Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/March 1901/A Study of British Genius II

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IT is scarcely necessary to remark that nationality and race, when used as distinguishing marks of people who all belong to the British Islands, are not identical terms and are both vague. The races—however we may describe them[1]—constituting the people of Great Britain are to be found in all the main divisions of the two islands, and the fact that a man is English or Scotch or Irish tells us nothing positive as to his race. Some indication of race, however, is in many cases furnished if we know the particular district to which a man's ancestors belonged, and this indication is further strengthened if we can ascertain his physical type.

In endeavoring to ascertain the ancestral roots of these eminent men I have almost entirely discarded the evidence of birthplace; so far as possible I have sought to find where a man's four grandparents belonged; if they are known to belong to four different regions it is then necessary to insert him into four groups; when the evidence is less complete he plays a correspondingly smaller part in the classification. It very rarely happens that the four grandparents can all be positively located.

I find that 76.8 per cent, of eminent British men and women are English, 15 per cent. Scotch, 5.3 per cent. Irish and 2.9 per cent. Welsh. The proportion of English is very large, but if we take the present population as a basis of estimation it fairly corresponds to England's share; this is not so, however, as regards the other parts of the United Kingdom; Wales, and especially Ireland, have too few people of genius, while Scotland has produced decidedly more than her share.[2]

If we consider separately the eminent persons in whose ancestry two or more of the elements of British nationality (English, Welsh, Scotch and Irish) are mixed we find that the English proportion is only 51 per cent., the Scotch 16.8, while the Irish element has risen to equality with the Scotch, 16.8, and the Welsh is as high as 15.4. This would seem to indicate that the Irish and the Welsh are especially adapted for cross-breeding in the production of genius.

If we turn to the eminent persons of partly foreign blood (those of wholly foreign blood, like Disraeli, the elder Herschel and Romilly, being necessarily excluded from our study) we find that they constitute a very inconsiderable proportion of the whole. A strain of foreign blood (not going further back than the grandparents) occurs, so far as the 'Dictionary' enables us to ascertain it, only forty-six times. In twenty-four of these cases the element is French (at least half of them being Huguenot), in six German, in six Dutch. The most noteworthy fact about these elements of foreign blood is the peculiarly beneficial effect a French strain has in producing intellectual ability.

It is somewhat remarkable that the geographical distribution of eminent women by no means follows that of eminent men. Here, after England, Ireland leads, and Scotland is but little ahead of Wales. The intellectual brilliancy of Irish women is, indeed, remarkable, and has been displayed in literature as well as on the stage.

These facts serve to indicate that on the whole British ability has not been very unfairly distributed over Great Britain. We are still entitled to ask whether it is also fairly distributed among the populations of different physical type inhabiting the British Islands.

In investigating this point I have supplemented the somewhat scanty information contained in the 'Dictionary* by examination of such portraits of these eminent persons as I have been able to find in the London National Portrait Gallery, and I have confined myself almost exclusively to the color of the hair and eyes. For various reasons the data thus obtained are not altogether satisfactory; the imperfect and often vague statements of the biographers, the frequently faded tones of the pictures, sometimes badly hung, have furnished indications which are often doubtful and not seldom conflicting. An artist is a reliable observer in such matters, but he is liable to disregard the facts in order to obtain his effect, as we may see in Millais's portrait of Gladstone in the National Gallery, where the eyes are represented of quite different colors, one blue, the other brown. The evidence in some cases has been so conflicting that I have had to disregard it altogether, and in many cases the results obtained are probably only an approximation to the truth. With these allowances, however, we may still obtain results which have some value and are not without interest.

From the point of view of hair-color and eye-color I have divided British persons of genius into four classes: Fair (with blue or predominantly blue eyes, and light or brown hair), Mixed (with greenish, blue-yellow or blue-orange eyes,[3] and brown hair), Dark (hazel or brown eyes and brown or black hair), and a class of individuals belonging to the so-called 'Celtic type' (blue or gray eyes and more or less black hair). The Fair type includes 22 per cent, cases, the Mixed type 29 per cent., the Dark type 41 per cent., and the Celtic type 8 per cent. This result probably indicates that all the races occupying Great Britain—however we may define or classify those races— have furnished their contribution to British genius. The interesting and somewhat unexpected fact which emerges is the undue predominance of the Dark class, a predominance by no means exclusively due to Irish and Welsh influences, since very dark men of genius have been furnished by the Scotch Lowlands and the English eastern counties, where the populations are, on the whole, decidedly fair. This tendency is the more striking when we recall that the aristocratic class shows a tendency to fairness, and that our men of genius have been largely drawn from that class. It would be out of place, however, to discuss further the question of pigmentation.

