Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/May 1915/Families of American Men of Science

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IN a series of articles entitled "A Statistical Study of American Men of Science," printed in Science in 1906 and 1910 and as an appendix to "The Biographical Directory of American Men of Science," methods were explained by which the thousand leading scientific men of the United States had been selected and arranged in the order of the merit of their work. Studies were made of the measurement of scientific performance, of the origin and distribution of scientific men, and of the changes which occurred during an interval of several years. Data have now been gathered in regard to the families of the men of science previously selected. In our present state of ignorance a statistical study of any homogeneous and objectively chosen group should be of value, both as a contribution to psychological and vital statistics in general and for comparison with other groups which may be similarly studied. Scientific men form a desirable group for such study as, on the one hand, they may be assumed to be willing and competent to supply the information and, on the other hand, knowledge concerning the conditions favorable to scientific performance may have important practical applications.

Of one thousand one hundred and fifty-four scientific men from whom information in regard to their families was requested 1,036 replied and 118 did not. Of the replies 16 were blank, sometimes accompanied by the explanation that the information was not readily attainable or the like, 7 were to the effect that the information would be sent later or the like, 13 were received too late, 25 were very imperfect, 975 were usable and in most cases complete. This is an unusually full reply to a questionnaire. For example, in answer to an inquiry in regard to noteworthy relatives addressed to 467 fellows of the Royal Society, Sir Francis Galton received 207 useful replies, and the completely available returns "scarcely exceeded 100." In such cases it is desirable that returns should be complete in order to avoid the selection of a special class. Thus, when people are asked whether they have noteworthy relatives, those having them are more likely to reply than others, and the percentage of positive replies may give no definite information in regard to the frequency. In the present case it appears, from examination of the names of the ten per cent. who failed to reply, that there was no group that would affect appreciably the result of the inquiry.

I. Origin, Heredity and Performance

In the previous articles statistics were given in regard to the birthplace of the scientific men, and data are now at hand in regard to the nationality and race of their parents. Of the thousand scientific men first selected 126 were born abroad—34 in Canada, 38 in Great Britain PSM V86 D509 Parents' nationalities of scientists.png and 19 in Germany. Table I. gives the nationality of the parents of 917 leading scientific men. Six hundred and twenty-eight, or more than two thirds, have both parents of native American (United States) birth, 23 others have an American father and 42 an American mother, foreign men having American women more frequently than the reverse. In 165 cases both parents are foreign born and of the same nationality. Including Americans there are 124 marriages in which the nationality of the parents was mixed, but they were largely British. The American-born parents are mainly of British and New England descent; of foreign born parents, 137 fathers and an equal number of mothers are English, Scotch, Irish or Canadian. Germany contributes 77 fathers and 66 mothers. Other nations contribute in all 51 fathers and 44 mothers—fairly equally distributed among Norwegians, Swedes, Russians, Dutch, French and Swiss, with several from Denmark, Italy and Japan. The parents of American men of science are thus predominantly British-American, with an admixture of nearly 8 per cent, of Germans and about 5 per cent, from other nationalities.

Twelve and six tenths per cent, of our leading scientific men are foreign born, 12.6 per cent, are native born of foreign-born parents, and 7.1 per cent, have one foreign-born parent. In the general population of the United States 14 per cent, of the people are foreign born, 13.5 have both parents foreign born and 6.7 have one parent foreign born. The foreign born and those of foreign-born parentage thus contribute less, but only slightly less, than the native population to scientific productivity. There is a great difference in the different nationalities. Those born in Great Britain contribute 1.8 per cent to the population and 3.4 per cent, to our scientific men; Germany contributes 2.7 per cent, to the population and 1.9 per cent, to the scientific men; Russia 1.7 to the population and 0.6 to the scientific men; Italy 1.5 to the population and 0.1 to the scientific men. These differences are not, however, necessarily due to any racial superiority of the British and Germans. Men have been called from these countries to scientific positions here or have come to seek them, and in general a larger proportion of their immigrants have been from the educated classes. In my own science men so distinguished as Professor Münsterberg from Germany and Professor Titchener from England have accepted chairs of psychology in our universities. It is most unfortunate for us that this movement appears to have ceased. Between 1903 and 1910 only one scientific man of high distinction was called to this country, whereas nine leading scientific men returned to their native countries.

