Galton's whole work, and which is curiously illustrated in the title itself of his book, "Hereditary Genius." Genius is of all things not a phenomenon of heredity. It is precisely in what is extraordinary and exceptional in it—that is, in its essential quality—that genius escapes all our formulas. It is pre-eminently the abnormal phenomenon, the one that we can not reduce to its elements, or put into a classification, an irreducible formula, the resolution of which recognizes no law within the compass of human knowledge. At this point, certainly, Mr. Galton's lists betray their poverty; and he tries in vain to connect the lines of artists and scientific men with the illustrious genius who all at once bursts out from among them. Even in the musical family of the Bachs, which was distinguished for eight generations and through two centuries, we may count up all the examples of the special musical talent which appeared again and again in each generation; we may review all those gifted persons, the organists, the choir-singers, the choir-leaders, the city musicians, whether they be ancestors, sons, or grandsons; but we can find only one Sebastian Bach. Whence came that particular impulsion, that soaring force, that carried him to the very summit of inspiration? Why is it that he alone of the whole family could compose that marvelous series of preludes, fugues, and oratorios which stand as isolated monuments in the history of the great art? Why were none of the others like him? Mr. Galton's tables do not give us the key to this mystery; they simply reveal a transmission of the musical faculty, a community of aptitudes among the members of this family. But that which was not common to him with the others, that which made Sebastian Bach, is the thing we want explained, and it is precisely this that heredity does not explain. The aptitudes were transmitted like a patrimony, but the grand phenomenon of genius was the property of only one, and was produced but once. It is, then, outside of heredity, for it is unique. The same thoughts might be applied to Beethoven, and with still more force, for the only musical examples in his line were those of his father and grandfather, chapel-masters. Similar instances are abundant. We might cite, among the painters, Raphael, whose father, and Titian, whose sons and brother, were respectable but not illustrious artists. Among great men of science what real relation can exist, in the order of skill and genius, between Aristotle and his father Nicomachus, court-physician, of whom we hardly know anything; or between Galileo and his father Vicenzo, who wrote on the theory of music; or between Leibnitz and his father, law-professor at Leipsic? In fact, only a single example can be opposed to our criticism, that of the family of the Bernouillis, which was celebrated for the number of mathematicians and physicists whom it produced through several generations. Yet here we have to take notice of the fact that only one of the family, John, was rated by his contemporaries alongside of Newton and Leibnitz on account of his brilliant mathematical discoveries. The others were very distinguished men, but that is a different thing. The genius stands apart.

Still, we can say that in these three orders of the creative art there is something hereditary—not genius, indeed, but a kind of necessary apprenticeship, or perhaps a physiological and mental aptitude tending to determine to certain vocations. In this way we can understand why we meet so many musicians, or painters, or men of science, in the same family. In the case of the painters, for example, there is something that inspiration can not do without, there are a number of primary gifts and technical properties in design or color which are easily transmitted by example and imitation in the father's studio, and are distributed as a common patrimony among the children. Only one of the family will rise to the first rank; but this initiation into his art is indispensable to him as a matter of economy of time and labor, and also to give greater freedom to his inspiration. Macaulay has well said that Homer could never have made himself known to us in the language of a savage tribe, and that Phidias could never have carved his Minerva out of a log with a fish-bone. It is necessary to take account of these favorable circumstances, which in some families help to overcome the first difficulties of the art, and furnish the future genius with; convenient instrumentalities with which he can make himself familiar and skillful from his earliest childhood. So the taste for music that is, an aptitude for measuring time and distinguishing notes is innate with many children, and is often derived from the father, mother, or other ancestors. If both parents are musicians, all the children will generally have a correct ear; if only one of them is a musician, some of the children may have the taste, while others may not. Likewise, a facility in quickly grasping and handling numerical or algebraic values is indispensable to the operations of the mathematician, and may be remarked as a peculiar gift in certain families, among whom may some time arise one illustrious in the science. These conditions are not essentials of genius, but they are useful to it in helping it to disengage and reveal itself. They are, as it were, the alphabet of his art to the composer, mathematician, or painter; and it is not without advantage that the art has, by means of the example and traditions of the family, become a kind of instinct for the future great man. This explains how it is that great painters, mathematicians, or musicians, are so frequently produced in families in which the practice of those arts and sciences is familiar. The same aptitude may be shared by several members of the family, who will remain in the secondary rank, while a single one rises above them all. It is the aptitude, not genius, that is hereditary, while Mr. Galton has constantly confounded the two. In the other orders of invention, as in poetry and eloquence, there is nothing inconsistent with a solitary instance of genius being produced in a family that does not seem to have been prepared for it. The preparatory training, the special aptitude, are less necessary in them. It is enough if the national language has reached a degree of clearness and vigor in which it can give perfect expression. Generally, the great writer blossoms out alone. He seems to appear, an unexpected phenomenon, in a succession of modest generations, the uniform course of which he breaks at a blow. Sometimes similar aptitudes may be found among other members of the family, but the fact is without significance or consequences. Bossuet, Pascal, Molière, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Byron, and Goethe, however we may try to account for them, can not be explained by heredity. They are the first and the last in the families that produced them, without any visible transmission of superior gifts. Going back in history, but still keeping to modern times, are not Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare also solitary great ones, who can not be satisfactorily accounted for, either by organic evolution, the intellectual medium, or generation? All those external conditions of genius that have been so often analyzed and described may have prepared for the event and primed for the occasion. The last turn was still wanting, the supreme gift that should be decisive over all the rest, and bring it about that among so many heads in the same family or the same nation, equally predestined by the same concurrence of circumstances, one only should have been chosen, and that the light should have shone upon that elect head only; and we may keep on asking, Why on that head, and not on another? No, to this day the great gift of inspiration in science, poetry, and art has not revealed its secret. Those sovereign minds, precisely by what they possess that is incommunicable, rise high and alone above the flood of generations which precede and follow them, and by reason of this superior side of their nature they do not belong to nature. Those exalted originals in mind who tower above mankind have no fathers and leave no sons in the blood. Notwithstanding Mr. Galton, the least hereditary thing in the world is genius.

