Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/186

This page has been validated.
174
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

In studying the history of illustrious men, how often do we find 1 brilliant imagination and extraordinary capacity for art, poetry, and literary composition, which are by no means the result of heredity. We have not far to go for instances of this. Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Meyerbeer, Ingres, Delacroix, Mérimée, displayed talents for which they were in no wise indebted to their parentage. The history of men of science exhibits the part played by heredity still further cut down. We are told of families of savants. How many of these might be enumerated? A dozen at the most. On the other hand, how many illustrious savants there are, among whose ascendants are found only people of very common stamp, or else distinguished for talents of a very different order from those which characterize the man of science! What hereditary influences fashioned a Cuvier, a Biot, a Fresnel, a Gay-Lussac, an Ampère, a Blainville? It is plain that in these instances spontaneity and education enacted the chief part. Nor does the history of authors agree any better with the pretensions made by the thorough partisans of heredity.

It is especially among philosophers that spontaneity appears to be supreme. Our authors present no lists of philosophers who have inherited from their ancestors the talent for speculation. Here we have a series of facts which make against heredity; these its advocates say nothing about, nor indeed are they made sufficient account of by either party. Metaphysicians, precisely because in them the mental element alone is active, are exempt from all the influences of heredity. In proportion as the characters it tends to transmit are less of a physiological and more of a psychological nature, the less is the influence of heredity. But there is nothing more purely psychological, or more free from sense-elements and mechanical factors, than the mind of the speculative philosopher. In point of fact, the great metaphysicians had no progenitors, nor did they leave any posterity. The philosophic genius has ever been absolutely individual, inalienable, and intransmissible. There is not a single great thinker, in whose line, whether ascending or descending, we discover either the promise or the perpetuation of the high capacities which made him illustrious. Descartes and Newton, Leibnitz and Spinoza, Diderot and Hume, Kant and Maine de Biran, Cousin and Jouffroy, had neither ancestors nor posterity.

Such is spontaneity. To form a precise idea of the part it plays, we should have to determine, in a general way, and also in relation to temperament, education, social and other conditions, etc., the genesis and development of those faculties by which a given man of superior power is distinguished from his progenitors; we must group together and classify the characteristic elements which make up the very essence of the personality and individuality—those marvelous elements of free initiative and of total independence which stamp a man as a genius. It would then be seen that most commonly superior abilities