We could and should see to it that the foreigners coming to the United States contribute their share of men of performance. From the point of view of national selfishness nothing could be more profitable than to add to the community as many foreign men of distinction as would come for five or ten thousand dollars a year, and as many young men of promise as would come for one or two thousand dollars a year. Such men are already selected and their education is paid for. We have paid for the education of some 150,000 physicians to obtain at most 1,000 who are competent to advance medical science. The services of this thousand are probably worth as much as those of all the others combined, so if we divide equally the cost of bringing up and educating these physicians, the cost of a man competent to advance science is perhaps $500,000 and his value is far greater. Such men we can obtain from abroad free of cost beyond the payment for their living, which must be paid equally to those who are educated and selected at our own expense. Not only the men themselves, but their descendants also are assets to the country of incalculable value. From the point of view of the world at large, it is probably an advantage to bring men of distinction and of promise to this country, as this tends to promote friendly international relations and good-will, and because, the wealth being greater here and the competition less, we should be able to give better opportunity to the men. The war has placed on us great responsibility; we should provide for those debarred from advancing science, scholarship and art at home. If Great Britain can afford to cast ten billion dollars into the abyss, we are able to invest an equal sum to advance the arts of civilization.

While it is comparatively easy to determine the nationality of scientific men and of their parents, it is almost impossible to determine their race. Indeed, a consideration of the subject leads to a realization of the complexity of the racial descent of the peoples forming the nations of western Europe and America. There are 13.5 families stated to be Jews. Of 71.5 German families, 8 are Jews; of 6 Russian families, 5 are Jews; among 660.5 native American families, there is only one Jewish parent. There may be some unrecorded cases; the number of native-born scientific men of Jewish family is smaller than might have been anticipated. Two families are Japanese; none is known to be of Negro or of North American Indian descent. PSM V86 D511 Scientists' graded percentage of parents' nationalities.png

The scientific men have been divided into four groups in accordance with the merit of their performance. These are: I. those among the leading hundred of our scientific men; II. those among the second and and third hundreds; III. those below this rank in the thousand; and IV. those who in the second arrangement fell below the thousand. As shown in the previous paper, the first three groups cover about equal ranges of merit, and this also holds in a general way for the fourth group. In Table II. is given the nationality of the parents of the scientific men in accordance with these grades. Those of American parentage are of average standing; those of British parentage are below and those of German parentage are above the average. Those of other nationalities are slightly above the average. Among the leading hundred men of science seven are of Jewish family. The Jewish race thus appears to show superior intellectual ability. The differences in the other nationalities and races are so small as to indicate practical equality. The slight superiority of the Germans is due to several men who have come to this country to fill scientific positions, half of whom are of Jewish descent.

Table III. The Occupations of the Fathers of the Scientific Men

PSM V86 D511 Occupations of fathers of scientific men.png

The occupations of the fathers of 885 scientific men are given in Table III. Forty-three per cent, belong to the professional classes; 21.2 per cent, to the agricultural classes and 35.7 per cent, to the manufacturing and business classes. In the United States in 1850, 3.1 per cent. of white men having occupations were in the professions; 44.1 were engaged in agriculture, and 34.1 in trade, transportation, manufacturing and mechanical pursuits. The professional classes have thus contributed in proportion to their numbers about fourteen times as many scientific men as the others, the agricultural classes only half as many as the manufacturing and trading classes. The farm not only produces relatively fewer scientific men, but a smaller proportion of them are of high distinction and a larger proportion are in the lowest group. This traverses a common belief, as voiced, for example, by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, when he writes:

The country breeding gives a vigor and an endurance which in the long run outweigh all city advantages, and enable the well-endowed country boys to outstrip their city-bred competitors.[1]

The writer showed, however, in the previous paper that in proportion to their population cities have produced twice as many scientific men as the country.

