Notes From a Front-Page Laboratory


Newts and Salamanders. PAUL KAMMERER is a Viennese biologist who is now engaged in defending the doctrines of Lamarck against seemingly overwhelming odds. Nearly one hundred and twenty-five years ago Lamarck believed that one potent factor in the transformation of species was the inheritance of acquired characteristics. New traits developed by one generation under the stress of use or disuse or some other environmental force might be transmitted to succeeding generations, along with traits inherited from the very beginnings of life. So Lamarck. The doctrine became scientific heresy when August Weismann, a human generation ago, proved, or is believed to have proved, that nothing ever gets itself transmitted from father to son which the father in turn has not inherited. One might say that until recently Lamarck was disproved by himself. His doctrines failed to be transmitted to succeeding generations.

Now comes Kammerer and asserts that he has demonstrated the inheritance of acquired traits. He has changed the color of salamanders by breeding generations of them against a differently tinted background. He has adapted land lizards to a marine environment. He has taken newts in whom the eye, from disuse in the dark, had become filmed over and sunken into the skull socket, and by exposing them to the light has bred newts in whom the eye has pierced forward into prominence. Kammerer’s conclusions have been received with skepticism by the scientific world as known to the Anglo-Saxon. In the first place, he has been told that his experiments must be duplicated and verified by other observers. In the second place, it is a question whether his newts and lizards, even if they have changed as Kammerer says they have, will stay put, or whether some day Kammerer will not find himself confronted with a startling reversion of his newts and salamanders to the original type. It would appear that man is not the only backslider in the world of animate nature. And thus the controversy moves merrily on.

Serajevo and Versailles. Suppose, then, that we leave this conflict between environmental change and the predetermined plasm to be fought out in the laboratory tanks and cages, while we look about for the test of Lamarckism in the world as known to the man in the street, with a newspaper. This being very soon after the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of the World War, we might look back to the summer of 1914 and later. Here it is immediately manifest that the evidence is strongly against Lamarck. The story of the last ten years shows, at first sight, that acquired characteristics decidedly are not transmitted.

Of the Great War, it is frequently and correctly said that it vindicated, in tragic form, the principle of primal heredity. The war showed that man in 1914 was still very much the heir of traits imbedded in the germ plasm of millions of years ago. The war showed that our celebrated ‘human nature’ has been transmitted through the ages virtually unaffected by the acquired characteristics of civilization. The war was a conflict of age-old passions, competitions, frontiers, manifest destinies, spheres of interest, and white man’s burdens of all sorts. Man, in the course of the centuries, had acquired many characteristics. He had acquired peace societies, Red Cross societies, international Socialism, international scientific congresses, exchange professors, arbitration courts, international finance, humanitarianism, safeguards for women and children, and many other pleasing traits which, by continuous use, were expected to transform the human species. And then came a sudden outburst of poison gas and submarine sinkings to show how easily the acquired characteristic of many years could be sloughed off under the impact of a violent selfassertion of the primal germ.

The war produced some extraordinary examples of reversion to type. Take, for instance, the case of Poland. Between the years 1772 and 1793 Poland had ceased to be an individual entity and had become the acquired characteristic of no less than three other individuals— Russia, Prussia, and Austria. For nearly one hundred and fifty years, the czars continued to transmit Warsaw to their heirs as an acquired characteristic. Hapsburg continued to transmit Cracow to Hapsburg as an acquired characteristic. Hohenzollern continued to transmit Posen and Danzig to Hohenzollern as acquired characteristics. By 1914, it was pretty generally assumed that this acquired Polish trait had become an integral part of the Romanoff, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern germ plasm, destined to run on in these best families forever. Five years later this great Lamarckian process was completely undone. Russia, Prussia, and Austria have lost their acquired Polish traits as decisively as Kammerer’s opponents say his newts and lizards may find themselves stripped of their acquired ‘foreign’ traits.

