Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/May 1915/Eugenics and War




MAY, 1915


By Professor J. ARTHUR THOMSON, M.A., LL.D.


IN the midst of anxieties—national and personal—we meet to honor the memory of Sir Francis Galton, born on this day ninety-three years ago. “I take eugenics very seriously,” he said, and we do him honor in following his example, and in considering what most closely concerns us at the present time in the light of what he regarded as of fundamental importance. So we naturally think to-night of war and eugenics.

I. The Dysgenic Tendencies of Modern War

In sailing along a coast of which we have no chart we can not tell from a distance whether this or that headland is continued into a dangerous reef or not, but we steer our course in reference to probable risks. Similarly, while we have practically no certainties in regard to the biological effect that a great war may have on a race, some probable risks are discernible. There are more than hints of dysgenic tendencies in modern war.

In ancient days a battle was probably in many cases a sifting out of the less strong, the less nimble, the less courageous on both sides, and the result of a war or raid was probably, in some cases, the practical elimination of the weaker of two clans. In both these ways there may have been a eugenic selection of the types best suited for times when fighting was the order of the day. But times have changed and war with them. Nation no longer exterminates nation, and victory is not necessarily with those of better physique. Moreover among the combatants on both sides the elimination is either indiscriminate, as when a battleship goes down, or in the wrong direction. The finest companies are set to the most hazardous tasks, where the mortality is often terrible, and the conspicuously brave are particularly liable to be killed. The point need not be labored: what Darwin said of even ancient times is true to-day:

The bravest men, who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked their lives for others, would on an average perish in larger numbers than other men.

Our suspicion that war has a dysgenic influence grows when we think of countries with a voluntary system of military service. In the making of our armies there is a process of discriminate selection which works in the wrong way from the eugenic point of view. The call of their country attracts a larger proportion of the more chivalrous, the more virile, the more courageous. In the patriotic response not only in this country, but throughout the Empire, we are proud to recognize a multitude of men of character that is precious. We have to face the fact, of which we are socially proud, that Britain is sending to the battlefields large numbers of the best of her sons, whose early death would mean an impoverishment of the race. They will not all come home. Already one knows of many irreparable losses in fine families.

It is so important to avoid exaggeration that one wishes to hear the other side. It is pointed out quite justly that a large nucleus of genuinely brave men must stay at home to keep things going, and that they form a eugenic bulwark. This is true, but after gratefully allowing for these we can not shut our eyes to the large body of men of military age who can not fight or who will not fight, whose ranks, therefore, will not be thinned as those of the combatants are.

It is said again that elimination is confined to the men, so that the women remain, as they usually are, a eugenic safeguard. But they can not directly act in this way unless they have children, and it is to be feared that the war will seriously increase the disharmony already involved in the unwholesomely large number of unmarried women. Moreover we have only to think of the mothers in Belgium and Servia to see that the terrible sifting is not confined to the men. Severe and protracted war tends to lower physical vigor throughout wide circles of non-combatants; the maternal depression, like that induced by famine, tends to result in arrests of development and in the production of under-average types. We have no reason to believe that the germ-plasm is specifically affected, yet it is quite conceivable that very unfavorable nurtural conditions may induce prejudicial germinal variations of a heritable sort.

We are told that many join the ranks simply in a desire for adventure. This is very difficult to prove, but even if it be true, what then? The adventurous spirit is no bad thing, often implying, for instance, a healthy-minded lack of preoccupation with one’s precious self. It is granted at once that not all who are killed are the pick of our race, albeit they may be nobler in their death than many whose safety they have secured will ever be in their life, but is there any getting past the fact that we are exposing to abnormally great risks enormous bodies of men to whose composition there has gone a high proportion of the adventurous, the chivalrous, the virile, and the simply brave? The numbers must be borne in mind. When many brave unmarried soldiers are killed, we are justified in saying that the natural inheritance of the country is the poorer through the loss of many who should have enriched the next generation by more than their example. But this might mean relatively little to the stock if the proportion of combatants to non-combatants was small. It is far otherwise in the present instance. It is said that there are in Britain about 6,250,000 men between 18 and 45, 13.8 of the total population; if we have, as may be necessary, an army of three millions, that would mean almost every second man between 18 and 45. Even if it were every second man by lot, the thinning might mean only a terrible mortality, but if the fitter join the army in larger numbers and are thinned in larger proportions, war must be regarded as a dysgenic eliminator.

