Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/April 1914/Eugenics and Euthenics




THE privilege of claiming your attention for a few minutes is doubtless given to me as a biologist, and I shall speak chiefly of the biological aspects of the subject, leaving to others to discuss its sociological aspects.

There are three phases of the problem of human betterment—culture, eugenics and evolution—and these need to be carefully distinguished. They are commonly confused in the minds of those who have given little thought to the biological aspects of the problem, and such confusion is likely to lead to misdirected effort. The biologist who makes no claim to be a sociologist may make a few suggestions to which the student of social problems may well give heed.

Human betterment may be secured through work for the relief of distress, through education of the individual, by inspiring him to action upon a higher moral plane. By the cumulative effects of such culture, generation after generation, great social advance may be made. It is by this method that our great advance in civilization has been secured. This is, of course, work of the greatest value, promoting profoundly human happiness and social progress. It needs no defense. It makes a strong natural appeal to every normal man. If effort for the comfort of domestic animals is recognized by us all as of worth, how much more must we approve all intelligent endeavor to advance human welfare. In nothing that I shall say would I wish to be interpreted as lacking in appreciation of and enthusiasm for such individual and social culture. Contributing to the happiness of one's family and neighbors, promotion of normal living among them, is a life motive worthy of any man, and when we realize that the betterment thus effected need not cease with the present generation, but may improve the social conditions under which all following generations shall live, this ideal becomes glorified.

But in all the centuries of known human history, while wonderful advance in individual conduct and social relations has been secured through the cumulative effect of the cultural effort that has been made, there has been little, if any, advancement in innate human character. There has been through all the centuries little, if any, improved inheritance for the race as a result of the many generations of culture. I have before written:

We have no reason to believe that the progress in culture, secured by education in one generation, will directly improve the innate character of the children of the next generation. Were the effects of education inherited, human evolution should be rapid, but it has been slow; how slow perhaps few of us realize. We speak with pride of the advance of human civilization, of our progress in the arts and in useful knowledge, of the improvement in morals and the growth of altruism, and this all makes us blind to the fact that since the dawn of history there has been no clearly recognizable evolution of mankind. We reach larger results in the problem of life than did our progenitors five thousand years ago, but we are able to do so because we build upon their experience and that of all the generations between.

Have we much greater innate powers? Are we at birth endowed with characters having much higher possibilities and much higher tendencies physically, intellectually and morally? Have we to-day men of much greater physical prowess than the ancient conquerors of the world, than the builders who constructed the monuments of Egypt? Have we more adventurous spirits or more successful explorers than the Phoenicians, who without compass sailed the ancient seas, reaching the whole Atlantic coast of Europe and the British Isles, also passing southward even around the tip of Africa? Are there among us to-day men of keener inventive genius than the one who first used fire, or the inventor of the lever or of the wheel or than the man who first made bronze or smelted ore? Our modern engines have been invented screw by screw by successive builders, each building upon the others' work. Have we to-day men of much larger legal and social understanding than the ancient lawgivers who forged the legal systems which still are the basis of our most enlightened governments? Have we poets whose genius greatly transcends that of Homer, or of the authors of the books of Job and Ruth? In esthetic appreciation, and in the power of artistic expression in sculpture and architecture, we are degenerate compared with the Greeks.

Even in innate moral character have we greatly advanced? We are learning the lesson of altruism, but are we born with a sturdier moral sense? If we could take a hundred thousand infants from London or Chicago and, turning back the wheel of time, place them in the homes of ancient Babylon, would they reach a higher standard of righteousness or of altruism than their neighbors? How little evidence we have of real evolution of mankind since the first emergence of the race from the darkness of prehistoric times!

But though we accept the statement that innate human character can not be improved by the direct inheritance of the effects of culture, there still remains to us the eugenic method of procedure, which, if it can wisely be applied, may result in improvement in the stirp, in the real essential innate character. This is an ideal that fires the imagination—the breeding of a race that shall be strong and wholesome, physically, intellectually and morally; men who shall be decent because they are inherently decent, not because by training they restrain their evil tendencies; a race from whose fundamental character the evil tendencies are actually removed. This is a social ideal higher even than was apparently present to the mind of Jesus.

Is this ideal—of a race of inherently wholesome men—utterly chimerical, or is there a way of approaching it? No positive, indubitable answer can now be given to this question, for scientific study of heredity has not yet given us extensive knowledge of the biological, especially of the psychological phenomena of inheritance.

This second part of the problem of human betterment, real race betterment, is a problem of good breeding, not one of culture. This problem of good breeding has two somewhat distinct aspects that are seldom clearly distinguished. There is first the problem of bringing the race average nearer to its present best by eliminating the less desirable and breeding from the best. This is the problem of eugenics as ordinarily considered. But there is the added problem of securing further true evolution of the race, raising the present best to a better.

