Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/October 1911/The Laws of Environmental Influence

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By Professor SIMON N. PATTEN


THE relation of environment to heredity presents an issue that is becoming increasingly clear. I will state it in the words of Dr. F. A. Woods. "Experimentally and statistically, there is not a grain of proof that ordinarily environment can alter the salient mental and moral traits in any measurable degree from what they were predetermined to be through innate influences."[1] The premises of this statement lie in biology, while the conclusions must be verified by facts in social science. Dr. Woods implies that, for each virtue society holds dear and for each vice it condemns, there is a biologic character without the presence of which the virtue or the vice could not appear. This position controverts the evidence of social science as to the basis on which virtues and vices rest.

To discuss this problem, I must begin with the difference between the data of social and biologic sciences. Biology uses experiment and hence begins with germ cells: social science is based on observation and hence its data are the visible differences which the study of men affords. Both call their data characters, but as a loose terminology creates confusion, I shall call the germinal variations the biologist finds through experiment characters, while the visible differences in men open to observation I shall call traits. The problem then is what is the relation of biologic characters to visible traits? Is there a character for each trait, or do independent laws govern traits? To answer these questions, traits must be divided into two classes; mental traits are measured by differences in thought and expression while bodily traits denote external differences. Mental traits are again divided into social traits, which are impressed on individuals by society and physical traits which reflect brain activity.

Physical traits do not correspond to the virtues and vices emphasized by society. There are only five that have social significance—imitation, suggestion, sympathy, self-interest and will power. These have biologic antecedents. Social traits, however, change from environment to environment, from group to group and even from family to family. They are readily adopted, easily lost and have the marks of acquired characters. The motives for adopting a virtue come to the individual through social influences. The power in him leading to its acceptance is not due to some unit-character corresponding to the virtue in question, but is the result of will power exercised in this particular direction. An abstainer from alcoholic drinks has no unit-character distinguishing him from those who drink. He uses his will power to create an ideal of abstinence from which habits grow up, making it easy for him to reject liquor. His son, however, will have to go through the same process; nor is the effect diminished unless the temptation is reduced by the absence of opportunity. Bravery, honor, chastity, thrift, honesty and a host of other virtues are in the same position. They are due to one power manifested in many ways and not to many innate characters each manifested in one way. Can any one pick out the psychic or physical mark that accompanies these virtues? If not, it is more reasonable to assume that the virtues a man cherishes are due to the society of which he is a part and not to the germinal determinants that make up his heredity. The real difference between a virtuous person and a victim of vice is that the one has will power to resist temptation while the other lacks will power. The drunkard did not mean to become a drunkard, nor did anything in his make-up force him to become one. He merely wanted to enjoy himself and failed to exercise his will power in restraint of temptation. The same is true of the prostitute. There is no race trait separating her from other women. Lacking home restraints, she drifted into vice, with the result that she was excluded from all social relations except those of her occupation. Vice is not a physical abnormality, but the lack of will power or of a restrictive social environment. The negative of each virtue is a vice, and it appears when the contrasted virtue is not evoked. Both are social in origin and in neither case are there special unit characters except those involved in the expression of will power. A single determinant coupled with a favorable environment gives reality to all the virtues. The lack of will power plus temptation is vice; the growth of will power minus temptation is virtue. These two forces make the difference that exists between the good and the bad.

Criminal traits differ from virtues and vices in that they have a physical background. The study of degeneration carried on by Lombroso and his disciples shows that they are biologic characters. They represent, however, reversions and not creations. They are thus due not to alterations in the germ cell by which it gets more or different determinants, but to retardations in development by which a full expression of inherited traits is prevented. The criminal has had his growth checked, so that he expresses not the full power of his race, but the traits of this race at some earlier period. To hate, to envy, to be brutal are atavistic traits natural to his ancestors, but now suppressed by the full development of normal powers. Their sources are therefore the sources of retardation; they must be studied as examples of retardation and not of germ cell development.

