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The Atlantic Monthly | February 1915
he dream of a perfect race in a perfect world is both Greek and Hebrew. It has furnished material for philosophy, beauty for poets, and—best of all—noble visions for the prophets of the race. Plato, in the Republic, proposed to make a better race, founded upon a new organization of society. The Book of Deuteronomy was written with the same end in view, but, noblest of them all, Isaiah painted pictures of a better time, the finest message of faith and hope this weary world has ever heard.
Some Misconceptions of Eugenics
"There are few questions of greater import than those relating to the forces which are moulding the innate qualities of the human race. There is no knowledge which it is more important to have widely diffused than the knowledge of the means by which our human inheritance can be improved"
by S.J. Holmes
The Republic was a new exhibition of Socratic irony, and was probably never meant to be taken seriously; but the victory of righteousness and faith was the only real thing in all the world to the old prophet. Many interpretations have followed these ancient teachings, and from the island of Utopia to the Anatomy of Melancholy, through a widely extended company of lesser rank than More and Burton, the subject has continued its fascination. It has remained for our time to make a definite effort to take the dream of the nations, rob it of its poetry and its hope, and interpret it in terms of biology. The modern movement declares that it is quite worth while to produce a better man, and this is to be done by making him an animal of a finer breed. See, the new teachers say, what Mendel did with sweet peas, and from his observations learn also the laws of human growth. What wonders have been accomplished with pigs and cattle; try the same methods, have patience, and you will produce a race of saints and heroes. The boldness of the programme is equaled only by the naïve faith, which has a certain charm.
It is only fair to add that no movement of recent times has spread so rapidly, has been so prolific in suggestion, so daring in social proposals.
It was in 1904 that Francis Galton introduced to the notice of the London Sociological Society the word 'Eugenics,' in an arresting address proposing a study of race-conditions, an effort for better control of racial tendencies, and expressing the hope that 'it might be introduced into the national conscience like a new religion.' Later he furnished a definition of what is called 'National Eugenics'; 'The study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.'
Numbers of disciples were won to the leader, and students of Eugenics were soon found, not only in England, but in all the principal countries of the world. The caution of the master has not always been imitated by his followers, and the impression of the movement upon the public is that it contains a belief that the perfect race may be obtained upon rather easy terms. All the defects of personality are found in the germ-plasm, and society has only to select and kill off the unfit for a single generation and the world will be happy ever after. The programme does not promise that we shall be rid of the danger of accidents and some few recurrent evils, but these need cause no great concern. See what wonders have been accomplished in the poultry yard! Let society control marriage and birth, and though the process may be somewhat longer, results will be equally fortunate.
Students of sociology, I think, are most of them inclined to be skeptical of any easy road to social success. They have learned to look at social facts in a long perspective, and they are ready to remind the biologist that they have little faith in the permanence of rapid revolutions. Most of them also have given up the biological interpretation of society. Man as an animal was existent in the primitive times, but in proportion as his animalism was great, his civilization was small. Conventions, ideas, passions, common purpose and action, and a whole complex of what may be called psychical apparatus, protect the cultivated social group from both the vital and the physical conditions of the savage.
In spite of the caution of the sociologist, the eugenist is with us, and has ways of finding access to the public. It is remarkable that in eight years after the address by Francis Galton there should beheld in the City of London the first International Eugenics Congress. A large company of people representing six nations met under the auspices of the University of London, and under the direct management of a committee containing names eminent in politics, education, literature, and religion.
London is the natural home of such congresses, and one or more gatherings occur each year. The management of the Eugenics Congress surpassed all recent efforts to attract public notice. The meeting opened with a great banquet, at which were assembled, besides the members of the congress, men and women representative of the best there is in England. The principal address was made by the Right Honorable A. J. Balfour. The list of great names, the able presidency of Major Leonard Darwin, and the skill with which the interest of the public press had been aroused, conspired to give the word 'Eugenics' a fresh significance. The management had also provided an unusual number and variety of social entertainments, conspicuous among them being a great reception at the historic residence occupied by Ambassador Reid.
