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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Heredity and Pre-Natal Influences. An Interview
with Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace.
(S737: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Sarah A. Tooley printed in the February 1894 number of Humanitarian. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S737.htm

    [[p. 81]] The great scientist, Dr. Wallace, who as an original thinker on the subject of natural selection stands unrivalled save by Darwin, lives in a charming villa at Parkstone, near Bournemouth, the windows of which command a lovely view across the sea to Corfe Castle and the distant Purbeck Hills.

    One may claim to be excused a feeling of diffidence in approaching a specialist upon so complex a subject as Heredity, but like all truly great minds, Dr. Wallace is free of awe-inspiring attitudes, and one falls quietly and naturally into the position of scholar at the feet of a master.

    "With regard to the subject of Heredity, Dr. Wallace, would you explain, taking into consideration your contention that individually acquired characters are not transmitted from parent to child, whether the imitative faculty of children may not bring about the same result?"

    "That is exactly our point. All that has been imputed to the hereditary influences of acquired character is either the result of imitation or it is the transmission of inherent idiosyncrasies. It is first necessary to understand clearly what is meant by 'acquired characters,' and the mistake must not be made of taking any peculiarity that a person may exhibit during life to be an 'acquired character.' Such peculiarities are usually inherited from some ancestor. Even those peculiar tricks of motion or habits which are often adduced as proofs of the transmission of an acquired character, are really only the transmission of the minute peculiarities of physical structure, and nervous or cerebral co-ordination, which led to the habit in question being acquired by the parent or ancestor, and, under similar conditions, by his descendant. Both Weismann and Mr. Francis Galton,1 through their inquiries into the evidence for the transmission of acquired [[p. 82]] characters, have found that hardly any real evidence exists, and that in most cases which appeared to prove it, either the facts were not accurately stated, or another interpretation could be given to them. It is only during the last ten years that this view has been advanced. The transmission of acquired characters had hitherto been assumed, because it appeared so natural and probable; but in science we require not probability only, but proof."

    "You believe then, Dr. Wallace, that there is no direct proof of individually acquired characters being inherited?"

    "My conclusion is that no case has yet been made out for this assumption, and that variation and natural selection are fully adequate to account for the various modifications of organisms which occur. The balance of opinion amongst physiologists now seems to be against the heredity of any qualities acquired by the individual after birth, notwithstanding that it is contrary to the theory of Pangenesis, advanced by Darwin, and supported by his great reputation. The biologists of Europe are now earnestly seeking for facts which shall serve as crucial tests of the rival theories. Now, such an experiment as this might be tried: bring up a number of dove-cote pigeons in a large area covered in with wire netting, so low as to prevent flight, at the same time encouraging running by placing food always at the two extremities of the enclosure only, or in some way ensuring the greatest amount of use of the legs. After two or three generations had been brought up this way, the latest might be turned out among other dove-cote pigeons, at the age when they would normally begin to fly, and it would then be seen if the diminished wing-power and increased leg-power of the parents were inherited."

    "But take examples which can be tested by general knowledge and experience. If long continued exercise, in one direction, leads to increased strength or skill in the parent, as in the case of a blacksmith, a carpenter, or a watchmaker, we ought, supposing that acquired characters can be transmitted, to see evidence of this in the children of these mechanics, and the younger sons should have more strength and skill in their father's business than the first-born; but so far as I know, this has never been alleged."

    "So with men of genius, whose mental faculties have been exercised in special directions; if not only the inherent faculty, but also the increased power derived from its exercise be inherited, then we ought frequently to see these faculties continuously increasing during a series of generations, culminating in a star of the first magnitude. But the very reverse of this is notoriously the case. Not only is it the fact [[p. 83]] that men of genius do not as a rule have adequate successors in their children, but it is a remarkable circumstance that almost all our greatest inventors, and scientific discoverers, the men whose originality and mental power have created landmarks in the history of human progress, have been self-taught, and have not derived anything from the training of their ancestors in their several departments of knowledge. Watt, Brindley, Faraday, Sir William Herschel, and George Stephenson, are cases in point: indeed, one might fill a volume with examples to prove, what is indeed seldom denied, that genius or super-excellence in any department of human faculty tends to be sporadic--that is, it appears suddenly without any proportionate development in the parents or immediate ancestors of the gifted individual."