It is said that military training has such marked beneficial effects that it counterbalances many losses and disablements, and no one would deny the value of the drill, the discipline, the plain food, the regular hours and all that. But in the realm of life we can not make simple equations of this sort; non-transmissible modifications can not be pitted against innate qualities. Even supposing that all the modifications acquired in the training period are to the good, which they are not, we do not thereby lessen the loss to the natural inheritance of the race likely to be involved in the thinning of Lord Kitchener’s army, which includes some of the best brains we have got.

There is another way in which the war is likely to have a dysgenic influence—by handicapping the more individuated. Many of the combatants will never return; many will be maimed and many enfeebled (in spite of the remarkably increased control of disease); but most, we hope, will come safely home. It is too much to expect, however, that they will find things as they left them. Everything promised will be done, we hope, but with the best will in the world things can not be as they were before. Hundreds of millions will have been spent unproductively and there will be need for many economies. This will select in the wrong direction, preventing marriage and so forth, for it will most affect the highly skilled whose work is of a kind that can be more or less readily dispensed with.

Eugenics and war—the clash between ideals and things as they are, is, perhaps, nowhere more terrible than here. For eugenics makes for the maintenance and improvement of the hereditary good qualities of a race, while severe and protracted war makes for their impoverishment. There is rough sifting, and the meshes of the sieve are not eugenically determined. How far the impoverishment will go is hidden from us, how far it can be counteracted remains to be seen, and what pluses there are to set against the minuses is a question for careful consideration, but some degree of impoverishment is certain.

We are reminded, however, that the race does not live by the germ-plasm alone, and that war with its terrible sifting may be worth all it costs. But who can predict of any war what all its cost may be? In his famous essay on "The Moral Equivalent of War," William James said eloquently:

Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own, a sacred, spiritual possession, worth more than all the blood poured out.

Perhaps it is so, especially if victory is thrown in! Already in Britain there has been a remarkable widening of sympathies, and waking up to the needs and interests of others.

Every one will agree that there are worse things than war—such as slavery, rottenness, softness, and dishonor; they are worse even than extinction. Let us admit that war may help "to preserve our ideals of hardihood," "to protect human nature against its weaker and more cowardly self," "to keep heroism and the martial virtues alive," and even to re-impress us with the imperativeness of eugenics, but in these concessions let us not admit that there are not tasks of peace capable of evoking and disciplining an equal hardihood and heroism. Let us not seek to conceal the fact that war, biologically regarded, means wastage and a reversal of eugenic or rational selection, since it prunes off a disproportionately large number of those whom the race can least afford to lose.

II. The Length and Breadth of the Struggle for Existence

Let us turn to another question, which concerns the struggle for existence. In spite of many protests, beginning with Darwin’s, there is a widespread belief that Nature’s message to man is: "Each for himself, and extinction take the hindmost," "contention is the vital force," careers are open to talons. There is indeed a measure of truth here, for we undoubtedly see much stern sifting in wild Nature, much redness of tooth and claw, extraordinary infantile and juvenile mortality, and, apart from parasitism, a ceaseless condemnation of the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin.

But when we look into matters more closely we find that we have not been careful enough either as regards Nature or Darwin’s interpretation of it. For the struggle for existence, in and by which Nature sifts, i. e., eliminates discriminatively, includes much more than internecine competition between fellows of the same kith and kin. As Darwin said, the phrase is to be used “in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny.” It may be that the struggle is most severe between members of the same or nearly related species, though Darwin did not give many examples of this, but, in any case, we must not generalize the story of the black and brown rat into a theory of life. The struggle for existence is often manifested in an endeavor after well-being. It is the clash that occurs whenever organisms do in any way assert themselves against limitations and difficulties. The answers-back may be competitive or non-competitive, self-regarding or other-regarding, with teeth and claws, or with wits and kindness. In face of overwhelming difficulties and thwarting limitations, one creature sharpens its weapons, another thickens its armor, a third gives its offspring a better send-off on the journey of life, and a fourth makes some experiment in state-socialism. The modes of reaction are many, and one never to be forgotten is that evasive change of habit and habitat which we call parasitism—the door to which is always open. The struggle for existence includes all the endeavors of mate for mate, of parent for offspring, of kin for kin, as well as every degree of self-assertiveness from the young cuckoo ousting the rightful tenant of the nest to the cannibalism in the cradle that occurs in the egg-capsules of the whelk.

It is said, however, that in the long run what counts is that some members of a varying species are fitter for the conditions of life than their neighbors, and therefore survive. This is true, but the eliminating clash is not necessarily between the individuals, the pruning shears are often in the hands of the environment. The survivor in a plague-stricken family does not survive at the expense of his kin, nor compete with his kin; his phagocytes parry the microbe. In lining its nest with two thousand feathers the long-tailed tit unmistakably strengthens its own and its family’s foothold in the struggle for existence, but its reaction to environing difficulties does not hurt any other tit.