And elsewhere in the world’s geography the same anti-Lamarckian process has been manifesting itself. The acquired characteristics of the Ottoman Turk in Arabia, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia have disappeared. Japan has lost her acquired characteristics in Shantung. Hungary has sloughed off all her Slav taxpayer characteristics. The Egyptian traits are fading out of the British Empire; and things are stirring in India.

Low Acquisibility. Even more notable have been the anti-Lamarckian effects of the war in the economic-biologic sphere. Here we have to do with the most celebrated of all acquired characteristics — namely, Wealth or Property. Wealth is the one characteristic which men have always set out deliberately to acquire. In this respect, property would even out-Lamarck Lamarck. The salamander does not say to himself, ‘Go to, I will migrate from a brightgreen to a soft-yellow environment in order to acquire a lovely lemon tinge for my posterity. ‘ For that matter, not even man, the self-conscious one, has ever said, ‘ I wall now proceed to develop an exceptionally spatulated thumb or supernormal power of eyesight for the benefit of my grandchildren. ‘ If these things happen, they do just that: they happen. There is no conscious purpose behind it. But in the matter of bank stock and railway bonds and real-estate mortgages a man does consciously strive for an acquired characteristic. And what is more, he is eager to acquire that characteristic for the very purpose, mainly, of transmitting it.

And not only in the sense of being highly transmissible has private property, hitherto, been true to Lamarck. Broader than the principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is the Lamarckian principle of functional use and disuse as factors in the evolution of species. If a newt uses its eye steadily and purposefully, that eye develops in scope and power. If a newt uses its eye ill, that eye atrophies. So with wealth. Suppose John Smith has acquired a million dollars in the course of his lifetime and has transmitted that valuable characteristic to his son. If John Smith 2nd makes proper use of that million-dollar characteristic, the chances are that it will manifest itself in the third John Smith in the form of a five-million-dollar trait. On the other hand, successive generations, by improper use of a transmitted million-dollar trait, or a fivemillion-dollar trait, or even an eightymillion-dollar trait, may lose that trait altogether and revert to the original state of the original John Smith before he began acquiring Dun and Bradstreet characteristics. This Lamarckian truth has been summed up in the familiar remark that in this country it is usually three generations from overalls to overalls.

Society has looked with extreme favor upon the Lamarckian conception of property. Society has encouraged the transmission of property from generation to generation. Indeed, there is a very respectable body of opinion which holds that property is the basis of the social order; and the right to property obviously means not only the right to accumulate and possess, but the right to transmit. There is no need here to discuss all the historic codes and laws of inheritance which until recently were designed to reënforce a biological principle with a social sanction. This sanction finds its fullest development in the laws of entail and primogeniture, by which individuals are actually deprived of the right to dictate the specific channel along which their acquired realestate characteristics shall be transmitted. The individual was compelled to let his acquired traits flow along the channels deemed most desirable from the point of view of the social interest, England to-day is frequently considered to be what it is because of the laws that encouraged real-estate transmission to the eldest son, leaving for the younger sons the army, the church, or the colonies. In France, on the other hand, the Code Napoléon decreed that a man’s landed-property characteristics should be distributed equally among all his children; and France’s sturdy peasant proprietorship to-day is usually traced to this popularization of Lamarck by Bonaparte.

The Weismannian Tax-Collector. But there has been a change. Why are the people of the United States, at the moment of this writing, more deeply concerned with the problem of tax-reduction than with any other question of general interest? Why is this also true of the people of Great Britain, of Italy, and of the greater part of the civilized and tax-paying world? Because something happened a few years ago which largely destroyed the Lamarckian character of property, and tax-reduction is a desperate endeavor on the part of the world’s population to get back to Lamarck. That something was the World War. Wealth emerged out of the war, with anywhere from thirty to one hundred per cent of its transmissible qualities destroyed. The normal citizen can no longer transmit property to his descendants as readily as he used to do, for the very good reason that his Government takes a very large part of his property away from him, and leaves him with that much less to transmit. For many millions of people in Europe the war left nothing at all to transmit. The struggle to get back from war-taxes to normal taxes, to get back from Weismann to Lamarck, will be in the forefront for a great many years to come in every civilized country — or at least in every country sufficiently civilized to have participated in the World War.

