Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/December 1873/Heredity and Race-Improvement

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SO far we have been giving the historical refutation. A more direct and scientific refutation will prove still more decisive and instructive. Having shown that heredity does not exert an exclusive and continuous influence, we must now indicate the causes which act simultaneously with it and in a contrary direction. We have to demonstrate the constant and powerful influence of those forces which, as we have said, tend to modify, transform, and complicate man's thoughts, feelings, passions, manners, customs.

The special aim of education is to transmit to the child the sum of those habits to which he is to conform the course of his life, and of those branches of knowledge which are indispensable for him in the pursuit of his calling; and it must begin by developing in the pupil the faculties which will enable him to make these habits and this knowledge his own. It teaches the child to speak, to move about, to look, to use his senses, to hear, to understand, to judge, to love. But now the influence of education, opposed as it is to that of heredity, is so great, that in most cases it is of itself alone capable of producing a moral and psychological likeness between children and parents. If heredity determined irresistibly and infallibly in the descendants the essential characters of their ancestors' personality, education would be superfluous. When once it is admitted that education, a long, watchful, laborious training, is indispensable in order to call forth and perfect in the child the development of aptitudes and of mental qualities, we must conclude that heredity acts only a secondary part in the wonderful genesis of the moral individual. The argument is unassailable. That hereditary influences make their mark in predispositions, in fixed tendencies, it were unscientific to deny; but yet it would be inexact to pretend that they implicitly contain the future states of the psychical being, and determine its evolution.

There is nothing more complex than education, nor must we think here of studying its general economy, which has been the theme of so many books. The importance which is generally attributed to works on pedagogy is of itself a protest against the abuse of hereditarian theories. Some fresh details as to one of the chief agencies in education, viz., the instinct of imitation, and the part it plays in the development of individuals and of races, will suffice to demonstrate the energy of certain influences which have nothing to do with heredity.

An accomplished English historian, Bagehot, recently published some excellent observations, which go to show what great influence is exerted in the formation of customs and of tastes, and also how their periodic revolutions are explained, by the unconscious imitation of a favorite character or type, and by the general favor accorded to the same. According to him, a national character is only a local character which has been favored by fortune, precisely as a national language is only the definitive extension of a local dialect. There is nothing more undoubted than the force of this tendency to imitation. It is in virtue of this that certain processes in manufacture, art, literature, manners, discovered under peculiar circumstances, attain a general ascendency, and are rapidly imposed, first upon the docile and unthinking multitude, and then on those who possess all the means of inquiry and resistance. Here it may be observed that the élite are almost always constrained to follow the tastes and the judgments of the masses, under penalty of being ignored or contemned. A writer devises a style which the public receive with enthusiasm: he has struck a vein. He accustoms those who read his books, or who witness his plays, to this style, be it good or bad, and the result is that, for some time, all authors are compelled more or less to imitate the fortunate innovator, if they wish to succeed. Hence, though one were not led to imitate, by instinct or by nature, still he would do so from necessity or from self-interest. The founder of the London Times was once asked how he contrived to have all the articles in that journal appear as though written by one hand. "Oh," said he, "there is always one editor who is superior to all the rest, and they imitate him."

The history of religions from beginning to end is full of facts showing how men are guided, not by arguments but by exemplars, and exhibiting the tendency they have to reproduce what they have seen or heard, and to regulate their lives according to the bright and triumphant examples that stand before their eyes. Many victories, esteemed by apostles to be the effects of persuasion, are rather to be attributed to that recondite influence which leads men irresistibly to imitate their fellows. And does not this same agency of imitation appear in the body politic, transforming little by little, but yet radically, the habits, the opinions, and even the beliefs of men? Nothing is easier, than, for a man who has acquired an influence over the populace, to bring them over to his own sentiments, ideas, and chimeras. And the observation is confirmed by daily experience in the education of children. In a school we often find the external characteristics—the tone, the gait, the games, changing from year to year. The reason of this is that some dominant spirits—two or three pupils who used to have an ascendency over the rest, have left; others are now in their place, and every thing wears a different face. As the models change, so do the copies. The pupils no longer applaud or jeer at the same things as before.