    "But surely, Dr. Wallace, genius is inherited."

    "Certainly it is; but it rarely or never intensifies after its first appearance, which it certainly would do if not only the genius itself, but the increased mental power due to its exercise were also inherited. If acquired characters are inherited, the youngest sons of every artist, musician or man of science should be the greatest genius. The only prominent example that looks like a progressive increase of faculty for three generations is that of Dr. Erasmus Darwin and his grandson, Charles Darwin. But in this case the special faculties displayed by the grandson were quite distinct from those of the grandfather and father; while, if we consider the different state of knowledge at the time when Erasmus Darwin lived, his occupation in a laborious profession, and the absence of that stimulus to thought which the five years' voyage round the world gave to his grandson, it is not at all certain that in originality and mental powers, the former was not fully the equal of the latter."

    "If we look through the copious roll of men of genius in science, in literature and in art, we shall rarely find even two of the same name and profession, and never three or four, rising progressively to loftier heights of genius and fame. Note also that the highest water mark reached by the ancients in art and philosophy has never been surpassed. In art, the Greeks attained to a degree of beauty and harmony that has never been equalled in modern times. In literature the 'Iliad' of Homer and the writings of Plato will rank with the noblest work of modern authors. All the accumulated effort of thousands of years has not made us greater men, intellectually, than the ancients, clearly proving that there has not been a continuously progressive development in the race."

    "But are not education and good environment, the two things [[p. 84]] which all modern reformers are seeking to give to every boy and girl, of incalculable benefit in human progress? The influence of education and environment upon the parent must affect the offspring?"

    "Yes, in this way, that the inherent faculty of the child is aroused with good results. Environment simply develops the inherent faculties of a child, it does not impart those faculties. Good environment will enable such noble qualities as the child may possess to develop advantageously, so also will education. In like manner, bad environment will have a tendency to bring to light and strengthen the baser elements of the child's nature. But the influence of environment or of education upon the parent is not transmitted to the offspring, as is clearly proved by cases where children, born of criminal and vicious parents, become good and admirable characters when wholly removed from the evil parental surroundings. Allowed to remain in those surroundings, the children would, almost inevitably, by force of habit and the faculty of imitation, have been as degraded as their parents. The waifs and strays of Dr. Barnardo's2 Homes afford continual and striking examples of this. These children, taken away from evil influences, educated, placed in proper environment, become estimable men and women. This is a very cheering fact. It proves that evil habits are not hereditary."

    "But would not many of those rescued children fall into evil habits if the restraint exercised by reformatory institutions was removed?"

    "That might be so, but it would not prove that they had inherited the evil habits acquired by their parents, but that they had inherited the evil nature, either of their parents or some other progenitor. It is impossible to tell where hereditary tendencies come from. Life is like a kaleidoscope," and here Dr. Wallace rose, flushed with the interest of his subject, and, advancing to the table, lifted an article, and holding it in his hands, said: "This might be a kaleidoscope representing all the ancestors of some person, you turn it round, and, as in the toy instrument, now one set of coloured glass and now another, comes to the surface, so in the character of an individual, traits from this or that ancestor display themselves promiscuously. How often in large families there are children so opposite in nature and abilities, that it is difficult to realize that they are born of the same parents. Such differences are accounted for by the fact that one child takes after its father, another after its grandmother, and so on. A child may not resemble either of its parents, but present a character and appearance exactly like that, say--of its great-uncle. [[p. 85]] Very curious instances of hereditary tendencies betray themselves in people. Ladies, refined, and of good moral character in every other respect, have been known to be incorrigible thieves. Society judges them charitably, and says they are afflicted with kleptomania. The real cause of the thievish habit is some remote and dishonest ancestor from whom these ladies have inherited the evil propensity. So we frequently find otherwise estimable characters, marred by some evil tendency which is incompatible with their general disposition, and which, having lain dormant in their immediate ancestors, has suddenly asserted itself in them. This question of hereditary influences is a great and awful problem to contemplate."