Two other points should be noted. The mode of the struggle for existence is not always competitive, and the result of the struggle for existence is not always the discriminate elimination of the relatively less fit to the conditions. Sometimes all that we can discern is a thinning—not a sifting—and that does not in itself make for evolution. The only result of the struggle for existence that necessarily makes for evolution—progressive or retrogressive—is discriminate selection, where the survivors survive in virtue of the possession of a particular character—which may be better weapons, stronger armor, swifter feet, greater material success, or a more developed capacity for obeying the law of the jungle.

The other point is this. Darwin attached great importance to the web of life, to the manifold and subtle inter-relations that bind creatures together in a vibrating systema Naturæ. One of the reasons for his emphasis was simply that he was so good a naturalist; the other reason was his discernment that survival in the struggle for existence is definitely related to the already established system of linkages, to all sorts of interdependences and solidarities. The texture of the web of life is so fine that even an apparently trivial new quality may be vital to the situation. For man this is of the utmost importance, that selection has a definite reference to the established system of relations. In other words, man does to a large extent make his own sieves.

A broad survey of the realm of organisms shows that a very large proportion of time and energy is given over to activities which are not greatly, if at all, to the advantage of the individual. Borne on by impulses and instincts as imperious as hunger and thirst, how many animals spend themselves for their race. It is their meat and drink to do so, and Nature takes advantage of their capacity for self-forgetfulness. In some types it seems almost extreme, as Cresson says:

Everything for the species; everything through the individual; nothing for the individual.

In Goethe’s words,

Nature holds a couple of draughts from the cup of love to be fair payment for the pains of a lifetime.

The continuance of the race is often very costly or even fatal to the parent, and there is exhaustion of energies in securing the safety and sustenance of the young. It is a great fact of Organic Nature that while competitive individualism pays up to a certain point, survival and success are also to those types in which the individual has been more or less subordinated to the welfare of the species. Part of their fitness is in being capable of self-sacrifice. This is part of Nature’s strategy which man has not adequately appreciated.

Thus we can not accept the caricature of Nature as in a state of universal Hobbesian warfare, each against all, and no discharge for any. That is only one aspect of the struggle for existence, and the subordination of the individual to the species is another. Especially among the finer forms of life do we find that the answer-back which is given to the environing limitations is less and less frequently an intensification of competition, is more and more frequently something subtler, some parental sacrifice, some cooperative device, some experiment in sociality. The improbability of war being the saving grace of human history grows upon us.

To sum up, man is not bound to follow Nature, but if he does he is not shut up to an imitation of that mode of the struggle for existence in which rats excel, namely internecine competition. And if he does pursue this method, as in war, he can not console himself with the belief that the result will be the survival of the fittest in any desirable sense.

III. War, Biologically Considered, a Reversion to the Crudest Form of the Struggle for Existence

We have considered the fact that serious sustained international war, considered biologically, implies a reversal of rational selection, and we have discussed a widespread misunderstanding due to a narrow conception of the struggle for existence. Let us pass for a little to the proposition that war, biologically regarded, is a return to the most primitive and crude form of the struggle for existence. Looking at this great war socially, we are, as a nation, practically unanimous in the resolution to resist to the uttermost an outrage on civilization, and to stand with our allies at all costs for freedom and justice; we are proud of those who are fighting, enduring, and dying for their country; we know publicly and privately of the virtues to which the war has afforded opportunity among combatants and non-combatants alike. But, admitting all this and more, can we deny that war, biologically regarded, is a return to the rat versus rat mode of the struggle for existence? No escape seems possible.

If this unpalatable fact be true why mention it, since after a certain, or rather uncertain, date in history this war was inevitable? We mention it because it behoves us to mingle fear with our pride. The implied reversion brings with it terrible risks, and when we hold up our hands at the frightfulnesses committed by our enemies, we should remember that we are not exempt from the risk of slipping down the rungs of the steep ladder of evolution. In the actual environment of war, as Mr. Theodore Chambers said in his admirable lecture on "Eugenics and the War," "the decent garments of custom are often torn off," and the Berserk discovered; and for those who are not fighting there is also, and less excusably, a tendency to reversion because of our necessary preoccupation with a struggle which, though embellished with the latest scientific devices and illumined with the finest heroism, involves a recrudescence of primitive passion. We may already see the deterioration in ungenerous and inaccurate depreciation of German culture, in unworthy scares, in unkindness to aliens, in suggestions of barbarous reprisals, and so forth. On the whole we are behaving well, yet it may not be amiss to remind ourselves of the solemn biological and psychological fact, that the past lives on in our present, with the risk of "Reversion ever dragging Evolution in the mud." What sowings of dragons’ teeth there must be in this terrible struggle; is it weakness to be afraid lest by and by, in the crop that springs from them, there be something worse than armed men?