The programme consisted of thirty-two papers, followed by discussion, and the range of the topics can be discovered between the limits of two American papers, the one on 'The Inheritance of Fecundity,' based upon a study of the domestic fowl, and the other on 'Eugenics and Militarism,' urging the racial danger from military service and a direct racial modification of a sinister character. In such a bewildering variety it could not be expected that all the members of the congress would be of one mind. At the same time the dominant note was very evident, and Major Darwin in his closing address cautioned the congress with respect to future activities. He thought there should be a distinct line drawn between the functions of philanthropy and those of Eugenics; he begged his hearers to be strictly scientific, and to beware of enthusiasms. It is not unfair to say that the victorious creed of the congress, so far as numbers were concerned, gathered about the fortunes of the human germ-plasm. In that lay the promise and potency of all the good and evil among the sons and daughters of men. This dominant school of eugenists may be reminded that they have moved far away from the definition of Francis Galton whom they still love to call master. His definition was sufficiently wide to include the study of all agencies under social control, and to enlist in the work of making a better world, every rational remedy for physical or mental evils.
The public interest in the new science arises from the frankness of its suggestions. The leaders are not content with the study of the facts for half a century through the united effort of the great nations, but propose immediate legislation for ridding society of the losses and burdens it suffers through the pathological classes. In several American states, legislation and practice have already gone forward for the elimination of the unfit by methods which many lawyers believe to be unconstitutional and many social workers think do more harm than good. We cannot afford to forget that compassion is a social asset of immense value. Human freedom is not without difficulties and defeats, but it is the only hope of the race, and the statesman will always have the problem of deciding how far paternalism can safely go, and how much direct social service should be accepted from the state.
It is to be doubted whether those most active in the movement are aware of all that it implies, both with respect to the conduct of the individual and the character of social organization. It may be suggested that the study of normal life is likely to furnish the most rational guidance for social structure, and that the pathological classes present special problems which are in effect quite apart from the interests of society as a whole. The danger to the movement is in losing the wise caution and the broad catholicity proposed by Francis Galton himself.
For more than three hundred years the Anglo-Saxon world was under the spell of a certain Frenchman known as John Calvin. He furnished for the world what all men will agree was a difficult, and some men will assert was a devilish creed. The burden of original sin and total depravity made man tremble lest perchance he fall into the hands of an angry God. It was a gloomy faith, but at any rate it was rooted in righteousness. It bade the sinner fear God and not man, and it nourished some of the most sturdy men and women this world has ever seen. Not without cost have we thrown off the creed, banished hell, and on the whole learned to breathe a little more easily.
The materialistic school of eugenists presents a form of scientific fatalism in the presence of which human character and responsibility alike crumble, and from every point of view so dreary that, in comparison, the blackest form of Calvinism were like a soft day in June. Of course the London society and its disciples in other countries were not the authors of the movement, nor are they now without many allies.
The doctrine of a dominant physical heredity as the interpretation of a human being and the inescapable ruler of his fate owes a great deal to the medical profession. Slowly the physicians have retreated from the old and easy explanation that diseases 'run in families,' as they have gained wider knowledge of what disease is, and precisely in proportion as they have lost faith in the fatality of disease-inheritance, have they become pioneers in a braver battle for human health. The greatest enemy of the race, greater even than its ignorance, has always been its fear. The fight against tuberculosis is only one illustration. We are relieved to find that the worst that can happen to us is to inherit a tendency to some disease on account of the weakness of the whole or a part of the body. A real man can struggle against a weakness, but only a god can fight against fate.
Literature has found in the recurrent note of doom, generation after generation, some of its most appealing material. That note worked splendidly in fiction, and was even better for the drama. Meanwhile it was not true. Neither the Victorian novelists, the recent dramatists, nor even the social reformers, have been quite just to nature. If the race had merely staggered on with the black accumulation of the sin and sickness of each epoch, long ago humanity would have been a helpless scapegoat crushed in the wilderness under the burden of its fate. It is not so. Nature rejoices in a fullness of life. Through uncounted ages she has laughed at all her difficulties, and has steadfastly pursued her unwavering purpose. Doubtless the dream of a perfect race will always be cherished, but it is well enough to consider the social successes of the past. There are more people on the earth to-day, living under happier conditions and with more wisdom and goodness, than history hitherto has disclosed.
Another influence tending toward the acceptance of modern fatalism is the social study of certain families alleged to be degenerate. As many as four or five of them have been traced through several generations, in as many different countries. From these very exceptional strains of family life, wide theories have been developed to cover the whole range of normal life. But Mr. Dugdale, who gave us the famous Jukes, has a word of caution to give the adventurous spirits so slow to investigate and so anxious to dogmatize. He says, 'The tendency of heredity is to produce an environment which perpetuates that heredity.'