The four professions of divinity, medicine, law and teaching, with a fifth group composed of the remaining professions—engineering, fine arts, journalism, the government service, etc.—contribute numbers of scientific men not far from equal. According to the census of 1850, the numbers in the four learned professions were: Clergymen, 26,842; lawyers, 23,939; physicians, 40,765; men teachers, 30,530. For each thousand of their members, they contributed scientific men as follows:

Clergymen . . . . . . . 3.3
Lawyers . . . . . . . 2.5
Teachers . . . . . . . 2.4
Physicians . . . . . . . 1.6

Clergymen, therefore, have the best record, and physicians the worst. Yet at that period there was supposed to be a conflict between science and theology, and the work of the physician is, or should be, allied to, if not identical with, that of the man of science. But in the middle of the last century the clergymen were likely to be better educated and more closely identified with the colleges than the physicians. The lawyers and the teachers were equally productive, but college professors—of whom there were only 943 in 1850—are far before any other class. The group of "other professions" is too ill defined to permit statistical treatment. In the census of 1850, mechanics who ran engines were called engineers and included among the professions. It will be noted from the table that lawyers and teachers have contributed the largest percentage of scientific men of high distinction, but the differences are not so large as to be significant.

As it is much easier to determine nationality than race, so occupation can be stated more readily than social position. It would be desirable to know the social connections and incomes of the fathers of scientific men at the period when their sons were educated, but each information is not at hand. Men in the same profession have very different social environments; in manufacturing and trade a man may be an artisan or a multi-millionaire. It is, however, clear that a majority of scientific men come from the so-called middle and upper classes. Not very far from half of them are supplied by the professional classes, forming about one thirtieth of the population, and undoubtedly they tend to be sons of the more successful professional men. Under manufacturing and trade all sorts of occupations are included, but only a small part of the fathers belong to the class of artisans and still fewer to the class of clerks. Most of them own their own business, which may be anything from a small shop in a university town[2] to the control of a railway system. Not a single scientific man is recorded as coming from the class engaged in domestic service, nor is any known to be the son of a day laborer, even of the higher grades. Agriculture includes agricultural laborers, but the fathers of the scientific men usually owned their own farms, and were probably in the main the farmers of the better class with relatives among professional men. Our farming population belongs chiefly to a yeoman class, not to a peasant class, such as forms nine tenths of the population of Russia.

The earlier studies of scientific men made by De Candolle and Galton and the groups treated by Odin and Ellis yield results in regard to the origin of men of performance comparable with those here given. De Candolle[3] found that of 100 foreign associates of the Paris Academy of Sciences, 41 came from noble and wealthy families, 52 from the middle class and 7 from the working class. Galton[4] found that of 96 contemporary leading men of science none came from the artisan and peasant classes. Odin[5] found that of 823 French men of letters, 65 per cent. came from the nobility and governing classes, 23 per cent, from the professions, 12 per cent, from the commercial and middle classes and 16 per cent. from the lower classes. Ellis[6] found that of 829 British men of genius 18.5 per cent, came from the nobility and upper classes, 41.3 per cent, from the professions, 31.2 from the manufacturing and commercial classes, 6 per cent, from the yeomen and farmers and 2.5 from the artisan and laboring classes.

The working classes outnumber the nobility a hundredfold, but produce only one quarter as many men of performance. If the working classes have equal ability and if they had been given equal opportunity, instead of a hundred scientific men of the rank of the foreign associates of the Paris Academy there would have been forty thousand. It may be that the peasant and artisan classes in European countries are separated from the upper classes by an inferior heredity; but that is scarcely the case in America. Five or ten generations back most of us have ancestors of nearly the same average physical, intellectual and social condition; any selection for ability within this short period must be slight and transient.

It is evident that what a man can do depends on his congenital equipment. How far what he does do depends on his environment and how far on his congenital equipment, or how far his congenital equipment depends on that of his parents and his family line of descent, we do not know. Most sociological writers and some biologists are confused in their use of the concept of heredity. When there is discussion of the relative influence on performance of heredity and environment, by heredity there is sometimes understood the original constitution of the individual and sometimes his resemblance to parents and other relatives. It is conceivable that the original constitution of son and father might be exactly the same and yet the individual be so plastic to environment that under different conditions there would be but slight similarity between their performances. It is also conceivable that there might be no similarity between the original constitution of son and father, and yet the performance of each be determined by his original constitution almost without influence from environment. Under which of these extreme hypotheses would the current sociologist call heredity strong or weak? The word heredity should be reserved for resemblance due to a common germ plasm and some other word found for the constitution of the fertilized ovum or zygote; perhaps the best that can be done is to use this uncouth word. We can then discriminate between the two distinct questions: What is the resemblance between the zygotes of two brothers? How far does the zygote of an individual determine his performance as an adult?