IV. Some Practical Considerations

If the war is sifting out from the possible parent-stock of the future a larger proportion of those who are relatively more fit from an evolutionary or eugenic point of view, what is possible in the way of counter-active? Among the revaluations after the war may we not expect some change of public sentiment in regard to eugenic ideals, some more marked disapproval of selfish forms of celibacy, some more cordial encouragement of those desirable people who marry chivalrously while it is still springtime with them, without waiting till the bridegroom has secured twice the income his father had? There is patriotism in dying for our country; there is a conceivable patriotism in marrying for her and in bearing children for her.

It is to be hoped that one of the results of the terrible struggle in which we are engaged will be to direct more serious and widespread attention to the falling birthrate and the risks involved. We must insist on a discovery of the facts and causes of the decline in the British birthrate, and on a full discussion of the possibilities of checking the decline differentially. There is need for more plasticity in the ideal of "getting on," but it can hardly be regarded as a bad sign that there appears to be continual increase in the number of parents of good type who keep their families small because they do not wish their children—especially the girls—to run the risk of thwarted and unhappy lives. These risks have to be lessened, and that without making slackness feasible. In another connection we are all agreed that the lowering of the still far too high death-rate among healthy infants must continue.

As to the marriage of recruits, which has been a good deal discussed, other than biological considerations must be borne in mind, but the general eugenic position should be one of approval, if the ages are suitable, if the records are good, and if there is a certainty of adequate state-provision for the possible widows and children—the three large "ifs," it will be noticed.

If the wastage of war is brought vividly home to us by dramatic tragedies and irreparable losses, it may be that we shall be led as a nation to consider with increased seriousness and discernment other forms of vital wastage to which we tend to become blunted by familiarity. It should be interesting to inquire whether some of these, such as tuberculosis and alcoholism, are not, in part, at least, dysgenic in their sifting.

Galton hoped that in course of time eugenic principles would come to be dominant motives in the nation, but this is still far off. It is our duty therefore to scan with careful criticism all practical proposals that may be hurriedly projected to meet crises of war strain. One instance may suffice. Unless the worst come to the worst, the nation should not consent to put children at the disposal of the farmer, for the effect of this would be to decrease the already too much restricted freedom of the child, and to depress still further the position of the agricultural laborer, for the needed improvement of which something would probably have been done ere now, had there not been war. Another danger, which may be mentioned, is that of permitting an interference with the liberty and dignity of women, which would not be tolerated in the case of men.

As eugenists we must resist in ourselves, and in all our organizations, the natural desire to economize in noble luxuries—in pictures and music, books and lectures, theaters and higher education. By all means let our criticism of consumption be intensified, but let it be enlightened. Let us prune our comforts before we pinch our souls. For apart from ourselves, who may be past praying for, economizing on the nobler luxuries means hardship and celibacy to those finer spirits who are the salt of the earth, whose virtue all must wish to see conserved in the natural inheritance of the race.

Without losing hold of the true idea and ideal of the state as a body politic—an organism—in which we all have our function, from cabinet ministers to road-members, we can not suppose that we are all equally irreplaceable. Indeed, the eye can not say unto the hand I have no need of thee, nor again, the head to the feet I have no need of you; but it will be agreed that true artists, for instance, are among the higher, less readily replaceable members of the community. There is no risk for us of there being too many of them. But there is great risk for them of there being too few of us to keep them and their art alive. The enforced economies of war imply lopping off super-necessaries; the danger is of crippling super-men. What has been said of artists applies also to the professions generally, and one recognizes the eugenic wisdom of the Professional Classes War Relief Council.

