THE RACIAL ELEMENTS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY

Chapter V

ENVIRONMENT, INHERITANCE, RACIAL MIXTURE

 

THE attempt has been made, especially in the nineteenth century, to explain racial characters by the environment: according to this theory one environment produces brachycephaly, another dolichocephaly; one produces light colouring, another dark; one produces tallness, another shortness. It came even to be supposed that an influence was exercised by men's activities, by their customs, by their calling, even by their food. These views were strengthened by a belief in the inheritance of acquired characters (Lamarckism), which research on heredity could not confirm. The leading investigators on heredity in our time, such as Morgan and his fellow-workers in North America, de Vries in Holland, Johansen in Denmark, Correns and Baur in Germany, have all expressed themselves against the possibility of an inheritance of acquired characters. This is true, too, for the mental qualities of man. 'When Johansen says that experimental research has so far not yielded a single example of acquired characters being inherited, this is also true in every way for the inheritance of psychic characters.'1 But as a result the belief arose that racial differences are more or less unstable, meaningless phenomena, when set against the 'might of the environment.' It was believed that in the United States a homogeneous division of mankind was gradually growing up from the most heterogeneous species with a like bodily and mental constitution, through the influence of the environment, which brought about a gradual fusion of the most heterogeneous elements. This is the 'melting-pot theory' which the American investigators on race rightly scoff at to-day.

 

Research now shows how careful we must be in pre-supposing influences of the environment; it has been able to explain the variations found in different parts of a country or in different classes of a people by hereditary endowment, and changes in the physical and mental nature of a settled people, undisturbed by immigration from outside, by selection -- by the differences, that is, in the birth-rate in individual districts and social classes (selection by fertility) of a country.

 

Later on we shall have to deal rather more particularly with the phenomena of selection. Here we must say something about the question of race mixture, for on this question like-wise mistaken views are current. One hears it said that in the United States of North America there is gradually coming into being through the mingling of the races a homogeneous people, that will embody a compromise between all the existing racial qualities, a mixed race with characteristics distributed more or less evenly throughout the whole nation. Europe, too, it is said, through racial mixture is gradually becoming homogeneous -- and thus peaceful. All such views, however, on the rise of 'mixed races' are mistaken. A transmissible combination of the characteristics of two or more races can be brought about only on certain defined conditions, conditions which cannot any longer be realized in the national life of to-day. Even after the longest of periods no 'German race' will be born out of the races we see to-day in Germany, though this is sometimes assumed. In Europe, which has been the scene from prehistoric times of the wanderings of peoples of differing races, where a thoroughgoing mingling of the races has always been going on, a compromise between all their characters should long ago have taken place: a medium height, a medium shape of the skull, face, and nose, and medium colouring should all be fairly evenly distributed in every part, and no important mental differences ought any longer to be found as between districts or between individuals. Central Europe, at any rate, should show a uniform, thoroughly homogeneous type of mankind.

 

In the 'sixties of last century the Augustinian abbot Johann Mendel (1822-84) (whose name in religion was Gregor) was carrying on at BrŁnn investigations on heredity, and was thus led to discover a statistical fundamental law of inheritance. Since then such investigations have in a relatively short time reached an extraordinary pitch of development; and Eugen Fischer, using the Hottentot-European mixed people of the Rehoboth cross-breeds as his material, has been able to show that the laws of heredity already discovered apply to mankind.2 It was found that, when two races are crossed, what results is not a 'mixed race,' but a highly varied pattern of the racial marks: the height of the one race combined in one man with the shape of the head of the other race; the colour of the skin, for example, of the Nordic race combined with the colour of the Alpine eye; the hair texture of a curly-headed dark race combined with the hair colouring of a fair race; while we find, besides, medium shapes and colouring. Then again we have men who seem to belong wholly to one or other of the component races, parents showing a different combination of characteristics from their children, and so forth.