The distinctions are of vast importance for the organization of society. If men of performance could only come from superior family lines, this would be a conclusive argument for a privileged class and for a hereditary aristocracy. If the congenital equipment of an individual should prescribe completely what he will accomplish in life, equality of opportunity, education and social reform would be of no significance. Such an extreme position, though it is approached by men with so much authority as Sir Francis Galton, Professor Karl Pearson, Dr. R A. Woods, Dr. C. B. Davenport and Professor E. L. Thorndike, is untenable. Equally extreme in the opposite direction is M. Odin's aphorism "Genius is in things not in men," or the not uncommon opinion that almost anything can be done with a child by training and education. It is a problem of degree and of circumstance, a scientific question that could probably be solved within a reasonable time, if as much intelligence and money were devoted to it as to one of the bureaus of the Department of Agriculture.

In the meanwhile we must do the best we can with the material at hand, even though the interpretation is in nearly all cases ambiguous. It is here shown that 43 per cent, of our leading scientific men have come from the professional classes. We may conclude that more than one half of our men of science come from the one per cent, of the population most favorably situated to produce them. The son of a successful professional man is fifty times as likely to become a leading scientific man as a boy taken at random from the community. My data also show that a boy born in Massachusetts or Connecticut has been fifty times as likely to become a scientific man as a boy born along the southeastern seaboard from Georgia to Louisiana. They further show that a boy is fifty times as likely to do scientific work as a girl. No negro in this country has hitherto accomplished scientific work of consequence. A boy from the professional classes in New England has a million chances to become a scientific leader as compared with one chance for a negro girl from the cotton-fields.

These great differences may properly be attributed in part to natural capacity and in part to opportunity. When it is asked how far the result is due to each of these factors, the question is in a sense ambiguous. It is like asking whether the extension of a spiral spring is due to the spring or to the force applied. Some springs can not be extended, a foot by any force; no spring can be extended without force. The result depends on the relation between the constitution of the spring and the force applied. If the 174 babies born in Massachusetts and Connecticut who became leading scientific men had been exchanged with babies born in the south, it seems probable that few or none of them would have become scientific men. It may also be the case that few or none of the babies from the south transplanted to New England would have become scientific men, but it is probably true that a nearly equal number of scientific men would have been reared in New England. It is certain that there would not have been 174 leading scientific men from the extreme southern states and practically none from Massachusetts and Connecticut. If the stock of the southern states remains undiluted, it may, as social conditions change, produce even more scientific men per thousand of its population than New England has hitherto produced. In the first list of the thousand leading scientific men, Massachusetts produced 109 and Connecticut 87 per million of their population. Of the younger men added to the list in the second arrangement under comparable conditions, Massachusetts produced 85 and Connecticut 57. The other North Atlantic states failed in like measure, while the central states show a gain—Michigan from 36 to 74, Minnesota from 23 to 59, etc. These changes must be attributed to an altered environment, not to an altered racial stock. Japan had no scientific men a generation ago and China has none now, but it may be that in a few years their contributions to science will rival ours.

A Darwin born in China in 1809 could not have become a Darwin, nor could a Lincoln born here on the same day have become a Lincoln had there been no civil war. If the two infants had been exchanged there would have been no Darwin in America and no Lincoln in England. Darwin was a member of a distinguished family line possessing high natural ability and the advantages of opportunity and wealth. Lincoln had no parental inheritance of ability or wealth, but he too had innate capacity and the opportunity of circumstance. If no infants had been born with the peculiar natural constitutions of Darwin and Lincoln, men like them could not have been made by any social institutions, but none the less the work they did might have been accomplished by others and perhaps their fame would have been allotted to others. There may have been in England other family lines equal in natural ability to the Darwins and in this country other individuals as well constituted as Lincoln, but undistinguished from lack of opportunity. It is still more probable that such conditions obtain in Russia and in China, in whose graveyards there may lie innumerable "mute inglorious" Miltons, Lincolns and Darwins.