It may strike one as strange that from the same facts the most opposite conclusions are often reached by men of apparently equal intelligence. The reason is not far to seek. The conclusions are usually not based upon the facts, but upon the attitude of the theorist. In England there has been going on a very hot debate as to whether drunkenness is not, on the whole, rather a good thing. This seems to be the conclusion of Professor Pearson. Dr. Saleeby, on the other hand, is quite sure that no human being, from the cradle to the grave, ever requires alcohol in any form. In America when the 'Committee of One Hundred' issued a report on the relation of drunkenness to crime, one warden, whose prisoners came for the most part from a great city with free saloons, declared that less than two per cent of the inmates of his institution had come there through drunkenness. Another warden in a Prohibition state declared that nearly half of his inmates were there through the liquor habit. It is plain that we have here no genuine disclosure of facts, but a very accurate revelation of the state of mind of each warden.
The student of society is continually perplexed on account of the uncertainty of social statistics. The most formidable difficulty before the eugenist
is the lack of any data upon which he
can depend. The Italian Lombroso
built up a colossal amount of theory
upon a very narrow and superficial observation of groups of individuals who
could not properly be compared, and
so gave to the world the conception of
a criminal type. If he had been correct
in his conclusions we should long ago
have been able to dispense with courts
and judges, and to decide upon the
character of men and women by an ingenious metric system and an observation of physical deformities. It would
save society much trouble and expense. These people could be locked
up before they committed any crimes.
Unfortunately, on the basis of his so-called science, every community would
be compelled to have imprisoned some
of its best citizens.
Eugenics has not followed in the rigid path set by the other biological sciences. Such a course would be extremely difficult. The method required may be briefly indicated. The birth register should include not only the facts of birth and sex, but the exact measurements and peculiarities, and afterwards the infant must be remorselessly studied from the day it is born until it becomes an adult. The family history of each infant should be examined as far back as it can be traced. This will not be very useful, however, for while certain obvious facts may be discovered, the causes of those facts—particularly if the latter be unfortunate—will remain obscure. Exact social science from this point of view is a thing of the future.
It is easy to discover that the criminal classes are deficient in intelligence and often degenerate in organization, but such facts are not of the slightest service. What we need to know is whether the criminal was deficient at birth, and if not, at what point, and for what reason, he became abnormal. The biologists have a sufficient task in collecting data for the next generation without attempting to reform society. It will be quite useless also for such a study to be confined to the abnormal; it must cover the whole range of society in order to be of any service. While the criminal is often deficient in intelligence and defective in physique, so also are the paupers, and the very poor who have been badly housed and ill-fed, though they be neither criminals nor paupers.
If the biologist is in no position at present to furnish valuable data, it remains to say that much may be yielded by other students of society.
In the development of human beings there are doubtless three principal factors: heredity, social relationships, and personal choice; and it is necessary to consider what each of these is likely to furnish. Galton, with a wisdom not always shared by his disciples, declared, 'The science of heredity is concerned with large populations rather than with individuals.' This statement is worthy of expansion. The larger the group, the more decided the influence of heredity. To illustrate: man is more deeply separated from other animals than he is from his fellow men. 'A Chinaman' is a definite race term bringing before the visual memory a particular type much more distinct than any possible difference between one Chinaman and another. In like manner, the white man differs more from the other races than the various groups of white men differ from one another. Social science has been accustomed to deal with the group type and the group mind. I think all the teachers of social theory will agree that the group mind is much more definite than any individual mind within the group, however exalted may have been the gifts of that individual. Roger Bacon could not have been a scientist among the Hottentots, nor could Raphael have been a painter among the Alaskans.
To approach the matter from quite the opposite point of view, the newborn babe has four grandparents; in the second generation, however, he has sixteen. Carry the process back for ten generations, and such is the fertility of babies in producing grandparents that by this time he has about a million. Now, to divide one little soul among a million grandparents and properly apportion to each ancestor his or her share in the product is a difficulty beyond the appliances of present-day science. No doubt there are certain physical characteristics that occur in families, but how many of them are actually the resuit of heredity and how many of imitation, it is at present impossible to decide.