While British genius is thus spread in a fairly impartial manner over the British Islands, and while all the chief physical types appear to have contributed men of genius, there are yet certain districts which have been peculiarly prolific in intellectual ability. In England there are two such centers, the most important being in Norfolk and Suffolk, and to some extent the adjoining counties; Norfolk stands easily at the head of British counties in the production of genius.[4] The other English center is in Devonshire and Somerset. In Scotland a belt running from Aberdeen through Forfar, Fife, the country round Edinburgh, Lanark (including Glasgow), Ayr and Dumfries is especially rich in genius. In Ireland the chief center (if we leave Dublin out of consideration) is in the southeastern group of counties: Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Cork; there is a less important north-eastern center in Antrim and Down.


In considering to what social classes the 902 eminent British men and women on our list belong, we naturally seek to ascertain the position of the fathers. In 262 cases it has not been easy to pronounce definitely on this point, and I have, therefore, classed these cases as doubtful. The remaining 640 may be classed with a fair degree of certainty. I find that they fall into the following groups: Upper Classes (or 'good family') 110 (12.2 per cent.), Yeomen and Farmers 39 (4.3 per cent.), Church 113 (12.5 per cent.), Law 49 (5.4 per cent.), Army 26 (2.9 per cent.), Medicine 26 (2.9 per cent.), Miscellaneous Professions 80 (8.9 per cent.), Trade 113 (12.5 per cent.), Crafts 63 (7 per cent.), Unskilled Workers 21 (2.3 per cent.), while the remaining 262 of doubtful origin constitute 29 per cent, of the whole. In a very few cases (not more than half a dozen) the status of the father is entered undt r two heads, but, as a rule, it has seemed sufficient to state what may be presumed to be the father's chief occupation at the time when his eminent child was born.

In the order in which I have placed the groups they may be said to constitute a kind of hierarchy. I place the Yeomen and Farmers immediately after the Upper Class group. Until recent years, the man who lived on the land which had belonged to his family for many centuries occupied a position not essentially different from that of the more noble families with somewhat larger estates around him. Even at the present day, in remote parts of the country it is not difficult to meet men who live on the land on farms which have belonged to their ancestors through several centuries. Such aristocrats of the soil, thus belonging to 'old families,' frequently have all the characteristics of fine country gentlemen, and in former days the line of demarcation between them and the 'upper class' must often have been difficult to draw. I have formed my 'upper class' group in a somewhat exclusive spirit; I have not included in it the very large body of eminent men who are said to belong to 'old families'; these I have mostly allowed to fall into the 'doubtful' group, but there is good reason to believe that a considerable proportion really belong to r the class of small country gentlemen on the borderland between the aristocracy in the narrow sense and the yeoman and farmer class. To this class, therefore, must be attributed a very important part in the production of the men who have furnished the characteristics of British civilization.

The same must be said of the clergy (including dissenting ministers of all denominations), whom I place next because they are largely drawn from the same ranks and have on the whole led very similar lives. The religious movements of the past century have altogether transformed the lives of the clergy, but until recent years the parson was usually simply a country gentleman somewhat better educated, more in touch with intellectual tastes and pursuits, than the other country gentlemen among whom he lived. The proportion of distinguished men and women contributed from among the families of the clergy can only be described as enormous. In mere number the clergy can seldom have equaled the butchers or bakers in their parishes, yet only two butchers and three bakers are definitely ascertained to have produced eminent children, as against 113 parsons. Even if we compare the Church with the other professions with which it is most usually classed, we find that the eminent children of the clergy considerably outnumber those of lawyers, doctors and army officers put together. This preponderance is the more remarkable when we remember that (although I have certainly included eminent illegitimate children of priests) it is only within the last three and a half centuries that the clergy have been free to compete in this field. Law, Medicine and the Army furnish contingents which, though very much smaller than that of the Church, are sufficiently important to be grouped separately, but all the remaining professions I have thrown into a single group. These are: Officials (Government officials, noblemen's stewards, clerks, etc.) 19, Artists (painters, sculptors, engravers, architects) 15, Actors, etc., 14, Musicians, Composers, etc., 8, Naval, etc., 8, Men of Letters 5, Schoolmasters 4, Engineers, Surveyors and Accountants 4, Men of Science 3. Although so few of the fathers of eminent men can be described professionally as men of letters or men of science, it must be added that in a considerable number of cases literary or scientific aptitudes were present.