The most exceptional ability may be suppressed by circumstances; but it can sometimes deal with them on equal or perhaps superior terms. Thus the writer has pointed out how widely distributed in race, age and performance are the most distinguished men who have lived.[7] When we turn from the most eminent men to those next in rank, we may doubt whether their natural ability has not been equaled by thousands who have not attained distinction. Among the two hundred most eminent men who have lived in the history of the world are: Napoleon III., Nero, Fox, Julian, Fénelon, Clive, Alberoni, Bentley and Gerson. It is quite conceivable that there are at present living in the United States hundreds or thousands of men having as great natural ability as these. There may be a hundred thousand men and women having the natural and specific ability of the thousand in this country who have accomplished the best scientific work.

President A. Lawrence Lowell has remarked that we have a better chance of rearing eaglets from eagles' eggs placed under a hen than from hen's eggs placed in an eagle's nest. But it is equally true that we have a better chance of raising tame eaglets in a chicken coop than in an eyrie. The difference between a man uninterested in science and a scientific man is not that between a chicken and an eagle, but that between an untrained chicken and a trick cock. Some cockerels can be trained better than others, but there are innumerable cockerels that might be trained and are not.

The son of a scientific man may on the average have the inherited ability which would make him under equally favorable circumstances twice, or ten times, or a hundred times, as likely to do good scientific work as a boy taken at random from the community. The degree of advantage should be determined. It surely exists, and the children of scientific men should be numerous and well cared for. But we can do even more to increase the number of productive scientific men by proper selection from the whole community and by giving opportunity to those who are fit. Gallon finds in the judges of England a notable proof of hereditary genius. It would be found to be much less in the judges of the United States. It could probably be shown by the same methods to be even stronger in the families conducting the leading publishing and banking houses of England and Germany. As I write, the death is announced of Sir William White, the distinguished naval engineer, chief constructor of the British navy, president of the British Association. If his father had been chief constructor of the navy, he would have been included among Gallon's noteworthy families of fellows of the Royal Society. The fact that his father-in-law was chief constructor of the British navy throws, if only by way of illustration, a light on the situation in two directions.

On the one hand, the specific character of performance and degree of success are determined by family position and privilege as well as by physical heredity; on the other hand, marriage, chiefly determined by environment, is an important factor in maintaining family lines. The often-quoted cases of the Jukes and Edwards families are more largely due to environment and intermarriage within that environment than to the persistence of the traits of one individual through several generations. The recently published "Kallikak Family" by Dr. H. H. Goddard demonstrates once again the heredity of feeble-mindedness. It would, however, have been a stronger argument for the omnipotence of heredity if the original ancestor had left by a healthy mother illegitimate children who established prosperous lines of descent, and a child by a feeble-minded wife who left degenerate lines of descent. Two experiments have been made on a large scale which seem fairly definite even though quantitative results can not at present be reached. The mulattoes may be assumed to have a heredity midway between negroes and whites, but their social environment is that of the negroes, and their performance corresponds with their social environment rather than with their heredity. Illegitimate children have perhaps a heredity as good as the average, but their performance falls far below the average. If performance were determined by heredity alone there might be expected to be among our thousand leading scientific men some forty mulattoes and some forty of illegitimate birth, whereas there is probably not one of either class.

At nearly the same time Agassiz came from abroad to Harvard and Brünnow to Michigan. We all know the list of distinguished naturalists trained under Agassiz—Brooks, Hyatt, Jordan, Lyman, Minot, Morse, Packard, Putnam, Scudder, Shaler, Verrill, Whitman, Wilder and many more, directly and indirectly. From Michigan have come, as is not so well known, one fourth of our most distinguished astronomers, including Abbe, Campbell, Comstock, Curtis, Doolittle, Hall, Hussey, Klotz, Leuschner, Payne, Schaeberle, Watson and Woodward. Certainly the coming of Agassiz and Brünnow was the real cause of greatly increased scientific productivity in America. Some, but not all, of those who worked under Agassiz would have become naturalists apart from his influence. The astronomers from Michigan must in the main be attributed to their environment. The men had the necessary ability, but if Brünnow had not gone to Michigan, they would not have become astronomers; if they had gone to the University of Pennsylvania, they would have been more likely to have become physicians than astronomers; if they had not gone to a university they would not have become scientific men.

