Leon Cole on the Social Body and Our Duty to Future Generations

From The Relation of Philanthropy and Medicine to Race Betterment by Leon J. Cole, University of Wisconsin, at the First Conference for Race Betterment (1914)

Among those who have in their treatment of this subject emphasized the importance of the natural selection viewpoint may be mentioned especially Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Karl Pearson, the director of the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics, though many other names might be mentioned as well. The last named has turned the energies of his laboratory to studying by means of highly developed statistical methods the inheritance of various diatheses, traits and defects, as well as the effects of ameliorative measures. In his Cavendish Lecture for 1912, entitled “Darwinism, Medical Progress, and Eugenics,”[1] we find his position well set forth. After marshaling the data of his laboratory to prove that “general health is inherited and that the infantile death-rate is selective, he makes the following statement (p. 16):

“But, because I state that the infantile death rate is selective, and assert that it by no means follows that a low infantile death rate will compensate racially for a falling birth rate, why should I be described as a Herod, and those who hold the same views as supporters of the better-dead doctrine? I feel sure that many of you who have, by your skill, helped into the world the cripple, or the child of diseased or deformed parents, must have said to yourselves, when you found it viable, better it had not been born. Many of you, I take it, hold with me the ‘better-not-born’ doctrine, but the recognition of the fact that the infantile death rate is selective cannot of itself justify the charge that we wish the weakling killed off.”

After then giving a number of examples showing conclusively the inheritance of achondroplasia, congenital cataract, deaf-mutism, general degeneracy, and the like, he sums up so well that I cannot refrain from again quoting. He says:

“… These are individual illustrations of what is happening, because the intensive selection of the old days has been suspended. That suspension is partly due to medical progress; you are enabling the deformed to live, the blind to see, the weakling to survive—and it is partly due to the social provision made for these weaklings that the feeble-minded woman goes to the workhouse as a matter of course for her fourth or fifth illegitimate child, while the insane man, overcome by the strain of modern life, is fed up and restored, for a time, to his family and paternity. In our institutions we provide for the deaf-mute, the blind, the cripple, and render it relatively easy for the degenerate to mate and leave their like. In the old days, without these medical benefits and without these social provisions the hand of Nature fell heavily on the unfit. Such were numbered, as they are largely numbered now, among the unemployables; but there were no doctors to enable them to limp through life; no charities to take their offspring or provide for their own necessities. A petty theft meant the gallows, unemployment meant starvation, feeble-mindedness meant persecution and social expulsion; insanity meant confinement with no attempt at treatment.. To the honor of the medical profession, to the credit of our social instincts, be it said, we have largely stopped all this. We have held out a helping hand to the weak, but at the same time we have to a large extent suspended the automatic action whereby a race progressed mentally and physically.

“Surely here is an antinomy—a fundamental opposition between medical progress and the science of national eugenics, or race efficiency. Gentlemen, I venture to think it is an antinomy, and will remain one until the nation at large recognizes as a fundamental doctrine the principle that everyone, being born, has the right to live, but the right to live does not in itself convey the right to everyone to reproduce his kind.

“Our social instincts, our common humanity, enforce upon us the conception that each person born has the right to live, yet this right essentially connotes a suspension of the full intensity of natural selection. Darwinism and medical progress are opposed forces, and we shall gain nothing by screening that fact, or, in opposition to ample evidence, asserting that Darwinism has no application to civilized man.”

I have made these quotations frankly and at length because I believe they will show you more faithfully than I could perhaps have done it in my own words the positions held by various students of race progress and betterment. I believe that any reasonable person must agree with Pearson that in spite of the masking influence of the increasingly complex social heritage which is passed on from generation to generation in our customs, beliefs, books, laws—in fact, in all our increasing knowledge of science and arts— nevertheless, biological inheritance is operating in man now on the same principles that it did when he swung the stone axe, or scuttled through the trees with his simian congeners. The detailed studies of individual lines of inheritance which have in recent years been made along Mendelian lines[2] leave no doubt of this. Furthermore, this being true, it must be conceded by all thinking persons at all conversant with biological principles that selection plays the same role in directing the course of heredity, that is, the surviving line of germ-plasm, that it always has. Note that I say selection here rather than natural selection, for the latter term is associated in many minds with the crude methods of Nature uninfluenced by sentient forces. Will anyone deny that the animal or plant breeder utilizes the same principles of selection in breeding his cattle or his corn that have in Nature brought about the evolution of one form from another? The difference is” that instead of being natural selection it is now conscious selection on the part of the breeder, and he directs the processes of change, in so far as his art enables him, along the lines which his needs or his fancy direct.