Great Britain is to-day the most antiLamarckian nation on earth. The subjects of King George hand over more of their acquired property characteristics to the tax-collector than do any other participants in the World War. British inheritance taxes mount as high as forty per cent, meaning that this portion of a defunct British citizen’s property has been rendered untransmissible. And it is not merely succession taxes. The normal taxes paid by the British citizen average one third of his annual income. This means that, for a very considerable portion of the British middle-class, wealth has virtually ceased to be hereditary. The business of making both ends meet is so difficult that there can be little question of saving for one’s heirs. England to-day expects every man to do his duty by the tax-collector six times as hard as before the war; and to that extent one’s duty by one’s heirs must suffer.

In other countries the loss of the transmissible character of property has been somewhat less notable, but still enormous when compared with the pre-war standard of taxation. In France, perhaps twenty per cent of an individual’s income is rendered unavailable for transmission to the next generation, by the activities of the tax-collector. In the United States it is ten per cent, on the average. Federal taxation to-day is probably five times as high as before the war.

What is the justification for wartaxes? In the first place, of course, necessity. But in many quarters there has been an attempt to moralize the process. It is a familiar argument. The State, in the course of the war, had exercised the right to conscript the bodies of its citizens together with their freedom of opinion, of utterance, and of movement, and various other normally inalienable characteristics. Therefore, it is argued, Government should have no hesitation about conscripting the wealth of its citizens to pay for the war. In the course of the war, millions of young men were deprived of the power to transmit to their issue, not only their acquired characteristics, but all characteristics whatsoever, by the simple fact of dying on the field of battle or in the hospitals and the prison camps. Young men were killed who might have transmitted to their unborn children a vast accumulation of energy, aptitude, genius, aspirations, dreams. It is only just, it is argued, that the survivors should deny themselves, to a considerable extent, the privilege of transmitting their property accumulations to their children. If it is to be Weismann against Lamarck, then it should be Weismann all round. So runs the argument. Its soundness may be left for the reader to pass upon.

On the Other Hand. But in society, as in the biological sciences, it is a very rare principle that enjoys smooth sailing. Hypotheses have a disconcerting way of running up smack against an obstinate set of hostile facts. So in this after-war world and on this issue of private property, where everything has seemingly been running against Lamarck, we find ourselves suddenly confronted with a very startling vindication of Lamarck. I have been pointing out how much more difficult war has rendered the inheritance of the most popular of all acquired characteristics, namely, wealth. In all fairness, it should now be pointed out that in one respect Lamarck has been very emphatically justified; that, as a result of the war, wealth has been more rapidly and more thoroughly transmitted from individual to individual than for a century before the outbreak of the war.

The situation may be summarized as follows: The war has made it much more difficult for an individual to transmit his acquired real-estate and bank balances to his son. But the war has encouraged on an enormous scale the transmission of a man’s wealth to nondescendants of his body. It is a phenomenon frequently hinted at in the two familiar epithets — the New Rich and the New Poor. Let us see.


To what purposes do Governments devote the taxes which they derive from their citizens and by which said citizens are rendered more or less incapable of transmitting said wealth to their descendants? The great bulk of taxes everywhere goes to paying interest on the national debts piled up during the war. But if such vast debts exist, these debts must be held somewhere. In other words, there must be somewhere a great body of wealth. And there is. It is in the hands of the New Rich or of the Richer-than-Ever. All over Europe millions of the so-called middle class, and particularly millions of the so-called brainworkers and fixed income owners, are paying interest on bonds which other people hold. In a very real sense they have transmitted and are still transmitting their wealth to the fortunate bondholders. If they have no property characteristics left to transmit to their children, it is because they have handed over or are busy handing over those property-characteristics to utter strangers.