    "Does not the argument that acquired characters cannot be transmitted make the outlook for human progress a gloomy one; it seems to bar the way against any improvement of the race by means of education?"

    "If the theory is a true one, it certainly proves that it is not by the direct road of education, as usually understood, that humanity has advanced and must advance, although education may, in an indirect manner, be an important factor of progress. If it is thought that this non-inheritance of the results of education and training is prejudicial to human progress, we must remember it also prevents the continuous degradation of humanity by the inheritance of those vicious practices and degrading habits which the deplorable conditions of our modern social system undoubtedly foster in the bulk of mankind. Throughout trade and commerce, lying and deceit abound to such an extent that it has come to be considered essential to success. It is surely a blessing if this kind of thing does not produce inherited deterioration in the next generation. We have little to lose in not having the effects of our present social system transmitted. Education has been so bad for two thousand years that we should be a degraded race altogether, if acquired character were inherited."

    "We need an ideal state such as Bellamy3 has depicted. Do you know," said Dr. Wallace with a laugh, "I am completely captivated with 'Looking Backward.'4 There are not many books that I care to read through more than twice, but I have read every word of that book three times. Some people may laugh at my infatuation, but I regard it as a wonderful book."

    At this point Dr. Wallace drifted into an animated eulogy of the theories for regenerating society, put forward by Mr. Bellamy, and led on to the question of the emancipation of women and the results of the higher education.

    [[p. 86]] "Do you not think that the superior training and education now being given to women will affect the succeeding generations of women, beneficially?"

    "Indirectly," replied Dr. Wallace, "undoubtedly; but this matter of the education of women proves to me most conclusively that we lose little by the non-transmission of acquired characters. Think of the centuries of repression inflicted upon women educationally, yet directly the chance is given to them they rise by leaps and bounds. An Oxford Professor told me the other day that he was simply astonished at the superior ability shown by the female students, when he considered the state of ignorance in which women, as a class, had for generations been kept. You see the inherent faculty has always been in woman, and directly you place her in a proper environment, she, in most cases, equals, and, in some cases, surpasses, the men who have enjoyed centuries of educational training. Take another example. For many centuries, Oxford and Cambridge were closed to Nonconformists, and their honours and rewards were reserved for members of the Established Church, and very largely for the families of the landed aristocracy. Yet, in the short period that has elapsed since they were open to Dissenters, these latter have shown themselves fully equal to the hereditarily trained Churchmen, and have carried off the highest honours in as great, and, perhaps, even in greater, proportion than their comparative numbers in the Universities."

    "There is another curious fact. All our great musical composers have been men; there is not a single woman who has achieved high distinction in that capacity, yet when you compare the musical education given respectively to boys and girls, it is found to be largely in favour of girls. Every young lady in middle and upper class life is taught to play one instrument, if not more, and this custom of imparting musical training to women has existed for many generations. Yet, with all their education, we have no woman composer."

    "A lady has lately composed a very fine oratorio, Dr. Wallace."

    "Indeed? Well, she is an exception; but look at boys, they are rarely taught music, yet it is from amongst them--the uninstructed in the art--that our musical composers have arisen. I hope I make it clear to you that this is a proof that education does not, and cannot, impart inherent faculty; that is born in the child."

    "In view of the iron law of heredity, which, it would appear, education has so little power to alter, Dr. Wallace, would you not think it desirable, in the interests of humanity, that the criminal [[p. 87]] classes, and diseased and deformed persons, were prohibited from marrying?"

    "I am not in favor of any arbitrary law to regulate the most sacred relationship of life.5 I do not see how you could shut a reformed criminal, for example, out of social life. The difficulties in the way of such legislation are simply incalculable. And the same applies to weakly and diseased persons."

    "The latter may have great mental ability, may they not?"

