Our Unchanging Nature

WE all remember the poor old woman in Mother Goose, who, while she napped it on the king’s highway, had her petticoats cut off up to her knees.

She began to wonder and she began to cry
Lauk a mercy on me, this is none of I!
But if it be me, as I do hope it be,
I’ve a little dog at home and he’ll know me.
If it be me, he’ll wag his little tail,
And if it be not me, he’ll loudly bark and wail.
Home went the little woman all in the dark
Up got the little dog and he began to bark.
He began to bark, so she began to cry,
Lauk a mercy on me, this is none of I!

Clearly, the little old woman was a victim of appearances. Her little dog was either a very stupid little dog, or he was barking at something else, and all she had to do, to regain her lost identity, was to piece out her curtailed skirts.

The transformation which appears to have come over human nature during historic ages is, if we are to believe the writer of the article in this number of the Atlantic, ‘Does Human Nature Change,’ no less a superficial one. It is a transformation which has occurred to the races as they have wandered along the highways of the centuries, but which has really involved no radical change. If Man of our own time could return along those same highways to his arch-ancestral cave, his arch-ancestral little dog would fall on him with caresses of recognition as joyous as those that greeted the farwandering Odysseus. Kidnap a modern baby New Yorker, remove him from his baby-carriage, snatch his sterilized bottle from his all-but-sterilized lips, plant him in the forests of ancient Italy with a wolf for foster-mother in place of a trained nurse, — and, lo! Romulus again! Can we doubt it?

On deliberation, yes, we can.

There is, to be sure, in human nature as in all animate nature, an immense weight of what may be called physical conservatism. It is this which underlies the stability of types. It is this which, in short, makes it unwise to expect grapes of thorns or figs of thistles. But there is also another, opposite tendency, a tendency toward individual variation. Every one must recognize this. Without it there could be no differentiation of species at all. The first tendency preserves the type, but the second originates it. They are like centripetal and centrifugal forces, never in perfect balance, each tending to offset the action of the other. Sometimes one is in the ascendant, sometimes the other. But whether the centrifugal conquers or not, it is there, and therefore all animate nature has within it a capacity for change which is theoretically unlimited.

Now in the early history of races the centripetal tendency has received all the encouragement. In certain parts of India it used to be the custom to destroy all the babies whose teeth appeared in an order different from the established one. It was bad luck to be different. All tribal restrictions, whether they concern physical or spiritual teeth, are of this sort. They have been many and stern, and reinforcing them have been the forces of natural selection, continually operating to weed out the temporarily unfit. It has been a process of throwing out all the square pegs because there were only round holes discoverable in which to accommodate them.

I say temporarily unfit, because what is unfit in one age may be fit in another, and selection in one age may handicap a later one. The time arises when square pegs are needed. Sparta’s deliberate experiment in selective breeding, the only case that we know much about, failed in this way. It was too centripetal. Successful for a time, it seems to have produced a relatively unoriginal and in the end an undesirable race. And the general leveling effect of artificial and natural selection on early human races seems to have been to discourage and check individual variation except along very narrow lines — notably those of strength and physical courage.

But usually the capacity of a race for differentiation is only checked, not destroyed. All it needs is a chance. In the ages following the rise of Christianity, human races began to get their chance. Whether as a result of Christian ideals or not, at any rate the forces of selection began to act in a different, in a more elastic way. The ‘unfit’ survived, and in some cases were even fostered. The square pegs were tolerated, and square holes were discovered to match them. This might be expected to have its effect, sooner or later, on the races in which it obtained. Possibly it has weakened them in some respects, although this is by no means certain. Probably a thoughtless tolerance is even now weaving in amongst the tangled meshes of race-inheritance strands of weakness which might better be eliminated.

But, on the other hand, such a manystranded inheritance, even though it contain elements of weakness, will perhaps also contain elements of variousness that will more than compensate. Indeed, I fancy that it already shows this. Without having many facts to base it on — the whole question being one as to which facts are scarce — I still have a conviction that the babies of our civilized races to-day show, before environment has had its chance at them, a degree of variousness — an amount of individual variation — which would not have been found in the same races three thousand years ago — if indeed it can even be said that the same races did then exist; a degree of variousness which will not now be found where the old order still holds.

