Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/January 1908/Shall We Improve our Race?

1538232Popular Science Monthly Volume 72 January 1908 — Shall We Improve our Race?1908Gustave Michaud




DURING the last hundred years man has persistently and skilfully practised artificial selection on domestic animals. He has thus sometimes increased tenfold their value to him. Setting aside for reproduction those cows only which gave the greatest amount of milk, and those bulls, the mothers of which participated in the same characteristic, milk-making animals were evolved out of the former indifferent races of cows. The lean, hardy hog of the eighteenth century has been transformed into a wonderful machine for the quick making of fat. Selection practised for speed only has created races of horses which can for a short time compete with a locomotive.

While, in most cases of selection, man had in view the modification of certain physical characteristics, it can not be said that this was always his main purpose. The intellectual selection of animals has also been practised to some extent. Breeders of hunting dogs are as much concerned about what mothers and fathers thought and did in given circumstances as about their shape and color. The results of their work have been races the hunting propensities of which are quite as strong and not altogether unlike the blind impulse which prompts a New York clerk to spend one hundred dollars on hunting implements to get a few birds worth a few cents. The main difference between the hunting dog and the hunting clerk is that the former is mostly a recent product of artificial selection, while the latter is exclusively a result of paleolithic natural selection: at a time when agriculture was unknown, those families whose heads found no pleasure in hunting were slowly but steadily and surely eliminated by hunger and consequent diseases. The others remained.

And the most notable mental transformation undergone by dogs is not the developing of their hunting inclinations nor the creating of their doorkeeping and watching propensities. The dog is to-day the only animal which unmistakably loves his master, which expresses intense joy when shown some kindness or intense grief when told a harsh word. During the the long prehistoric ages, domestic dogs were treated as they are nowadays in savage tribes. Although each family kept a number of them, very little food was ever given them. Hunger killed every year many of them. Those which survived out of every generation were mostly those which had received from their masters some food in time of famine, and they were of course the most affectionate and demonstrative.

It is a popular belief that the domestic cat differs in size only from its cousins, tigers and lions. The fact is that the physical changes brought about in that animal by selection are by far less conspicuous than the mental modification. Cats belong to the most ferocious family of the carnivorous order, and no more effective natural weapon can be found than their short jaw, with its long canines, its formidable muscles and its transversal hinge. It was with this weapon that the prehistoric machairodus killed the mammoth. It is the same weapon which to-day enables the small puma to kill in a few seconds animals of the size of an ox. The first consequence of the domestication of cats has been the elimination by angry parents, generation after generation, of those cats which were most inclined to bite children when teased by them. The result of that selection has been a race which can still use its paws, but which seems almost unable to use on man its best and only deadly weapon, although the restriction is entirely of a mental order.

It must be admitted as a sad truth that, while domestic animals are specialized and brought to a high degree of efficiency, nothing is done for the selection and improvement of man, and this in spite of the fact that modern life calls for an increased specialization in every domain. It can not be said that our statesmen are indifferent to the future of our country, but, while they may know some Latin, Greek, psychology, logic, ethics and metaphysics, they and their generation are, as a rule, woefully ignorant of modern scientific thought and truth. To bring education within the reach of all is, in their opinion, the best way to prepare the coming of a superior race of Americans. They are ignorant or forgetful of the fact that neither acquired knowledge, nor acquired qualities or habits are ever transmitted to offspring. For more than a thousand years the Chinese have been changing the shape of the feet of their girls; for many generations the Flat Head Indians have been altering the shape of the head of their children; for over three thousand years the Jews have practised circumcision; all that work has to be done over again in each generation, none of the children born to these people ever showing any proof of the transmissibility of the characteristics acquired by father or mother or by both. Selection would do for them, in a comparatively short time, what mutilation has never done, will never do. It would do for us what education can not do, yet millions are spent annually for education and not a cent for selection.