We see thus the three aspects of the problem of human betterment: first, human culture, whose effects are cumulative through training from generation to generation, though not inherited; second, racebetterment through breeding from the best and eliminating the more undesirable, thus raising the general average toward the best type of manhood as we know it; third, the problem of securing true evolution beyond the point of the best yet experienced among men.

The problem of human culture is social, not biological. The problems of eugenics and evolution are primarily biological, but can be approached only if social conditions allow the application of biological method. It is necessary to emphasize cultural effort, for it is essential that the good breeding of the future human race be in the midst of a controlling atmosphere of highest altruistic idealism. Let us note for a moment some elements of the biological problem.

I can not stop to describe the microscopical structure of germ cells and their nuclei; the fact that the nuclei contain chromosomes in definite number which are the instigators of physiological action and the controllers in heredity; that the chromosomes in each nucleus fall into diverse categories physiologically, there being two chromosomes of each physiological type, one derived from the male parent and one from the female parent; that the different regions of a single chromosome may have different physiological values, and that in the division of nuclei the chromosomes split in such a manner that each daughter cell receives half of each specialized bit of each chromosome; that before fertilization one chromosome of each physiological pair is thrown away, and that in fertilization the full double character of the nucleus is restored. Of course, without knowledge of these structures in the germ cells and of their behavior in reproduction, one is not ready to begin to think of problems of inheritance. Familiarity with these fundamental facts not only helps one to escape many errors into which so many of the uninitiated fall, as, for example, the belief in the inheritance of the effects of culture, that is, of acquired characters, but it is essential as a guide to every step of one's thinking in this field. But I must assume that these are familiar matters to you all.

Recent studies in heredity have demonstrated that there is a sharp distinction between qualities that are heritable and others that are not heritable. We name the former stable characters, the latter unstable, or fluctuating characters. New qualities are arising from generation to generation through variation. These variations may similarly be classed as stable variations, or mutations, and fluctuating, or unstable, variations. No result can be reached by breeding with reference to unstable variations or qualities, for they are not inherited. Qualities belonging to the unstable type can not be fixed by breeding. They are, therefore, without significance in the problems of eugenics and evolution. It is impossible, however, to discern whether an observed quality is of the stable or unstable type until one follows its behavior in inheritance.

Another fact of the greatest importance to remember is that there is probably no such thing as inheritance of vague general resemblances, but that inheritance is apparently always particular, definite, so-called unit qualities being the things inherited. The character of any individual is built up of a complex multitude of such unit qualities, each heritable separately, and the character of an individual depends upon the combination and interaction of the unit qualities that have been passed down to him from his parents, grandparents and other progenitors.

In the light of these facts, what is the essential problem, first in eugenics, then in evolution? The eugenics problem is accurately to determine the desirable unit qualities, which must be of the stable type, and to combine and fix them in the race by breeding, eliminating at the same time the undesirable unit qualities. It is the problem of finding the exact units of inheritance, and of so fixing and combining, by breeding, these valuable units in the individuals of the coming generations that we shall have a more wholesome innate character in mankind. The evolution problem is to find among the multitude of diverse human traits new desirable unit qualities of the stable type, often only in their beginnings, and to perpetuate these by breeding.

The Galton-Pearson school of English students are willing to waive accurate analysis of inheritance units, but the real problem will not be solved until we know whether the human qualities with which we wish to deal, the intellectual and moral as well as the physical, do follow the Mendelian principles in inheritance, and until we have analyzed the Mendelian qualities to their units. We have a notable example of failure to secure permanent valuable results in attempting to breed from individuals whose valued character had not been analyzed to its unit qualities. At the Agricultural Experiment station in Orono, Maine, many years of effort were given to securing a strain of fowl which would lay an unusually large number of eggs. Mere breeding from hens which laid many eggs was not found to be enough. The quality of high fecundity could not be fixed in the strain. Selection had to be continued in each generation or reversion to the general average would occur. It was only after Raymond Pearl's masterful experimental analysis of fecundity in fowls into its three physiological unit characters, and his combining of the three units into one individual, that it was possible to secure a strain in which high fecundity was a fixed character. In breeding humankind the manipulation of unanalyzed qualities might prove as futile as the earlier experiments at the University of Maine. On the other hand Burbank, in his breeding experiments, has reached some permanent results, though he has never scientifically analyzed into their units the desirable qualities he has succeeded in combining and fixing. But in each case he has dealt experimentally with many thousands of individuals and has reached success in but a small proportion of his attempts. His methods offer little chance of success in human breeding.

Even one wholly unfamiliar with the subject can see at once that the mere outlining of the biological problems of eugenics and evolution is wholly impossible in a limited paper such as this. Yet this very fact points the chief moral I wish to urge.