 

The understanding of the processes of heredity is complicated by the fact that the members of any nation are mostly cross-breeds who come not from parents belonging to different races, each being, however, of pure race, but who come from parents who are themselves cross-breeds. A further difficulty for investigations on heredity and race lies in the fact that some characteristics will be 'recessive,' others 'dominant.' It can thus very well happen that in the outward appearance of a man of mixed race almost all the characteristics of one race, and these only, may be visible, while he may also inherit many dispositions of the other race, which dispositions have remained 'recessive.' Thus, for example, brown-eyed parents may have a blue-eyed child, as the light colouring of hair, skin, and of eyes is recessive; but purely blue-eyed parents will never have a brown-eyed child, for light colouring is never found to be dominant. From this it follows that the outward appearance of a man (his phenotype) gives a certain clue, by no means to be despised, to his racial membership, but not a complete proof. To have any understanding of his hereditary portrait (idiotype) we also need to take into consideration his forebears, his brothers and sisters, and his offspring. From the foregoing, we see, too, that in regard to the racial or health 'value' of a man we have to distinguish between his value or worth as an individual, and as a parent; and lastly that men who have the same phenotype -- that is, outward appearance -- may have a different idiotype -- that is, hereditary composite portrait, and vice vers‚.

 

It is usually only the phenotype of a living creature that can be influenced by the environment, not the idiotype. (The importance of a poisonous stimulant like alcohol lies in the very fact that alcohol has a harmful effect on the idiotype.) Many of the traits which strike us in a man as marks of his nationality, or of a wider membership, are peculiarities of the phenotype, acquired in and for the individual life, and thus are not hereditary traits impressed on him by the speech, and by the movements and attitudes peculiar to the particular nationality or human group concerned. One sometimes hears the view that some people or other makes up a true-breeding human group through the influence of the environment, or as a special 'mixed race.' This is the same mistake in a higher degree as the confusion of nation or people with race (cp. Chapter One).

 

If two races are crossed, a 'mixed race,' breeding true, will result only under special conditions. 'New races can never be born through crossing alone. Crossing can only give rise to new combinations; and the old characteristics do not disappear through crossing only. The disappearance of the old and the making of something really new can only be brought about by selection. The new combinations, therefore, can be so selected and sifted that all those with certain qualities disappear, while those left show certain new combinations. A new race has now come into being as a result of a mixture; the real factors at work were selection and rejection.'3 The social group which is to keep to the same direction of selection must also be allowed to live for long periods in isolation. It is by a direction of selection continuously maintained in isolation that the rise of races in prehistoric times must be explained; and often human groups, breeding true, that is, races, must have been formed, too, from the mingling of two or more earlier races through selection in a determinate enclosed environment. In the racial mixture of the Jews, too, I am inclined to see another example of selective processes which have produced a considerable degree of uniformity in a group of mixed elements (cp. Chapter Four). Among the European peoples, however, the mingling of races which has been going on since Neolithic times has only had the result of producing that variegated mixture we spoke of above; sometimes, however, leading to cases of so-called catalysis or breaking down, where in a child characteristics from the hereditary endowment of his racially mixed parents meet together again in a determinate racial structure.4

 


To Chapter VI Part One

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Footnotes for Chapter V

 

1 W. Peters, Die Vererbung geistiger Eigenschaften und die psychische Konstitution, 1925.

 

2 Fischer, Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen, 1913. The discovery by Boas ('Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants,' Immigrant Commission, Senate Document, No. 208, 1911) that children from immigrant Jews in America are somewhat longer-headed, those of immigrant Sicilians somewhat shorter-headed, than were their parents, does not tell at all for an influence from the environment, since neither the Jews nor the Sicilians are races, but are racially mixed peoples, in whom the children may well show characteristics differing from their parents. Boas, however, as a result of his investigations, goes no further than to suppose changes in the phenotype, not in the idiotype. 'It might well be that these same persons brought back to their old environment would return to their earlier bodily characteristics' ('New Evidence in regard to the Instability of Human Types,' Proc. Nat. Acad. Sc., ii., 1916). Boas's investigations, however, have had their value strongly questioned; cp. Deniker, Les races et les peuples de la terre, 1926, p. 138.

 

3 Fischer, in Baur-Fischer-Lenz, Grundriss, i., 1923.

 

4 As all these references to phenomena of heredity must necessarily be only sketchy, owing to the need for brevity, readers are referred to Siemens's excellent book, written 'for the educated of every profession,' GrundzŁge der Vererbungslehre, der Rassenhygiene, etc., 1926; and to Fetscher's small book, GrundzŁge der Vererbungslehre, 1925. Siemens's book has been translated by L. F. Barker (from an earlier edition) under the title Race Hygiene and Heredity (London and New York, 1924).