This process is best studied in Germany. By far the greater part of the property characteristics acquired through generations by millions of humbly well-off and moderately welloff Germans — small property owners, security-holders, pensioners, insurancebeneficiaries, professional and intellectual workers — has been transmitted through the devaluation of the German mark to the Stinneses and others of their kind who have profited enormously by these same worthless marks. In Germany there is not even the poor consolation that the losses of one great class have been the gain of another comparatively large class. The German national debt lias been repudiated and the so-called owners of fixed incomes have seen their incomes fixed at zero. In Germany the transmission of wealth along lines of non-kinship has been from the pockets of the very many to the pockets of the very few.

That, of course, is not altogether a new phenomenon. Revolutions, whether political, social, or religious, have a way of transmitting the property characteristics of one class to another class. Henry VIII of England transmitted a very notable accumulation of realestate characteristics from the monasteries to the nobles; and the latter supplemented the process by transmitting to themselves the acquired land-characteristics of the English peasantry — through the ingenious system of enclosures. Tucked away in a book which one would least suspect of cynicism, in L’Abbé Constantin, there is one brief sentence that completely covers the case. Frenchmen, remarks M. Halévy, insist on having revolution once in every generation because that is the most expeditious way of redistributing the wealth of a nation.

White Collars. By this time it should be obvious that we cannot speak of Lamarck’s doctrines as entirely valid or entirely discredited. The transmission of acquired characteristics operates in some instances and breaks down in others. Sometimes we see the same trait, as in the case of the wealth of the European middle-classes, partly justifying Lamarck and partly repudiating him. Sometimes we see in the same individual certain traits true to Lamarck and other traits belying him. This particular phase of the conflict between Lamarck and anti-Lamarck is strongly manifested in one section of the middle classes upon which the world has bestowed a great amount of commiseration and an infinitesimal amount of concrete relief. I refer to the so-called white-collar workers.

The white-collar proletariat to-day is at the same time the victim of traits that strongly insist on getting themselves inherited and of others that are becoming increasingly difficult to pass on to one’s issue. The Standard of Living is one of the acquired characteristics which normally exerts an almost irresistible urge to pass on from father to son. To be sure, in the war countries of Europe that urge has been largely overcome by a hostile environment. The white-collar masses of Europe have been driven to accept for their children a standard based on less food and clothes, poorer housing, less education, and, in pretty nearly every other way, a lowered material and spiritual life. But here at home the white-collar population has held to its living standard, though at extraordinary sacrifices. There has been a fierce insistence, in the face of the famous Cost of Living, upon maintaining the American level of cleanly and seemly habitation and dress, and of full opportunity for education — all for transmittal to one’s children. In the matter of food, I imagine, there has been practised a drastic thrift in order to make possible that dignity of home and dress which does go far to make the man. The clerk and the school-teacher eat less and hang longer hours on a subway strap in order to find an airier and more self-respecting apartment house at the end of the day and the trip.

Decent living, then, will remain a transmissible characteristic in the United States; but it will persist at the sacrifice of the transmissibility of that other acquired trait — property. To be sure, that trait was never highly developed among the white-collar workers. Their income has never been of a size to stimulate large-scale accumulation and transmission; yet something there was. That something, I imagine, has now been brought down close to the vanishing point.

Of course, the white-collar man does one other thing. Faced with the growing difficulty of transmitting property to his children, the white-collar man has been remorselessly cutting down the number of his children. But that is too big a subject to enter upon here.

