Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/March 1903/Mental and Moral Heredity in Royalty VIII

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Evidence from Lehr's Genealogy.

IF there is any one still unconvinced that heredity is by far the most important of all causes leading to high mental activity resulting in what we call eminence or distinction, he need only carefully study the great book of pedigrees compiled by Paul Ernst Lehr. If he will follow these charts of relationship and, at the same time, use any general biographical dictionary, he will find how seldom has distinction, as judged by achievements, fallen to those not close blood relations of others of the same stamp. And this consanguinity of distinction is in spite of the varying degrees of education and opportunity that must have been presented to these different princes even when living in the same age or the same family. If we find, as we do on certain pages of the book, great barren regions containing dozens of titles of the highest social rank, the bearers of which lived in different countries and eras, there is no reason to suppose that these undistinguished princes did not average just as much opportunity as the average of dozens on some other page where clustered together are the names of those whose achievements have been the themes of biographers and historians.

For instance, there does not seem to be any reason why the kings and princes of Denmark should not have averaged just about the same opportunity as the princes of Prussia; education of varying degrees of perfection, stirring times and chances to display ability in war and government fell to the lot of a certain number in each country, certainly to no more in Prussia than in Denmark, yet Denmark is barren of genius, and Prussia at the same time is full of it. At that time not only do we find great men and women in Prussia, but also their relations in Brunswick and Sweden, engaged in vigorous activity, while the princes of nine tenths of the other countries of Europe are doing nothing really worthy of any mention at all, although education and events must certainly be favorable to a great many of them.

It is not that education is of no moment, for it must be, as we all know, of conspicuous influence in mental development. Even those 'self-made' men who have had no education worth mentioning in the ordinary sense of the word, have nevertheless educated themselves by observation and experience. It is not that education is of no moment, but it must be that the determining factor in the production of the more important man, is not his education or his opportunities, but the inherent desire for knowledge and power that makes him seek an education in one way or another, while the mediocre man is not willing to have more thrust upon him than his native attention can stand.

Lehr's 'Genealogy' is a book compiled for purely heraldric purposes and traces to the twelfth degree of remoteness eight of the principal reigning families of northern Europe. Since in going back twelve generations every person has 4,096 ancestral quarterings, the total value of the material brought together in this way is 8 4,096 32,768, an immense field for the study of heredity. Owing to intermarriages the total number of different persons is considerably less than this, being 3,312, but it makes no difference from the standpoint of science whether we repeat the same person several times in the pedigree or whether another of the same characteristics is introduced in his stead, the scientific value of this book is represented by the larger number, 32,768. This is of course ignoring the possibility that inbreeding of itself creates a different value for the stock; but since inbreeding in these families is never very close, and since it is the best scientific opinion that inbreeding per se as usually carried on among human beings is of no consequence, other things being equal,[1] this error, if it be one, may be neglected.

A group of 32,768 persons, such as we have in the pages of Lehr, possesses several peculiar advantages for the study of the origin of genius. First, it is gathered together in an entirely impersonal way, Lehr having no scientific theory in view. Second, it contains also mediocrities, so that we may see how many times mediocrity has produced its like before any genius appears. Third, the exact relationship of every person to every other person is known, and the pedigrees are perfectly complete. Fourth, nearly all are of royal or noble birth, very few being below the rank of a count, so that although their environments are very different, their social position is always much the same.

Among all these 3,312 I found only sixteen worthy of the nine or ten grades here employed. These are given in the list below, the word (new) being appended to those whose immediate ancestry is devoid of others of equal intellectual worth.