This instinct of imitation is specially developed in persons of defective education or civilization. Savages copy quicker and better than Europeans. Like children, they have a natural faculty for mimicry, and cannot refrain from imitating every thing they see. There is in their minds nothing to offset this tendency to imitation. Every well-instructed man has within himself a considerable reserve of ideas upon which to fall back; this resource is wanting in the savage and in the child: they live in all the occurrences which take place before them; their life is bound up in what they see and hear; they are the playthings of external influences. In civilized nations persons without culture are in the like situation. Send a chambermaid and a philosopher into a country, the language of which neither of them is acquainted with, and it is likely that the chambermaid will learn it before the philosopher. He has something else to do: he can live with his own thoughts; as for her, if she cannot talk, she is undone. The instinct of imitation is in an inverse ratio to the power of mental abstraction.

From these details it will be seen that this strong instinctive force of imitation, which plays so important a part in the education of individuals and of races, is a very different thing from heredity. It may and it does act in concert with hereditary impulsions; but far more frequently it works independently and even in a direction counter to them. And the same is to be said of another force—a more determined rival still, and a more puissant antagonist of heredity, viz., personality, whose functions we have next to consider.

The individual personality of the soul, which is preëminently the instrument of free inventiveness and the unfailing spring of the innovative faculty, might, in contrast with heredity, be called spontaneity.[1] To give a notion of the power of spontaneity, as compared with that of heredity, we might draw up lists exhibiting cases in which the manifestation of various passions or talents does not come from ancestry, and in which the individual is born different from his parentage, or distinguishes himself from them by the reaction of his own will. Such lists would be endless; for, the opinion of the partisans of absolute heredity to the contrary notwithstanding, spontaneity and personal activity are the rule in the development of the mind. In short (and this is the main point), heredity has its root in spontaneity; for, after all, those aptitudes, those qualities, which parents transmit to their children, must necessarily have originated, at some time, from the spontaneous action of a more or less independent will. We hear of idiots, and of hysterical and epileptical subjects, or, on the other hand, of painters, musicians, and poets, who derive from their parentage the sinister or the beneficent activities which characterize them. True enough; but the question for us is, Whence did the parents themselves derive this activity? In taking a retrospective view of the ascendants, we must reach the point where spontaneity is preëminent; and this preëminence is all the less questionable in proportion as it reappears in the descendants. The effects of heredity appear and disappear; at first, they overmaster spontaneity, suspending its influence; then they are exhausted, and spontaneity again reclaims its rights. Thus spontaneity is a continuous, persisting force, while heredity is intermittent and transitory. Human nature, considered in its progress from age to age, is a succession of independent minds, all the more independent in proportion as they have less need of the concurrence of mechanical or organic powers in willing and acting. Where they require such concurrence, a portion of their innate independence is surrendered to the blind influences of heredity. And yet, even as regards the origin of æsthetic aptitudes, spontaneity is the stronger of the two.

In studying the history of illustrious men, how often do we find 1 brilliant imagination and extraordinary capacity for art, poetry, and literary composition, which are by no means the result of heredity. We have not far to go for instances of this. Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Meyerbeer, Ingres, Delacroix, Mérimée, displayed talents for which they were in no wise indebted to their parentage. The history of men of science exhibits the part played by heredity still further cut down. We are told of families of savants. How many of these might be enumerated? A dozen at the most. On the other hand, how many illustrious savants there are, among whose ascendants are found only people of very common stamp, or else distinguished for talents of a very different order from those which characterize the man of science! What hereditary influences fashioned a Cuvier, a Biot, a Fresnel, a Gay-Lussac, an Ampère, a Blainville? It is plain that in these instances spontaneity and education enacted the chief part. Nor does the history of authors agree any better with the pretensions made by the thorough partisans of heredity.