It is certainly satisfactory if we can attribute the inferiority of scientific performance in America as compared with Germany, France and Great Britain to lack of opportunity rather than to lesser racial ability. In Germany scientific research has been made by the university rather than the reverse. In Great Britain also the universities have been potent, and, in addition, its leisure class has contributed greatly. Here prior to 1876 we had no university in which research work was adequately encouraged, and we have had no amateurs comparable to those of Great Britain. Professor Pickering found[8] that of the 87 scientific men who were members of at least two foreign academies, 6 were Americans as compared with 17 from Prussia, 13 from England and 12 from France. In so far as our scientific production is 60 measured, the reference is to a generation ago, when our universities were only beginning to develop and research work was only beginning to be appreciated. But it is a striking fact that of the six distinguished Americans, three are astronomers; and astronomy is the only science in which thirty years ago the facilities for research work in this country were equal to those of the leading European nations. Of the remaining three, two have not been engaged in teaching, and the third has been practically freed from teaching for his research work. We may hope that when conditions become as favorable for other sciences as they have been for astronomy, the United States will assume leadership in scientific productivity.

In order to answer questions such as the extent to which the scientific work accomplished in America is due to native endowment, whether such endowment is general or specific, how far it occurs in family lines, what part of those endowed are able to prove their ability, the influence of education and example, the effects of opportunity, encouragement and rewards, it is necessary to make a study of individual cases. A large mass of material is at hand concerning the relatives of scientific men who have shown scientific productivity or have attained distinction, but these data are not in order for publication and should be supplemented by answers to many enquiries. In the meanwhile the writer may say that it is his opinion that while we should welcome and support a eugenic movement tending to limit the birth of feeble-minded and defective children and encouraging the birth of those that are well endowed, it appears that under the existing conditions of knowledge, law and sentiment, we can probably accomplish more for science, civilization and racial advance by selecting from the thirty million childen of the country those having superior natural ability and character, by training them and giving them opportunity to do the work for which they are fit. We waste the mineral resources of the country and the fertility of the soil, but our most scandalous waste is of our children, most of all of those who might become men and women of performance and of genius.

Eugenics may become the most important of all a])plied sciences, but at present its scientific foundations must be laid by the study of comparative genetics, on the one side, and the study of human conduct, on the other. There is more immediate prospect of improving our civilization than our germ plasm. It is easier to decrease or eliminate typhoid fever by hygienic measures than to attain racial immunity, although this is not equally the case for tuberculosis and still less for cancer. We can increase to any desired extent from the existing population by proper selection and training the number of scientific workers in the United States. The number capable of exhibiting genius is limited, but many of them are lost through lack of opportunity. It is our business, it should be our principal business, to improve our civilization by giving opportunity to those who are fit, while at the same time investigating the conditions which will give us a better race.

(To be continued)

  1. "Family Stocks in a Democracy," American Contributions to Civilization, 1898.
  2. A notable case is of three brothers who have attained scientific distinction. They obviously had inherited ability, but the opportunity to exhibit it in scientific research was probably due to the fact that their father's shop was in a university town.
  3. "Histoire des Sciences et des Savants depuis deux Siècles," Genève, 1873.
  4. "English Men of Science," London, 1874; New York, 1875.
  5. "Genèse des Grands Hommes," Paris et Lausanne, 1895. An excellent account of Odin's researches is given in Lester F. Ward's "Applied Sociology," Boston and New York, 1906.
  6. "A Study of British Genius," London, 1904.
  7. "A Statistical Study of Eminent Men," The Popular Science Monthly, 1903
  8. The Popular Science Monthly, October, 1908, and January, 1909.