We now reach a group of altogether different character, Trade. It is a group of great magnitude, but its size is due to the inevitable inclusion of a very large number of avocations under a single heading. These avocations range from banking to inn-keeping. The bankers evidently form the aristocracy of the trading class, and a remarkable number, considering the smallness of the class (not less than 8), have been the fathers of eminent sons. Under the rather vague heading of 'Merchants' we find 16, and there are 6 manufacturers. Wine merchants, brewers, vintners, publicans and others connected with the sale or production of alcoholic liquors have yielded as many as 13 distinguished sons, who have often attained a high degree of eminence, from Chaucer to Joule. Tea and coffee are only responsible for one each. There are 8 drapers, mercers and hosiers, and 6 tailors and hatters; grocers and a great number of other shop-keeping trades count at most 3 eminent men each. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that at least 4 Lord Mayors of London have been the fathers of distinguished sons; only one of them (Gresham) attained fame in business, the others becoming men of letters and scholars. It must be added in regard to this group that in a certain number of cases the particular 'trade' or 'business' of the father is not specified.

The group which I have denominated 'Crafts' is closely related to that of 'Trade/ and in many cases it is difficult or impossible to decide whether an occupation should be entered under one or the other head. But, speaking generally, there is a very clear distinction between the two groups. The trade avocations are essentially commercial, and for success they involve, above all, financial ability; the crafts are essentially manual, and success here involves more of the qualities of the artist than of the tradesman. Just as the banker is the typical representative of commercial transactions, so the carpenter stands at the head of the crafts. There seems to be something peculiar in the life or aptitudes of the carpenter especially favorable to the production of intellectual children, for this association has occurred as many as 13 times, while there are 4 builders. No other craft approaches the carpenter in this respect; there are 5 shoemakers, 5 cloth-workers, 5 weavers (all belonging to the early phase of industrial development before factories), 5 goldsmiths and jewelers, 4 blacksmiths, while many other handicrafts are mentioned once or twice.

Finally, we reach the group of parents engaged in some unskilled work, and, therefore, belonging to the very lowest social class. It is the smallest of all the groups, and, though including some notable persons, it can scarcely be said to be a preeminently distinguished group. As many as 8 of the parents were common soldiers, the rest mostly agricultural laborers.

It may be interesting to inquire whether our eminent men, when grouped according to the station and avocation of their fathers, show any marked group-characters; whether, in other words, the occupation of the father exercises an influence on the nature and direction of the intellectual aptitudes of the son. To some extent it does exercise such an influence. It is true that there are eminent men of very various kinds in all of these groups. But there is yet a clearly visible tendency for certain kinds of ability to fall into certain groups. It is not surprising that there should be a tendency for the son to follow the profession of the father. Nor is it surprising that a great number of statesmen should be found in the upper class group. Men of letters are yielded by every class, perhaps especially by the clergy, but Shakespeare and, it is probable, Milton belonged to families of yeomen. The sons of lawyers, one notes, even to a greater extent than the eminent men of 'upper class' birth, eventually find themselves in the House of Lords, and not always as lawyers. The two groups of Army and Medicine are numerically identical, but in other respects very unlike. The sons of army men form a very brilliant and versatile group, and include a large proportion of great soldiers; the sons of doctors do not show a single eminent doctor, and if it were not for the presence of two men of the very first rank—Darwin and Landor—they would constitute a somewhat mediocre group. It is an interesting, and I think a significant, fact that the fathers of as many as 25 artists exercised either a craft or some trade very closely allied to a craft. Great actors and actresses, more than any other group of eminent persons, tend to be of low, obscure or dubious birth; 4, at least, can be definitely set down as the children of unskilled laborers.

