Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/September 1886/Hereditary Diseases and Race-Culture

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | September 1886

HEREDITARY DISEASES AND RACE-CULTURE.
By GEORGE J. PRESTON, M. D.

TO any one who will scan the human race, from the time when Greece and Rome were in their zeniths, down to the present day? it will be apparent that men have degenerated physically. We may have high examples, here and there, of some specialized feats of strength or skill, but, taking the races man for man, we are vastly inferior physically to the Greeks. One prominent cause of Grecian excellence occurs naturally to all, namely, the necessity for and the high premium set upon physical superiority. Among a people where "all were for the state," and patriotism was the ruling passion, each man held out his life to the state whenever she saw tit to use it, and the state took care that the sword-arm should be well developed. Gunpowder and the implements of modern warfare had not yet rendered all men equal on the battle-field. To have gained a prize at the Olympian games was enough to raise a man, and with him his family, from obscurity into prominence. As the race has progressed, the need for physical force has grown less and less, until at the present day the term physical force, or, as we oftener hear it, brute force, has almost become an opprobrious epithet.

A fallacious notion has somewhere crept in that an intellectual man must be below par physically, and that the one faculty is necessarily cultivated at the expense of the other. The old proverb, mens sana in corpore sano, has been flouted as an absurdity. So much, very briefly, for the first cause of race-degeneration; the second, and the one to which this paper would direct attention, is the influence of hereditary diseases. This factor has never received the attention it should have had at the hands of the writers on social science. The races of which we have been speaking had little of this element to contend with. The weaklings were either deliberately exposed and left to die, as in the case of the Spartans, or if they attained maturity they were held in such low esteem that they willingly kept in the background. Look for a moment at our modern civilization, and mark its diametrically opposite tendency. Every day hospitals are being erected to nurture the diseased and imperfect specimens of our race, and every year thousands of children are by skill and care saved from the death to which Nature would consign them. All this accords with our enlarged notions of humanity, and reflects great credit on the zeal of the philanthropist and the science of the physician, but it exerts a baneful effect on the race. To one who has had access to any large city hospitals, it is a pitiful sight to see the multitude of children who are tided over a few Fears, and sent out into the world branded with an hereditary taint, to propagate their wretched breeds. The limits of this paper will not allow any extended statistics, nor the nature of it warrant a special discussion of hereditary diseases, but there are two whose effects are apparent to all, consumption and insanity. The former, consumption, using the term in its widest sense, has forages produced the most frightful ravages. For example, in England, from 1837 to 1841, of the total number of deaths from all causes sixteen per cent were from consumption. In Philadelphia, from 1840 to 1849, the death-rate was one of consumption to six and a half from all other causes, or about fifteen per cent.

Of late years, however, the mortality has been somewhat reduced by a more successful plan of treatment. As regards insanity "in the different civilized nations of the world, there is an average of one insane in live hundred inhabitants. The undoubted steady increase of the insane under care and observation would seem to be greater than can be fairly accounted for by the greater attention now given to their welfare"(Maudsley). These two instances, recognized as the most important in the hereditary class, will serve as examples; it is not desired here to show in what proportion of cases disease is transmitted from generation to generation; the writer hopes to be able at a later date to give some general laws respecting hereditary affections.

The heredity of genius has been fully proved by that very interesting writer and accurate observer, Francis Galton, and he has put forward in a masterly way the claims of eugenics, or race-culture. This must be effected, he urges, by a rational system of natural selection. "Men," says the same author, "have long been exempted from the full rigor of natural selection, and have become more mongrel in their breed than any other animal on the face of the earth." The laws of natural selection, considered broadly, prevail among men more than at first sight appears.

Among the lower animals, as Mr. Darwin has shown, strength, beauty, voice, and such qualities, determine a choice: the rustic maiden often chooses her husband because he is stronger physically than his rivals; the more intellectual woman would naturally look for mental superiority, and so on. Now, the strongest point in any rational natural selection must be first and foremost pure blood; and by that is not meant blood that has come down through a long line of ancestors merely, but blood which is free from any hereditary taint. We are all familiar with the member of some "old family," a slight, flat breasted, precociously intelligent child, whose slender, graceful neck, bright eyes shaded by long lashes, thin, white skin through which the blue veins show, declare to the educated eye the presence of tubercular disease. We know that, if such a child matures, the odds are overwhelming that its offspring will continue to disseminate the disease. Or take any number of insane persons, with whose family history you are more or less familiar, and the certainty with which you will be able to trace the disease to hereditary predisposition is wonderful. We know of no government sufficiently strong to forbid the banns of a man whose lungs are full of tubercle, or of a woman upon whose person cancer has shown itself. The only way to begin to stamp out hereditary disease is to direct the tide of public opinion toward it. We would not if we could enforce the Spartan rule, but we can and should exert a power they knew not of, the press, and educate our people to the full importance of this subject. Even our proverbial mauvaise honte can not object to showing the young of both sexes the horrors of a legacy of an hereditary disease. Those who are to become the fathers and mothers of our next generation should be warned before they make a step into the dark, and should feel that it is a duty they owe, not only to themselves, but also to their country, to propagate a pure race. It is repugnant, at first thought, to speak of "breeding" men and women, but this very repugnance to handling a subject surrounded by so much delicate reserve has been largely conducive to the race-degeneration. We know that the race should be improved; every year, as has been shown, pours its rapidly increasing mass of impure blood into the general current. A man with one or more hereditary diseases on his side, and a woman with a like number among her ancestry, make it almost impossible for their offspring to escape.

We know that the race can be improved, as is shown by analogies among the lower animals. How paradoxical it seems that a man who would scout the idea of breeding his stock to diseased animals should yet without a word of opposition see his children marry into families where the hereditary taint is marked. Yet such is undoubtedly the fact. Ignorance must be the prime cause of much of this misery; for the certainty with which some diseases reproduce themselves in succeeding generations is a fact which can be proved, and not a mere set of coincidences as many suppose.

The theory that healthy blood on one side of the house is sufficient to counteract the diseased of the other is, unfortunately, fallacious. The predisposition to hereditary disease will often survive many influxes of pure blood, and the currents may, like the clear and sparkling Rhone emerging from Lake Geneva, and the dirty-gray Arve from the glaciers, run side by side for a while, separate and distinct, but at last they mingle, forming one turbid stream.