The environment of a man changes not as he moves from place to place, but as his income is raised or lowered. A change from $10 to $20 a week alters radically the conditions under which a family lives and gives to its members other motives and temptations than those that moved them in their earlier period. Two contrasted conditions result. A condition of surplus where choices are large and a condition of deficit where physical wants are seldom met. Each of these states have visible effects that can be readily traced. A state of deficit affecting children results in defective bodily development. The child matures more rapidly and loses the plasticity of mind and body which better nourished children possess. This means the appearance of atavistic traits which in turn promote criminal tendencies. A state of deficit is thus the cause of crime and of those peculiarities that accompany the retardation of development. Families under its influence falling below the normal standard approximate in thought and character the condition of distant ancestors. Deficit and retardation are different phases of one group of tendencies. Deficit is the cause; retardation is an effect. The result is the increase of crime and the loss of moral tone.

The deterioration due to a deficit is not more marked than that due to a surplus. An animal eats freely and even gorges itself without injury because the energy to acquire food must always be kept active in order to assure survival. Men, however, separate action from enjoyment; those who are favored in income can expand their consumption without correspondingly increasing their activity. The constant stimulation of appetite and the overworking of organs to relieve the system of its load leads to morbidness and disease. It also results in the creation of toxic substances which poison the body and depress mental activity. These evils react on the will and reduce its power to control thought and activity. With the decay of will power the moral virtues are undermined. The victim of indulgence thus sinks into vice and drifts into evils that an active will power would have avoided. Morbidness, disease, auto-intoxication, a weak will and vicious inclinations appear when social conditions throw into the hands of individuals a surplus that permits a cessation of strenuous activity.

Surplus and deficit are thus equally dangerous. Those in want have their development retarded and suffer from the evils bound up with this condition. Those whose surplus permits satiety and idleness suffer with equal severity from a train of evils that flows from morbid conditions. Moral, vicious and criminal traits thus vary with objective conditions and are marks of bodily states that depend on the surplus and deficit of society. The result is the sinking of the race into a subnormal condition from which there is no relief until economic conditions are altered. Normality is increased by taking from the surplus of the prosperous and adding to the welfare of those injured by poverty. It is not increased by an elimination which merely changes the character of defects without reducing their amount. Vices are the negative of will power: criminal traits are the negative of development. They are not independent characters corresponding to changes in the germ cell.

The main result of the preceding discussion is to show that the unit-characters of the germ-cell do not correspond to the moral and immoral traits made emphatic in social science. The biologic characters important in social science are few in number, of which will power is the only one on which the present progress of the race depends. Social traits correspond to the peculiar conditions in which society finds itself and they grow in number as the complexity of the environment increases. Chastity, thrift or temperance indicates desirable social conditions which are pictured in the ideal they create. There could be forty such characters with no biologic change except a growth of will power. Progress in man is due to concentration of energy. The central organs, the brain and its adjuncts, have grown at the expense of the terminal organs such as the hand, foot, teeth and jaw. More energy goes to the brain and less to the external structures of vital importance to lower animals. This concentration of energy results in the prolongation of childhood, the growth of psychic powers and the dominance of will over instinct. But at the same time it creates a deficit in terminal organs which forces them into a state of decay. The marks of these changes are the psychic effects revealed in thought and the regressive effects seen in terminal organs. A single biologic tendency could thus create all the difference that separates man from other animals.

We are now in a position to discuss the variations that create differences between parent and child. One source of difference is degeneration, caused by a surplus of nutriment. This clogs the system, produces morbidness and creates auto-intoxication. The final mark is a weak will. The lack of central control is prominent in degeneration and leads to many manifestations of which hysteria is an example. A second difference of parent and child is due to retardation. Each organism in its development repeats the history of its ancestors. An imperfect recapitulation means that the growth of the child stops short of the development of the normal ancestor. From this source many variations arise. A third difference between parent and child is caused by regression. As distinguished from degeneration and retardation, regression is only partial indicating real progression in unobserved parts. In man the terminal organs fail to come up to the standard set by earlier development. The central organs, however, are progressive and their growth is the real cause of the regression of terminal organs.