Those who have really learned the eugenic lesson are those who appreciate the organismal factor in evolution, who believe that the fundamental thing is the natural inheritance, bred in the bone. To those of this outlook it seldom seems promiseful to try to change by coercion what is intrinsic in the creature. The hopeful line is to make the most and the best of what we have, without tampering with that mainspring of life which is freedom. It is likely that we shall have many occasions for standing fast by this principle in the readjustments after the war. Attempts will be made to rush schemes which are non-eugenie in the sense of being coercive and incongruent with our racial temperament. One of these will be compulsory military training, of which some wise men are advocates. It is probably less dangerous than a huge standing army, but it is full of risks. The mind takes color like the dyer’s hand, and one fears that compulsory military training is one of the roots of militarism. It would be tragic to fall into the grip of one of the national diseases that we are combating in our enemies and to become insidiously Prussianized. Moreover the people of this country have an inherent dislike of coercion and do better without it. If a man does not demand our coat, we may perhaps give him our cloak; if he does not seek to compel us to go a mile, we may go twain without a grumble. Certain it is that in the time of revision it will be for the eugenist to champion the free and plastic organism rather than the highly efficient machine.

In recent years we have seen in this country a number of endeavors on a large scale towards the improvement of the conditions of human life. We have our detailed criticisms and honest doubts, but, on the whole, there is agreement that several things have been done, e. g., in the way of Old-Age Pensions, which have greatly lightened the too prevalent “life-harming heaviness,” and have relieved the national conscience at the same time. Other endeavors were in progress or incipient, which were more directly eugenic, in connection for instance with tuberculosis, and there was warrant for hoping that notable progress might be made along lines of practicable eugenics. Now there is the fear lest eugenic endeavors be put back for decades. Probably every one can already recall several progressive activities that have entered during the past six months into a state of encystation. For the undeniable privilege of being part of civilized Europe, and for the undeniable distinction of having been willing—on this occasion—to do the right thing at all costs, we shall have a long price to pay, and we shall be paying it long after the personal and ethical thrill has passed. Perhaps the deadliest part of the paying-up will be the shelving of eugenic endeavors and our connivance thereat.

The eugenic ideal is as old as mankind and older; it is the primeval pride in creation. But deliberate eugenics with the race as a whole in view is, with few exceptions, such as Plato’s Republic and the Jewish people, relatively modern; indeed. Sir Francis Galton was the first to give it scientific expression. The newness of the idea of deliberate national eugenics, its remoteness from being instinctive, the rarity of the biological outlook, even among statesmen, make one apprehensive of the days of retrenchment. But this is not the time to bruit disappointment, and perhaps after all our fears may be liars.

Three hopeful considerations may be briefly referred to. (1) The war is likely to demonstrate the value of constitutions which can endure without stolidity, which have resiliency without “nerves.” We may look forward to a heightening of the standard of all-round fitness. There may also be a wholesome reaction from the two chief forms of national weakness, and an endeavor to improve the conditions which tend to increase these. All this will make for progress, as long as it is clearly recognized that veneering does not make bad wood sound. So far as improved nurture induces the fuller development of a good inheritance, or guards life from gratuitous infection or inhibition, or prevents the tare seeds in our inheritance from germinating, it is to be welcomed.

(2) In the second place this is a time of vivid national self-consciousness and of freshened idealism, and it is possible that the spiritual momentum of this may enable us to go ahead. It is just possible that we may be brought by the war nearer the idea and the actuality of a positive peace, of entering more fully into our kingdom. We must agree with Professor Patrick Geddes that the peace times we have known have often been more accurately states of latent war.

(3) A third consideration is also full of hope, that one of the almost certain results of the war will be an increased sense of solidarity among the various self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. We are going to know and to like one another better, having fought together, rejoiced and sorrowed together; we are going to see more of one another as distance-annihilating devices increase and cheapen. Perhaps we shall evolve a great confederate organization for the common tasks of peace. Is there not here a eugenic prospect of great interest, of larger experiments in out-breeding and in the influences of novel nurture? Perhaps we may discover in greater frequency of environmental and functional change, which is so potent in keeping the individual young, a possible source of variational stimuli, rejuvenating even the germ-plasm, which may be apt to get a little stodgy in one small island.

Perhaps we should not ever pass from a eugenic outlook without remembering that it is partial. In building a wall the mason uses plumb-line, level, and square, and so we have to employ other criteria besides that of the conservation and evolution of life. As eugenists we are concerned with the natural inheritance and its nurture, which is fundamental, as men we are also concerned with our social heritage, which is supreme. The social organizations and institutions in whose life we share, the traditions of honor, veracity and justice, the treasures of literature and art, memories, such as we honor to-night, which ever beckon us to follow after valor and understanding—these and much more form our social heritage, to be wrought for and fought for as keenly as the embodied health of the race. We cannot end without expressing the hope that even if the natural inheritance of our race must suffer impoverishment through the tragic sifting of this most terrible war, we shall win through in the end with our social heritage enriched.

  1. The Second Galton Lecture, delivered on February 16, 1915.