Before discussing the racial effects of inebriety, that is to say, before asking how far drunkenness in the parents influences the offspring - a subject of great importance, and one regarding which much misapprehension prevails - it will be necessary to refer to certain facts of heredity. It has long been known that inebriety runs in families, and that the children of drunkards are often degenerate, displaying a tendency to drunkenness, epilepsy, and other neuroses, even if they are not actually imbecile. Medical men, noting these facts, have too readily attributed this degeneracy to the parental drunkenness, overlooking the possibility that the latter might itself be the result of inborn defect in nervous organization.
We now know, however, that acquired characters, i.e. characters impressed upon the soma by environmental influences, are not inheritable. No matter how profoundly the parental tissues are injured by drink, the effects cannot be transmitted to the offspring. So much might be postulated a priori. How, for instance, is it possible for a nervous system which has undergone alcoholic degeneration so to influence the reproductive elements that these latter shall give rise to a nervous system presenting the same degenerative tendencies? No doubt chronic drunkenness in the pregnant woman may produce specific effects on the tissues of her child, but in such a case we have to do, not with the hereditary effects of parental drunkenness, but with an alcoholized foetus, and to reason otherwise is to confuse the issues.
This position may be made clear by reference to the mechanism of heredity. That heredity depends upon the continuity of the germ plasm may be regarded as certain; we may even go further than this and assume with Beard - for convenience of demonstration, at all events - that there is an actual continuity of germ cells. According to this observer the zygote, or cell formed by the union of germ and sperm, divides and subdivides until a colony of several hundreds of cells is produced. This cell colony, however, is not the embryo. The latter is formed from one special cell belonging to the colony : the cell signalled out for this distinction itself multiplies by division, like the zygote, and in this way forms the soma of the new being, while the remaining cells of the colony are enclosed by the soma of which they constitute the reproductive cells. It will be observed that these cells are thus sister-cells of the primitive cell whence the new being is derived, a fact which explains how it is that they share the same hereditary tendencies.
This view, which we have little doubt is essentially correct, renders the mechanism of the hereditary process - so far at least as its broader features are concerned - perfectly intelligible. From it we see that, inasmuch as the soma merely houses and nourishes the reproductive cells, impressions made upon that soma cannot possibly be inherited.
It may, however, be argued that the constant soakage of the reproductive elements in an alcoholized plasma necessarily injures them, and thus interferes with the normal development of the new being arising from them. It must suffice here to point out that all the evidence bearing upon the matter tends to show that germ and sperm are phenomenally resistant to outside influences, nocuous or otherwise: their chromosomes, i.e. those nuclear elements which are the bearers of hereditary tendencies, are singularly stable in constitution. And, indeed, this strong resisting power of sperm and germ might have been postulated a priori. No one can pass through life with a constantly normal plasma; every passing illness tends to affect that fluid injuriously, and were the reproductive cells readily injured by nocuous plasma, the effects accumulating from generation to generation would soon result in racial extinction. The same result would follow were injurious somatic impresses (acquired characters) inherited. From birth onwards the tissues are constantly undergoing disorganization, microscopic and macroscopic, in consequence of the operation upon them of nocuous agencies, and in this way they may at quite an early period of life be abundantly scarred; from which it is manifest that were these effects inherited they would in a few generations accumulate to a degree incompatible with life. Their non-inheritability enables each individual to start life with a more or less clean chart, and is thus a primal essential to biological evolution. To Dr. Archdall Reid belongs the credit of enunciating this important truth.
These considerations must influence our views not merely of the degeneration produced by unmistakable drunkenness, but also of the evil effects of lesser degrees of intemperance, and it must not be forgotten that a large number of people who are accounted strictly temperate consume more alcohol than is good for them. Such reflections make it evident that were the acquired effects of alcohol inherited, all civilized communities would long since have become extinct.
While therefore chronic alcoholism produces profound individual deterioration, it does not cause racial deterioration. It does, however, produce a racial effect, but this, far from being an injurious one as some, and among them Dr. Ford Robertson, assume, is, on the contrary, beneficial, for drunkenness, tending as it does to fasten upon congenital degenerates, hastens their elimination; and this from a racial point of view is an advantage. In short, those lacking in moral grit or unmistakably degenerate, tend by means of alcohol to be eliminated more speedily than they would otherwise be.
Not only does alcohol, with cruel kindness, perform a service in purging the race of its undesirables, but it produces, in the language of Dr. Archdall Reid, "an evolution against itself." By the elimination of those who are least capable of resisting alcohol the race is becoming increasingly resistant to alcohol. This resistance is of twofold nature : (a) physical, and (6) psychical. (a) People differ in the resistance which their tissues, notably those of the nervous system, offer to alcohol. In some, for example, the brain is very easily affected by it, and, as we shall see, in many cases of insanity which are attributed to alcohol there has been no alcoholic excess as judged by the ordinary standard. Members of this class tend to be weeded out by means of alcohol. (&) Those who are highly susceptible to what we may call the charm of alcohol run much greater risk of inebriety than those for whom it has no attraction, and by their elimination through successive generations the race tends to become more and more soberly inclined.
Since this "evolution against alcohol" can only take place in communities possessing the means of chronic intemperance - i.e. having a constant supply of alcohol - it could not have begun until the advent of civilization. It is further obvious that it has been longest in operation among those communities which possess the most ancient civilizations. These we must therefore expect to be the most temperate by disposition, and such actually appears to be the case. Civilization in all probability began in the north of Africa, spreading eastwards to Babylonia and Assyria, and northwards into Southern Europe, and it is a remarkable fact that the Jews and the inhabitants of Southern Europe display a high degree of sobriety. On the other hand, among the northern Europeans, whose civilization is of more recent date, the evolution against alcohol has made less way, and as a consequence we find these much more addicted to drunkenness; while primitive peoples, who have had no opportunities for systematic drunkenness, even though among many of them there has been desultory drinking for thousands of years, show no resisting power whatever against the ravages of drink, but succumb with terrible facility when a constant supply of alcohol is put within their reach.
Inasmuch as it may now be looked upon as impossible to banish alcohol from the world, or to ensure national temperance either by legislation or by private effort - though doubtless much may be done in these directions by judicious action - Dr. Reid contends that the only way to fight the drink fiend with any hope of lasting success is by the continual elimination of those who, alcoholically considered, are unfit, so as to allow the evolution against alcohol steadily to proceed. While using every legitimate means to protect this unhappy class from the misery and degradation which drunkenness entails, he would seek to make them realize their responsibility to the race, and abstain from propagating their kind. Doubtless this is a counsel of perfection, but it is well that the medical profession should clearly understand the racial aspect of the drink question :
The fact that the degeneration caused by alcohol is not inherited;
The fact that civilized peoples tend to become racially resistant to alcohol;
The impossibility of banishing alcohol from the world, or of effectually protecting the born drinker from the poison which is his doom;
And, above all,
The responsibility placed upon the medical man of preventing, as far as in him lies, the propagation of congenital inebriates.