If unverifiable predictions are in order, I should like to do my share by predicting that if fifty little Romuluses were planted in modern environment, they would adapt themselves, indeed, very well, but would show relatively little variation in the way they adapted themselves. But if, on the other hand, you should plant fifty little modern babies in the Romulus environment, they would react upon it with immense individual divergences. Some of the best of them — those that we with our modern standards should call the best — would undoubtedly die, some would fit in tolerably well, and a considerable number would show an amount of originality and initiative that might be rather disturbing to the Romulan order, but not wholly bad for it.

But, whatever we may think about the baby experiment, which can never be made, it is difficult to believe that, where there is admittedly so much individual variation in all races, the sum total should be unchanging. To be sure, the surface of the sea has its mountains and its valleys, yet its height does not vary. But metaphor is only metaphor, and it often misleads more than it helps. Human nature is, after all, not a sea, but an aggregate of individuals, each one representing an infinitely complex inheritance, which he passes on, slightly modified, to the representatives of human nature in the future. To admit variation among individuals and deny it of their aggregate seems unsatisfactory.

Moreover, we know that in other forms of life an apparently fixed type can be changed. A given variety of wheat can be bred with a view to making it able to resist disease, and the result is a wheat which is immune to that disease, and whose immunity is inheritable— a new, ‘fixed’ trait in the species. After one has become familiar with a few such cases, one begins to think of all types, not as fixed, but as fluid — as plastic — moulded now indeed, by the hand of circumstance or of blind impulse, but just as ready to be moulded by the hand of intelligence.

In the case of human nature such moulding as this would hardly be desirable, even if it were possible; yet we are beginning to see that certain negative gains can be made, by the blocking of some of the sources of racedegeneracy. For if human nature is capable of change, it is capable not only of those forms of change which are classed as improvement, but also of those forms which are classed as deterioration. It is merely a question of time when changes of the second sort will be to some extent controlled.

Bui the objection to all such speculation as that in which we have been indulging is that it is really quite impossible to distinguish between characteristics which are congenital and those which are acquired — at least it is imposssible to do so without a series of experiments such as no existing nation would allow. Perhaps this need not trouble us. For however we may take issue with General Chittenden as to his theories, every one must heartily agree with him that for all practical purposes we are safe in acting as if human nature since the time of Romulus had changed enormously and could change yet more.

It is true that all the natural impulses and endowments of Romulus and of Abraham still exist, — the primal impulses of kindness and of courage, of fear and jealousy and hate, the love of beauty and the love of power and the love of truth. But they exist in so altered a form, so different a balance, that their very quality seems to have undergone a change. In fact, one group of endowments, those loosely indicated in the phrase ‘sense of humor,’ has the appearance of being a new acquisition — new, that is, within the last seven or eight hundred years. That it is strictly congenital cannot be proved, although it begins to show in our babies before they have attained either teeth or conversation. Certainly it has been greatly developed during the last four hundred years by the influence of a cumulatively propitious environment. At all events, however it has come about, it is practically a new race-characteristic, a thing which sets us a little apart from Abraham and Romulus.

And this is only one rather marked instance of a change that has taken place and is taking place in other ways which are less easy to indicate. It is perhaps a change greater than we realize. For, as we read the records of past ages, we always, unconsciously, reëdit them for ourselves. Especially do we do this for the records of the Old Testament. There is no harm in this. It is inevitable. Yet I fancy that if we could for a time relinquish the habit of reëditing, we should feel even more keenly what some of us already feel rather hazily — a consciousness that between our nature and the human nature of those ages there no longer exists a perfect rapport — a conviction that while the records of those ages are forever worthy of sympathetic and often of reverent study, they are becoming, considered as the expression of all human nature, increasingly inadequate.

This might be equally true whether due to the cumulative force of heredity or of environment or of both. Which it is really due to seems hardly susceptible of proof, at least for the present. When one considers how the environment which has been created through centuries of slow and painful effort is taken easily for granted by each new generation, it seems as if environment could do anything. The child, standing on his father’s shoulders, cries, ‘See how tall I am!’ and though his own stature is really not greater, yet through this advantage he can actually reach things higher up. In a healthily progressive state, each generation ought to reach higher, and that it can do so is the inspiration of the reformer.

But on the other hand, when one sees how the most propitious environment proves futile on material in which the hereditary endowment is poor, one comes to feel that environment is not everything. And while its power is increasingly realized and used in the service of human betterment, the power of inheritance is gaining also a somewhat tardier recognition.