Now as man’s mental capacities began to develop, the course of selection shifted increasingly on to these, and they became more and more important as his social relations and capacities grew. I am not prepared to assert that the minds of the highly civilized ancient peoples, such as the Greeks, the Egyptians, or even more remote cultures, might not be capable of assimilating and utilizing to the full the complexities of our present social and political conditions, our inventions and our scientific knowledge—indeed recent Japanese history would be an argument in favor of such a view: but certainly this cannot be said of the more primitive races, and therefore some mental evolution must be postulated from such a condition. To my mind the course of evolution presents a picture somewhat like that of a small stream of water making its way down an almost level but slightly irregular surface. Tongues are sent out this way and that as slight depressions lead here and there, and at times a considerable course may be made more or less consistently; but then a higher obstruction is reached and a new course started, determined by the point of the lowest level. No matter how well one branch has progressed, if another finds a lower spot, it diverts the stream. Just so races and civilizations have arisen and prospered and flourished until others superior in brute strength, in organization, or in equipment in arms, have come in and superseded them.

Until social customs became comparatively highly developed, individual physical prowess was as necessary to existence as among the lower animals. This was in the stage of individualism. With specialization, as particular classes in a community took up certain special tasks, and especially as armies were formed not including the total population, physical selection became relaxed for some of the individuals. These conditions have become more pronounced until modern philanthropy and medical science are bringing them to a point where they can no longer be ignored. Neither the greater diligence in seeking them out nor the fact that they remain in institutions for longer periods will account for the disproportionately increasing number of defectives and criminals in our population. This fact seems demonstrated and one does not merit the epithet of alarmist for pointing it out. And if true, must we not give thought to its remedy? Chatterton-Hill,[3] in a striking simile, has likened the condition of the social organism under these circumstances to that of a biological organism in which catabolism is exceeding anabolism, resulting in autointoxication, the gradual poisoning of the civic body. Death is the normal process of elimination in the social organism, and we might carry the figure a step further and say that in prolonging the lives of defectives we are tampering with the functioning of the social kidneys!

Just as artful means of preservation superseded purely physical, when the human race developed from the savage, and as the breeder has replaced fortuitous natural selection by conscious selection, so I believe the time is at hand when mankind will find it necessary to substitute some form of rational selection for the hit-or-miss, happy-go-lucky way they have drifted along in the past. Exactly what this method shall be I do not think we are in a position at the present time to say. Two chief lines seem open; restrictive and constructive—sometimes called negative and positive eugenics. The quotations which have been made in the earlier part of this discourse show clearly, it seems to me, that the former measures may be adopted under certain conditions without doing violence to the finer instincts of the race, without in any way destroying or lessening altruism or humanitarianism. In our nationwide agitation for conservation we are just beginning to realize our duty to future generations. The case is a close parallel; for we are saying that the material benefits of our forests, our minerals, and our water power must be conserved for the benefit of all the people, and not reaped now to enrich a few individuals and to be passed on only to their families. Shall we have less foresight in the heritage of defectives and cripples that we pass on to the next and future generations? Is not the social reformer who does not take this into consideration spending all his thought on bettering the present generation, just as exhausting our national resources might enrich this generation but pauperize the next?

Now, if it is going to be necessary for us to practice some degree of rational selection, we must be sure that it is rational—it must be based upon positive knowledge. What has modern biological research to offer in the way of contribution to such knowledge? In the first place, we can readily see that a large part of the disagreement which has been mentioned is due to difference in opinion as to the influence which the environment may have on the individual and on the offspring. It is the old question of Nature and Nurture. While I am free to admit that in its abstruse aspects this is one of the most difficult questions confronting the biologist, I believe that much unnecessary confusion and needless discussion has resulted from the tendency of writers to exaggerate their views either on the one side or the other, and not to accord the question fair treatment. When I am asked, as often happens, which I consider of greater importance, heredity or environment, I commonly give a Yankee reply by asking in return, Which is of more importance for sustaining life—food or air?


[1] Eugenics Lab. Lect. Series, IX, 1912.

[2] Cole’s note: For a summary treatment of these see Davenport. C. B.. “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics.” New York. 1911.

[3] * Chatterton-Hill, G., “Heredity and Selection in Sociology.” London, 1907, p. 260.


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  1. […] Leonard Cole, scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1914, in a presentation to the Race Betterment conference. […]

  2. […] or race.  For example, American geneticist Leonard Cole (out of the University of Madison, WI) wrote approvingly of this […]

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