No terminal organ will attain its full development except under the stimulus of constant use. In a blacksmith's arm the stimulus causing its growth is in his mind and not in his arm. He wants certain goods and the way to get them is to use his arm as a smith. The positive side of his development is psychic through which a greater appreciation of goods arises. This leads to work; work involves exercise and exercise leads to growth of the arm. In the case of a musician the stimulus that develops the hand is in his appreciation of music. So long as the love of music persists the stimulus is present which arouses the peculiar growth in the arm. Instead therefore of a new modification in the germ cell being needed to perpetuate the modification of the musician's arm the germ-cell modification has already been made. It exists in the psychic variation creating the love of music. While this persists, the stimulus is present that forces the right growth in the arm. The arm of the musician as compared with that of a laborer is regressive but the stimulus that comes from a love of music keeps active a group of muscles and leads to their growth. There is a general terminal regression counteracted in specific cases by the stimulus due to the activity of central organs. This, I believe, will be found true of all cases purely regressive. They are the effects of progressive changes in the central organs. They should not be confused with degeneration and retardation which indicate a real backward movement.

The other ways in which parent and child differ are through injury and recovery. Any child may be injured in ways that will affect subsequent growth. So in turn he may be free from injuries of parents or, what is more important, his environment may be so modified that injuries to which they were subjected become less frequent or disappear. Ancestors may suffer injury from a disease like malaria or from a parasite like the hook worm for so long a time that the injury seems inherited. A change of environment, however, may prevent the injury and bring back the children to normal standards. Recoveries of this sort are as frequent as the injuries that depress; they need recognition in any scheme to present the differences between parent and child.

It may seem from the last paragraphs that I am getting over into biology where other persons are a better judge of the facts than I am. The change of attitude is, however, more apparent than real. The traits of men and the facts about degeneration were observed long before biology became a science. What biology has done is not to discover new traits, but to enable us to classify them and to show their causes. Only the most obvious facts of biology are needed for this purpose, and they are of importance not to help observation, but to point out remedies. That riches caused men to degenerate and that poverty retards the development of the poor are well-established facts. They show that states of surplus and deficit affect not only moral traits but also create degeneration and retardation. Psychology, however, has added a clearly defined cause of non-development which had escaped notice. The growth of an organ depends partly on the direction given to growth by the unit characters of the germ-cell and partly to the use to which it is put. Even if the forces of the germ-cell are normal no organ will fully develop without constant exercise. Regression in an organ will take place if the stimuli to exercise are absent. These stimuli lie not in the organ, but in the brain cells. Mental activity may fail from three causes. Psychic traits may be inactive through degeneration: they may not develop because of retardation: or the environment may lack the elements that arouse their activity. In each of these cases the trouble lies in objective facts mainly if not solely of an economic nature. Regressions do not differ in their origin from degenerations and retardations. They all arise from defects in the environment and thus do not indicate changes in the unit-characters of the germ-cell.

A study of man should begin with his social nature and with the degenerate forces at work within him. These two problems run into each other because it is man's social nature that has stopped elimination. Society uses its nurture to keep the weak alive and hence improved conditions means not progress but degeneration. A second difference between men and animals arises out of the social classes which differences in income create. The poor are in this way subject to exploitation and held in the grip of want. Dr. Woods says men have choices and can escape their environment. This is in a degree true of the higher income levels but not of the poor. Their fate is as definite and as objective as that of any lower animal. Along with poverty goes physical retardation, and the two combined are responsible for the mass of traits associated with the poor. A full maturity depends on the stimuli that evoke activity and hence promote growth. These stimuli are psychic traits made active in men by contact with the economic environment. This means that wealth is needed to place around each family the proper objects to excite interest: without them the psychic powers are dormant and the physical are regressive.

The environment of a man is determined not by his geographical habitat, but by his income. The various income levels of society create as marked differences in men as differences in latitude do in animals. The influence of environment on man is therefore not less but different from the same influence on animals. All virtues and defects in men are environmental. The virtues are social; the defects are degenerations, retardations and regressions. Most observable traits come under these heads. They change with the environment and not with the germ cell. Only those changes that are really progressive can be attributed to the germ-cell. All other traits can be traced directly or indirectly to social or nutritive alterations. Heredity is the one power that can transform man into a superman and we must rely on it to reach this higher level. The actual problems we face to-day are those of degeneration. We must get rid of the subman before we can rise to the superman's level. The subman is made by environment as truly as the superman will be made by heredity. We must therefore act through objective agencies until the normal in men has been evoked. Are social traits acquired or natural? Is degeneration in man due to bad environment or to heredity? These are the problems which must be fairly faced and definitely solved before it can be justly claimed that man is freer from environmental control than are the lower forms of animal life.

  1. The Popular Science Monthly, April, 1910.