Not a cent for intelligent, well-directed selection. Some mental selection is practised by man on man, but it is blind selection. Sometimes it improves the race; sometimes it makes it worse, and nobody seems to care whether it acts one way or the other. The military selection kills or keeps away from marriage ties not only the able-bodied, but also the intelligent, men, and leaves at home for reproductive purposes the weak-minded. On the other hand, we keep the robbers in prison, but this wise measure was meant for a result which it does not produce, the terrorizing of malefactors, and produces a result for which it was not meant, a decrease in the posterity of offenders. Men of genius and their families have to-day a better chance to survive than they had in the paleolithic age, but how many eminent men spend their whole life in a desperate struggle against poverty and connected diseases, because their genius is not of the kind which brings wealth through the sale of patents!

And if through sheer chance, some great mathematician is evolved one day out of the crowd, the state—who should be ever on the watch for such events and whose main care should be to preserve and increase such sources of light, progress and national glory—does nothing to protect the man of genius against care, disease or anything likely to shorten life nor to multiply the splendid thinking machine which that man is. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred our mathematician marries a woman whose family did not count a single astronomer, physicist or other mathematical mind among its members. The result of such a union is what could be expected. Although genius does not generally die out right away in the first generation, it decreases by half, and further dilutions soon bring it down to nothingness. We know that half a dozen Goethes, Longfellows, Pasteurs, Edisons or Curies will do more to illustrate a period and raise a nation in the eyes of posterity than the most prosperous trade, the most thriving industry or than ten successful wars, yet we rely on chance and on chance alone to get those men. Breeders in their treatment of cattle are more up to date in that respect than the state in its management of men.

Such is our error and some may think that it is beyond correction. In our present state of civilization, compulsion in matter of marriage is out of the question. That is true, but compulsion need not be considered when inducement will succeed. If we bear in mind that lack of money delays or prevents many marriages and that a dowry everywhere increases a girl's chances to be married, we shall have an idea of the way in which the next generation will probably solve the problem. Most young men would consent to take a wife in England rather than in their own city if they were given a life pension for so doing; most men of genius would consent to take a wife from a number of selected young ladies rather than in the crowd if they were forever freed from pecuniary cares and moreover given the assurance that another dowry would be paid at the birth of every one of their children. Why such unions should be less happy than others is not easy to see. The best conjugal harmony is not necessarily found where one of the two is unable to understand the tastes, leading thoughts and all-absorbing ideal of the other.

The nearest approach to such state interference in intelectual selection can now be observed in the city of Washington. It is of course the unforeseen consequence of laws which were not in the least devised for selective ends; but, in spite of being clumsy, slow and but little discriminating, the process which obliges thousands of men of superior intellect, drawn from all parts of the country, to reside permanently or temporarily with their wives in a city selected for that purpose, could not fail to produce the usual results. The writer has shown elsewhere[1] that in no city or section of the country, nor even of any country, can be found such a high birth rate of genius. Birth rate of genius does not mean here the percentage of men of talent, born everywhere and now living in Washington, but the percentage of those born in Washington, who are now living in all parts of the country.

Our period sees in acquired knowledge a panacea for all evils and we have a federal Bureau of Education. A federal Bureau of Selection may be a distinctive feature of a next and more enlightened period. This institution will take up the work of which the publishers of "Biographical Dictionaries of Contemporary Men and Women of Distinction" now have the undisputed monopoly. Its officers will determine who are our bachelor celebrities and where are the daughters of those who are married. This last datum will be invaluable; if a pure-blood literary woman can not be found for a promising young novelist, a half-breed genius will always be better than a woman of the type of Dickens's wife. The bureau will supervise the education of the nation's future great men; should an Agassiz marry the daughter of a Dana, it will see that Latin and Greek be not allowed to crowd out geology from the educational curriculum of the children born of such a union; fossil studies are not the study of fossils. The organization of meetings and conferences of a literary, scientific and social character, in which men and women of talent will get acquainted with each other will be another duty of the bureau. Some will say that the state can not enter the marriage agency business without losing some of its dignity. If they were transported into the room where naked recruits, huddled together like cattle, are awaiting the medical examination which will decide of their fitness to kill other men in international duels, those same critics would not raise a protest. Such is the power of traditional ideas. There is more shame in the killing than in the marrying business, and it is more honorable for the state to raise the intellectual standard of the nation than to degrade the race, physically, mentally and morally.

  1. The Century Magazine, November, 1905.