It is especially among philosophers that spontaneity appears to be supreme. Our authors present no lists of philosophers who have inherited from their ancestors the talent for speculation. Here we have a series of facts which make against heredity; these its advocates say nothing about, nor indeed are they made sufficient account of by either party. Metaphysicians, precisely because in them the mental element alone is active, are exempt from all the influences of heredity. In proportion as the characters it tends to transmit are less of a physiological and more of a psychological nature, the less is the influence of heredity. But there is nothing more purely psychological, or more free from sense-elements and mechanical factors, than the mind of the speculative philosopher. In point of fact, the great metaphysicians had no progenitors, nor did they leave any posterity. The philosophic genius has ever been absolutely individual, inalienable, and intransmissible. There is not a single great thinker, in whose line, whether ascending or descending, we discover either the promise or the perpetuation of the high capacities which made him illustrious. Descartes and Newton, Leibnitz and Spinoza, Diderot and Hume, Kant and Maine de Biran, Cousin and Jouffroy, had neither ancestors nor posterity.

Such is spontaneity. To form a precise idea of the part it plays, we should have to determine, in a general way, and also in relation to temperament, education, social and other conditions, etc., the genesis and development of those faculties by which a given man of superior power is distinguished from his progenitors; we must group together and classify the characteristic elements which make up the very essence of the personality and individuality—those marvelous elements of free initiative and of total independence which stamp a man as a genius. It would then be seen that most commonly superior abilities are so native to those who display them, so deep seated and endowed with a life of their own, that education and training, instead of calling them forth, serve rather to check their development. In a man of genius we should discern self-reliant precocity, a passion for enterprise, a strong belief in his mission, a pride lifting him above sect-prejudice or party ambitions, and attaching him exclusively to the object of his meditations, for which alone he values life. Even when temporal necessities compel him to take part in the transactions of men, the world is for him only a peopled wilderness, where his soul lives in solitude.

The materials for such a study exist in part; they are to be found in biographies written during the last two hundred years, by the secretaries of the great academies, and in the autobiographic memoirs left by several illustrious men. An ingenious and learned Russian writer, Wechniakof, has lately published sundry works, in which he considers, from this point of view, the anthropological and sociological peculiarities which have had an influence in the individual development of original genuises. Unfortunately, these opuscles do not form a complete treatise, and yet a treatise on spontaneity would be a very curious and very useful work.

The aggregate of all the causes of diversity, heterogeneity, and innovation, which in man act in opposition to the principles of simplicity, homogeneity, and conservation, we may designate by one name, viz., evolution or progress. Regarded within the limits of positive observation, blind Nature has been ever the same. It is today, on the whole, what it was in Homer's time: the same sky, oceans, mountains, forests, flowers. Man, on the other hand, is ever undergoing transformation. Generations succeed one another, but are unlike. They are in a state of constant and rapid metamorphosis in their faiths, their knowledge, their arts, their wants. Nations, like individuals, grow up and decay. But the face of Nature is unchanged: as Byron says of Greece:

"Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild;
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The free-born wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli's marbles glare;
Art, glory, freedom fail, but Nature still is fair."

We might multiply ad infinitum these historic contrasts between the immutability of the universal fatalism which reigns in Nature, and the incessant movement of liberty and invention in man, together with the ceaseless striving of the soul to free itself from the grip of Fate. History is but the record of what has resulted during ages from this movement, from this striving. It is a protracted drama, where the good genius of liberty contests the throne with the evil genius of brute force, and where, under the eye of God, and with his assistance, is won, slowly and laboriously, the victory of mind, which searches, discovers, invents, creates, loves, adores!


In the first part of this essay we established the facts of heredity, and showed the part it plays in reproducing physiological and psychological characteristics. In the second we pointed out and examined the causes which run counter to the more or less tyrannical impulsions of Nature, and to mechanical necessities. We have now to state some practical conclusions as to the use that may be made of this knowledge in perfecting the race.

The heroic combatants of Homer's epic invoked the names of their fathers and ancestors, and were proud of their noble blood. It was a high instinct, and they who can justly boast of their forefathers will always be in a position to earn for themselves the respect of their children. In short, the phenomena of heredity authorize the belief that parents of well-constituted body and mind are most likely to transmit to their posterity their own likeness.