Chips and Blocs. Until recently, perhaps the strongest case for Lamarck in the entire range of human experience was to be found in the sphere of American politics. No acquired human trait was so regularly transmitted from father to son as the Party label. Minnesota and Vermont on the one hand, and South Carolina and Louisiana on the other, have been with us always to show how a voting habit acquired about the year 1860 can become virtually imbedded in the germ plasm. It was a phenomenon which in Great Britain had been observed and recorded half a century ago by W. S. Gilbert when he formulated the Lamarckian thesis that every little boy born in England is either a little Liberal or a little Conservative.

In England it is now plain that, for the time being, Lamarckism is bankrupt. Twenty years ago the appearance of twenty-nine Labor members in the House of Commons showed that the Liberal characteristic was ceasing to be transmitted among a considerable portion of the population. To-day a Labor ministry is in power, backed up by something like one hundred and ninety members in the House of Commons, and by almost five million voters in the country. People believe the day is not far away when the Labor Party will have an absolute majority in the country and in Parliament. Nor is it the Liberal characteristic alone that has been failing to get itself inherited. The Conservative Party is swinging away from Lamarck. In the last General Election it was demonstrated that Prime Minister Baldwin had failed to transmit his Conservatism to his son, who was active on the Labor side. More recently a son of Lord Curzon has shed the paternal characteristic and gone Labor. And any force in nature which can work its will upon Lord Curzon is, as one might say in nonscientific circles, ‘some’ force.

But, as we have seen, natural law is capable of startling reversals. Will the Labor characteristic, now being rapidly acquired by the British people, be transmitted to succeeding generations of voters? Or may we at any moment expect a reversion from Ramsay MacDonald to Asquith and Winston Churchill? Opinions differ.

In this country, it is the Republican Party that is chiefly affected by the anti-Lamarckian drift. Republican insurgency has become chronic, which is another way of saying that more Republican fathers than Democratic fathers are failing to transmit their acquired characteristics, as of the year 1860, to their sons. Over the greater part of the Republican area the reaction from Lamarck has gone only as far as the development of Progressives and Farm Blocs. But at the moment of writing, the chances of a Third Party out of the loins of the Republican Party is being seriously discussed.

Whether that Third Party comes or not, it is obvious that the farmer of the Republican West is sloughing off what is unquestionably the outstanding trait among acquired Republican characteristics. And that is the Tariff. The Tariff urge is still strong; but the zeal with which the Western farmer is striving to acquire other traits, such as coöperative marketing, Government loans, and freight-rate reduction, suggests that the Tariff trait may yet disappear out of the germ plasm of the Republican farmer.

If that should ever come to pass, it will be a disaster of the first magnitude for Lamarck. For hitherto, in this case of the farmer and the Tariff, Lamarck has been vindicated even beyond his fondest dreams. Lamarck believed that acquired characteristics are transmitted from generation to generation to the extent that such characteristics are useful to the individual. But the Tariff offers us the remarkable case of the transmission of an acquired characteristic which has been neither useful nor convenient to those farmer generations which have inherited it and passed it on in turn. The farmer sells his products in the markets of the world. By all dictates of reason he should insist on being allowed to buy in a free world-market. In other words, the fanner should, by nature, be an anti-Protectionist. But it so happened that the Western farmer acquired his Republicanism with his Nationalism during the Civil War period, and be took his Republicanism straight, including the Tariff. As a Republican he has continued to vote Tariff, even though that acquired characteristic has repeatedly got between his legs and tripped him. But, as I have said, we are now apparently facing a change.


The Minuet and the Trot. Mr. Minnegerode has recently told us how seriously civilization in the New York of the 1840’s found itself threatened by two formidable invasions from the other side of the water. These were the waltz and the polka. The pillars of a social structure grounded in the chaste figures of the square dance began visibly to totter. But the younger set of 1840 went its way, and somehow life triumphed over the disintegrating forces from the banks of the Danube and the Vistula; triumphed over them and assimilated them. For what do we find? This: seventy years later, a civilization seemingly rooted in the waltz and in the schottische, close kin to the polka, discovered its foundations to be crumbling under the onset of the tango, the turkey-trot, and its affiliated zoölogical dances. In the swing of human evolution around the circle, it may be confidently predicted that some day a civilization based on the trot, the hug, the toddle, and the shiver, will stand on the defensive against the menace of the quadrille and the minuet.