M. de Candolle[1] appears to us to have exactly analyzed the origin and conditions of the kind of mental heredity in a slighter degree that we might represent by the words talent, vocation, and aptitude. While he does not deny the influence of heredity in the development of vocations, especially of scientific vocations, which are the special object of his study, he does not declare it exclusive and decisive. After mature examination, he does not believe that there is any special heredity for a particular science, but only admits a transmission of the elementary faculties in a condition of harmony and vigor agreeable to a sound mind. This precious heritage may be applied in several very different ways. A person who has received from his parents a certain degree and a favorable combination of the faculties of attention, memory, judgment, and will, is not destined to be condemned by a kind of fatal heritage to any special kind of work. Generally, a reflexive choice, or the rule of circumstances, rather than a special heredity, determines the use that is made of these faculties; its particular direction is decided by the medium and the family; and the success of the effort is determined by the energetic application of the will. A reservation should doubtless be made in the case of a determined taste for a certain career imposing itself upon a young man when he enters into life; but the facts that such tastes and inclinations are often opposed to paternal habits, and that they may be very different as between brothers, are proofs that they are not hereditary; they are often the products of an active imagination called forth by certain attractions, which it has forged for itself, or of notions suggested by some conversation or some entertaining lecture. Much room, then, is left for circumstances and liberty in the employment of the faculties which one has received. "The man endowed with marked traits of perseverance, attention, and judgment, with no considerable defect in his other faculties, will become a jurist, historian, scholar, chemist, geologist, or physician, according as his will is influenced by a host of circumstances. In each of these occupations he will advance in proportion to his strength, his zeal, and the concentration of his energy upon a single specialty. I have little faith in the necessity of innate and imperious vocations for particular objects. This is not to deny the influence of heredity, but to reduce it to something very general, compatible with the liberty of the individual, and susceptible of being inclined or modified according to ulterior influences, the action of which increases as the child becomes a man." Moreover, even when mental heredity seems to have been effectual, it may be regarded as working in the line of the grand categories of faculties, rather than of special faculties. Thus, it is not uncommon to find two brothers, or father and son, celebrated, one in the natural sciences, the other in historical and social sciences: as, for instance, the two Humboldts; Oersted and his brother the jurist; Hugo de Mohl, the botanist, and his brother Jules de Mohl, the Orientalist; Madame Necker, daughter of the geologist De Saussure; Ampère, scholar and literary man, son of a physicist. If there were a special heredity guiding to a particular science, these examples would be inexplicable, while they are quite natural under the supposition of a transmission of general faculties applicable to all sciences having analogous methods.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.

  1. "Histoire des Sciences et des Savants depuis Deux Siècles."