What measures are to be taken, then, to bring about happy alliances, such as will produce offspring of high excellence in a physical and moral point of view? This is a very delicate question, and we can give only a summary reply to it, based chiefly on an unpublished work by the eminent surgeon, M. Sédillot, who devotes the leisure time of his honorable retirement to studying the means of perfecting the race. First of all, M. Sédillot thinks that we may obtain valuable information as to an individual's real value by consulting his genealogy: the history of his ascendants for four or five generations, with special reference to intellect, morality, vigor, health, longevity, social status, virtually contains a portion of his own history. Long before Gall the fact was established (nor was it overturned by Gall's exaggerations) that the form of the head is, in some measure, an index of a man's mental calibre. From the remotest antiquity, the popular mind has observed the relation which subsists between great size of head and superior abilities; and language is full of expressions which witness to the correctness of this relation. Pericles excited the astonishment of the Athenians by the extraordinary volume of his head. Cromwell, Descartes, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Byron, Goethe, Talleyrand, Napoleon, Cuvier, etc., had very large heads. Cuvier's brain weighed 1,829 grammes, the average weight of Europeans' brains being, according to Broca, from 1,350 to 1,400 grammes. M. Sédillot regrets that we do not possess measurements of the various cranial dimensions of men distinguished for certain capacities, so that we might ascertain the important relations which subsist between these dimensions and these capacities; and he expresses the wish that such measurements should be taken. But at least we know, in a general way, what characters and what cranial dimensions correspond with the various degrees of cerebral activity. Most anthropologists hold that the man whose head has not an horizontal circumference of 50 centimetres (19.685 inches) is almost inevitably a person of only mediocre ability, and that the one in whom this circumference attains or surpasses 58 centimetres (22.8346 inches) is likely to be a very superior man. Instances are cited, it is true, of celebrated personages with small heads; but in such case the individuals gained distinction in some very narrow specialty. It must not be forgotten that these dimensions constitute but one of the external indices which enable us to determine approximately the intellectual value of an individual. We have also to take account of the general form and relative proportions of the various regions of the cranium, i. e., of that harmony which is called beauty. An easy means, according to M. Sédillot, of studying the conformation of the head, is by taking a side or profile view of it, a little back of the forehead. One then instantly perceives the ratio between the height and breadth of the forehead and temples and the face, and a clear perception is got of the relative proportions of the anterior or frontal, and the posterior or occipital contours of the head. The individual who has the superciliary arches prominent, the temples bare, nearly vertical and high, with broad, high forehead, and features expressive neither of an unbalanced nor of a torpid mind, may in general be regarded as a truly human type, and as possessed of a mind that is fitted to do honor to the race. The story goes, that once a certain Englishman sent his groom to the ale-house in search of his friend Shakespeare. "How shall I know him?" quoth the groom. "The easiest thing in the world," replied his master; "everybody, more or less, resembles some animal; but, when you lay eyes on Shakespeare, you will at once say, 'There is a man!'" Man in the fullness of his harmonious beauty, such is the ideal toward which all the efforts of our present imperfect humanity ought to be directed, and it is full time that we should strive, by a wise use of the principle of heredity, i. e., by healthy procreation, to develop a human race in which the last traces of animality shall have disappeared, and in which the Man shall be less rare.