And if the reader will only be kind enough to substitute for my technical dance terms such terms as religion, science, morals, manners, politics, economics, books, pictures, music, he will be dispensing with a great many additional paragraphs in these necessarily condensed laboratory-notes.

Why do the young go in for the waltz when their elders practise the quadrille? Why will they revive the minuet when their elders have been won over to the fox-trot? Obviously because they are young and their elders are old. In other words: Youth is the strongest anti-Lamarckian force we know of. Every generation makes it its business to scrutinize the acquired characteristics of the preceding generation in order to reject them. Youth holds the Heights of the Meuse against the acquired traits of its fathers and cries,‘They shall not pass!' Youth insists on acquiring its own set of characteristics. There is not the least use in warning Youth that its own turn is bound to come and that, twentyfive years from now, the young of 1924 will be receiving their stiff dose of the anti-Lamarckian medicine from the young of 1949. The young of 1924 profess to be delighted by the prospect. They call it progress. To-day they demand from their elders a sacrifice in the cause of progress. Twenty-five years from now they will be glad to be the sacrifice. They want to oust and are willing in their turn to be ousted. They say so now. How they will feel about it in 1949 I don’t know; but l have my suspicions.

Which is the better thing for the world in the long run — that Youth should inherit its faith and ideas, or that it should create its own new set of faiths and ideas, to be replaced in turn by a newer equipment a generation hence? The present investigator, having been young in Roosevelt’s first administration, believes, of course, in Lamarck. He believes that Youth should go slow in throwing over the accumulated characteristics of its predecessors. And he believes this on the basis of Youth’s own favorite argument: because it makes a much more interesting fight. If each generation gets into the habit of thinking that its own ideas are valid only for itself, what sort of defense will it put up when the next generation comes swarming over the top? A man will fight desperately in defense of a heritage of ideas, but not in defense of a twenty-one years’ tenancy in a certain set of ideas. Youth thinks it is calling for Struggle. But what it is really asking for is a sham stage-battle. You can’t get up much of a scrap it one of the parties — the elder party — starts out with the conviction that it is going to be licked, and deserves to be.

There is one region in eastern Europe where the conflict between Lamarck and anti-Lamarck is being fought out on a gigantic and tragic scale. Bolshevism in Russia seven years ago set out to make a clean sweep of every existing acquired characteristic: in the political, economic, and social orders; in religion; in morals; in the arts and sciences; in the very nature of Truth, which henceforth was to be true only to the extent that it was communist and proletarian. The struggle between Lamarck and Weismann in Soviet Russia is still under way; but there is really very little doubt as to the outcome. Lamarck will win. The acquired characteristics of the Russian people will once more get themselves transmitted. They are doing so already. If you need proof, take that one notable acquired characteristic of which I have spoken at some length. Property, a trait which men acquire chiefly for the purpose of transmitting it, was abolished in Soviet Russia, only to be restored. The Soviet rulers have created nothing themselves, but have virtually been living on the wealth-characteristics acquired by past generations; and they have now discovered that the destruction of the transmissible nature of property means death for a nation. The case is even stronger for Russia’s acquired cultural and spiritual capital. Space is lacking for details.

And so the writer’s laboratory researches, as embodied in these notes, impel him to take his stand firmly with Vernon Kellogg in a recent number of the Atlantic. Mr. Kellogg found that in spite of the very serious case that can be built up against Lamarck, ‘many reputable and thoughtful biologists remain convinced that any satisfactory causal explanation of evolution must contain as a fundamental element some form of the Lamarckian assumption.’ My only hope is that this offer of unsolicited aid and comfort on my part will not worry Mr. Kellogg too much.