When we survey the field of investigation I have here very briefly summarized, the most striking fact we encounter is the extraordinary extent to which British men and women of genius have been produced by the highest and smallest social classes, and the minute part which has been played by the 'teeming masses' in building up British civilization.' This is not altogether an unexpected result, though it has not before been shown to hold good for the entire field of the intellectual ability of a country.[5] To realize the enormous preponderance of the aristocracy in the production of these eminent men, and the oligarchic basis of British civilization, it must be remembered not only, as I have already pointed out, that a very considerable proportion of the 'Doubtful' group belong to 'old families,' which are certainly often 'good families,' but also that I have excluded altogether the children of peers, notwithstanding that they form a group which has played a very important part indeed in the national life. As we descend the social pyramid, although we are dealing with an ever-vaster mass of human material, the appearance of any individual of eminent ability becomes an ever rarer phenomenon, while the eminent persons belonging to the lowest and most numerous class of all are, numerically at all events, an almost negligible quantity.

One is tempted to ask how far the industrial progress of the nineteenth century, the growth of factories, the development of urban life, will alter the conditions affecting the production of eminent men. It seems clear that, taking English history as a whole, the conditions of rural life have been most favorable to the production of genius. The minor aristocracy and the clergy—the 'gentlemen' of England—living on the soil in the open air, in a life of independence at once laborious and leisurely, have been able to give their children good opportunities for development, while at the same time they have not been able to dispense them from the necessity of work. Thus, at all events, it has been in the past. How it will be in the future is a question which the data before us in no way help to answer. So far as can be seen, the changing conditions of life have as yet made no change in the conditions required for producing genius. Life in the old towns formerly fertile in intellectual ability—towns like Edinburgh, Norwich, Bury St. Edmunds and Plymouth—was altogether unlike life in our modern urban centers, and there is yet no sign that the latter will equal the former in genius-producing power. Nor is there any sign that the education of the proletariat will lead to a new development of eminent men; the lowest class in Great Britain, so far as the data before us show, has not exhibited any recent tendency to a higher yield of genius, and what production it is accountable for remains rural rather than urban.

  1. For an admirable and lucid summary of the present position of this question see Ripley's 'Races of Europe', ch. xii.
  2. In a recent careful study ('Where We Get Our Best Men,' London, 1900,) Mr. A. H. H. Maclean has shown that of some 2,500 British persons of ability belonging to the nineteenth century 70 per cent, are English, 18 per cent. Scotch, 10 per cent. Irish, and 2 per cent. Welsh. We thus find that by taking a much lower standard of ability and confining ourselves to the most recent period, Scotland stands higher than ever, while Ireland benefits very greatly at the expense of both England and Wales. This is probably not altogether an unexpected result. It is on the whole confirmed by an analysis of British 'Men of the Time,' made by Dr. Conan Doyle ('Nineteenth Century,' Aug., 1888).
  3. It may be necessary to point out that eyes vary in color from unpigmented (blue) to fully pigmented (brown); between these two extremes we have various mixtures of blue with yellow or brown. The so-called 'black' eye is really brown.
  4. It may be noted that the founders of New England, both on the political and the religious sides, were mainly produced by this East Anglian center of genius. The people of this region are racially connected with the Dutch, and have always combined a genius for statesmanship and an aptitude for compromise with an inflexible love of independence. I may add that I have dealt more fully with some of the points touched on in this section in an article on the geographical distribution of British ability, shortly to appear in the Monthly Review.
  5. In Maclean's statistical study of the origins of British men of ability during the nineteenth century it is shown that 26 per cent, of those of known origin were sons of 'aristocrats, officials, etc.'; the result was almost identical when the 100 men of preëminent ability were considered separately. Mr. C. H. Cooley ('Annals of the American Academy,' May, 1897) investigated the point in regard to a group of distinguished European poets, philosophers and men of letters, and found that 45 belonged to the upper and upper middle classes, 24 to the lower middle class, and only 2 to the lower class.