What is it that constitutes the superiority of the English aristocracy? Their constant study to endow their descendants with the best bodily, intellectual, and moral qualities. The Englishman does not marry from caprice or from passion; he marries under the conditions which are best fitted to insure the welfare of his children, for he knows that on their welfare his own happiness, his honor, and his name depend. The respect shown to young Englishwomen, the honorable liberty they enjoy, the secondary importance that is attached to their fortune, and the stress that is laid on their personal worth, are all so many causes increasing among that people the number of happy marriages, and consequently giving vigor to the population. This is one of the grand secrets of race-improvement by heredity. Instead of looking for wealth, men must look for beauty, character, and virtue. So long as they persist in forming alliances with women of feeble constitution, or lacking essential qualifications, the race will decline and degenerate. And, of course, the same deplorable consequences follow from the marriage of noble and well-organized women with men of inferior type. Fortunately, the tact and the instinctive dignity of women, and their natural liking for what is exalted, usually prevent their descending to debasing or dangerous alliances, and nearly always guard them against ill-assorted matches. "In place of giving way to sympathetic emotions," says M. Sédillot, "which disorder the judgment, let one put himself the question, on seeing a person that pleases him, if he wants to have sons and daughters of that same type; and it is curious to note how often the reply will be in the negative. It were unreasonable, no doubt, to forego present advantage for the sake of some uncertain advantage in the future; still, wisdom requires us to bring the two into harmony, and to remember how swiftly time passes away, and how little is the value of the passing hour, as compared with the hopes and the enjoyments of the future." M. Sédillot adds that, in ordinary times, hygiene, the moral evidence of the advantages of health and intelligence, would suffice for the regeneration of a people. France, unfortunately, has need of stronger and more efficacious agencies; she must go back to the very fountain-head of regeneration and of life, that is to say, must discover the speediest means of insuring to the coming generations a future of virtue and mettle. In other times it may have appeared difficult or ill-advised to import, into questions touching the reproduction of man, figures and estimates not unlike those employed in zootechny, where selection has long been practised. But now such scruples must give way before the dictates of necessity, which tells us in the most unmistakable way that we cannot afford to commit one blunder more.

Here we have to point out the means of staying or of reducing as far as possible the fatal heredity of disease, which is so powerful an obstacle to the improvement of the race. The preventive or prophylactic agencies which are to be employed to counteract the evolution of disease-germs depend, of course, on the nature of these latter. A consumptive mother must not suckle her infant; she ought to intrust it to the care of a good nurse. Those whose parents were affected with chest-diseases thrive but ill on an excessively animal diet: a regimen of white meats and light foods is best suited for them. As regards occupation, they should carefully avoid all such as would expose them to inhale dust, or to undergo alternations of heat and cold, or to use the voice habitually. Residence by the sea-side, in the south, and in localities where consumption is of rare occurrence, is the best prophylactic against this fearful disease. Individuals predisposed to scrofula require pure air, substantial tonic diet, and an atmosphere like that on the sea-coast of Northwestern Europe. Those who are threatened with gout or gravel must oblige themselves to the strictest temperance and take abundant exercise. Regularity and uniformity of life are the rule for those predisposed to cancer. Persons who reckon epileptics among their ascendants require the utmost care. All their functions must be tranquillized; they must allow themselves no excesses; must avoid fatigue; must guard against emotional excitement—in a word, they must be always surrounded with tranquillizing influences. Those predisposed to insanity are to be treated in a similar manner, that is to say, with great gentleness; and their passions are to be stilled. The course of life best suited to them is one which does not call for much intellectual activity, and which holds out no visions of fame or fortune. Preventing or checking in the individuals themselves the development of disease-germs is, however, but a secondary consideration; the chief point is, to prevent the migration of these germs into new generations. But, to attain this result, we must not only multiply and facilitate marriages which shall be in conformity with hygienic and moral laws, we have furthermore to discourage alliances the fruits of which can only be of blighted constitution in body and soul. Physicians ought to use all their influence to prevent the intermarriage of persons evidently predisposed to the various forms of neurosis, to tubercle, scrofula, etc. When the ascendants of one of the parties are hereditarily of a morbid constitution, the physician should at least insist on the importance of having the other party perfectly healthy, possessed of great vigor, and, above all, of a temperament the reverse of that of his or her partner. In this way the danger of hereditary taint is diminished, though it were better not to incur such danger at all. But this is a point of so delicate a nature that we cannot dwell upon it here. We must, however, say something about consanguineous marriages, a subject which has given rise to much warm controversy during the past few years. Some physicians, and among them Broca and Bertillon, hold that races which are least mixed, which are purest, are better fitted than crossed races to withstand the causes of degeneracy. According to them, the evil consequences charged on consanguinity are the result of very different agencies, especially the hereditary affections of the ascendants. Trousseau and Boudin, on the other hand, say that marriages between individuals of the same stock oftentimes yield unhealthy fruits—lunatics and idiots. The balance would appear to have been struck in favor of the first opinion. It was but the other day, that Auguste Voisin, in making inquiries of the relatives of more than 1,500 patients in the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière, found that in none of these cases could the disease be attributed to consanguinity. If the latter had been so infallible a cause of degeneracy, its effects would have been seen in that large number of madmen and idiots.