It is, of course, necessary for the biologist to assume that both talent and character are concealed in the germ-plasm and are the inheritance of the child. He always has an explanation ready for difficult facts by means of the 'Mendelian Laws.' There are qualities both dominant and dormant. If a man becomes a criminal it is because of the dominance of some criminal ancestor; if he turns out to be a good man, the criminal ancestor is dormant, and some saint has come to the front. Since every human being has both saints and criminals in the direct line of his ancestry, such supposed laws will explain anything. The first thing required of a law is that it classify its facts, anö the facts must show regularity in their recurrence.
Now, Mendel dealt with sweet peas and made many observations, all of them ingenious and some of them true; but men are not like sweet peas. The first note of human nature is personality, and the higher the type of the social group, the more evident the personality becomes. The Bertillon system of measurements and the easier system of finger-prints show that every human being is physically unique. Much more is this true when the larger view of man is taken. Even from the basis of the materialist, such is the number of the organs of the human body and so vast the number of braincells in a human brain, that the possible combinations are beyond any computation. This leads irresistibly to the conclusion that the result of human mating is beyond mathematical computation. Its laws may not be discovered, and it can never be determined.
The laws of heredity must be adequate to explain the facts of human life. It is not enough to show that in a few families there have been found in successive generations several members of decided talent. It is necessary to show that given certain antecedents, talent always results, and without them it can never be discovered. Criminals must always breed criminals, and exceptions defy the law. No student of criminology would ever assert such a theory. It does not establish a doctrine to show that a number of eminent persons in Massachusetts bore the name of Adams. The theory must be adequate to explain how Thomas Carlyle came out of a stone-mason's hut, and how Robert Burns, the peasant, was the sweetest singer of his time. It must not only explain the great surprise which the world has always experienced in such men of genius as Moses and Luther, Beethoven, and Wagner; the theory must explain the case of Abraham Lincoln. This man, born of poor whites, seems to have had one gracious influence in his youth, when his father married a second wife who brought into the indescribable poverty and loneliness a few books and a woman's soul, and by what she was to this man forever wiped away the sneer from the stepmother. They also err through lack of reflection who suppose that Abraham Lincoln, the country lawyer, was the same man as the great emancipator. Into his plastic soul he received the finest forces of his generation, and as the years went by he underwent a social re-birth and became the incarnation of his time.
Society continually renews itself from below. Peasant blood is the raw material for the world's heroes, statesmen and captains of industry. If it be urged that the better classes, as they are called, show a larger number of successful children in proportion to their number than do the poor, it may be replied that with all the advantages these classes have to offer their children, it is the disgrace of the well-to-do that they have not done better.
Talent declines to appear when it should. Robert Browning married Elizabeth Barrett and the union predicted the birth of a supreme artist, but nature refused to take the hint.
The world could not endure the intolerable burden of a continuous line of great men. If men like Caesar, Napoleon and Cromwell had furnished a posterity of like power, to remain permanent in human history, where by this time would be all the men of lesser breed? If every great financier were able to hand on, not only his fortune but also his ability and his rapacity, to his sons, capital punishment for business success would be the only safety for society. We could not even endure the permanence of great men of genius. A continuous line of Shakespeares would by now have made England an intellectual desert, as the Goethes would have desolated Germany by genius too great to be endured.
Nature kindly uses her greatest sons for great tasks and then dissolves their power in the common social group, in order to make secure the democracy of life.
If talent of a special order be not decreed, still less is it possible for character to be predetermined. In the very nature of the case a character that is of any value must be won by the rejection of the evil and the choice of the good. It is the result of repeated acts become habit, swift to choose and strong to resist.
The only assured fact in regard to heredity is that from the immediate parents the child may inherit physical strength or physical weakness. Many facts point to the conclusion that the instability of the nervous system which may result in insanity or in drunkenness is the greatest danger. That instability, however, may be found in any family, just as the unfit come from every grade of society. If, with splendid brutality, we should murder all our dependents, defectives, and delinquents on some given day, it would not be necessary to pull down the institutions or to give the officers anything more than a short vacation. The savages often tried that method, but when the world has moved away from it, it has increased in power quite as much as in refinement.