1. (new) Anhalt: Catherine II., Empress of Russia.
Catherine must be considered as a 'sport' in more than the popular use of the term, since her ancestry was in no way remarkable. She did not leave any descendants nearly as capable as herself.
2. Brunswick: Amelia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar.
'Distinguished patron of genius and learning.' Friend of Goethe. She was an excellent student, in which she showed 'wonderful perseverance' and also composed considerable music. Amelia was a niece of Frederick the Great and consequently closely related to about a dozen of the most brilliant of modern royalty.
3. Castile: Isabella, the Catholic, wife of Ferdinand of Aragon.
Isabella was probably a reversion due to the remarkable and repeated inbreeding from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and John the Great of Portugal. Her illustrious descendants were numerous. Among others may be mentioned the emperor Charles Quint, Don John of Austria and Alexander Farnese.
4. Coligny: Caspard, the great admiral.
The great admiral was the product of the union of the Colignys with the Montmorencys when both families possessed illustrious names. He also left great descendants (Maurice of Nassau and others).
5. Henriette: poetess, a grand niece of the admiral.
6. (new) Douglas: Archibald Earl of Angus.
Not a conspicuous example of heredity. His son Gavin was distinguished as a poet.
7. (new) Egmont: Lamoral,-1558.
Had two sons of some distinction.
8. Hanau: Amelia, married William V. of Hesse-Cassel.
As regent, 'extraordinary energy, wisdom and virtue.' William the Silent, the illustrious founder of the Dutch Republic, had thirty-two grandchildren, four of whom were distinguished. Amelia was one of these four.
9. Hohenzollern: Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg.
True founder of the eminence of the Hohenzollerns and greatest man in Germany in his day. He was one of the numerous great grandchildren of William the Silent.
10. Lorraine: René II., Duke of,-1508.
Defeated Charles the Bold. Mother was a daughter of René, Duke of Aragon (distinguished).
11. Lorraine: Claude, first Duke of Guise, son of the above. He served in the army with distinction at Marignano and other places, and was created Duke of Guise by Francis I. His fame was exceeded by his son, Francis, who became one of the greatest commanders of his time' and also by his grandson, Henry, the bitter opponent of the Protestants.
12. (new) Orange: William the Silent, illustrious founder of the Dutch Republic. Sprang from comparatively mediocre stock, but his genius was wonderfully well perpetuated owing to his remarkably brilliant alliances.
13. Palatine: Sophia, Electress of Hanover, an undoubted example of hereditary talent, owing to her many brilliant relations, and one of the connecting links between the genius in the families of Orange and Hohenzollern.
14. Parthenay: Catherine, Vicomtesse de Rohan,-1631.
"A spirited and gifted French lady, was a Huguenot. She distinguished herself at the siege of La Rochelle in 1627, and later published some poems." The famous Duke of Rohan was her son. He was called 'the perfect captain,' also wrote valuable memoirs and a treatise on war. The father and aunt were both distinguished.
15. (new) Romanhof: Peter the Great of Russia.
It is a question whether Peter is to be regarded as a new variation or a reversion to his great grandfather, Feodor, who was the greatest man in Russia in his day. His only other very brilliant relation was Sophia, his half sister.
16. (new) Vasa: Gustavus I., illustrious founder of the dynasty.
Certainly a new variation. Genius amply inherited in Gustavus Adolphus and others.

These are all the great names found among 3,312. All the quotations are taken from Lippincott's 'Dictionary,' so the work has an entirely impersonal basis. In considering the remaining, 3,296, who, as far as Lippincott's great dictionary is concerned, have left no lives worthy of distinguished merit, we gain an insight into the rarity of such men and women as the Great Elector of Brandenburg or Catherine Parthenay. What of these 3,296? Can it be possible that, living in the highest social position as they did, a very large majority of them did not have abundant opportunities to exercise ability had they been the possessors of it.

What is to be said on the side of heredity? It will be seen that at least seven of these sixteen numbers (2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13) belong in what may be called the great main mountain chain of royalty, composed of the families Condé, Coligny, Montmorency, Orange, Palatine and Hohenzollern, whose course can be traced from Anne de Montmorency 1493-1562, as far as one generation beyond Frederick the Great in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Of the other nine, Catherine II. of Russia, alone gives no striking proof of heredity. It is examples of this sort that should be most frequent were environment the main cause. Since wars have been going on during most of the period covered in this book, and since the majority of princes have had positions in the army and cabinet, and have been given fair educations, and since the effects of environment must have been mostly questions of chance, apart from family influence, there does not seem to be any reason why environment should group the great ones together in any way except as regards time or place. But these sixteen are not grouped as regards time or place, but are scattered over the centuries and in various countries. If more than ninety per cent, of them are compatible with all that can be expected from heredity, and the chances are tremendously against such an occurrence owing to the large preponderance of mediocrity, then we must conclude that heredity is far more important than environment in the causation of the above facts.

