This section is from the book "The Transmission Of Life. Counsels On The Nature And Hygiene Of The Masculine Function", by George H. Napheys. Also available from Amazon: The Transmission of Life.
We have hitherto been concerned merely with the transmission of physical qualities by inheritance. Are mental peculiarities, is talent, is genius itself, ever inherited ? We answer that there is undoubtedly a marked tendency to. the transmission of not merely original but of acquired intellectual traits, the effects of education. No man of talent was ever born of an idiot. Mental imbecility is handed down from generation to generation. Haller, the physiologist, mentions two ladies of high birth, but nearly imbecile, who were mar tied for their wealth. At the time he wrote, a century afterward, the same low grade of intellectual development was conspicuous in the fourth and fifth generations.
That talent is often the offspring of talent is shown by the two Herschels, the two Coleridges, the two Sheridans, the two Colemans, the two Montesquieus, the two Pitts, the two Foxes, the two Scalagers, the two Vossiuses, the two Mirabeaus, the three Adams, the Kemble family, the families of John Sebastian Bach and AEschylus, etc. etc. But it may be said, the fact that talent is not the offspring of talent is shown by Shakspeare's children, and Milton's daughters; by the feeble son of the great Oliver Cromwell; by the only son of Addison, an idiot; by the unworthy Paralus and Xanthippus who sprung from Pericles the orator that " carried the weapons of Zeus upon his tongue:" by the idiotic Milesius and the stupid Stephanus, the only representatives of the weighty intellect of Thucydides; by the absence of inheritors of Henry IV. and Peter the Great, and by other instances which will readily occur to the reader. The explanation of such facts is to be found in the superior transmitting power of one parent over another. It has been clearly proved as a law of heritage that the father does transmit his mental powers to his children. The exceptions, such as we have quoted, do not invalidate this law. They only bring into prominence the great modifying influence of the mother. The persistency of the male power is appa-rent in the fact that a line of male parents may impress their peculiarities upon their male issue, notwithstanding the opposing influence of many mothers. Francis Galton,an English writer, who has given much attention to this subject, has accumulated an overwhelming array of facts in proof of the hereditary character of talent. In this connection Dr. Elam calls attention to "a circumstance worthy of note concerning the scale of intellectual development, viz., that the ex. tremes are solitary, i. e., do not transmit their characteristic. The lowest grade of intellect, the perfect idiot, is unfruitful; the highest genius is unfruitful, as regards its psychical character: true genius does not descend to posterity; there may be talent and ability in the ancestry and in the descendants, directed to the same pursuits even ; but from the time that the development culminates in true genius, it begins to wane. I am acquainted with a family descended in the third generation from a true musical genius. Of the numerous branches, scarcely one is deficient in some amount of musical taste and ability, but none have a shadow of the genius of the grandfather."
Unsoundness of mind is markedly under the domain of inheritance. Dr. Henry Maudsley, now probably the best authority upon this subject, states that the most careful researches fix the proportion of cases of insanity, in which positive hereditary taint is detectable, at not lower than one-fourth, if not so high as one-half. He thinks the proportion will be found to be greater as investigation in this direction becomes more searching and exact.
In order that a predisposition to insanity be inherited it is not necessary that the parents or ancestors be insane. Nervous diseases are not always transmitted in their identity to the offspring. Physical peculiarities are, as we have mentioned, so also are organic diseases. Consumption is transmitted to the child as consumption, not in the shape of a predisposition to cancer. But many of the affections of the nervous system, such as insanity, epilepsy, St. Vitus' dance, hysteria, neuralgia, and catalepsy, change their character in the descendant. Thus, the child of an epileptic may be insane, and the child of an hysterical woman have the like misfortune. "We wish here, however, to draw a distinction which it is of hygienic moment to bear in mind. The inheritor of the predisposition to insanity may not become insane. He inherits merely the temperament. One of several fates may overtake him. Insanity may immediately result in consequence of the inherited taint. It may be postponed indefinitely by intelligent care of mind and body. It may be developed by injudicious training, by excessive mental application in early youth, by anxiety, by cruel treatment ; or it may be awakened by the great changes which occur in the system at the period of puberty; or, in woman, at the time of child-bearing, or the change of life.
Intoxication is, all authorities agree, a great cause of mental degeneracy in the unfortunate offspring. This heri-tage of drunkenness is one of the most startling problems connected with intemperance. For, as has been truly said, "not only does it affect the health, morals, and intelligence of the offspring of its votaries, but they also inherit the fatal tendency, and feel a craving for the very beve-rages which have acted as poisons on their system from the commencement of their being /" It is known that drunkenness may be hereditary in a family for centuries In spite of the influence of example and careful training, the children of drunkards become precocious inebriates. They say, "We can't help it; the love we inherit is too strong for us." One such bound himself to abstinence for months; then he could withhold no longer, avowing that the craving was actual torture, and he could not help him-self M. Morel, who has investigated this subject more profoundly than any living writer, says : " I have never seen the patient cured of his propensity whose tendencies to drink were derived from the hereditary predisposition given to him by his parents."* The whole nature of the descendant of the drunkard is depraved under the influence of this fearful inheritance. The annals of vice teem with illustrations of the indecision and defective moral sense of those victims to the alcoholic abuse of their fathers; while the records of medicine are equally full of cases showing the ♦ The same experienced writer says elsewhere: "I constantly find the sad victims of the alcoholic intoxication of their parents in their favorite resorts (milieux de predilection), the asylums for the insane, prisons, and houses of correction. I as constantly observe amongst them deviations from the normal type of humanity, manifesting themselves, not only by arrests of development and anomalies of constitution, but also by those vicious dispositions of the intellectual order which seem to be deeply rooted in the organization of those unfortunates, and which are the unmistakable indices of their double feeundation in respect of both physical and moral evil." constitutional feebleness and the nervous disorders produced in successive generations by the same influence. Dr. Hut-cheson, in remarking upon the ineradicable nature of an inherited tendency to drink, says that " no sooner is the patient liberated than he manifests all the symptoms of the disease. Paradoxical though the statement may be, such individuals are sane only when confined in an asylum." Additional testimony to the same effect is given by W. Collins, who testified before a parliamentary commission, in England, as the result of his large experience, and as a " well-established physical fact," that this form of the drunken appetite " never becomes completely extinct, but adheres to a man through life." All the writers upon the subject of inheritance, with a singular unanimity upon this point, no matter how they may differ upon other topics, agree in imputing to intoxication, in either parent, a potent agency in inducing alcoholic mania, and moral and physical degradation in the children. These results are more marked among the poor, who are deprived of the hygienic advantages which fall to the lot of the rich, and who are also surrounded, ordinarily, by fewer social and moral restraints. None, however, escape the disastrous influence, in some of its many protean forms, upon mind and body.