We are at the very beginning of our knowledge of heredity. Few of the myriad of unit qualities in mankind, or other animals, have been identified and defined. We know some, perhaps all, the units of hair color and eye color, we know some of the units of shape of hair, and a few other such comparatively simple qualities. But, as yet, we are merely entering the pass that opens on to the broad fields of knowledge of inheritance. We have analyzed a mere handful of the simpler physical unit qualities. We know nothing, as yet, of psychic unit qualities. We can not even be positive that the inheritance of psychic qualities is by definite units which follow the so-called Mendelian laws of inheritance. That intellectual qualities, and moral stamina, are heritable seems indicated, but the parallelism between their mode of inheritance and that of such a thing as hair color, however probable, is as yet not definitely demonstrated. It is possible that most psychic qualities are too complex ever to be sucessfully and completely resolved into their heritable units.

How much progress, then, may we hope for. We don't know, and we can not know, until we have had decades, perhaps centuries, of further study of these most intricate problems. By the biologist, trained through the study of evolution to think in geologic epochs rather than years, the dawn of a new day for mankind is foreseen. But to the sociologist, whose chief business is to apply our knowledge to present conditions, the whole subject is of much more limited interest. Aside from a few very limited aspects of negative practise of eugenics, the whole subject is, as yet, of little social significance. The prolonged labor of hundreds of special students is needed before this matter, which already is of the keenest biological interest, can become of the greatest social moment. We must cultivate a little of the patience of God. It is perhaps unfortunate that so much attention from laymen is focused upon this great field of research. The man of science needs to work quietly, patiently, doggedly, without too much thought of so-called practical value to follow from his studies. He is painting the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are, and he is fortunate, in a way, if he can find a separate star where he may work undisturbed by the too eager interest of the crowd who clamor to know the significance of each brush-stroke.

Shall we then attempt no practical application in eugenics of the little knowledge of inheritance which we have already attained? For myself, I am in doubt. A number of states are making laws for the sterilization of certain undesirable classes, and are making the enforcement of these laws subject to the "expert" advice of a board composed generally of physicians. As a matter of fact there are very few states in this union which have among their citizens men capable of exercising expert judgment in these matters, and these men are not physicians, but biologists engaged in studies of heredity. Furthermore, in but few individual instances are there genealogical inheritance records which can serve as the basis of such expert opinion.

One thing, however, of the greatest practical value we can do. We can promote in every possible way the gathering and safe filing of human inheritance records, which in the future will serve as the foundation of such practise of eugenics as shall prove wise and practical. I can in imagination see the day when the compilation of inheritance data for each citizen will be compulsory, and when the files of these records will be the most valued of all state documents; when no marriage license will be issued except after the most careful scrutiny of the inheritance records of each contracting party by trained students of inheritance; and when the state will debar from marriage those whose children will be a burden to the state. The bearing of children is, of course, not an individual right, but a social privilege, and in time it must come to be so recognized.

With eugenics as our goal, with a hope of ultimately greatly improving the fundamental character of the race, let us cultivate patience, allowing time for the sure grasp of the phenomena and relations in heredity, before attempting by law any but the most limited applications of its principles to human marriage. Let us promote the view that social welfare, not individual comfort, is the ultimate criterion in marriage, and meanwhile let us actively promote the gathering and preserving of inheritance records for all persons, thus providing data for intelligent practise of eugenics in coming generations. We can at once insist upon the gathering of such data for all persons in our state penal institutions, almshouses, hospitals, asylums, etc. I am told that the city of Rochester is doing this with its public school children. We can urge the gathering of such data by privately controlled institutions of similar purpose. We can urge right-minded individuals everywhere to supply such data as to themselves and their families. But this will still fall far short of our need, for those who are contributing the most children to the coming generation will be the last voluntarily to supply the desired data. Nothing short of a state system of compulsory gathering of data for all individuals can serve as an adequate basis for such negative eugenics as it may in time be wise to enforce by law. But such compulsory gathering of data can not now be had. There must first be much education of general sentiment, and there must be trained students to take the records.

That observant naturalist, Oliver Herford, speaking in the supposed person of a crab, recently said:

Be sure you are right
Then go sideways for all you are worth.

I am asking for more time for the man of science to do his work before we insist upon applying too widely his results, lest in such application of uncertain scientific data we find ourselves making crab-like progress.

But I can not close with such a negative word. There are positive aspects of the matter which deserve the chief emphasis. Let me again urge that among the great needs must be recognized first scientific study of the principles of inheritance, and for this liberal financial support should be had; and second the cultivation of the realization that in marriage it is ignoble to seek the happiness only of the man and wife and to forget the character of the children and through them the welfare of society. Our poets and prophets, as well as our men of science, must open men's eyes to the beauty and worth of the social ideal in the family. Though we have advanced so short a way in the discovery of the phenomena and principles of inheritance, and though we have accurate inheritance tables for so few individuals, we can still clearly discern that marriage of certain individuals is unsocial. To what extent the state can now intervene to prevent such marriage is a question which needs careful detailed study, and is not an appropriate question for discussion in this brief general paper. But aside from this question of the limits of state action, we must emphasize the vital need of cultivation of the social point of view in this most vital of social institutions, the family, and the need now to gather the data upon which eugenics may in the future be based.

  1. Presented before the National Conference on Race Betterment.