About half the number are new variations. This is pretty well in line with results in the study of genius in general. That is, the vast horde of mediocrities is just about as likely to produce a great man as the relatively small number of great are likely to perpetuate their own kind. The reason why genius for war and government was maintained through more generations than scientific or literary genius ever has been is probably simply this: leading families in science and art do not in general intermarry in the way that these great governing families have done. Some exceptions to this may occur, as among the descendants of Jonathan Edwards and the famous musician, Bach, but in these cases the mental qualities were perpetuated.

In the lower forms of animal life we know by actual experimentation that slight changes in the environment occasion the greatest difference in results, still in spite of the strange modifications that may be occasioned in the developing fish or frog by external mechanical or chemical means, the question resolves itself under ordinary conditions to the nature of the primary germ-cells.

If a naturalist were stocking two tanks, one for fishes and one for frogs, and had eggs of both to use for that purpose, the first practical question for him would be which are the eggs of fishes and which are the eggs of frogs?

It is just so in the development of the human mind. As far as the practical results are concerned, the one bit of knowledge, the possession of which will best enable us to predict the fully developed adult, is an answer to the same sort of question as that we would first wish to know in the case of the fishes and the frogs. What is the nature of the primary germ-cells? Since for obvious reasons we can not know this nature, the next' best thing to know is its theoretical probabilities as derived from a proper study of the ancestry.

It would seem from the facts here studied that the probabilities will be roughly as given below. Quality possessed by entire ancestry is almost sure to appear. Quality possessed by one parent and half the ancestry is likely to appear with almost equal force, in one out of every two descendants. Quality possessed by one parent only, and not present in the ancestry, has one chance in about four for its appearance in the progeny. Quality not possessed by either parent, but present in all the grandparents and most of the remaining ancestry, would also have about one chance in two for its appearance in one of the children. If only one of the great grandparents possessed the quality in question, then the chances of its appearance in any one of the grandchildren of this ancestor would be only about one chance in sixteen. It would be, however, very unlikely that some of the remote ancestry had not also the quality in question, so the chances would be raised in a greater or less degree according to the proportionate amount of this remote influence.

There does not seem to be the least reason for assuming that the male side is any more or less potent than the female side in the transmission of family characteristics, nor does there seem to be any grounds for the fancied belief that sons tend to resemble their mothers and daughters their fathers, or the more generally accepted scientific belief to the contrary. No figures have been compiled on this subject because it has seemed to the author to be profitless in view of the approximate equality of the instances pro and con.

The above estimates for the characteristics of offspring are in accordance with Galton's law of ancestral heredity, except that provision is made for the fact that mental and moral qualities do not freely blend, so that a child is apt to 'take after' pretty completely some one of his ancestors, more often the near one, less and. less often the remote one, until the chances of reversion to a very distant one are exceedingly slight.

Once in a large number of times occurs one of those fortuitous[2] combinations of ancestral qualities that is destined to make a person inheriting them vary much from any of his kind, and in fortunate instances shine as a genius, springing from a mediocre stock. The figures drawn from Lehr's 'Genealogy' were about one in five hundred for this sort of occurrence.

At this point it may be well to consider a popular misconception concerning the value of hereditary influence—a mistake very frequently made. Many people argue that great geniuses, coming as they frequently do from humble families, Franklin and Lincoln for instance, discount our belief in mental heredity; when, on the other hand, these men should only strengthen our reliance in this same force. We should consider the thousands, indeed millions, of mediocrities, who have to be born from mediocrities, before one mind of the type of Franklin's is produced.

That they rise superior to their circumstances is in itself a proof of the inborn nature of their minds and characters. A man of this sort represesents just the combination of the best from many ancestors. It would be possible in a great many throws to cast a large number of dice so that they would all fall aces. But here in certain regions of royalty as among the Montmorencys and Hohenzollerns where the dice are loaded, such a result may be expected in a large percentage of throws.

  1. Conf. Huth, 'Marriage of Near Kin.' 8vo. London, 1887.
  2. It is to be remembered that when we speak of chance as a cause of the combinations of characteristics, that even the throwing of dice or pitching of pennies is entirely subject to the laws of mathematics, as has been abundantly proved by experiments. (Conf., K. Pearson, 'Chances of Death,' etc.)