Although theorizers have exaggerated the influence of heredity, it cannot be denied that it plays a part in the genesis of temperament and character, and here we have a warrant for the employment of every means that will favor the transmission of the most desirable aptitudes. In ancient Rome, women of the highest distinction, who were respected by all, imported into another family, with their husbands' consent, their superiority of blood. Quintus Hortensius, the friend and admirer of Cato, having failed to win his daughter Portia, asked for his wife Marcia, and Cato gave her to him. The grossness of such customs shocks our finer sense, but its explanation is to be found in the anxiety of a Roman head of a family to insure for his descendants the highest grade of masculine vigor, and the most solid virtues.

Under the old constitution of society in France, the tenure of high offices and trusts, and the following of some special profession by one family from generation to generation, had their rise and bases in the unconscious observation that aptitudes are hereditary; and M. Sédillot regrets that the revolutions of modern society have done away with this wholesome tradition, which, in every grade of the social scale, morally constrained the son to follow in his father's steps. This point must not be overlooked by races which care for self-improvement.

Another point for such races to bear in mind, and one of readier application, is the necessity of a sound and enlightened system of education. On this topic, those who have the future of France at heart, have but one opinion, viz., that the coming generations must be invigorated by giving more prominence to bodily exercise, and by exempting children from employments injurious to health. They have no thought of interfering with classical studies or the humanities, which will continue to be the chief element in moral culture; the only question is, whether the young could not acquire the treasures of Latinity and Hellenism in less time, and bestow some little study on matters of modern interest. There are sundry branches in which they now obtain no instruction, but which they might study much to the advantage of their intellectual development. This is not the place to enforce this argument; but it does seem unquestionable that, by means of a thorough system of education, proceeding on new principles, we might be able, if not exactly to change the whole character of a people, as Leibnitz thought, at least to do away with most of the influences which, for want of suitable training, cause them to fall into decay.

The conviction that it is possible to counteract the dangerous impulsions of heredity and to triumph over the tyrannies of Fate—at least to acquire a moral superiority over them—is a most wholesome one to spread abroad and to bring into acceptance. A strong will is in itself a power. Even though it were not so easy a thing as it is, to prevail over the blind forces of Nature, simply by the overmastering power of a resolute and sagacious will, there would still exist abundant grounds for believing that man has the power of modifying and amending his own conduct; that he is not the plaything of inflexible Destiny; and that he may not give way, without resistance or remorse, to his evil instincts. Let us believe in heredity, in so far as it may be made a means of improvement and of free perfectionment. But let us withhold our assent when there is claimed for it a despotic power so absolute as it would be madness to resist. Education has not only to improve the race, but also to give men a desire for improvement, by showing them that it is possible. In alliance with a judicious cultivation of desirable hereditary tendencies, education overmasters noxious proclivities and regenerates the race.

We must not, however, attribute to education an exaggerated importance, nor. imagine that by itself alone it can call forth preeminent ability. Its influence, like that of heredity, is limited. Genius, which is the most perfect expression of mind, considered as a free creative force, is controlled by neither. It is a mighty tree whose fruits give sustenance to generations, and the conditions of whose growth are such that we can no more foresee or determine its appearing than we can prescribe rules for its behavior afterward, or estimate its fruitfulness. Fortunately, geniuses are not indispensable, and, in proportion as the national average rises, the less need is there for them. But the general average rises of necessity when all the citizens are animated with the one desire of improvement. Hereditary cultivation, proceeding by means of a rigid selection of the influences which tend to improve the race, may be confidently commended to those nations who are ambitious of holding the first rank in the world.—Revue des Deux Mondes.

  1. Spontaneous. Produced without being planted.—(Webster.) Native, innate.