As a member of the social group, every child born is in some sense the child of the whole community. Organized society has always found its real meaning in the ideas, faiths, passions, hopes, emotions, which have been held in common. The child is born without any character and without any knowledge. It is the business of the various social organs to do their best with each fresh life. The immediate social organ is the family, of most importance during the first five years; after that come the school, the street, literature, business, politics, and whatever else expresses the social faith. As the child receives these impressions he becomes gradually a citizen of the little world in which he finds himself. The important field for practical Eugenics at the present time is in the social effort to see that every child has a fair chance. To begin with, the child must have the chance to live. M. Bertillon says that of a thousand children born among the rich, 943 are alive at the end of five years. But of every thousand children born among the poor, only 655 are alive. The blood of these children cries from the ground. Social hygiene on the physical side, including all the modern municipal efforts for improvement, scarcely needs discussion, but it is equally important for society to see that the child has not only a chance to live and to live well, but also an opportunity for the fullest development. This does not come from work alone, but from the wholesomeness of the social life.
Some one says that Japan is now trying to restore a lost spirituality. This may sound startling to those who have thought of Japan as essentially pagan; but the nations always live by faith. Better anywhere a healthy paganism than a moribund Christianity. It was not by physical breeding, nor even by social reform, that Mohammed created his civilization, but out of a few great ideas which he made at once the faith and the passion of his followers.
The practical evil of scientific fatalism is its assault upon the social order. Society is compelled to assume the personal responsibility of its members. Hence laws are made and conduct is prescribed. No wrong-doer has hitherto been allowed to plead the misfortune of a bad germ-plasm as an excuse for bad conduct. By the judgments of courts, and by the sanction of penalties, every man is held accountable for his deed. The moral sense of mankind agrees that this is right, in spite of all academic debate about free-will. There comes a time when the child awakens to self-determination and, within certain limits, he chooses and decides for himself. That field of personal choice is the theatre of the individual career, and constitutes the whole of life.
The worst indictment of the new science is its destruction of this personal responsibility. We might possibly get along with as little sense of social responsibility as now exists, but we cannot get on unless the individual has a much larger sense of responsibility. The new doctrines undermine the whole theory of modern penology. We have been learning for a generation that the business of the prison is to reform and not to punish, but all this structure will be destroyed if we do not insist that each individual has the power for better conduct than he has ever exhibited. The moral paralysis that has come upon our time is due to the new teaching of predestination. There never was a living scoundrel who would not be willing to lay his crimes by the tombstone of some dead scoundrel, and say to his ancestor, 'it was your fault and not mine.'
There are other impressive facts to which the new teachers may well give heed. The various children's home societies have been placing out children who have been neglected or abandoned in various parts of the country. Among these many thousands of waifs and strays who have found new homes during the last fifty years some, doubtless, have gone wrong, but the vast majority of them, no matter what their ancestry, have done as well mentally and morally as the other children in the community in which they have been placed. From a recent investigation in Chicago, made by the social workers, and covering the cases of sixteen thousand children from the Juvenile Courts, the report is that in nearly every case there was no adequate explanation except in social neglect or personal delinquency.
There is quite a different class of facts to which social science must some day pay more attention. When the Eugenics Congress met in London it attracted the attention of adequate audiences for such discussions. Less than a month afterwards a man who was called General William Booth 'laid down his sword,' as his followers said, and his funeral was the occasion for a series of assemblies the like of which have not been known in a generation. It is estimated that a million people stood in the streets in the rain as his coffin passed to his last resting-place. Wherein lay the fascination of William Booth? Not in his theology, which always seemed to me bad, nor in the dreadful music, nor even in the somewhat doubtful social service, but in the fact that he believed intensely in the capacity and possibilities of the weakest and the lowest. The scientists have for a long time been paying attention to facts in degeneration; the time must come when they will discover that there are facts of regeneration more impressive and more important. General Booth founded the Salvation Army, but he did not furnish the ideas upon which it rested.
The power of Jesus as a great leader of men rests upon his abiding faith in human capacity, and his constant appeal to what He conceived to be the possible within every man. It was here, and not in any supernatural claim of his own, that his power lay. If, instead of the beautiful stories in the Gospels, to some young man appealing for his help He had said, 'I am very sorry, but I can do nothing for you; you must know what kind of a man your father was,'—though He had proved his divinity beyond a doubt and the Roman government had vouched for the fact of his resurrection from the dead, He could never have founded a religion. This may seem far afield, but it suggests a class of facts with which social science must finally deal.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1912; The New Science; Volume 110, No. 000006; 801-809.