    "Of course; they often have. No! What we need are not prohibitory marriage laws, but a reformed society, an educated public opinion which will teach individual duty in these matters. And it is to the women of the future that I look for the needed reformation. Educate and train women so that they are rendered independent of marriage as a means of gaining a home and a living, and you will bring about natural selection in marriage, which will operate most beneficially upon humanity. When all women are placed in a position that they are independent of marriage, I am inclined to think that large numbers will elect to remain unmarried--in some cases, for life, in others, until they encounter the man of their ideal. I want to see women the selective agents in marriage; as things are, they have practically little choice. The only basis for marriage should be a disinterested love. I believe that the unfit will be gradually eliminated from the race, and human progress secured, by giving to the pure instincts of women the selective power in marriage. You can never have that so long as women are driven to marry for a livelihood."

    "There is another point, Dr. Wallace, which occurs to me, and that is, whether a child, apart from hereditary tendencies, is not affected by outside influences upon the mother previous to its birth?"

    "I am seeking," said Dr. Wallace, "for proofs regarding this pre-natal theory. It opens up a most important and interesting study. My attention was first drawn to it by a passage in Chambers's Encyclopædia, which related to the influence of mother on child. But do not imagine," continued the Doctor, looking cautious and alarmed "that I accept all the old wives' fables about birth marks and abnormal growths, because in large numbers of cases these peculiarities have been traced to another cause altogether. It is impossible to say how much is not the result of some hereditary influence, apart altogether from the surroundings of the mother. Differences in children are not always due to the parents, but frequently to the accidental mixture of the ancestral germs. In my own family for example, my parents had neither of them the usual tall and muscular development of Scotch [[p. 88]] people.6 They were, if anything, below medium height, yet my brothers and I are tall men, above the average height."

    "With regard to pre-natal influences acting upon the mental character of children, I cannot think it is more than very occasional. It is a point of dispute amongst medical and scientific men. Many deny it altogether. Darwin thought there was no positive evidence. But a change is taking place, and it is now believed that there are plenty of cases showing unmistakable evidence of pre-natal influence. Now I will tell you the only really authenticated case which has come under my notice, and it is a most striking one:--"

    "A gamekeeper met with an accident which obliged him to have his right arm cut off. For various reasons his own wife was unable to nurse him after the operation, and a friend, a young married woman, undertook the duty. Six months afterwards she gave birth to a child, and the right arm of that newly born child was only a stump. It presented exactly the same appearance as that of the gamekeeper's. There was nothing whatever in the families of either the father or the mother of this child to lead to the conclusion that the deformity arose from hereditary causes. I have read the written statements of those concerned in the case, and I have seen photographs of the gamekeeper's arm and of the child's, a boy, taken at the age of nine, and both present an identical appearance. I accept this case as an authentic proof of pre-natal influence. I have laid the subject before the British Association, and it has led to the appointment of a committee to collect evidence. A good deal of interesting information has been sent me by ladies who think they can trace in the characters of their children a result of the conditions of life in which they were placed, or the occupations in which they were engaged prior to the birth of those children. This may or may not be evidence of pre-natal influence; because the various traits of character may have come from ancestral germs, quite independent of any influence upon the mother. The case of the gamekeeper, however, affords positive proof."

    "Then, Dr. Wallace, if pre-natal influence can be proved to act upon the characters, and even bodily formation, of children, will it not rather upset the theory that acquired characters are not inherited?"

    "If it can be proved by a sufficient body of cases, it will undoubtedly modify the views of physiologists altogether. But, you understand we are only upon the threshold of the enquiry, and must wait for results."

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Notes

1August Weismann (1834-1914), German biologist and evolutionist, and Francis Galton (1822-1911), English sociologist and eugenicist.
2Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905), an English doctor and philanthropist who operated dozens of homes for orphaned children.
3Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), American writer.
4Bellamy's 1888 utopian vision of a socialism-based future society became one of the century's most successful and best-selling novels.
5In another treatment of the same question ('Human selection,' Fortnightly Review, 1 September 1890) Wallace went so far as to label such a scheme as proposed by the English writer Grant Allen, "detestable."
6According to his autobiography My Life, some evidence existed as to the tallness of Wallace's ancestors on his father's side of the family, which apparently was of Scottish origin. His mother's family, however, had been thoroughly English for many generations.

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